The Tale of One Tiny Songbird Is Amplifying an Ancient Mayan Language

November 13th, 2020 by Maria de Los Angeles Azuara couldn’t hold back tears when she heard two dozen children singing at a small school in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Guided by their music teacher, the elementary students performed a song they’d adapted about a new friend, a young Golden-cheeked Warbler named Chipilo who lived in the same mountains they did. He connected them, they sang, with “the only world that can cover us both / the world in which we all live.” The children sang in Spanish—the second language of their Indigenous Tsotsil Mayan community. It was 2015, and only a couple of months had passed since Azuara and colleagues had started working with 28 teachers from several Indigenous schools in Chiapas. As the environmental education program director at the non-profit Pronatura Sur, her job was to convince teachers to include a children’s book called The Tale of Chipilo Crisopario (La Historia de Chipilo Crisopario in Spanish) as part of their classes. Pronatura is working to conserve the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler’s overwintering habitat, the pine-oak forests that grow across Chiapas’ mountains and extend south through Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador and Nicaragua. When Azuara heard the song inspired by the book, she was thrilled. “I’ve always believed a children’s book is an extremely powerful tool to create change,” she says. “And Chipilo has proved it to me.” Chipilo has become a cornerstone of Pronatura’s environmental education, a fun tool for helping to instill a conservation ethic in children, with the hopes that they will care about and protect the natural world throughout their lives. The book has reached more than 3,000 children, mostly in Chiapas, many of whom are Tsotsil. In 2018 Pronatura had the book and accompanying lessons translated into Tsotsil. The Golden-cheeked Warbler doesn’t have ancient cultural significance for the community, but there are parallels: Just as the endangered songbird’s plight has long been neglected, so has their language. Translating Chipilo into Tsotsil is just one small part of a growing effort to dignify the country’s more than 68 Indigenous language groups, which are in turn divided into 364 language variations. In Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, European languages are “power languages”—they inhabit streets, courthouses, hospitals, and schools, says linguistic anthropologist Margarita Martínez Perez, a native Tsotsil speaker. Indigenous languages have long been deemed inferior and relegated to private spaces. But in recent years, they’ve started to seep into public spaces. In the past decade, Tsotsil has begun to appear on street signs and social media and in rock music, comics, poems, and novels. “This is just the beginning,” Martínez says. “Chipilo’s book is just a little sprout of what’s to come.” Read more: Audubon

Students Assist with Mayan Language Revitalization Project

May 24th, 2020 by MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – “Saqarik!” (sah-kah-REEK!) “Good morning!” So began presentations to grade schoolers in Nahualá, Guatemala, given by four Middlebury students as part of a Mayan language revitalization project this past January. The project was led by Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies Brandon Baird. “The school kids would always laugh when they heard us speak in K’iche’,” said senior James Finn. “A lot of the kids and just people in general see Americans and expect them to speak English, so when they heard us speaking in Spanish they were surprised. And then when they heard us speaking, you know, K’iche’, it was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here!’” Baird says that part of their revitalization work is overcoming a social stigma. “People there have been raised hearing—and it has been supported by the government—that speaking a Mayan language makes you less of a person, makes you inferior. It means you’re not as smart as someone else who speaks another language, particularly, in this case, Spanish.” To counter such myths and attitudes, Baird and his students presented at local grade schools, distributed posters, and recorded live on the national K’iche’ radio station, Nawal Estéreo, in Nahualá. The topic: current research on the benefits of bilingualism in terms of neuroscience, linguistics, and psychology. Bilingual speakers, for example, are better at critical thinking and problem solving; better able to adapt to social situations; and better at speaking and understanding both languages. Research even suggests they are less likely to develop dementia, have more gray matter in their central nervous systems (making them “smarter”), and can earn more money. January’s project grew in part, said Baird, out of his desire to give back to a community that’s been so welcoming to him. He has been conducting research on indigenous language aspects of Spanish linguistics in Guatemala for over a decade. Since 2012, he’s focused on Nahualá, a town of some 60,000–70,000 in Guatemala’s western highlands. Concerns about losing their language is something that residents have shared with him from his earliest stays. Read more: Middlebury

