Text, tone & tradition: A Mazahua speaker reconnects with her heritage

by on October 5, 2019

A young couple about to marry listen to their wizened grandparents’ words of guidance and warning. They stand in the front room of a white house in a small Mexican village surrounded by lush farmlands and misty mountains. Only the parents, and two stealthy observers Brenda Barrera Lino and Mariana Figueroa Martínez eavesdropping from just outside, witness the solemn moment. The tradition is an intimate one. As the community bustles outside preparing for a wedding, Barrera Lino hears only the murmur of the Mazahua words. The novios, passive speakers of the indigenous language, can respond only in Spanish, although they understand the words their grandparents speak.

Language loss is a nearly imperceptible process that severs enduring lines of cultural continuity. The moment a passive speaker realizes she’s lost a link to her identity can be as isolating as watching family members carouse on the beach unaware as a riptide sweeps her away.

About 111,840 people in communities throughout central Mexico speak Mazahua, down from over 133,000 speakers in 2000. That’s a 10% drop in 15 years. In just two generations, for many, a connection that supports their sense of Mazahua self and community is lost.

The workshop for speakers of Otomanguean languages

On the historic Oaxaca streets, en route to the Biblioteca de Investigación Juan de Córdova, the Juan Córdova Research Library, the morning bustle is set against the sweet, citrus smell from a nearby orange juice vendor. The corn scent of tamales wafts through the iron gates and out onto the courtyard of the Centro Cultural San Pablo (San Pablo Cultural Center). Creeping cactus with bursting white blossoms cling to walls as a gardener clips the grasses growing between the patio bricks. It’s day three in a seven-day workshop. Librarians, teachers, writers, and musicians, all speakers of indigenous languages spoken in Oaxaca, mill around eager to enter the library nestled within the renovated walls of the one-time convent. One year after their surreptitious participation in the pre-marriage ritual, Barrera Lino and Figueroa Martínez wait with fellow workshop attendees.

Mexico’s linguistic landscape is vast. The country has seven language families and four isolates. Three families and two isolates, languages that are not related to any other language, are spoken in Oaxaca, a state roughly the size of the US state of Georgia. By comparison, the entire continent of Europe has five language families.

Every year, the Workshop for Speakers of Otomanguean Languages draws native and heritage indigenous language speakers. The workshop provides linguistic tools for people seeking to fit their languages into daily life. This is the first of a three-year series focused on creating texts. They’ve come to write songs, create calendars, pen folk tales, draw comic books, and text their friends.

Barrera Lino wants to do it all. She was a passive speaker. She grew up hearing the language and understood it but didn’t speak it. As a young adult, she learned to actively speak Mazahua and is now a fluent speaker.

Speakers of ten languages congregate at the library, and organizers have sorted the workshop attendees into groups by language. Barrera Lino and Figueroa Martínez are in a small group with six workmates who speak Mazahua, Otomí, Amuzgo and Me’phaa. They gather with three mentors in a remodeled cloister with crisp white walls and concrete windows overlooking a small courtyard below. The hum of traffic and chirping of birds set the backdrop for the classroom chatter. Participants share freshly penned prose and present questions. Barrera Lino and Figueroa Martínez are up. They project lines of Mazahua text on the white screen. Behind them, a chalkboard marked with vowels accented with upticks, downticks and squiggles stands by as reference.

Justin MacIntosh, lecturer in the linguistics department at the University of California San Diego and a co-organizer of the workshop, is one of three mentors working with the group. He asks the Mazahua pair what they would like to present.

Barrera Lino exclaims, “Un montón de dudas!” (‘a mountain of questions’).

The class laughs, but they are sympathetic. They are all trying to work out how to represent the tones in their languages. But first they have to identify them. At this early stage in the workshop, all five groups are laying down the groundwork for the next three years. For some, this means working out tones.

