Valeriano Gomez was standing on a festival stage cradling his black guitar as fans spread out before him, waiting for the count-off, the downstroke, the next electric blast.

Gomez and his group wore matching woolen ponchos, dyed jet black, that made them look like some far-out garage band from the late LBJ era, the flavor of a long-gone week at the Whisky a Go Go.

But the scene took on a different tone when Gomez, 28, began to sing:

Mi xa na', bu likemtal la tsunubale

Albun mi x-vul ta ajol …

Gomez's group, Yibel Jme'tik Banamil, was among the featured performers at Mexico's polyglot version of Coachella, a festival of rock not en español. The language was Tzotzil, a tongue spoken by Gomez and about 300,000 other indigenous Maya in the central highlands of Chiapas, one of Mexico's poorest states.

"Do you remember?" the song went. "Where your roots are from?... Tell me if you still know the language of your ancestors."

Gomez's poncho wasn't some groovy fashion throwback, but a chuj, the traditional daily costume worn by the men in his Maya hometown, San Juan Chamula. It is a place where the church floor is strewn with pine needles, chickens are sacrificed in religious ritual, and medicine men deliver remedies that predate the arrival of the Spanish.

But television had arrived by the time Gomez was growing up, and it was there that he heard the '80s band Survivor pound out its thumping hit "Eye of the Tiger" in the movie "Rocky III," and there that he heard Los Lobos cover "La Bamba" as Lou Diamond Phillips played Ritchie Valens in the 1987 biopic. Thus began an unorthodox rock 'n' roll conversion.

"I identified a lot with Ritchie Valens," Gomez said. "He was like us — young people trying to realize a dream. In our case, it's a cultural dream, a dream of dignifying the original pueblos of Mexico."


On that chilly Saturday night in November, Gomez's group and 14 others rocked, rapped, skanked and swung in nine of Mexico's 68 indigenous languages.

This third annual "National Meeting of Tradition and New Songs" was part of a curious attempt on the part of the Mexican government to help save local languages by encouraging their integration with the pop genres that are globalization's de facto soundtrack.

The concerts are the brainchild of Juan Gregorio Regino, intercultural development director for Mexico's National Council for Culture and the Arts, a noted poet who grew up speaking the Mazatec language in his native Oaxaca.

The government, Gregorio said, is seeking to strengthen a movement that had been bubbling up naturally in Mexico's far-flung native pueblos.

Gregorio, 57, has no interest in returning to some imagined, more "authentic" past. Rather, he said, he wants the concerts to show how that culture is "amalgamated with all of these other influences — the result of an intercultural process, which is the reality that we indigenous are living."

More than a century ago, federal officials seeking to unify a vast, diverse nation prohibited indigenous languages in school. But over the ensuing decades, the concept of cultural plurality was slowly recognized as an asset. The sentiment got a boost from indigenous activists, including the Zapatista rebels who took up arms here in Chiapas in 1994 to protest their repression.

Experts say Mexico's non-Spanish languages continue to be threatened by urbanization, the homogenizing power of global mass media, and a government that still struggles to live up to its promise to provide bilingual education.

More pernicious is the lingering perception in some quarters that indigenous culture is something less than civilized. The day before the bands arrived in Chiapas, a K'iche Maya doctoral candidate from Guatemala said she had been kicked out of a French bakery in the Chiapas city of San Cristobal de las Casas because she was wearing traditional clothing. She complained to Mexico's human rights commission. The incident made national headlines.

Government statistics show that 6% of Mexicans speak an indigenous language, a proportion that has held steady since the mid-1990s. Scores of languages, however, have vanished.