Tag Archives: Zapotec language

Gossip and Morning Refreshment: Following the Abuelitas

This morning I arrive at the daily market early, by 9 a.m. I had chicken soup on my mind and want to make some, so I first stop at a stall where I know that cooking teacher Reyna Mendoza buys her pollo. Criollo, advises the woman standing next to me in the aisle as she points to the small whole, white chicken, saying pollo, es pollo, (chicken, it’s chicken) a Spanish lesson for the güera. I smile and nod.

Buying roses, $2.50 a dozen . I always have fresh flowers.

Buying roses, $2.50 a dozen . I always have fresh flowers.

Criollo means natural or wild or organic. They eat maize, she says. She then points to the big, plump yellow chickens sitting with their big breasts, proud birds, twice the size of the criollos, and says, these came from Oaxaca and they eat commercial grain (in Spanish, of course). Then, the vendor and the shopper move into Zapotec, a language I don’t understand. Some chismes (gossip), I’m sure.

Mango vendor with an abundant supply.

Mango vendor with an abundant supply.

I love following the little grandmothers, the abuelitas, through the market, with their wool checked faldas (skirts) folded around their waist and tied with a handwoven red wool cinturon (belt) with tassle ends. In the old days, these belts were dyed with cochineal. Some still are.

Plaid wool skirt tied with a cummberbund, floral top, shawl for sun protection, basket to hold market goodies.

Plaid wool skirt, floral top, shawl for sun protection, basket for market shopping.

Plaid skirts, flowered blouses, sometimes aprons, always a traditional handwoven reed shopping basket balanced on the crook of the left arm, long hair braided with colored ribbons and tied together at the end or piled on top of the head like a crown, a rebozo (shawl) covering shoulders or head, sometimes the shopping basket. This is a passing generation.

Village tuk-tuk carries shoppers who don't carry baskets on their heads.

Village tuk-tuk carries shoppers who don’t carry baskets on their heads.

This was not meant to be a long shopping trip. I left the house gate open because I intended to return immediately.  A quick pass through the market for organic chicken, chard, a dozen fresh long-stem roses (40 pesos a dozen, that’s about $2.50 USD), criollo eggs from the gallina (hen), a couple of squash and mangos (it’s the season).

Following the abuelitas as they take a respite

Following the abuelitas as they take a respite

As I was loading my car I noticed a stream of abuelitas entering the doorway of the convenience store across the street. Such a good picture, so I decided to hang out. A few more entered, one at a time.

Inside, a congregation of about six grandmothers. Good for the stomach, they say.

Inside the inner sanctum, a congregation of about six grandmothers.

More than coca-cola inside

More than coca-cola here. Time for a chat and refreshment.

It was by now 10 o’clock in the morning. I waited for them to emerge but they didn’t. And, I remember that this is the ladies’ social hour and the convenience store is where they congregate before going back home to work, prepare meals, do laundry and take care of the grandchildren. So, I decided I was done waiting and would join them!

It's dark inside with obscure lighting. In the shadows I can barely see faces.

It’s dark inside with obscure lighting. In the shadows I can barely see faces.

Believe me! A shot of mezcal at 10:30 a.m. can really get you moving. As I sidle up to the counter cum bar to join the ladies, they welcome me with warm smiles, ask where I live, how long I’ve been here, and admire my filigree Zapotec-style earrings and embroidered apron, sign that I am surely one of them. Or at least a trying hard wannabe. Then, invite me to take photos.

I get a Zapotec lesson, Xa-Yu (how are you?) and chichi-bay-oh (salud) as we raise the cup. I already know Zakchi! (hello, good afternoon). This is really a foreign language.

A convenient stop across the street from the market

A convenient stop across the street from the market

Rosa, as she introduced herself, buys my first drink. Good for the panza, she says, patting her belly. I agree. Mezcal is a medicinal when not abused! She offers me another. I smile and decline, realizing I need to drive home without bumping into any burros.

Next time, my turn to buy.

And, that’s village life in Oaxaca.

For sale, fresh cornhusks for tamales, anyone?

This is, too. Fresh native corn and husks for tamales, anyone?

