Celebrating Zapotec Activism: Oaxaca’s Living Language

Last night I participated in a Zoom conference organized by Dr. Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, and the Ticha Project at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. The discussion, mostly for indigenous language linguists, educators and students, focused on what it means to be a Zapotec Activist.

The Victoriano Rug — Janet’s great-grandfather’s design

The definition is simple: To recognize that Zapotec is a living, modern language of the present as well as that of the past, to preserve the language and support native speakers, to inculcate the language among young people and pass it on, to make it visible and disseminate it to the global community, to apply social media technology to keep the language vibrant, to acknowledge the diverse group of speakers throughout Oaxaca and the diaspora, and to respect the people and culture that have kept this a living language for millenia. There is pride in being a Zapotec speaker.

While the definition is simple, implementation has challenges, but this Project is undertaking a sea-change in how native language is spoken, written, researched and disseminated.

Janet Chavez Santiago at Galeria Fe y Lola Rugs

I participated in the conference as an observer, and mostly to show support to the Zapotec activists I know in Oaxaca: my goddaughter Janet Chavez Santiago from Teotitlan del Valle, and Fellow for Community Based Learning at Haverford College, with friend Moises Garcia Guzman de Contareras from San Jeronimo Tlacochuhuaya. Both Janet and Moises host faculty and students from the USA in Oaxaca, and travel to Pennsylvania to teach. They are linguist educators.

Zapotec archeological site, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Moises greeted us via video in the courtyard of the Tlacochuhuaya church. He then took us to his family’s milpa where he recalled that the 1695 last will and testament of Sebastiana de Mendoza, translated from the Zapotec, proved that land could be inherited by women to fight male exclusiveness. His mother owns this land and it will be inherited by Moises’ daughter. The document certifies this.

There is a substantial Zapotec speaking population in California who are from Oaxaca. Many have been there for generations. Xochitl Flores-Marcial, PhD, teaches history, language and culture at California State University at Northridge. She earned her doctorate at UCLA, renown for linguistics studies.

Xochitl, a presenter last night, studied and wrote about the ancient guelaguetza system (not a folkloric dance) of mutual support to keep Oaxaca communities strong, independent and interconnected. She emphasized that over 2,500 years ago, Zapotecs carved their ideas and beliefs on stone monuments, pottery and deer hides. They produced texts in their own voices citing intellectual achievements.

Carvings on the outside of the Mitla temple

Poet-scholar Felipe H. Lopez, PhD, emphasized that modern social media is being used to harness 16th Century manuscripts and texts documented by Spanish Dominican friar Juan de Cordova. de Cordova translated a codified logographic and pictographic writing system into Spanish and these documents survive. This pre-alphabet writing of symbols (that correspond to words) and drawings were meant to travel across language varieties.

Here are seven poems in Zapotec by Felipe Lopez.

Zapotec Activist Janet Chavez Santiago, who was instrumental in creating the Teotitlan del Valle Zapotec talking dictionary, discussed what it means to be a Zapotec from this famous rug weaving village. Her family operates Galeria Fe y Lola Rugs.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Some years ago, Dr. Lillehaugen, faculty associates and students created the Zapotec talking dictionary to provide a teaching tool and learning foundation. What they have created are various dictionaries that represent the variety of tobal variations spoken in different parts of Oaxaca. Many of us who follow Zapotec language and culture known that villages in the Tlacolula Valley, for example, do not understand each other because of language variation.

Zapotec Activist Janet Chavez Santiago, who was instrumental in creating the Teotitlan del Valle Zapotec talking dictionary and has presented at international linguistics conferences, discussed what it means to be a Zapotec from this famous rug weaving village. She linked together how language, culture and weaving supports continuity.

She explains that weaving derives from ancestral knowledge. Creativity is express by incorporating the influences of the present. Yarn, she says, is a connection with the past. As she demonstrates the technique of pedal loom weaving on a video we watch, Janet says that her hands express Zapotec traditions and culture. The warp and weft weave a story of the ancients and bring them into our contemporary world. Symbols incorporated in the tapestries translate culture to others.

“We are a living culture, existing in the present and rooted in the past, a community supported by past and present. We do not speak of Zapotec people and language in the past tense,” she says.

Indigenous language is at risk. The Ticha Project is designed to protect, preserve and promote Zapotec. Many Oaxaca children do not learn Zapotec unless there is a village operated pre-school (like there is in Teotitlan del Valle). This is a language of the grandmothers. The project aims to give accessibility to native speakers, to expand access to those who want to learn, to instill cultural awareness and pride, and to use the Internet to connect Zapotec speakers in the Diaspora.

As I watched my friends and saw video of the land where I live, I was reminded about how much I miss being in Oaxaca and having this deep connection to people and place.

Plowing the milpas to plant corn, squash, beans

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