Tag Archives: Zapotec

2022 Day of the Dead Culture Tour

October 29 to November 4, 2022—6 nights and 7 days— $2,895 for a shared room and $3,495 for a single room. We have 3 single rooms and 4 shared rooms available.

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico, is meaningful and magical.  Celebrations in the villages go deep into Zapotec culture, community, tradition and pre-Hispanic practice. Some say it is the most important annual celebration in Mexico and here in Oaxaca, we know this is true. This tour is limited to 10 participants.

At Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, we hope to give you an unparalleled and in-depth travel experience to participate and delve deeply into indigenous culture, folk art and celebrations.

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Day of the Dead Altar

Beyond the city, in the Tlacolula Valley, many smaller villages are still able to retain their traditional practices.  Here they build altars at home, light copal incense, make offerings of homemade chocolate, bread and atole, prepare a special meal of tamales, and visit the homes of relatives to greet deceased ancestors who have returned for this 24-hour period.  Then, at the designated hour, the living go to the cemeteries to be with their loved ones  — either to welcome them back into the world or put them to rest after their visit here – the practice depends on each village.

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You will learn about this and more as you come with us to meet artisans in three different villages beyond Oaxaca city who welcome us into their homes and their lives during this sacred festival. 

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Study Tour Highlights:

  • Visit homes, altars and cemeteries in three Zapotec villages: Teotitlan del Valle, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, and San Marcos Tlapazola
  • Participate in presenting altar offerings at each home we visit
  • As a group, build a traditional altar to remember and honor your own loved ones
  • Learn to make homemade chocolate with the Mexican cacao bean
  • See a tamale-making demonstration and taste what is prepared
  • Shop for altar décor at the largest Teotitlan del Valle market of the year
  • Learn how mezcal is an integral part of festival culture and tradition
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We created this study tour to take you out of the city, beyond the hubbub of party revelry and glitz of a Halloween-like experience that has morphed into a Hollywood-style extravaganza in downtown Oaxaca.  We will compare how city celebrations complete with costumes and face painting differ from those in villages even as outside influences impact change. Our desire is to give you a full immersion experience that evokes what Day of the Dead may have been like 20 or 30 years ago–mystical,  magical, transcendent and spiritual.

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Even so, cultural tourism has found its way into the back roads of Oaxaca.  We do our best to be respectful by limiting the size of our group to 10 participants, to give you an orientation about to what to expect and do during our visits, and to offer you an intimate, personal experience.

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We give you an insider’s view. You have the guidance of local expert Eric Chavez Santiago who will lead this cultural tour. Eric is a partner in Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.

Eric Chavez Santiago is an expert in Oaxaca and Mexican folk art with a special interest in artisan economic development.  He is a weaver and natural dyer by training, a fourth generation member of the Fe y Lola rug weaving family, who was born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle. He has intimate knowledge of local traditions and customs, speaks the indigenous Zapotec language, and serves as your cultural navigator. 

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Eric is a graduate of the Anahuac University, and speaks English and Spanish. He can translate language, culture and traditions, tell you about practices in his extended family and how they have experienced the changes over time.

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Moreover, he is deeply connected and will introduce you to some of the finest artisans in the region, where you will meet weavers, natural dyers, ceramic artists, and traditional cooks. You will have an opportunity to see artisan craft demonstrations and to shop for your own collection or for gifts, as you wish.

We will be based in a comfortable Bed and Breakfast establishment one block from the market in Teotitlan del Valle for our time together. (You might decide to arrive early and stay a few nights in the city or extend your trip to be in the city afterward.)

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Angel in Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread)

Preliminary Itinerary

Saturday, October 29: Arrive in Oaxaca and travel to Teotitlan del Valle. Check in to a highly-rated, locally owned bed and breakfast inn. Snack box available for arrivals after 8 p.m.

Sunday, October 30: During our breakfast orientation, we discuss how Day of the Dead is celebrated in the villages and then go on a walking tour that includes the village market, church, archeological site, and cultural center. Today you will also visit the homes and studios of rug weavers, candle makers, and silk weavers talking with them about their own family observances. Overnight in Teotitlan del Valle. (Includes breakfast and welcome dinner)

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Teotitlan del Valle tamales with mole amarillo, made by Ernestina

Monday, October 31: After breakfast, walk to the Teotitlan del Valle market to shop for altar decorations to later build a group altar. Bring photos of those you want to remember! Then, we will venture out into the countryside to visit the Zapotec village of San Marcos Tlapazola to meet artisans and discuss their family Dia de los Muertos traditions. You will see demonstrations of red clay pottery and have a chance to buy if you wish. We will come prepared with altar gifts of chocolate and bread to present to the difuntos. On the road, we will stop at a traditional comedor for lunch (at your own expense). We finish the day with a mezcal tour and tasting in Santiago Matatlan, mezcal capital of the world. Mezcal is an integral part of Zapotec celebrations and we will see why. (B, D)  