In Milpa Alta, people still speak the Aztec language

May 6th, 2020 by In the 1970s, before workers laid the asphalt that became a two-lane highway connecting Mexico City with Milpa Alta, the southernmost of the city’s 16 delegations, Javier Galicia-Silva’s grandmother would hike down the hills to Xochimilco each day at 04:00. From here she would take a chalupa (a large water taxi) along the ancient canals that lead towards downtown, where she’d spend the day selling fresh produce in the La Merced district near the grand Zócalo (historic centre). With a bit of money and some supplies loaded on her back, she’d return to the village around 20:00 in time to sleep and do the six-hour round trip all over again the next day. Although farmers from Milpa Alta now make the trip by road, bringing nopal (an edible cactus), mole (a traditional Mexican sauce), honey and tortillas fresh from their homes and gardens to sell in markets and on street corners across the city, not much else has changed. Milpa Alta (‘high cornfield’ in Spanish) couldn’t be more different from the smog-laden city to which it formally belongs and that it overlooks from its mountainside location. What used to be known as distant farmland and Nahua villages has slowly been ceded into the city. Although literally part of Mexico City, it's rarely visited by other Mexico City residents. Foreign tourists are even more unusual. And although it’s officially within the city limits, the people of Milpa Alta in many ways live as they have done for hundreds of years. Many people here speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, and they still use the pre-Columbian milpa system of crop rotation. The delegation is approximately 50% forest, and the fields are mostly pesticide free, watered by the rain and ploughed by horses. Insects and various heirloom corns (including blue and red varieties) are still very much part of the diet in this municipality that produces a huge quantity of food for the city, just as it did for the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán (the ancient city of the Aztecs, now known as central Mexico City) more than 500 years ago. Of Mexico City’s delegations, Milpa Alta is the greenest and least populated. It's a land of forests and fields, not of concrete shantytowns common among the city’s sprawl. Despite the relatively new road, getting to Milpa Alta still requires an effort. The congestion of Xochimilco, its neighbouring delegation, makes for a long bus ride from either the train station in Xochimilco or from Tasqueña, the city’s southernmost subway station and transportation hub. When I visited, it was two hours of stop-and-go along one-way roads. The traffic out of Mexico City slowly lightened, the road began to switchback and the air cleared. The bus slowly emptied and the mountains that are often invisible from within the central city suddenly loomed above me. It was clear that I was headed somewhere else, a place somehow distant. When the complex, sweet scent of mole began to waft into the bus, the driver announced the stop for San Pedro Atocpan: the first of the 12 pueblos in Milpa Alta, and a world away from the urbanity of Mexico City. Read more: BBC

