Tag Archives: language

Why Learning Spanish Makes You Smarter

Learning a second language like Spanish or any other language for that matter, makes the brain nimble! according to psychologists and language researchers. I liked this article published in The New York Times, March 18, 2012 Studies show that learning a foreign language as an adult will stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s.  It’s like exercise for the mind.

My stretch this month is to continue to use past tenses as I expand my Spanish vocabulary. It’s very helpful to step outside the English-speaking expat community  comfort zone and our recent trip to the Sierra Norte offered Just that.

The challenge for any immigrant — like me living in Mexico or Mexicans living in the U.S. — is to learn a new language without giving up the mother tongue and cultural identity.  This is especially true for second generation immigrants who want to assimilate  I think about the U.S. school system and the anti-immigrant voices saying “learn English or go back where you came from.”

Hopefully, articles like these will increase our understanding of and appreciation for the richness that being bilingual offers for the individual and for society.  I would think we want to promote smarter and healthier people.

Curandero Sergio Castro Preserves Chiapas Textile Traditions

Behind a tall wooden gate about six blocks from the Zocalo at #38 Guadalupe Victoria is the Museo de Trajes Regionales.  The private collection of traditional indigenous dress is an inspiration of Sergio Castro Martinez, a former Chiapas state senator (2000-2003), engineer and lay healer.  Señor Castro gives personal guided visits in French, English, Spanish and Italian.  At the same time, he also ministers to those in need of health care at no cost.

Sergio Castro Martinez, hero of Chiapas

As textile aficionados, we asked our B&B host Bela if she would contact Sr. Castro and make an appointment for us to visit the museum on the first day of our arrival in San Cristobal de las Casas.  Visitors are asked to arrive at 6:00 p.m.  As we approached, a woman exited the house with her head covered and accompanied by family members.  Sr. Castro provides free care to people who have burn injuries and also for those with diabetes.


Several times during our guided visit, he excused himself to help a toddler  brought in by his young mother, and then to care for an older man, and then to take urgent phone calls.  He has been honored on multiple occasions by international and local civic and governmental groups for his humanitarian works.

San Andres Larrainzar huipil

The museum is a must-see for anyone interested in indigenous history, culture, and regional weaving/textile traditions.  Sr. Castro explains in depth the differences between the tribal groups of the region, their languages, marriage and family customs, political and social systems, and the evolution and change in the costume design and materials used.  He also, through his museum collection, shows the various special traje (dress) for the leaders of each village, as well as for weddings and other ceremonies.  All the traditional dress in this region is created on fabric woven on back -trap looms.

This is an important orientation for anyone who wants to go out to explore the more accessible villages.

For example:

1.  In the pueblo of San Juan Chamula, the traditional cape and skirt is made from black sheep wool that is woven on a back-strap loom.  The long fibers are not cut but pulled out so that the garment has a wooly look to it, resembling the coat of the sheep itself.  Sheep are family pets, used for their wool and are never eaten.

Sunday Market at San Juan Chamula

2.  In the pueblo of Zinacantan the traditional color of the women’s chal (shawl) and agua (skirt), and the men’s poncho used to be pink or rose colored until about four years ago when there was a decided shift to the color blue, says Sr. Castro.  The community grows flowers (there are greenhouses covering the mountain valley landscape) and this is reflected in the intricately embroidered (mostly by machine, some still by hand) floral and bird patterns on the cloth.


3.  In Amantenango del Valle, the women create clay figures, mostly jaguars, chickens and roosters, but also ollas (jars), bowls, and other functional pieces.  The women’s huipile is evolving.  Traditional women wear a very geometric blouse with predominantly gold and red coloration.  The newer design coming into vogue is a frilly collar that trims an embroidered bodice, all synthetic, shiny material.  The ultimate adornment is a fancy pleated mandil or apron that goes over the top.



