Archive for January, 2009


Long and Winding Road

Saturday, January 24, 2009

After a long day, we finally made it to Macuil last night, but at least I got my second opportunity to drive in Mexico.  The first time had been two summers ago when I had gotten a trial by fire, driving in Mexico City.

This time was much less stressful.  Nacho drove us out of the city, and then feeling tired, he let me take over.   It was the first time I got to drive on the twisty mountain road leading through the Sierra.  It was quite fun and much faster than I expected.  We made it in about two, two and a half hours.

I got to experience another first, too, on this trip:  getting stopped by a police security checkpoint.  For a long time, there had been regularly police/military checkpoints on the roads I had been on leading out of Oaxaca City.  I had seen them both on the road into the Sierra and the road to Tlacolula, but I had never been in a vehicle that had been stopped at one.  In recent years, they hadn’t been in use though.  But last night a temporary checkpoint was set up and we were stopped just before we reached the turn off to another town, Jaltianguis.

I had always been nervous passing the fixed checkpoints in the past, but maybe because this one was a surprise, I wasn’t nervous (at least once I figured out what the heck was going on).  We had to pull over and Nacho, Margarita, and I had to get out of the car, while the heavily armed police (or was it the military, I’m never sure about these things in Mexico) checked for drugs.  Luckily, they let the sleeping Benjamin and Margarita’s mom stay in the car.  They patted down Nacho, but no one else.  Maybe being a gringo saved me the inconvenience.

Overall, I was happy for the stop.  It was a nice clear night and the stars looked spectacular, it was a chance to wake up a little, and with all of the recent drug violence I’ve been hearing about in Mexico, I actually felt a little better they were there checking.


One-Hour Field Methods

Friday, January 23, 2009

Although it came together very quickly and we were still planning right up until the end, our class demonstration about Zapotec turned out to be a lot of fun, and, I think, a success with the students.

Before I had left LA to return to Oaxaca, my friend Nacho had called me about possibly doing a class/demonstration at the school where his cousin works. The school, Federico Froebel, is a private bilingual school here in Oaxaca. They have a focus on language here, covering at least Spanish, English, and French. The director of the school is really interested in linguistics and languages and is interested in having his students know something abut the languages of Oaxaca. It had come up that Nacho’s cousin is of Zapotec decent so he asked her if she could put together a presentation. She contacted Nacho who put her in touch with us.

Nacho, Margarita, her sister, and I arrived at the school about 10:30am and spoke with the director for awhile and then went for our presentation. When we arrived, I thought we’d be meeting with both high school and junior high kids, about 60-70 students. I was a little worried that that might be too big a group, but for whatever reason, we ended up with only the high school students, about 40 students. A good size.

Nacho kicked off the presentation, introducing us, telling a little about Macuil and the language. Then I was onstage. At first, I told them a little bit about the language diversity of Oaxaca and why we might be interested in preserving the languages of Oaxaca (and the world). I always worries such arguments alone aren’t very convincing and I didn’t want to bore them with a lecture, so I quickly moved on to the fun stuff: analyzing the language (although before I did, they did at least ask some questions about how I had gotten involved working on Zapotec and how I had met my wife–something I should post on one of these days).

For the analysis, I started with a few simple words, with Margarita providing the speech, like ‘face’ loo and iccha ‘head’. For the last one, I solicited input for how it should be spelled. The consensus seemed to be icha, which is a very reasonable suggestion, but one student did suggest itcha. I surmised that the <t> might be a reflection of the fact that the <ch> is long in this word, a fact we capture with the <cch> spelling. We spent a little time comparing iccha to Naachu, which doesn’t have a long <ch> sound. We then picked up the word ‘hand’ naa’. I had a volunteer come up and write the word and that gave us a chance to discuss the final glottal stop at the end, represented in the orthography by an apostrophe.

I then asked them for more words to elicit, and someone suggested ‘eye’ (Good! I was hoping I could lead them in to more body part terms). That is iyyaloo. I told them we were looking for patterns and asked if it looked like anything else we already had. They picked up on the connection to ‘face’ and so we asked what iyya might mean. It turns out to be the word for ‘stone’, so in Zapotec, your eyes are literally your face rocks.

