A Mexican woman in Lebanon, Tenn., could lose custody of her 11-year-old daughter permanently because she (the mother) doesn't speak English. According to the AP, last October county juvenile court judge Barry Tatum warned Felipa Berrera, who speaks Mixtec, a Mexican indigenous language, that if she doesn't learn English, "she's running the risk of losing any connection - legally, morally and physically - with her daughter forever."

Her daughter accused Berrera of hitting her and pulling on her ear, which is the real basis of the custody case (although one might note that elsewhere in the South corporal punishment is considered fine and dandy). But Judge Tatum seems to think that Berrera's English-language skills are more relevant to her suitability as a parent. He had originally ordered Berrera to appear in court yesterday to be quizzed by him, only in English, on her job and family life, but postponed it at the last minute, pending an appeal.

"Termination of parental rights has nothing to do with what language you speak at home," [Nashville civil rights attorney Jerry] Gonzalez said. "You can be a deaf mute and speak nothing but sign language. That doesn't mean you lose your child."

Tatum, who hears child abuse and neglect cases, also has been in trouble with Tennessee immigrant and civil rights advocacy groups about similar learn-English-or-else orders to immigrant women in Lebanon, a Nashville suburb that has seen its foreign-born population grow significantly in the last several years.

This case highlights problems faced by speakers of indigenous American languages in smaller Southern communities. If you speak Spanish only, you're in bad enough shape some places; but if you don't even speak Spanish, you can find yourself in real trouble.

Just look at U.S. press coverage, which seems quite baffled by her language, Mixtec. It's referred to several times as a "dialect," reporters appearing to vaguely suppose it a dialect of Spanish. In fact, Mixtec (a.k.a. Mixteco or Mixtecan) is a language, not a dialect (yes, which word you use matters); there are more than 400,000 Mixtec speakers in Mexico, mostly in Oaxaca, the source of many migrant workers in the U.S.

In the Tennessean we find this puzzling statement: "Just 0.9% of Wilson County's population - about 750 people - listed an Indo-European language other than Spanish as being spoken in their home in the 2000 U.S. Census."

Pssst: Mixteco is NOT an Indo-European language; it's an indigenous American tongue, unrelated to Spanish. English, however, like Spanish, IS Indo-European.