XXVIII.5 September - October 2021
Page: 60
Digital Citation

Indigenous language and culture visibility in the digital age: Examples from Zapotec activism

Janet Chávez Santiago

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Oaxaca, located in southern Mexico, is home to languages belonging to six linguistic families. This makes Oaxaca the state with the largest linguistic and cultural diversity in the country. My town is Teotitlán del Valle, a Zapotec community in the Central Valley of Oaxaca state, not far from the capital (also named Oaxaca). According to the 2020 national census, the population of my hometown is 6,392 inhabitants, 3,876 of whom speak Zapotec [1], divided between monolingual and bilingual (Zapotec-Spanish) speakers. The remainder of the town's inhabitants are Spanish monolinguals and/or passive Zapotec speakers (i.e., they understand the language but do not speak it).

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One of my hometown's main income-generating activities is the weaving of wool rugs. It is estimated that there are at least the same number of looms as families, making Teotitlán del Valle a town of weavers, something for which it is recognized around the world. I am a proud member of the fourth generation of master weavers and Zapotec speakers in my family.

Zapotec is a broad language, divided into four large variants: Central Valley, North Sierra, South Sierra, and the Isthmus. Each variant is subdivided within regional areas and then by town. This makes each variant very specific in its vocabulary. In Teotitlán del Valle, for example, we have a broad vocabulary related to weaving and dyeing, one with words and expressions that might not be part of the vocabulary of neighboring towns. We also do not share the same vocabulary as Zapotec speakers who live near the coast or in the mountains. Other factors that make each variant of Zapotec more diverse and specific to each town and its livelihood depend on how the language is learned and how it is passed on to younger generations, how or if it has been studied linguistically or documented, whether it is used in a scholarly context, and whether its speakers use it on the Internet and social media. These are critical for the vitality of Zapotec.

Zapotec is acquired orally within the family and among the community's social and political life. As a child, I never saw a book written in Zapotec and never had a teacher who spoke the language of my town. When my classmates and I spoke Zapotec in front of our teachers, they did not understand us and thought we were being disrespectful. They assumed we were speaking badly about them and, as a consequence, would punish us by keeping us inside during recess. Sometimes parents were even fined by the school for the "bad behavior" of their children. As a result, parents started to prepare their children for school by not speaking Zapotec at home, only Spanish. In this way their children would be "safe." As a result, there is a generation that stopped speaking Zapotec or never learned the language.

When I attended elementary and middle school, the history and geography textbooks provided by the Federal Institute of Public Education portrayed the Zapotecs as non-Spanish-speakers who were weavers, potters, and farmers, a past civilization that lived in the same territory in which I live today. Neither books nor teachers recognized that we are in fact a living community that is vibrant and relevant, whose inhabitants are weavers, farmers, academics, and Zapotec speakers—a community that has traditions, customs, and beliefs strongly supported by the past and the present.

Today, the extent to which Zapotec is disseminated depends on the Internet. Yet even there, there are few references to Zapotec as a spoken and a written language, and to the people who use it. Since Zapotec is learned orally, we face the challenge of not having a standardized orthography (writing system). This pattern is repeated in many Indigenous communities around the world. That has not, however, been an impediment to generating content in the language. As a language activist with the aim of taking part in changing the ways we learn and obtain information in Zapotec, I have found the Internet to be an integral source for producing and promoting valuable material, closer to our reality and accessible to Zapotec speakers inside and outside the community. But the endeavor is not only about creating content and then releasing it into the broader world through the Internet. It is also about creating a virtual community of native speakers. For years, Indigenous communities have been left behind, so it has taken time and effort to build the spaces where we can recognize our languages and cultures in broader contexts. It is essential to make the Internet speak our Indigenous language and own the right of belonging and participating in the various conversations using our own voices.

I remember seeing signs about weaving workshops written in a language I couldn't read—I thought, It must be English, because people from other countries visit here. After I studied English, I still could not read those signs. Later on, I realized that the signs were written in Zapotec—I could not read them because I was illiterate in the language. The letters on the signs were borrowed from the Spanish alphabet and did not represent the Zapotec sounds.

As a young adult, I learned to write and read in Zapotec. For the most part, I taught myself using the work of speakers and linguists of other Valley Zapotec variants. I have since adapted these resources into my town's variant. As I was learning, a friend gave me some advice: It does not matter if you do not have a standardized orthography. What matters is that you are writing it. Making it visible will help connect the letters to the oral language. Following this advice, I have created content in my town's Zapotec variant and made it available for anyone with Internet access.

Since Zapotec is learned orally, we face the challenge of not having a standardized orthography.

Part of my contribution has been creating the structure for a basic "Zapotec as a Second Language" course. To do so, I worked with a retired preschool teacher from my community, la maestra Cristina Santiago. Cristina was one of the first native Zapotec speakers to become a teacher in Teotitlán del Valle. She made an effort to integrate the Zapotec language into her classes by translating songs, which the kids would sing along with her. She also made space in her classes to talk about different topics related to the local culture and surroundings, such as weaving, festivities, food, and animals. But her most remarkable Zapotec project was the documentation of the traditional wedding ceremony in our town by putting on a play. This was from 1994 to 1996. All her students (4- to 5-year-olds) played a role, such as the groom, the bride, the parents, the godparents, and the priest. Their lines included the ceremonial wedding speech as well as the daily colloquial speech, all in Zapotec. The play was presented in the town's main plaza; it even went on a regional tour of nearby towns. Unfortunately, due to the system of public education, after three years, Cristina had to move to another school in another village, where the variant was different and she couldn't keep up with the Zapotec classes.

ins02.gif Janet and a girl learning to use the Zapotec Talking Dictionary.
ins03.gif Janet documenting the weaving process with her mom, Lola.
ins04.gif Janet reading her stories to a group of Zapotec kids.
ins05.gif Zapotec women visiting an exhibit at the local cultural center in Teotitlán del Valle.

