Many parts of Mexico are wonderfully accessible — the archeological sites, Mexico City’s fabulous museums, colonial towns steeped in history. In a couple of days you can take in a lot. Other parts of Mexico take years to know. My brother-in-law Francisco “Paco” Guerrero Garro started learning about the Trique in Oaxaca almost 50 years ago. You may have heard about the Trique recently when a Trique boys basketball team won an international basketball competition in Argentina. Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies saluted them with a one-minute standing ovation.
In 1966 Paco was invited to work with an international team from the
United Nations comprised of geologists, agronomists, economists,
geographers, archeologists, and botanists to do an economic study of the
state of Oaxaca. Paco was in charge of doing a census of the arts and
crafts and the craftspeople across the whole state. For 2 1/2 years he
traveled with his team throughout the state of Oaxaca documenting how
many artisans there were, what they produced, how they produced it,
where they sold and how much they sold it for.
One place he visited was San Andrés Chicahuaxtla. Then it was a
12-hour drive on a dirt road from Tlaxiaco, only 40 kilometers away.
Today that same trip takes 45 minutes.
As was his custom, he first met with the leader of the community. Not
coincidentally, that person, Don Marcos Sandoval, was the only person
in the pueblo who spoke Spanish. The first night Paco was invited to
stay with him; there was no electricity, no running water. At night they
lit ‘ocotes,’ strips of wood from the highly resined ocote tree. Ocotes
function as candles.
This was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship. The study ended
in 1968 but Paco continued to visit San Andrés Chicahuaxtla and the
Sandoval family. Thoughout the 1970’s Paco took many groups of students
to Chicahuaxtla. I accompanied him on some of those trips.
Paco and my sister Harriet are making that trip again, now
accompanying the professor of linguistics Ray Elliott of the University
of Texas, Arlington.
In 2008 Professor Elliott saw the documentary “The Linguists.” The
film follows two young scientists in their race to the most remote
corners of the world recording languages on the verge of extinction. Dr.
Elliott was particularly struck by a line in the film — “every two
weeks a language dies.”
“Fifteen years into my academic life I decided to find and study an
endangered language in Mexico,” Dr. Elliott said. “When a language dies
you lose a history of interaction with the environment that may cover
thousands of years, knowledge of medicinal herbs, even unknown cures.
When the last language speaker dies you lose an entire culture. Language
and thought are so inextricably intertwined that when you lose a
language; you lose part of the collective humanity.”
Through a friend, Dr. Elliot established contact with my
brother-in-law, and soon found himself in the pueblo of San Andrés
Chicahuaxtla. This town had 6,000 inhabitants in the 1983 census. In
2009, when Dr. Elliott began his research, the demographic had changed
dramatically — the population of San Andrés was approximately 2,000.
This year it is 950. Men and whole families have moved to Mexico City
and parts of the U.S. where they will most certainly lose their language
within a generation. Documenting the language became increasingly
The Chicahuaxtla Trique indigenous peoples refer to themselves as Gui
a’mi Nánj nï’ïn or “The people who speak the Complete Language.” There
are three “dialects” of Trique spoken in only three pueblos within the
municipality of Copala, Oaxaca. Dr. Elliott uses the word “dialect”
advisedly because comprehension of the “dialects” between villages is
less than that between Portuguese and Spanish and “no one would ever
consider calling either Spanish or Portuguese a dialect.”
Since 2009 Professor Elliott has spent all of his research time in
the pueblo. “The first year I always had a ‘minder’ and was never
invited beyond the concrete front porches of the homes. Each year those
boundaries have extended. Now I’m welcome everywhere. A month ago I was
even invited to be the padrino of the graduating primary class.”
He explained that “Trique is a complex tonal language difficult for
westerners to master. In the easiest of the “dialects,” Copala, there
are 8 tones. In Chicahuaxtla Trique there are at least 10 tones, maybe
16. The words can look and sound the same to an untrained ear.” For me
that was certainly true. The words “more” and “less” look the same and
sound the same. It took multiple repetitions by Dr. Elliott before I
could detect the difference.
I never would have imagined basketball as a way to reinforce native
languages. But the team of youngsters who traveled to Argentina and won
the basketball competition is part of a program the Oaxaca state
government provides for poor children. To be in the basketball program,
coach Ernesto Merino said, “The children must have good grades, speak
their native tongue and help with home chores.” I bet there was a
celebration on their win in Arlington, Texas too.