Someone asked for the word for ‘dog’ beccu’, which here and throughout, I had a volunteer to come up and spell. Again, the itcha student suggested it might be betcu’, and I wondered if it still might be the long consonant he was hearing (though with a [k] sound, this seems more surprising than with a <ch> sound).

We followed this up by pluralizing the words we had so far, giving ca loo ‘faces’ and ca iccha ‘heads’. The students easily identified ca as the plural marker and successfully extended its use to the other nouns we had. We then compared plural formation in Zapotec to that of English and Spanish. In the former, the plural marker precedes the noun (it is in fact a proclitic rather than a prefix, although I didn’t mention that to the students) versus the European languages which pluralize by means of suffixation.

The students then asked for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, padiuyhi and gweesabariu’, which is something close to ‘until we meet again’.  I was impressed with the volunteers who came up to write these words, getting very good representations of the sounds up on the board.  It was unsurprising to see them use <sh> to represent the MacZ sound that is similar to English <sh> rather than an <x>, which was traditionally used in colonial documents, and is still found in some place names, though it frequently represents a different sound in modern pronunciations.

We also got the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, o’o and abii.  Margarita’s pronunciation of the ‘yes’ word had a clear glottal stop in it, not something I always hear with this word.   The ‘no’  word, the student volunteer chose to write as avi.  The letters <b> and <v> are homophonous in (Mexican) Spanish, so I am curious in a novel spelling like this, which someone might choose.  The letter <v> turns up a lot, and I wonder if it might have been a better choice for MacZ.  We mainly picked <b> following the tradition of the Atepec dictionary.  I wonder why they chose that letter?

Another student asked how to say ‘love’, which as a word by itself is kind of strange in MacZ, so Margarita volunteered a sentence: arcasi’ite’lu’ ‘I love you.’  This was perfect since it could lead us in to analyzing sentences.  We then asked for arcasi’itena ‘I love him’, allowing the students to figure out that =lu’ is ‘you’ while =na is ‘him’, or as we discovered with our next sentence, ‘her’, since MacZ does not have gender distinctions in the pronouns, unlike both English and Spanish.  The sentence ‘I love them’ arcasi’itecana allowed us to see the plural ca in use before the =na pronoun, so ca+na is ‘plural him/her’, which equals them.  A sentence like ‘you love him’ arcasi’inlu’na allowed us to see =lu’ as a subject pronoun ‘you’ as well and to determine that =te’ must have been the ‘I’ subject in our earlier sentences.  (It should be noted that ‘I’ takes the form =ya’ with most verbs, and we should also worry about that intrusive n showing up in ‘You love him.’–it’s an incorporated preposition which also causes the unique form of ‘I’ in these sentences.)  I mentioned that the words (really morphemes) follow a Verb Subject Object (love I you) pattern in the language.  This is different than English’s SVO (I love you), and is not so common in the world, but is common in Mesoamerican languages.

We then looked at tense inflection for our example sentence.  I asked Margarita how to say ‘I loved him’, meaning I did so in the past, but probably not any longer.  This took a little while for her to figure out (out of context, it’s an odd sentence) with consultation from Nacho and her sister, and while she was figuring it out a student volunteered avi arcasi’ite’na. Fantastic!  That’s literally ‘I don’t love him/her’ but it showed that the students had gotten into what we were doing and I was impressed with his creativity and bravery.  He ventured a guess at a sentence and came up with something grammatical.  Nice!

Margarita eventually came up with the way to say what I was after: uccwasi’ite’na ‘I loved him.’  And then we got the future form accasi’ite’na ‘I will love him’.  This allowed us to see that the verb root is -asi’i (or probably just -si’i, the a is probably part of the prefix) and that verbs in Zapotec inflect for tense not with the use of suffixes but with prefixes.

After that, we had a little time to wrap-up.  I told them about the dictionary project I am currently working on and invited them to participate if they’d like.  Margarita’s sister then gave final closing remarks discussing the languages of Oaxaca, different varieties of Zapotec, and the importance of the language.

The students seemed to enjoy it.  Several came up afterwards and said a little bit to us and a couple of girls hung around for awhile afterwards chatting with Margarita’s sister, who at one point even sang a little song in MacZ, something I didn’t know existed!  I will definitely have to get a recording of it.