Indigenous Women Are Publishing the First Maya Works in Over 400 Years

August 21st, 2019 by I’D STUMBLED UPON TALLER LEÑATEROS—the “Woodlanders Workshop”—completely by chance. I was walking aimlessly through the pastel-hued streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, trying to get a feel for what my guidebook had described as southern Mexico’s “most beautiful colonial city.” One particular street was quiet, dusty, and less colorful than the rest. But there was something about it—perhaps the faint sound of a Mexican ballad escaping from a rusted window, or maybe the beat-up aquamarine VW Beetle at the end of the road—that invited me to turn down it. I hadn’t been walking long before I spotted an unusual sign outside a sad-looking, graffitied colonial house: a black-and-white etching of an ancient Maya riding a bicycle, wearing an enormous feathered headdress that fluttered in the wind behind him. Next to it, a handwritten note pleaded “Save our workshop!” Intrigued, I pushed open the unlocked wooden gate and stepped inside. The walls of the courtyard, though peeling and rotten with damp, popped with floor-to-ceiling splashes of orange, green, and yellow block prints. The dusty adobe brick floor was covered with discarded books, posters, cardboard, and plastic, leaving barely enough room to stand. Rising proudly from the sea of paper that sprawled across the courtyard, a handmade tree cobbled together from sun-bleached driftwood held three thick, heavy books on its leafless branches. Careful not to trample the paper debris that now covered my feet, I leaned forward to get a closer look. As I did, I heard a low, shy voice behind me. “Ah,” said a woman standing there, wearing a thick wool skirt and a hand-stitched, fuschia-pink blouse. “You’re here to see the books? Come with me.” As she led me from the paper-strewn courtyard into a small gift shop filled with handmade books, posters, and notebooks, I learned where I was. Taller Leñateros is Mexico’s first and only Tzotzil Maya book- and papermaking collective. Founded in 1975 by the Mexican-American poet Ambar Past, the workshop is dedicated to documenting and disseminating the endangered Tzotzil language, culture, and oral history. And it does so environmentally, using only recycled materials (leñateros alludes to those who get their firewood from deadwood, rather than felled trees). Read more: Atlas Obscura

The confusing way Mexicans tell time

April 30th, 2019 by When I first stepped foot on Mexican soil, I spoke relatively good Spanish. I was by no means fluent, but I could hold a conversation. So when I asked a local ice-cream seller in downtown Guadalajara when he expected a new delivery of chocolate ice cream, and he said ‘ahorita’, which directly translates to ‘right now’, I took him at his word, believing that its arrival was imminent. I sat near his shop and waited, my Englishness making me feel it would be rude to leave. Half an hour passed and still no ice cream arrived, so I timidly wandered back to the shop and asked again about the chocolate ice cream. “Ahorita,” he told me again, dragging out the ‘i’ ‒ “Ahoriiiiita”. His face was a mix of confusion and maybe even embarrassment. I was torn. Waiting longer wasn’t appealing, but I felt it was impolite to walk away, especially if the ice cream was now being delivered especially for me. But finally, after waiting so long that I’d built up an appetite for dinner, dark clouds appeared overhead and I made a rush for the nearest bus to take me home. As I left, I signalled up at the sky to the ice cream seller to let him know that I obviously couldn’t wait any longer and it really wasn’t my fault. His face was, once again, one of total confusion. As I sat on the bus, rain pattering on the windows, I replayed the conversation in my head and decided indignantly that the ice cream seller was a liar. This incident faded from my memory until years later when I came back to live in Mexico. I discovered that cracking what I came to call the ‘ahorita code’ took not a fluency in the language, but rather a fluency in the culture. When someone from Mexico says ‘ahorita’, they should almost never be taken literally; its definition changes dramatically with context. As Dr Concepción Company, linguist and emeritus researcher at the Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, told me, “When a Mexican says ‘ahorita’, it could mean tomorrow, in an hour, within five years or never.” Read more:

What is killing Mexico’s rich indigenous languages?

November 2nd, 2018 by “I speak the sounds of the people of the rain” – If you ask the Mixteco people about their first language, the reply is just one example of Mexico’s rich linguistic diversity. Yet linguists, artists and human rights defenders are warning that Mexico is becoming increasingly monotone – and that discrimination, as well as repressive assimilation policies by the state, are partly responsible for their death. Maya, Mazahua, Zapotec: Mexico’s 68 native languages are under attack. Earlier this week, a letter written to incoming President AMLO by linguists that warns that Mexico’s linguistic heritage, “one of the richest and most diverse in the world”, is increasingly being replaced by Spanish. However, this is not just a case of a new generation switching to a ‘lingua franca’ for practical reasons. Instead, many accuse discrimination of society but also the state as responsible. “I was still beaten in the hand for speaking my language at school”, claims Mexican linguist Yásnaya Aguilar. As a member of the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, she accuses the state of severe cases of systematic discrimination and violence against children speaking an indigenous language. “In 2006 a girl was reported to have been hung upside down as punishment for speaking Nahuatl in class; in 2005 an Otomi girl could not be registered with her name in her own language because the civil registry did not allow it; and in 2015 high school students were punished with going to wash the bathrooms if they spoke chantino in school”, Yásnaya Aguilar reported at an anti-discrimination workshop held earlier this year. While these are very drastic cases, there is a general sense of public discrimination against speaking an indigenous language. Read more: Aztec Reports

