Archive for the ‘Chinantec’ Category


Chinantec Country

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Internet is still unavailable at the library, so my quest for the Internet continues.  Today, it takes me for the first time into Chinantec country.

As you travel north-northeast from Oaxaca City towards Tuxtepec, you start out in Zapotec speaking areas, before you cross over into areas where people speak Chinantec [Xtiisa’ Xiida].  Macuil is right on that border, the last Zapotec speaking town before entering into Chinantec areas.

It is hypothesized that the Zapotec and Chinantec languages are ultimately related to one another.  They are part of a large stock of languages called Otomanguean, which includes the Mixtecan languages and several other, smaller groups.  This group has a similar time depth to Indo-European and Zapotec and Chinantec are quite distant relatives within the group.  So, pointing out that MacZ and Comaltepec Chinantec spoken in the next town over are ultimately related is interesting, but the relationship is not at all obvious.  It’s like noting that English and Farsi or Spanish and Hindi are related.  You would probably never notice it in passing.

I have long wanted to visit these Chinantec speaking neighbors of Macuil and see what the similarities and differences might be.  So, when Margarita’s uncle said he had business to conduct in San Pedro Yolox [Ta’gwe] the next town after Santiago Comaltepec [Elli’a] and that they had working Internet access, I jumped at the chance.

We followed the dirt road out of Macuil, traveling through some pretty country, as generally seems to be the case around here.  We had to drive through two rivers to get to Yolox and there was a pretty little waterfall right before we entered the town.  As we went, Chinantec towns started coming into view on the mountains opposite us.  As such, we saw the towns in the reverse order that we would go through them.  First, we could see Rosario Temextitlan, the town beyond Yolox that we didn’t go to.  Then we could see Yolox and finally Comaltepec, which we arrived in first.

In Comaltepec, I found that things don’t look all that different in Chinantec speaking towns of the Sierra versus Zapotec speaking towns in the Sierra.  There was nothing obvious that would give the town away as Chinantec speaking, until someone actually opened their mouth.  The buildings and architecture looked the same.

I thought people might dress differently, but they didn’t.  In the Tlacolula Valley, for example, traditional Zapotec dress, at least of women, is quite different than that of Macuil, and there are even striking differences between towns.  In one town, they wore skirts held on with red belts decorated with pompoms, while in a neighboring town they wore brightly colored silk (or silk-like) blouses and skirts.  The few traditionally dressed women I saw in the Chinantec areas wear the same thing as traditional Macuil garb (which in both cases seemed to be found mostly with women over 70):  a one piece dress a little below knee length, an apron, and a rebozo wrapped around the hair or head.  In both areas, younger women, maybe in their 50s and 60s, typically forego the dress in favor of pants and sometimes lose the rebozo as well.  And below that, the women mostly seem to wear contemporary Western dress.

So, my first impression at least is that the language differences didn’t seem to represent much of a cultural divide.  Although the groups don’t share a traditional language, they do share many other cultural similarities.  This recalls the Siete Regiones (7 Regions) of Oaxaca that are often discussed:  La Sierra, Papaloapan, Istmo, La Cañada, La Valle, La Mixteca, and La Costa.  As such, maybe groups within these regions share more features based on their proximity and similar environments than they do with groups in other regions.  So, it may be that the Chinantecs and Zapotecs of the Sierra are culturally more similar to one another than either are to Zapotecs of the Valley or Chinantecs of the Valle Nacional area, which is lower in elevation and hotter and more humid.

There was one difference I noted, though it was one I expected based on having seen Chinantec kids in Macuil, who go there to attend the secundaria.  As I sat there at the Internet place, the kids who were there using the other computers were all speaking Chinantec among themselves.  In Macuil, that is just not something you find.  There may be quite a bit of passive knowledge, but you just don’t hear kids spontaneously speaking Zapotec, not to their peers, and not even to their elders really.

As for the Internet access, I finally got something decent.  The business had its own satellite dish and was running about 4 computers with it.  The speeds were not as fast as I’ve seen in Oaxaca City with DSL—a kid next to me was trying to play YouTube videos, but they would play a second or two and then pause—but it was respectable.  I spent much of the time investigating what my options might be for Internet access in Macuil.  While Sky does offer satellite Internet access in other countries apparently, it doesn’t look like they do in Mexico, which is too bad with all the Sky dishes I have seen here.  There is satellite access via Satélite Uno, which runs equipment from Hughesnet, a company operating in the US.  This seemed to be what they were running in Yolox.  The problem is that it is a bit expensive, but also, thinking back on it, this seemed to be what they had at the secundaria in Macuil.  They had the same router in both places, but at the secundaria it was much slower.  So, I might be willing to sink the money into the satellite dish for some highspeed-ish Internet access, but I need to know it will work.

One final observation:  as we left after dark, I was amazed to see the vertical spread of Yolox.  With the street lights on, it was easy to see where the town began and ended, but the climb from the lowest light on the mountain to the highest one must be immense.  Several hundred feet difference in elevation?  I don’t know, but it seemed much greater than Macuil’s and more than Abejones’ [Eyhu’ni], another Zapotec town which can be seen off in the distance from Macuil.  The lights of Yolox did form a pretty pattern, though.  They were spread out like a bell, widening out as you went down the mountain, with a nice crossbar-like shape towards the top.