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Monday, November 1: After breakfast, travel to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to meet a noted weaver artisan who will take us to their family gravesite at the village cemetery and talk about history and traditions. Visit a home where a traditional altar tells the story of ancient Zapotec culture. Our hosts will explain the ancient, pre-Hispanic altar offerings and go deep into the meaning of Muertos here in Oaxaca. You will bring your offering of chocolate and bread to put on their altar to honor our host’s ancestors. We will spend the day with this family and enjoy a very special lunch that they have prepared in our honor. – Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, tambien.  (B, D)  

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Tuesday, November 2: After breakfast, we will visit the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to see preparations being made to honor dead loved ones: cleaning and decorating the graves. Then we will spend the afternoon in the courtyard of a traditional cook, who shows us how to make hot chocolate and tamales with mole amarillo. We’ll have late lunch there and then accompany her to the cemetery while she sits with her loved ones as they return to the underworld. After the cemetery, you will enjoy a before bedtime snack and discuss how participating in Day of the Dead has had an impact on you. Compare and contrast this experience with USA and Canadian experiences with death and dying.  (B, L, D)

Wednesday, November 3: After breakfast, we will arrange for any laboratory tests (at your own expense) required to re-enter the USA. Then, we will hold an EXPOVENTA to showcase the work of outstanding weavers representing various villages throughout Oaxaca state, including San Juan Colorado, Triqui, and San Mateo del Mar, and San Pedro Cajones. The rest of the afternoon is on your own. You can arrange a taxi to take you to the city, to neighboring villages or archeological sites. We will enjoy a final goodbye supper before you depart. (B, D)

Thursday, November 4: Departure. We will help you arrange a taxi (at your own expense) to the airport or you may choose to stay on in Oaxaca or visit another part of Mexico.  (B) Hasta la proxima!

Itinerary subject to change based on scheduling and availability.

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What Is Included

  • 6 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 5 dinners
  • 6 nights lodging at a charming B&B hotel in Teotitlan del Valle
  • museum and church entry fees
  • luxury van transportation
  • outstanding and complete guide services
  • multi-lingual translation
  • the cultural experience of a lifetime

What is NOT Included

The program does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation as specified in the itinerary. We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.

Cost • $2,895 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,495 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)

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Natural dyes have strong color, beautiful and more complex than synthetic dyes

Reservations and Cancellations.  A $500 non-refundable deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 50% of the balance is due on or before June 15, 2022. The third payment is due on or before September 1, 2022. We accept payment using online e-commerce only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After September 1, 2022, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before September 1, 2022, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date less the $500 non-refundable deposit. After that, there are no refunds. If we cancel for whatever reason, you will receive a full refund. 

The tour and COVID-19: You are required to be FULLY VACCINATED to participate. You must send Proof of Vaccination (this includes all boosters) by email on or before June 15, 2022. You can take a photo of the documentation and forward it to us. All participants are required to wear N95 OR KN95 face masks, use hand-sanitizer and practice social distancing while together. We will sanitize vans and keep the windows open when traveling together. Please note: You MUST also provide proof of international travel insurance including $50,000 of emergency medical evacuation coverage. 

Registration Form

Complete the form and Send an email to Norma Schafer.

Tell us if you want a shared/double room or a private/single room. We will send you an e-commerce invoice by email that is due on receipt.

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Red clay pottery, San Marcos Tlapazola

Who Should Attend • Anyone interested in indigenous culture and creativity, who wants a deep immersion experience into Day of the Dead practices and traditions, and who appreciates artisan craft — weaving, embroidery, pottery. If you are a collector, come with us to go deep and find the best artisans. If you are a photographer or artist, come with us for inspiration. If you are an online retailer, come with us to find the stories to market what you sell.

To Register, Policies, Procedures & Cancellations–Please Read

All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.

Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: Oaxaca and surrounding villages are colonial and pre-Hispanic. The altitude is close to 6,000 feet. Many streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, narrow and uneven. We will do a lot of walking. We recommend you bring a walking stick and wear study shoes.

If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments or you are immunocompromised, please consider that this may not be the study tour for you.

Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include free time to go off on your own if you wish.

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Sitting vigil in the village cemetery, Dia de los Muertos

In Reverse: Oaxaca to Me and Rug Sale

My goddaughter Janet Chavez is coming to Durham on April 26 and will drive west with me to Taos, New Mexico. I call this bringing Oaxaca to me! I’m excited because this will be her first road trip across the USA. We haven’t seen each other for over a year and there is a lot to catch up about. Janet is a linguist. She is tri-lingual and then some, speaking Spanish, Zapotec, English and a smattering of other Romance languages. She also gives presentations about preserving indigenous language and culture, helped develop an online Zapotec talking dictionary, and is affiliated with Haverford College.