The Mexican art of double entendre

August 24th, 2018 by As a Brit living in Mexico, I’ve discovered that many people are intrigued by whether or not I eat spicy food. I once had an entire conversation with a waiter in which he asked me where I was from, what language I spoke, where exactly England was, and finally ended with the question he was really trying to ask: do you eat spicy food? Having experienced so much curiosity around the level of heat that I can handle, I was well prepared when a friend asked me if I like chilli while a group of us were out for drinks in Oaxaca city. I waxed lyrical about my love of chillies, the great variety found in Mexico, the level of spice of each chilli and just how much I could handle. What began as stifled giggles among the group became full-on belly laughs, with some of the group almost crying with laughter. I giggled along nervously, like a child who doesn’t understand a joke, while I rapidly ran through what I had said, looking for possible mistakes in my Spanish that could have caused such amusement. Suppressing giggles, one of my friends said, “so you really like Mexican chilli, then?” and the whole table fell about laughing again. At that moment, it clicked: ‘chilli’ must have a double meaning, and it didn’t take long to work out what that double meaning was. My cheeks went puce as I ran back over what I had been saying through their filter, my blushing face making everyone laugh even more. This was my introduction to albur, a Mexican play on words that would have me both intrigued and confused for years to come. Most albures have to do with sex. “[It’s a] way of talking about sex without talking about it,” said Dr Lucille Herrasti, professor of linguistics at the Autonomous University of Morelos. Like in many societies, many Mexicans view sex as a taboo subject. “Using albur is a way to generate the meaning behind the words without using the actual words,” Herrasti added, noting that albures have to be funny in order to make the ordinarily prohibited subject more approachable. She explained how objects that have phallic characteristics – such as the chilli – are used to craft double entendres. The result is that one can be innocently talking about making salsa from chilli, and someone else will hear something more salacious. Read more: BBC Travel

The decline of Chinantec whistled speech in Mexico

March 26th, 2018 by The small village of San Pedro Sochiapam, deep in the mountainous region of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, is home to the Chinantec people. Here steep footpaths end at chicken coops and cornfields grow on mountainsides, while the villagers clear brush with machetes and children enjoy ice-cream cones from a stall near the town hall. But, in its day to day routines of life, this community is struggling to maintain a unique and important cultural tradition - whistling. "Chinantec whistled speech is a form of communication where people can really whistle whatever they can say in the spoken language, even though there's more ambiguity in the whistled channel," explains Mark Sicoli, a linguistics professor at the University of Virginia, noting that the presence and absence of glottal stops, tones, and stress patterns make it a particularly productive form of communication. The sounds carry across canyons better than a shout in sharp, birdlike chirps that allow people to make plans, negotiate, and chat without ever saying a word. The whistled speech, which can convey past and future tense, comprises seven tones and can be understood at distances of up to one kilometre away. It can also be transmitted even further, with messages said to wind through the Sierra Madre mountain range to reach a recipient. Fascinating as it may be, however, the Chinantec community is facing an inescapable reality: Whistled communication, practised since pre-Hispanic times, is slowly falling out of use. Read more: Al Jazeera