Norma’s Simple Chicken Soup Recipe

  • 1 small, white organic chicken, cut up, skin removed
  • include neck and gizzards and egg sack
  • 1-2 chicken feet (just like grandma used to make)
  • 4-6 cups water
  • salt to taste
  • 1 serrano pepper, dried
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 whole onions, peeled
  • 1/2″ fresh turmeric, peeled

Add chicken and all other ingredients to 6 qt. stockpot. Bring to simmer on stovetop, cover and cook for 4-6 hours*. Chill. Remove fat. Muy rico.

These local, skinny free-range chickens are pretty tough, so to get the meat very tender, it needs to good for a really long time! It’ the feet that give the flavor.

Editing Video with Subtitles: Zapotec to English

When our film maker participants interviewed Magda, she began answering their questions in Spanish but then switched over to Zapotec, an indigenous language thousands of years old that is spoken in villages throughout the Oaxaca valley.   Zapotec is an unwritten language.  To learn it, you must be phonetically agile.  With Eric at our side, he translated Magda’s Zapotec into English as she spoke.  This was one of the surprises of being on location in Teotitlan del Valle.  Many of the older people here speak very little Spanish, as we learned that afternoon, when Magda told us that she had not completed her education beyond second grade.  In all the years I have known her, I had assumed that she was a fluent Spanish-speaker and this was another discovery that unfolded during this week together.

I am at the table where our instructor Erica and participant Lauren are making the subtitles for the nearly completed video that is the product of our work this week together.  They are listening to each film clip and referencing the English translation that Eric made and then matching what Magda said in Zapotec to the English translation.  It is a process of question, answer, figuring out which answer matches to which frame.

In the background is the rug room as Las Granadas.  It is late February and over eighty degrees outside.  The sun is strong and the sky is dappled in white clouds.   Birds sing and dogs bark.  The rugs are tapestries of natural wool, bright oranges, reds, blues, greens, purples, gold.  In the kitchen on the center island is homemade flan baked by Eloisa waiting for our premiere fiesta tonight, when all the filmmakers and subjects will gather to see their films for the first time.  We’ll lay a table with homemade pizza, quesadillas made on the comal, aguas de jamaica and pepino, fruit, jicama and dip, mucho mezcal and cerveza.  It will be a grand finale before we all disperse tomorrow morning.

Zapotecs: The First Scribes

I am reading “Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years” by Jared Diamond, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. For anyone interested in the cultural, social and political history about human beings, this is THE book to read. Diamond asks the basic question, why were some societies able to develop the technology and wherewithal to conquer, lead, and dominate? Why did some remain hunter gatherers and others become farmers? Does it have to do with intelligence or something else? Diamond says it is the “something else.” It had to do with, he concludes, the identification of edible wild grains that could be cultivated and grown to sustain large populations. (Large populations being the key to technological prowess because they are able to grow enough food to feed specialists: warriors, ruling class, potters, scribes.) Most of these grains were native to Eurasia (the Fertile Crescent area). Another factor was the breeding of herding animals that could become sources for food and labor. The ancestors of goats, sheep, pigs, horses, and cows came from Eurasia. There were no animals on the North American continent that could be domesticated. The llama/alpaca from the Andes never made it north because of the geographic barriers. It was much easier for food and animals to cross the Eurasia continent on the same east-west axis latitude, than it was for animals and food to take hold on a north-south longitude (Africa and the Americas) where the climate differences can be extreme, limiting where seeds can be sown.  An alpaca would not do well crossing the Sonoran desert!

Diamond talks about whether food cultivation and sedentary farming, language and writing, technology development (stone to metal tools), developed independently in different parts of the world, or were developed in one part and transmitted to others.   The Sumerians of Mesopotamia developed writing in 3,000 B.C.   The other certain instance of independent writing origins in our human history, he says, comes from the Zapotecs in southern Mexico in around 600 B.C. where the earliest preserved script is partially deciphered.  There are about a dozen Mesoamerican scripts that are related to each other and the one that is best understood to date is from the Lowland Maya region.  The Zapotec language today is only an oral language and when it is written, for example, on the tri-lingual (Spanish, Zapotec, English) translations of the history keys at the Mitla, Dainzu and Yagul archeological sites, the Zapotec language is represented as a transliteration of the spoken words.  The Maya and Sumerian writing were organized on similar basic principles using both logograms and phonetic signs.  One might assume that the Zapotec language may have been similar, but it is not yet known.

I write this because it is one more discovery about the Oaxaca region that I find fascinating in the continuing commentary about culture, society, and life.  For a general review of the book, click here.