By Leigh Morrow
Thousands of years ago, the people who lived in the forested slopes and valleys of the Sierra Madre del Sur, where fog lingers on the tops of trees, and corn is communally planted, spoke in a language that rose and fell like music. Today they still do. The Zapotec language, the oldest written language in America, comprises of 50 different dialects that together have almost as many varieties as there are pueblos in which it is spoken. Some half a million people speak Zapoteco, most living in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, usually speaking one or two varieties of their native language along with Spanish. In some areas, this native language is used in all daily communication such as commerce, religion and literature, but in other areas, the Zapotec language is on the brink of extinction.
More than three quarters of the dialects have fewer than ten thousand speakers fluent in the language, so its preservation has become critical. Although all varieties of Zapotec share some basic phonological and structural similarities, there are so many differences between and among them, that 40 of them are considered to be mutually unintelligible. Unlike English or Spanish, Zapotec is a tonal language with three pitches, low, high and ascendant (the movement from low to high). The number of contrasting tones differs from one dialect to another. Further complicating the learning for outsiders is that none of the tone changes are marked in the written form. Zapotec poetry perhaps best displays the dazzling rich rhythms and auditory effects of this language.
Natalia Toledo, a poet who travels the world to read her poetry in her native tongue, commented that when she reads her verses in Vietnam, Italy or North America, people are enchanted even though they do not understand the Zapotec language at all. It is the sounds that captivates.
A Zapotec poem by Antonio López Pérez reads:
“Zapotec/ I saw you/flying/ like a carpet/ upon the pleasure/of my tongue”.
When it comes to translating this poem there is no real way to capture the layers of sound that happen in the original work.
As Spanish professor and translator Claire Sullivan notes…
“When poets write in Zapotec, they entrance their readers with their melodic verses, remind their people who they are by reimagining local traditions, and call them to take responsibility for the future of their language and culture.”
Preserving these dialects, and recording their spoken words, is a key element in The Mountains Voices Project. (www.mountainvoices.org) To date, over 300 interviews have been conducted by local people in local dialects and posted on their website. The topics range from their opinions of politics and community to customs and for our interest in this article, identity.
When Zapotec native speakers were interviewed for the project and asked about their identity they indicated their language is seen as a key feature of local identity. A narrator interprets Mario Fernando’s pain in school.
“Maybe the hardest thing in the primary [school] is that they didn’t let you speak Zapoteco, because they punished us and our fathers or our mothers if they heard us speak Zapoteco….They drew attention to us and they sent for our parents and gave them a punishment too…. And that is how it was and we lost the language. I still understand [the language] because, thankfully, I’ve maintained a close relation with the village and I listen to what the people say in Zapoteco. I understand them perfectly well but [laughing] now I can’t answer them in Zapoteco, no! It’s possibly the most bitter experience I’ve had because now I know the importance of the language”
Mario Fernando, age 36, community manager.
“When [my relative] Camerino went to the school, he spoke [Zapotec] language very well, because his grandfather and his father did not teach him to speak Castellano (Spanish) ….and the teacher removed him from the class and she told him: ‘Look, do not speak [Zapoteco], because….I do not understand you …and your classmates do not understand you either. No, you can not speak the language.’ And she turned him out, poor Camerino, because he spoke in [that] language.”
Maximina, age 67, trader.
Compounding the disappearing language issue, transnational migration began. Over the past five decades, Zapotecs have been leaving for the opportunities of California, further eroding the nurturing of their original dialect.
Felipe Lopez was one of them. He left Oaxaca and arrived as an undocumented immigrant 25 years ago. He worked in the agricultural fields of California, then moved to Los Angeles, where he struggled as a dishwasher until he became a legal resident. Lopez was inspired to compile a two volume dictionary of the Zapotec language, the first of its kind. The dictionary titled Zapotec Dictionary of San Lucas Quiavini (Di’csyonaary X:tee’n Dii’zh Sah Sann Luu’c) was published in 1999. The dictionary bears the name of Felipe’s home town. It includes 9,000 words translated into English and Spanish and was designed for the 50,000 Oaxacan Indians whose native tongue is Zapotec. Felipe was inspired to create the dictionary as he witnessed the erosion of his language.
Another lifeline to the Zapotec language was extended in 2010 when The University of California in San Diego offered, for the first time, a Zapotec language class.
Two years later, in Salinas, California, The Natividad Medical Center began hiring medical interpreters bilingual in both Spanish and Zapotec. Last year, the Natividad Medical Foundation launched an interpreting business that specializes in indigenous languages including Zapotec, Mixtec, Trique and Chatino.
And then, Rodrigo Pérez Ramírez, who lives in San Andrés Paxtlán ,Oaxaca, had an idea.
He wrote down his vision for his endangered language and entered it in a Global Voices draw, where the winner would receive funding for the project.
Rodrigo won a Rising Voices Microgrant, and now is creating audio recordings in Zapotec with Spanish translation of everyday images of the community. From simple objects to people’s names, plants, animals, holidays, traditions, short stories of sites, festivals, interviews and events in the community. Records created will be published with the help of an open source application for mobile phones called ojoVoz. Generated content will be published in real time on the platform of the virtual museum of the Zapotec language.
His 21st -century union of an ancient language and the Internet aims to ensure the presence of the Zapotec language in the digital world and have those voices, sounds, tones and inflections survive indefinitely through document clouds. Zapotecs, who called themselves “Be’ena’a Za’a” meaning “The Cloud People”, believed that they had descended from supernatural beings and when they died, they would return to their origins, in the clouds.
Appears they have done, exactly that.
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented at http://www.gosanagustinillo.com