Mexican women lead initiatives to rescue native tongues

June 22nd, 2017 by When Gabriela Badillo traveled to Mérida, Yucatán, more than a decade ago, she encountered children who were timid about speaking the Mayan language. As she later came to understand, fear and discrimination were factors that affected the home teaching and use of the region’s native tongue. “Children were a bit embarrassed to speak Mayan. ... Some mothers opted to not teach them the native tongue to avoid discrimination,” Badillo recalled. Badillo leads a nonprofit multimedia project to promote Mexico’s 68 native tongues, work she first became interested in as a university student and that has now taken root as a 37-year-old professional graphic designer. “68 Voces” is a series of animated shorts that showcase myths, poems and oral traditions in each indigenous language. The formal initiative began in 2013, inspired in part by the passing of one of Badillo's grandfathers, who was of Mayan descent. The event changed her way of thinking, motivating her to “have more consciousness of everything that a person entails, for one part the human being and for the other, all the traditions, culture and words that leave with that person or that are lost when one is gone.” Under the premise, “No one can love what they don’t know,” the project has received help from several entities, including the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, INALI, to travel to specific indigenous communities and encourage youth to help design the short films. This new phase, which began almost a year ago, quickly revealed the role women play in preserving indigenous languages. “It was very clear to see who were the ones around the children trying to instill in them the desire to learn about their native tongues,” "68 Voces" producer Brenda Orozco said. Read more: PRI

UCLA historian brings language of the Aztecs from ancient to contemporary times

June 16th, 2017 by The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, is undergoing a renaissance in Los Angeles, thanks in part to the efforts of a genial UCLA historian. Once the lingua franca of Mexico, Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat] was eventually overtaken by Spanish. Today, the indigenous language is spoken only by 1.5 million people in Mexico, many of whom live in the state of Veracruz on the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico. But a modern version of Nahuatl resounds in L.A. At UCLA, students can enroll in beginning and intermediate classes of the language, with an advanced class slated to launch next year. A few miles north of the Westwood campus, historians and art experts at the Getty Center are collaborating with Italy’s Laurentian Library in Florence on a long-term project to create an online, annotated version of one of the greatest works ever written in classical Nahuatl: the Florentine Codex. Only one copy exists. A virtual encyclopedia of Nahua culture compiled by a dedicated Franciscan friar in the mid-16th century, the work has never been accessible to the public — much less to descendants of the Aztecs living in Mexico. Last fall, an entire scene of a popular television show was shot with actors speaking Spanish and modern Nahuatl, marking the first time that the Aztec language had been heard on an American broadcast. And this September, a charter middle school in Lynwood will begin offering modern Nahuatl classes taught by a UCLA graduate student. Read more: UCLA Newsroom

One Man’s Mission to Keep Aztecs’ Ancient Language Alive

April 24th, 2017 by There’s no dearth of culture and language in Southern California. The Census Bureau rates the 40 most common languages spoken by Americans — and 39 of them are spoken in L.A. At a church in Santa Ana, you’ll hear sounds that have resonated for thousands of years. Each Saturday morning, people gather to speak and learn the ancient language of the Aztecs: Nahuatl. Five centuries after the Aztec culture was crushed by Spanish conquistadors, the language survives, still spoken by an estimated 1.5 million people, mostly in central Mexico. Read more: KQED

Indigenous lawmakers fear loss of languages

November 30th, 2016 by Mexico’s indigenous languages are at risk of being lost, warn several indigenous members of the Chamber of Deputies, who also see a major threat in persistent racism and discrimination against their culture by the greater Mexican society. Campeche Deputy Miguel Ángel Sulub is a native Maya speaker who believes that first languages should be taught both at home and school. If indigenous languages are to survive, he told the newspaper El Universal, discrimination against those who speak them must stop. “I inherited the Maya language from my parents, who taught me without any method, just by communicating in it. [But] many children in my state don’t want to speak it; they are embarrassed and discriminated against when they do,” he said. He lamented that when addressing school children in Maya many don’t understand, but if greeted in English everyone replies with a “Good morning.” This, he reckons, indicates a lack of interest by society. Even bilingual teachers have forgotten their duty to teach in the indigenous languages, brushing aside the goal of preserving them, he added. A major handicap suffered by native language speakers is the prevalence of a Spanish-only justice system. Read more: Mexico News Daily