Cristina's experiences were very relevant in my development of my program. I had her full support from the beginning, but she also asked me whether I was ready to face the obstacles that I would encounter along the way. I told her, "Yes, it's not a big deal. I know how to do it." But as it turned out, I had no idea.

At the time I had just graduated from college and was working independently, without funding. There were no materials in Zapotec and I realized that I did not know much about the language's grammatical structure—speaking a language is no guarantee that you can teach it. I used personal funding to create materials. Fortunately, in 2011, the Juan de Córdova Research Library, an institution focused on Indigenous languages, opened in the city of Oaxaca, and I was hired as coordinator of its education department. As part of my job, I got the institution's support to keep developing my Zapotec project; one year later, in the fall of 2012, I started teaching Zapotec to adults. The obstacles, however, continued.

Because of the history of what has been stolen from us, there is an instinct to defend what makes us Zapotec.

My students wanted to read stories. They wanted a dictionary and general content in the language. They would say, "I looked on the Internet and did not find anything," or "I found a very different Zapotec that is difficult to understand." I developed all the materials I offered in my Zapotec class as the course went on. That same year, I met Brook Danielle Lillehaugen from Haverford College. In 2013, we started the Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec Talking Dictionary (TdZTD) ( It was through this collaboration that I started to explore and connect digital infrastructures with the Zapotec language, bonding my community language to academic and language activism, as well as facing new challenges.

Being part of a Zapotec community does not guarantee easy access to working with the language. In my community, many different rules and codes exist. For example, to teach a workshop related to the Zapotec language, you must ask permission from the local authorities, represented by the mayor and town council, who are in charge of the political, economic, and social development of the community. Any project associated with the collective well-being of the town in areas such as education, culture, language, and land must be approved by the citizens through a general meeting, led by the mayor and council. This is how we decide whether a project can move forward.

In working with the Zapotec language, Brook and I found that people are divided on many issues. Some believe that our Zapotec variant needs to be taught in a more formal way and that it should be documented to strengthen our identity and spread it as community with a voice of resistance; others believe that they cannot allow the language to travel outside the town, that we should keep it for ourselves, even if that means losing the language. Others argue about the ownership of the language, questioning who gave me the right to teach it and expose our culture, beliefs, customs, and lifestyle to the greater world. Because of the history of what has been stolen from us, both our territories and our culture, by ever-present colonizers, there is a fear and an instinct to defend what makes us Zapotec.

Finding the support of local institutions and authorities, as well as spaces in which to teach, in my town has been challenging, but not impossible. Learning from those experiences, and with the desire to include as many native speakers as possible to participate in and use the Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec Talking Dictionary, I have talked with Zapotec speakers, in their houses and in the streets. I greet them, ask how they are, how their weaving is going, and if there are people buying it. Then I show them the dictionary and other useful sources in Zapotec that are available online. In this way, I have built a small community of speakers who actively participate in the dictionary's development, and have made others aware that there is information online in our language that they can use for free.

ins06.gif Janet and her dad, Fe, recording parts of the loom in Zapotec for the Talking Dictionary.
ins07.gif Poster for the Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec Talking Dictionary recording workshop.

Languages and cultures evolve as fast as new technologies. Although the broad digital space is part of our daily lives and gives us a way to interact with the world, few minority populations have access to new technologies. That is to say, there are few Indigenous peoples using their Indigenous languages online. This needs to change. We need to start changing how we are pictured in history and in the present—our cultures and languages need to be visible, because we are here. If we do not write and record our language in the digital age, we will face a future in which Zapotec becomes a language that was spoken once but not any longer. This effort can include creating content with information about what's happening in the moment. For example, I am drinking a cup of coffee: kayee te kudilly kafe txiru kakuaa xtidxa lo gits ree. We can create our own literature and poems just like we do in Spanish, English, or any other prestigious language. We can make the Zapotec language into our tool to communicate with the outside world.

As a member of a Zapotec community that has its own language, its own culture and traditions, and its own land and laws, and in seeking how to make my community visible as a living culture, I have found digital media to be a useful tool. It allows me to contribute to the preservation of our traditions, strengthen the use of the Zapotec language, and actively engage native speakers, creating a bridge between them and the international digital space. The different digital tools that we might use can be seen as sources to learn and speak the language. For example, the Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec Talking Dictionary creates a link between a speaker and the digital space in their own language. It is also an open-source tool that actively includes native speakers and gives them credit for their contributions. In turn, this means the project itself becomes part of the community, which can use it for its own benefit. We can see the digital space as a friendly and reachable tool to learn in the language and culture from inside and outside our Indigenous community. The collaboration between experts of the language and academic linguists is a bridge that complements this knowledge. It has been a constant source of learning and collaboration, and hopefully an encouragement for younger generations to enjoy the local richness of their languages.

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1. This information may have changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Janet Chávez Santiago is a fourth-generation traditional Zapotec tapestry weaver and Zapotec language activist. She is trained in language education and has conducted research, developed curriculum, and taught classes on the variant of the Zapotec language spoken in Teotitlán del Valle. In collaboration with Haverford College, she has developed the Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec Talking Dictionary, an audio-based language-preservation and education resource.

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