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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Photography, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, Dizhsa Nabani, Documentary film, Haverford College, language, Moises Garcia Guzman, San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya, Zapotec