The challenges of tone

The Otomanguean languages are tone languages, or languages that use pitch to differentiate words and parts of speech. All the tick and squiggle marks written in these languages mark rising pitch, falling pitch, tones that rise and fall, and vice versa. Or even pitch that rises and falls and rises again. The classic example of a tone language comes from Mandarin Chinese. The most widely referenced set of words, ‘mother’, ‘hemp’, ‘horse’, mà ‘scold’, and ma (question particle), are each distinguishable by tone, or lack thereof.

Barrera Lino reads a line from the passage that Figueroa Martínez wrote for homework. First she reads it slowly. They test to see if the words are readable. Barrera Lino stumbles over a word. The term “dialect” is politically loaded since historically it demoted the status of an indigenous language to something less. “Variety” is both politically neutral and descriptively useful. The tone here in Martinez’ text is different from her own variety of Mazahua.

Barrera Lino is from San Felipe del Progreso. Figueroa Martínez is from La Concepción Segunda, the town where the two witnessed the pre-wedding exchange between grandparents and novios. Both women study language and culture at the Universidad Intercultural del Estado de México (Mexico State Intercultural University), where they became fast friends. They spend a lot of time talking about Mazahua.

In class, the duo’s challenge is to compare words in their varieties to identify what the tones are, how many there are, how they might be similar or different, and how they’ll represent them (with ticks, á, and squiggles, â, or with numbers, a5, where 5 indicates a high tone). They note the differences as they play with different words.

Identifying tones and deciding how to represent them is no small feat. The Eastern Chatino group has cloistered itself away behind a maze of exhibit spaces displaying colorful masks, a six foot steel mosquito sculpture, and an ensconced courtyard featuring water and stone. This animated group is led by Emiliana Cruz, researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Mexico City (Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology), a main co-organizer and founder of the workshop, and a native speaker of Chatino. They project Chatino verses and word lists on the crisp, white walls as they brainstorm jokes and insults and methodically compare tones word-by-word across the three varieties spoken in the room.

In Chatino, tones vary wildly across the varieties. Zacatepec Eastern Chatino has five tones, San Juan Quiahije Chatino has twelve tones, and Zenzontepec Chatino has only two tones. Compare that with Mandarin, which has five.

Tones are tough. Researchers have been known to overlook tone. The Zapotec group, easily the largest at the workshop with 27 speakers, occupies the auditorium above the water and stone courtyard. Speakers of six Zapotecan varieties form this group, led by Francisco Arellanes Arellanes, professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Institute of Philological Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico), and Rosa Maria Rojas Torres, researcher from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History).

Attendees take turns listening to recordings of poetry they each wrote the night before and together work out the best ways to represent the sounds and tones. Roughly 410,900 people speak Zapotec languages, and compared to other languages in Mexico, Zapotec enjoys substantially more research attention. Yet a number of academic papers overlook tone in their descriptions of the language.

Anthony Woodbury, professor of linguistics at The University of Texas at Austin, co-organizer of the workshop, and a mentor to Barrera Lino’s group, says this is problematic since some Zapotec languages use tone in subordinate clauses the way English uses “that” or “which” to form clauses. The oversight is as significant as omitting the word “which” when writing a grammar book of English.

In Mazahua, words for “my stick” and “your stick” are almost the same, in mbala. It is the tone that distinguishes the meaning. The term ín mbala with a high tone means ‘my stick’, which might be written with an uptick. In contrast, in mbala meaning ‘your stick’ has no tone, neutral tone. Barrera Lino and Figueroa Martinez stumble upon differences in their varieties.

Figueroa Martínez explains, “It’s complicated because there are differences in speech between different communities, but there are also differences within single communities, between generations.”

Expenses measured in time and sweat

Each Saturday morning, Barrera Lino sets out from her home in San Felipe, 90 miles from Mexico City, and takes a 45-minute bus ride to the desviación de Tapaxco, a bus stop at a fork in the road. From there, she catches a taxi for 10 pesos to the center of Yomeje. She then walks 30 minutes uphill through farmland to the Iglesia La Magdalena. Once she arrives, she teaches Mazahua to 15 kids aged six to 17 for two hours in an unfurnished room of an abandoned two-room adobe school. When she’s not attending university classes or doing homework, she spends her time creating games and activities to teach children. All the materials she uses are recycled or repurposed. Several mothers have expressed interest in learning how to read and write in Mazahua. Soon she’ll teach them too.