Janet is also bringing rugs her family makes from hand-carded wool and natural dyes. (See feylolarugs.com) This includes medium and large sizes. Purchase now and Janet will bring your rug with her and ship from Durham, NC, next week before we hit the road. Remember, these are one-of-a-kind and all dyed with natural dyes — plants and cochineal. At Fe y Lola Rugs, they make all their own dye pots and color the churro wool yarn skein by skein. It is a slow production process. All sales go directly to the family! You are buying direct from the master makers.

We encourage you to purchase now since Janet may not bring all rugs shown with her, only those that sell in advance. Please purchase by Saturday, April 24.

To Buy: Please email me normahawthorne@mac.com with your name, mailing address and item number. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase. We will calculate shipping to your location from Durham, NC (a big savings), and send you an invoice for the total. Please DO NOT SELECT buying goods or services at check-out. We also accept Venmo and Zelle. I can send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal. All sales final.

Our family is a four generation lineage of weavers and natural dyers from Teotitlan del Valle, a Zapotec community in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Our rugs are one-of-a-kind, with complex designs that blend tradition with innovation, setting the standard for beauty and quality. At Fe y Lola, we tell stories through threads.

Twenty years ago, Fe y Lola took a risk and decided to focus on producing high quality wool rugs on a small scale. They invested in a sustainable weaving process that does not include toxic chemicals such as sulfuric acids and anilines, that are very dangerous for one’s health as well as for the environment. By conducting research on natural dyes, experimenting with local natural dye materials, and most importantly, rediscovering and re-learning ancient Zapotec natural dyeing techniques, they began to develop an exclusive palette of natural colors and combinations. Along the way, they had the opportunity to learn from and share knowledge with other natural dyers and weavers from all over the world, enriching their comment to their work and customers.

Norma’s Notes: I have lived with this family on their land in Teotitlan del Valle since 2005. Back then, I saw that what they were doing was extraordinary and unheralded. Over the years, they have continued to produce some of the best tapestry weaving in the village and are noted for their innovative color combinations, density of woven fiber, and rich, all natural colors. Supporting them in their efforts to become more well known has been my passion over the years because I admire their commitment, tenacity, creativity, and talent. Now, I get to watch how the children, who are now adults and the next generation of weavers, continue in the ancient traditions of their family and culture. Their rugs have added joy to my living space for all these years, without fading or discoloration.

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

Inside the Tomb: San Pablo Villa de Mitla Archeological Site

Some of our fiesta group: Feliz Cumpleaños, Martha

Many visitors make a stop in Mitla as a side trip, along with a whirlwind shopping extravaganza to the Sunday tianguis Tlacolula Market, or a bypass on the way to Santiago Matatlan, the mezcal capital of the world, to imbibe in a tasting.

Culture juxtaposition, Zapotec and Catholic in perspective

For my friend Martha’s BIG birthday celebration, a dozen of us started out with early pre-fiesta festivities on Friday before the big Saturday party. Our destination was an archeological immersion into Mitla, once called Mictlan in Nahuatl, which means place of the dead.

Inside a chamber of the original monastery, a reconstruction

We were led by Eric Ramirez Ramos from Zapotrek. Eric is a very knowledgeable guide who is from Tlacolula and tells all the stories about mysteries and myths in the region that he heard from his grandfathers.

Eric tells us about Zapotec culture at Mitla

The Aztecs named Tlacolula, which means Land of the Twisted Branches, because of the ancient trees here. The Zapotec name for Tlacolula is Guish Baac, that means Old Town. Today, locals from nearby villages still say they are going to Baac, when they travel here, according to Eric. 

Tree with a twisted branch at Mitla archeological site

Not yet restored, fallen lintel

As we travel along the Pan American Highway, that goes from our starting point in Teotitlan del Valle (also an Aztec word), we see pre-Hispanic glyphs at Yagul, the small but important archeological site of Lambiteyco, and hills that look like mounds. Eric points out that when there is a hill covered in cactus, that is usually a sign that a ruin lies underneath. Everywhere there is a cross installed by the Spanish conquerors is a designation that this was an ancient Zapotec ritual site. 

Deep inside the tomb, second patio

Along the highway, just before coming to Mitla, lies the village of Union Zapata. In adjacent caves, fossilized corn was found, proving that maize was domesticated here 7,000 years ago. Squash seeds were dated to 10,000 years ago. I live among ancient agricultural peoples who continue to thrive. 