We also see traje from Aguatenango, Oxchul, Ocosingo, the intricate yellow, red and blue brocade diamonds from Las Margaritas, Pantelho, the red and black brocade weavings from San Andres Larrainzar.  From Mayas Lacandones who live along the Usumacinta River that borders Guatemala, we learn the dress is bark that has been beaten and softened with a stick, then adorned with painted red colors representing the sun, moon and stars.

Visitors are asked to give a free-will offering (suggested minimum is 100 pesos per person)) for the explanation/tour that helps support Castro’s work.  There is a small room that includes photographs of the severity of burns caused by carelessness, fireworks, and handheld firecrackers associated with ceremonies and rituals.

Rapid societal changes are having an impact on the weaving and its quality. There is widespread use of synthetic materials and alteration of styles and designs to suit the tourist market. Handwork is done on store-bought commercial fabric (synthetic polyester or cotton blend). It is no longer  easy to find punto de cruz (needlepoint work) or hand embroidery using naturally dyed fibers.

This is the poorest state in Mexico.  Many migrate in search of jobs.  Younger people are shedding traditional dress as they desire to assimilate.  Others move from villages to larger cities in search of employment.


Sergio Castro Martinez, #38 Guadalupe Victoria, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.  Phone: 967-678-4289.  sergiocastrosc@gmail.com


Juchitan, Oaxaca Endangered Language (Zapotec) and Poetry Project

This video is about helping to keep an ancient language — Zapotec — alive. This project is based in Juchitan, Oaxaca, in the Isthmus at the southernmost end of the state and is about preserving Isthmus-spoken Zapotec. It combines poetry, art, and film making. Thanks to reader Mary Ann Walsh for sending it our way! Zapotec has many different spoken variations or dialects. Villagers in the Oaxaca valley may not even completely understand each other because of linguistic differences. One thing is for certain, young people, as they migrate to cities for jobs or want to assume more “modern” ways, are giving up the language of their forebearers. Centro Cultural y Academico San Pablo in Oaxaca is also committed to language and culture preservation.

Return to San Pablo: Oaxaca’s Indigenous Cultural and Academic Center

At Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo we discover secrets, surprises and ancient stones.


An 18th century rosary chapel with contemporary stained glass window designed by Francisco Toledo, the imposing green stone façade mingled with original 16th century adobe, and a gold-leaf altar are only a few of the architectural delights of San Pablo de los Indios, the first Dominican convent in Oaxaca.

Our guide, Janet Chavez Santiago, coordinator of educational programs, described the features and history of this glorious structure.  She said there were important surprises found during the excavation for the foundation:

Two female skeletons were uncovered that date from 500 B.C.  These are the oldest found in Oaxaca, older than those from Monte Alban I.  The women were buried with ceramics of the same style found at Monte Alban, though older.


Every convent has a fountain, Janet says.  The location was evident but the design of the original fountain was illusive, so architect Mauricio Rocha created a symbolic water feature out of obsidian, a native Mexican stone.


In the main patio, the outline of a doorway framed by ruffled stone, was the opening to Benito Juarez University, which was known as Instituto des Artes de Oaxaca.


Later, Janet would show us where Benito Juarez, director of the institute, later president of Mexico and leader of the reformation, had his offices.  At the entrance, there are two layers of painting:  17th century frescoes and grafitti and 19th century wallpaper.

The main patio area, called the sala capitula, is where the Dominicans assembled to govern the convent.  Architects wanted to go down to the original floor and as they did, they found a large rock and river stones.  As they kept excavating they uncovered a Zapotec temple foundation that was the same age as the bone discoveries. Archeologists who were brought in to examine the materials believe the city was an indigenous religious center that pre-dates the famed mountaintop site.


The beauty of San Pablo is more than skin deep.  It takes us back to the origins of Oaxaca and it is not too difficult to imagine life as it might have been then.  The convent is dedicated to the cultural and linguistic diversity of the state and preserving the traditions and language of its indigenous people.  Originally, it was the only convent to serve the indigenous population.