It was really a great experience.  I hope we get to go back and do it again.


Waiting for Nachot

Friday, January 23, 2009

We have successfully completed the first of our many tasks for today: picking up Nacho from the airport. He came in today on a new flight Mexicana is offering, an overnight direct flight from LAX to Oaxaca. A direct flight between the two sounds like a great idea and seems long overdue, though I did see some of the hitches in the plan this morning.

I haven’t yet been on this flight (and overnight makes it sound less appealing to me), but I do like the direct flight from Houston to Oaxaca via Continental Express. Either flight lets you skip the Mexico City airport, which is a big plus in my book. I hate how generally when you are getting a connecting flight at Mexico City, they just put you in a big holding room, and announce the gate for your flight about 30 minutes before you are supposed to take off. The holding area is crowded and uncomfortable, even though there is plenty of seating in the gate areas. Then, you have to make a mad, last-minute scramble to your connecting gate, sometimes running into the previous passengers trying to deboard. It’s a mess and I can’t understand why they can’t figure out the gate assignments at least a few hours in advance, if not at the outset of the day.

Unfortunately, the Mexicana direct flight has its problems, too, mainly getting through immigration, which in Oaxaca seems to consist of only 2 immigration officials. For the Continental flights it’s not too bad, because they’re small planes, only 3 seats to a row. So, while it can be slow getting through immigration, it’s not unbearable. But the Mexicana flights are much bigger, 6 seats to a row, but still only two immigration officials.

We ended up waiting on Nacho for over an hour; his plane landed at 6:22am, but it was after 7:30am when he finally emerged. (Of course, adding insult to injury he actually got the red light at customs, meaning a customs officer gave his bags a cursory search.)

It does look like they are working on renovating the Oaxaca airport. Hopefully, they will expand its immigration area so they can have more officers working the incoming flights to speed things up.

I still think I like the Oaxaca airport better than the Mexico City one.


Calm before the Storm

Friday, January 23, 2009

Today is shaping up to be a rather hectic day.

My friend Nacho is coming back to Oaxaca for about a week.  He’s arriving at 6 in the morning and I am part of the delegation that’s going to pick him up.   Then at 10:30, he and I along with Margarita and her sister are supposed to be visiting  a school where Nacho’s cousin teaches.  There, we are going to be making a presentation to a group of 65-70 junior high and high school students about Zapotec and indigenous languages.  Nacho’s cousin had mentioned to the director about being from the Sierra and apparently he’s enthusiastic about the area and interested in languages and wanted her to do something on it.  She called Nacho who told her we were still around and voila, a presentation has come together.  I’m excited and hope the students will enjoy it.

Then, after all that, we are heading up to Macuil, because this coming 25th is San Pablo Day, the patron saint of Macuil.  So, there’s going to be a big celebration starting with a calenda today that Margarita hopes to make it to, so Benjamin can be in it.

So, considering the day that lies ahead (and since it’s only just begun) I better head to bed for a little bit of sleep.  Hopefully, everything will go off without a hitch and I can write up the latest adventure when I get back.


Citizen Benjamin

Friday, January 23, 2009

Well, Benjamin became a Mexican citizen today.  Actually, I guess he officially became a Mexican citizen on Monday when the government finished his inserción document, which is basically a Mexican birth certificate for those who weren’t actually born here.  But today it seemed more real, because we got his Mexican passport.

In theory, citizens can get a passport in one day here; it’s standard procedure, you don’t even have to pay extra for expedited service.  In practice, it may take a little longer to make sure you have all of the documents you need plus various photocopies of these and other documents, especially when you’re dealing with a minor since you need the mother’s documents, the father’s documents, and the child’s documents.  In the end, it took us about four trips to the passport office (with several more trips to various other agencies to get his citizenship established):  an initial fact finding trip in October, two trips yesterday, and finally, success today, although Margarita still had to run to the shop next door a couple of times to make some more photocopies.  But at last, we had everything turned in just after 1pm and by 3 we had his passport.

And there it was:  Nacionalidad:  Mexicana.  So, just like that he’s a Mexican citizen.