The Wisdom of Maíz – Will it Lose it’s voice?

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By Deborah Van Hoewyk

“This is delicious. It has the flavor of the tradition of who WE are.” — Amelia Gómez, Totontepec Villa de Morelos.

More than a mile high in the Sierra Sur of northeastern Oaxaca lies Totontepec Villa de Morelos, a cabecera, or “head” town of the municipality of the same name. Totontepec currently covers fourteen mountain communities that are home to about 6,000 Mixe (“mee-hay”) people. The Mixe language has nearly a dozen dialects; the Totontepecanos speak Ayook and call themselves “Ayookja’ay”; ‘Ayook’ means la gente, “the people,” and ‘ja’ay’ is del idioma florida, “of a blossoming language.”

Of the sixteen indigenous groups of Mexico, the Mixe have the highest rate of monolingualism, but Ayook, perhaps all the Mixe dialects, could well be among the 90% of all languages predicted to disappear in the next 50 years. Hmmm. How much of a problem is it if 188,000 people, .0000268% of the world’s population, switch from Ayook to Spanish?

Bigger than you might think. “Villages live by the language of place,” muses Ben Levine, a documentary filmmaker from Maine. According to Levine, language is not “just language.” The language encodes cultural traditions and practices, what a Buddhist might call “right livelihood”; the language embodies what it means to be Mixe. In the larger context, language preservation is an essential issue in the indigenous rights movement in Mexico. Levine is now working with the Totontepecanos—at their request—to reclaim their language and the cultural traditions that form their identity, particularly the customary ways of cultivating corn.

No one really knows where the Mixe came from—perhaps from th Europe, according to Fr. José Antonio Gay, a 19 -century Oaxacan historian. Legend has it that they came from Peru around 1200 A.D., looking for Cempoaltepetl (the “Mountain of Twenty Gods,” and ‘Ayookja’ay’ is sometimes translated as “the people of the mountain”). Another theory claims that they are descended from the Olmecs who flourished in the tropics along the Gulf of Mexico, a geographically plausible idea.

Wherever they came from, the Mixe settled in small valleys among the mountain peaks (a topographical attribute that supports the development of “landrace” maíz, or distinctivelyadapted corn cultivars).

Corn was first domesticated in the Sierra Sur from a wild grass called teosinte, maybe six to nine thousand years ago, long before the Mixe arrived. However, the Mixe have shown a particular talent for developing landraces—there are at least sixty by now—suited to particular micro-local climates and changing growing conditions.

Getting to Totontepec takes almost seven hours in a four wheel drive truck. How can such an isolated place be losing its language, culture, and practices of food production? It would take a tome to address rural development and modernization in Mexico, starting well before the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, but NAFTA set in motion a chain of events that threatens traditional—and sustainable—farming practices as it pits global, economically driven systems against local, place-based systems.

First, NAFTA allowed heavily subsidized U.S. corn (some of it genetically modified), to flood the Mexican food markets; Mexico declined to levy tariffs on the U.S. corn. In a parallel move, driven by a series of economic crises, the Mexican government stopped subsidizing local corn production in favor of supporting larger agribusinesses like Grupo Bimbo and Grupo Maseca.

It thus became almost impossible for small Mexican farmers to compete in selling corn even in their local markets. Younger people started moving off the land and into cities or seeking work in the U.S., leaving no one to inherit the complex knowledge and skills of indigenous corn cultivation, and no one to husband the livestock necessary to produce organic fertilizer. Small corn farmers began purchasing chemical fertilizers, and in some places using U.S. corn, supplied by the Mexican government, as seed. Inevitably, imported genetic modifications managed to sneak into the DNA of maíz grown in the Sierra Norte.

The long-term repercussions could be the end of subsistence maize agriculture and the extinction of some or all of the landacres. Because corn is the world’s most consumed grain, this kind of genetic biodiversity is critical to “rescuing” the crop should its genetics collapse or climate change alter growing conditions. (Like language, preservation of biodiversity is another key tenet of the indigenous movement.)

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“I don’t feel like a man when I don’t plant corn.” —Totontepecano farmer reporting on village sentiment.

Through thirty years’ work on documenting issues of language loss and preservation with French Canadians and New England’s Passamaquoddy and Wampanoag native peoples, Ben Levine and Julia Schwarz, an anthropologist specializing in language reacquisition, have developed a collaborative, interaction-intensive method grounded in participant involvement and verification. In 2009, people from Totontepec came across Levine’s work and thought that the method, called “Language Keepers,” was an approach that would work for them (

Totontepec Villa de Morelos has the indigenous form of governance called usos y costumbres (uses and customs), which reflects a collective, cooperative outlook that considers the land to be a gift essential to the survival of la gente—it is the responsibility of la gente to care for the land. But in Totontepec, it’s been thirty years since the traditional customs have been fully practiced. The Totontepecanos want to preserve not just their language but the native practices threatened by globalization, especially the culture of maíz. In turn, the language encodes the threatened practices with a subtlety not possible in basic translation.

The Language Keepers Totontepec project, sponsored primarily by the U.S. National Science Foundation, addresses this subtlety through an unusual partnership that includes Alan B. Bennett, a plant geneticist from the University of California, Davis, who studies Mixe corn; Daniel F. Suslak, a linguist from Indiana University who works part of the year through the Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo, an institute in Oaxaca de Juárez that promotes the study and dissemination of indigenous cultures; other U.S. and Mexican academic partners; and Levine’s film company, Watching Place Productions of Rockland, Maine.

The project is already underway, as the team has done preliminary work in Totontepec since last year. This year, they spent time in August setting up the project and documenting the start of the fall crop. In November, they will document the harvest and early seed selection for the first crop of next year. Then they will return in February through April of 2013 to document the preparation of the milpa (a term for both the hillside fields and the system of interplanting the maíz with other crops), continuing seed selection, and planting.

It is the seed selection that is critical to conserving and refining the many subspecies of a given maíz landrace. According to Levine, the Mixe farmers with proven skills for seed selection—which seed will grow best in the rain? If there’s a drought? Facing south in a little pocket among the crags?—are believed to be able to see into the kernel’s “fetus” and foretell the attributes of successful cultivation under particular conditions.

The Language Keepers method works with a central dilemma in reclaiming an endangered language—no one is speaking it as a “live” language, in public, discussing everyday activities in groups outside the family. Levine and Schulz have started by convening natural group conversations in Ayook, focused on a particular cultural “domain” (in this case, cultivating maíz), and filming them. As soon as film is shot, they show it to participants and film their reflections, comments, and explanations. They also show it to community elders to trigger memory and additional storytelling that enlarges the cultural content of the domain. The linguistics aspect of the project will focus on specifying agricultural practices in the context of a life system in which all parts of the plant are used—for weaving, construction, and medicine as much as nutrition. The plant genetics aspect of the project can then clarify how the attributes identified in progressive seed selection are molecularly structured, supporting Ayook reclamation of their heritage on the one hand, and stabilizing and securing worldwide corn biodiversity on the other.

Other parts of the project will set up a wiki-like “Endangered Language Portal” so younger Mixe speakers working in the U.S. can communicate with the community back home and so researchers working anywhere in the world can collaborate on linguistic and visual documentation. Dr. Suslak and Mixe linguist Margarita Melania Córtes, who supported the project from the outset, will collaborate on a dictionary of the Ayook dialect of Mixe, and Levine and Schultz will produce a documentary film on the people of Totontepec. You can see a twelve-minute excerpt from early work on the project, “So That it Will Live Forever,” which shows natural group conversation about endangered indigenous activities (go to and scroll down).