As Janet explains the language of the stones used in the original structure (flat and hand hewn) and the later restorations, she also tells us that one of her primary goals is to teach Zapotec (Tlacolula valley dialect) to anyone who is interested.  She hopes the courses will begin in May 2012.


As we leave, we take one last glimpse at the imposing green glass wall that surrounds and protects the library archives.  We marvel at this architectural masterpiece that so consciously and sensitively blends past with present and future to keep the dream of cultural continuity alive.

Footnote: Originally, the entrance to San Pablo faced toward the Zocalo and was framed by a large patio.  There were three alleyways open to access it.  Over the years, these alleyways were closed off and the patio disappeared as the Dominicans sold off property to pay to restore the church bell tower and other damage during a major 18th century earthquake.  That’s when private homes and the Macedonio Alcala Theatre were built.  San Pablo was last used as a hotel when the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation purchased it in 2005.  The restoration began in 2006, totally supported by the Foundation.



Oaxaca Center Promotes Indigenous Language and Culture, Opens November 26, 2011

Tucked behind the tall green-tinged cantera stone wall at the corner of Av. Independencia and Fiallo is the newly renovated 16th century Dominican convent San Pablo de Indios.  It is reinvented as Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo.


The renovation has been a painstaking six-year project funded by the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation to uncover centuries of neglect and degradation. Intended first to restore the first Spanish church constructed in Oaxaca in 1529, a mere 8 years after the city of Antequera was founded by Cortes, the project has grown in significance. This restoration reinvents the original intent of the convent: a place exclusively dedicated for Catholic worship by the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca by focusing on the importance and value of indigenous populations in the development of Oaxaca.  Oaxaca is who she is because of her native peoples.

On November 26, 2011, at 10 a.m., the convent San Pablo de Indios will be dedicated and open to the public as the Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo. It is an educational and cultural center that honors its indigenous past and focuses on promoting the languages and culture of Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mixes and other language groups that comprise the state of Oaxaca.  A tomb was excavated on the site that dates to the Monte Alban period — a very important discovery to preserve.


“To understand the project,” explains Michael Swanton, the general manager, “you must see it as two distinct phases.” The architectural renovation, the first phase, is the container. This is coming to a close and the building is soon to be dedicated. The second phase is the implementation. The building will be devoted to teaching and promoting indigenous language and culture through seminars, workshops, conferences and exhibitions. This brings San Pablo de Indios full circle.

My adopted niece, Janet Chavez Santiago, is the education coordinator for the center. She explains that the newly designed library by architect Mauricio Rocha will house historic books and papers where people can come to do research. The library integrates and reflects the 16th century architecture of the original structure with an eye to the future.   Janet will develop and teach classes in Zapotec, organize conferences, give guided tours in Spanish, English and French. Her colleague, Yasnaya Aguillar, who speaks Mixe, will also participate in this part of the project.

There are big questions that are unanswered that Janet hopes the Center will help unfold. For example, there are weaving techniques and patterns that cannot be translated into Spanish. There is intended collaboration between the Museo Textil de Oaxaca and the Centro San Pablo to better know the relationship between the indigenous language and early textile development.


Janet believes that this work is essential to preserve all the Oaxaca languages and she looks forward to working with linguists from around the world to do this. Her desire is to build links with universities in Mexico and elsewhere to bring students as volunteers and to develop an intercultural exchange program.

Janet Chávez Santiago, Coordinación Docente
Centro Académico y Cultural San Pablo
Antiguo Callejón San Pablo, Av. Independencia #902
Centro Histórico
Oaxaca, Oax. CP. 68000
Tel. 51-625-08, email Janet at jazoula.10@gmail.com

There is so much more to explain about the early history of this place. I will attempt to do that in future posts.  Suffice it to say, the early cast of characters who were conquistadores and Dominican friars all had a hand in the development of this extraordinary building — one of the first in Oaxaca!