Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A life with the Trique

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 critical.

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.

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