Speaking in Tongues: The Importance of Speaking Indigenous Languages in Maternal Health Care

  • Crystal Sheedy
Part of the Global Maternal and Child Health book series (GMCH)


Indigenous women of Central America and Mexico are predominantly monolingual speakers of their indigenous languages. When they seek out maternal health-care services, they face a language barrier because the majority of these services have workers that only speak the dominant language of the country. These workers have minimal to no knowledge of indigenous languages. Understanding this, indigenous women are already placed at a disadvantage because they may not be able to communicate their health issues to the workers. But this should not be the case. This chapter speaks to the importance of learning an indigenous language for workers in health care and nongovernmental organizations that work among populations of indigenous women within Mexico and Central America. Through integrating ethnographic vignettes from my fieldwork experiences in the Yucatán Peninsula, I hope to illuminate the plight of indigenous women as they navigate this rocky terrain. The goal of this chapter is to demonstrate that through learning an indigenous language, one also learns how to become culturally sensitive, which has the capacity to empower both workers and indigenous women.


Indigenous women Maternal health Indigenous language Birth practices Mexico Maya Yucatec Indigenous pregnancy Pregnancy disorders Maternal death Maternal mortality Reproductive health Education Traditional birth practice Linguistics Yucatan Health care 



This dissertation research was graciously funded by the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship and by the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Crystal Sheedy
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity at Albany-SUNYAlbanyUSA

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