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Activists Work To Preserve And Pass On Indigenous Serrano Language

Two adults and two children at a rally, holding a sign that reads: "Stronger Together"
A family at a protest for Indigenous people's rights in downtown L.A.
(Sharon McNary
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The Serrano language, one of nearly 100 Indigenous languages once spoken in California, faced extinction after the last primary speaker died in 2002.

Listen: Why preserving Serrano is so important

Now some activists are working to preserve its legacy and pass it on to a new generation.

Courses teaching Serrano have been launched throughout the state, including at Cal State San Bernardino.

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Ernest Siva is an Elder and Cultural Historian with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians who also teaches Serrano.

Siva is the nephew of Dorothy Ramon, whose death in 2002 made Serrano dormant as a primary language. Shortly before her death, Ramon worked with a linguist and published a book of memoirs in both Serrano and English.

Then in 2003, Siva opened the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning in order to continue her work of preserving and disseminating Serrano language, music and culture despite their no longer being any fluent speakers.

Siva, who said he learned the language in his grandfather's household, said his great-grandfather always said shared language is essential element to holding a community together.

"Never forget where you came from, and never forget your language," said Siva. "Otherwise your tribe will be lost. You'll be wandering and wondering."

Mark Araujo-Levinson, one of Siva's students, signed up even though he isn't California Indigenous.

Araujo-Levinson, who recently wrote about the importance of preserving Serrano in an op-ed in the L.A. Times, said he turned his attention to Serrano after first studying Navajo, the most commonly spoken Native American language in the United States.

"I was learning that for a couple of months and then eventually I came to ask myself, how come I've never heard of Indigenous California people in like public school and so on and so forth," he said.

"You know, long story short, I met with Mr. Siva in November of 2017 just to learn a couple of phrases," Araujo-Levinson said. "And that started off my journey and now going on five years of learning the language."

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"I always liked how [Serrano] sounded, and its history," said Araujo-Levinson. "It always fascinated me."

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