One arm of the “cross” in the tomb — one of the 4 directions

Detail, end of tomb chamber

At Mitla, we see Zapotec and Mixtec walls of a ceremonial burial site for the priestly class. They are carved with intricate designs, named grecas by archeologist Guillermo de Pie, who thought they looked like the Greek keys.

This tomb carving could be “lightening”

The tombs are open in the patio of the second structure and I decide to climb down the steep steps, then duck under two narrow passageways to get inside. I’m short but it still wasn’t easy! 

Carvings on the outside of the Mitla temple, traces of cochineal-painted plaster

The tomb is laid out in the shape of the cross, which has a pre-Hispanic meaning for the Four Directions and the Four Elements, meaning the cycle of life and unity. When the Spanish came, this symbol made it easier for evangelization of indigenous people. In Maya territory, the cross is the symbol for the God of Wind, so it was easier there, too. 

Columns atop stairs of first plaza, perhaps roof support

Some of the other symbols carved on the walls of the temples and inside the tombs represent fire, lightening, the serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and water. We learn from Eric, too, that the pre-Hispanic dog Xoloitzcuintle was revered as a sacred animal, god of the underworld. The Xolo’s were put in the tombs to guide the spirits of the dead, the important first step on the journey to the Nine Levels  of the heavens. 

Steep stairs: bow your head in supplication

We ended the day with a tasting of pulque and then mezcal in Matatlan, and then with a fine meal prepared by Traditional Cook (cocinera tradicional) and teacher, Reyna Mendoza. A great way to celebrate your birthday, Martha.  Thank you!

Native landscape, San Pablo Villa de Mitla
Self-portrait at the pulque bar
Traditional Zapotec cook Reyna Mendoza Ruiz, Teotitlan del Valle
Mezcal accompaniment, orange slices and worm salt
REAL tostadas, hot off the comal, crunchy and fresh

Documentary Film: Zapotec in Oaxaca, Mexico, Dizhsa Nabani, A Living Language

All ten, five-minute episodes of the documentary film, Dizhasa Nabani/Lengua Viva/Living Language, premiered last night in San Jeronimo Tlacachahuaya. This is an ancient and important village in the Tlacolula Valley, center of the Catholic diocese. The film is in Zapotec, with Spanish and English subtitles. Just wonderful!

Yet, the risk of indigenous Zapotec language loss is powerful here, and in other Zapotec-speaking villages throughout Oaxaca State.

The documentary, produced by Haverford College, Pennsylvania, in collaboration with Moises Garcia Guzman and Dr. Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, professor of linguistics, tells the story about the essential link between language and cultural identity.  It features the farming village of Tlacochahuaya where Moises and his family have lived for generations.

I met Moises many years ago in West Los Angeles. We found each other through Facebook. He was living there and working as a Spanish-language customer service translator with Verizon.  His mom was in Tlacochahuaya growing garlic on the family farm, while his dad was repatriating after working in L.A., too. We became friends.

Moises, me and his wife Lois

When Moises moved back to Oaxaca he started teaching Zapotec to young people and hosting Brook’s university students who were studying linguistics.

Both Moises and Brook hosted the showing of the documentary last night at the Tlacochahuaya cultural center. Townspeople, leaders and Haverford students were there. I brought my young charge, 14- year old Lupita, who had never been to this village, though it is only ten minutes from Teotitlan del Valle.

The Zapotec dialect spoken in Tlacochahuaya is different than that spoken in Teotitlan del Valle. This is a common theme among Zapotec villages. Though they are in close proximity, they have remained isolated from each other, resulting in enough language variation that results in minimal mutual understanding.

My friend Janet Chavez Santiago, who also works with Brook, tells me that many villages have incorporated more Spanish words into the Zapotec language and the original words are lost.  As an oral language, Brook, Janet and others have worked together to create a standardized written transliteration and an oral dictionary that is online.

There are sixteen different indigenous languages spoken in the State of Oaxaca, and within each of those language groups there are variations that are significant enough that few are able to understand each other.

I think the key take-away questions for me are: Does language define us? How do we define ourselves? Is language preservation necessary for cultural identity?  And, then to ask the ultimate questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? These are the great existential questions of life, continuity and community.

Well worth your time, each five-minute segment takes you into a Zapotec village to meet the people, hear the language spoken, and understand traditional life and the challenges of contemporary cultural pressures.
Episode 5: Dizhsa Nabani–Tlacolula Market
Episode 6: Dizhsa Nabani–The Musician
Episode 7: Dizhsa Nabani–Dance of the Conquest
Episode 8: Dizhsa Nabani–Chocolate
Episode 9: Dizhsa Nabani–Gabriela’s Workshop
Episode 10: Dizhsa Nabani–Zapotec People