In Oaxaca, the women have joined 42 attendees and ten organizers from the U.S. and Mexico. Until this year, the Harp Helu Foundation and the National Institute of Indigenous Languages funded the Otomanguean workshops. When the Mexican government changed, priorities shifted and funds were redirected. This year, with no external funding sources, workshop organizers launched a GoFundMe drive that raised USD 3,400 (about 64,700 Mexican pesos)—enough to provide meals and lodging for twenty Otomanguean speakers to attend the workshop.

Michael Swanton, academic director at the Biblioteca de Investigación Juan de Córdova, professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, and a workshop co-organizer, believes that a strength of the workshop is that it draws “highly specialized academics who are willing to come to Oaxaca every year at their own expense to provide this mentorship.”

They work on topics important to the attendees, often setting aside their own envisioned goals to accommodate the group.

“Originally, the plan was to work with texts and record them and analyze them,” MacIntosh recalls. For linguists, texts are samples of recorded stories, conversations, recipes, and explanations.

“But people started pulling texts out of their own head,” he adds. They started creating texts in the form of poems, announcements, and jokes on the spot.

What’s in a text?

It’s easy for language lovers to immerse themselves in the minutiae of language and words and tones, but here mentors and attendees think about language in terms of the communities that speak them. The central idea of the workshop is to approach language as verbal art. To look beyond specialized speech that comes with ceremonial speech or storytelling. To look at everyday speech, like jokes and insults.

The Center makes its library space and resources available for the workshop, one of many cultural projects it offers scholars and countryfolk alike. Library employees who speak native languages, each with stories that reflect the light and shadow of their relationships with identity and language and connection, also attend. They help shape the myriad of ways that the workshop approaches language use.

Team Mazatec, led by Mario Chávez Peón, professor of linguistics at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Mexico City, is taking text in a different direction. Under the leadership of resident librarian and Mazatec speaker Gabriela García García, who has printed paper calendars for the Library since 2013, the group is creating an interactive, web-based, 18-month and 5-day calendar that represents the Mazatec year. Each month has a theme, such as tecolote (owl), najme (maize), and huipil (embroidered blouse). The theme highlights recipes, poems, riddles, activities, cultural subjects, and games. Each section and activity is a brief, researched text.

MacIntosh stresses “[these] languages are deeply in danger of falling out of use…so it’s this idea of how can we document the languages in a way or promote types of texts, or reading, or literacy. A lot of people don’t even read their own languages. So it’s a really different focus in that sense.”

Beyond the complexities of what it takes to work with texts, what emerges from the workshop are the stories that illustrate the lengths individuals go to preserve and rebuild connections with the people in their cultures.

Rebuilding the lines of continuity

Barrera Lino recalls winding her way through the market of San Felipe among stalls displaying colorful vegetables and leafy green herbs. The sweet, earthy scents of ripening fruit and roasting nuts mingle under the clear blue sky as vendors call out their products or chat with one other. She approaches an abuelita (grandmother, affectionately) with her herbs and remedies carefully arranged on a blanket on the ground.

She remembers what it was like before she knew how to speak Mazahua.

“If you ask in Spanish, they’re going to tell you it’ll cure your stomach pain, but nothing else.”

Since learning to speak Mazahua, “When you talk to them in their language, there’s a feeling, a connection. When you ask them in their language, they tell you what it’s used for, how it’s prepared, how you take it, and what else it’s good for.”

For Barrera Lino, it’s about more than formally transcribing a recipe to analyze sounds and sentence structure. She wants to reconnect intergenerational lines with the doñita (elderly woman, affectionately) selling her remedies in the market. She wants to sing original Mazahua songs with her young students. She wants to text her friends in Mazahua.

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