On the Road in Mexico: Saving Mexico's Most Endangered Language Spoken by Only 2 People

Recently I learned of a Mexican language that is reportedly spoken by just two people. It came up on a Google website that maps the world's endangered languages.

The language is listed as Ayapanec-Zoque by the Google site. Under a box called "additional comments," there is a brief note that says that the only 2 speakers do not like each other, and "do not talk with one another."

Tragic stuff, I thought. And so surreal that it could easily be a chapter in Le Petit Prince. But is it really true? I decided this story was too interesting to miss out on. So, as I made my way through southern Mexico, I set some time aside to look for the last speakers of Ayapanec.

Finding them was relatively easy, as they live in Ayapa, a small village that is just 30 miles away from Villahermosa, the largest city and capital of Tabasco state.

Knowing whether these gentlemen would speak to me was another matter: I had been warned by Mexican officials that these men, both in their 70s, were tired of talking to outsiders who took information from them, made promises to help them out, and often, did not deliver.

But their village was so close to Villahermosa that I had little to lose if they slammed a door at my face. So I headed to Ayapa in a collective taxi, and with directions from the locals I quickly found the home of Ayapanec speaker Manuel Segovia, who is known locally as Don Manuel.

Don Manuel's home is made of grey cinder blocks. Its lack of paint and its tin roof indicated that this was a rather poor household.

The door was closed, but a window was half open, and I saw a middle aged woman walking around the living room. "Is Manuel Segovia in?" I asked.

"Just a moment" she said, heading towards the houses rear entrance.

In no time, Segovia, who is 75, emerged from the backyard. He had a serious demeanor but wore no shirt, as he had been shoveling some sand that he was going to use to make cement.

"Dígame," he said.

To gain Don Manuel's trust, I explained that I was "a friend" of Javier Lopez, the director of Mexico's National Institute for Indigenous Languages.

Lopez and some of his staff, had visited Don Manuel, and Don Isidro Velazquez, the other confirmed Ayapanec speaker, two days before I showed up at Don Manuel's door.

Surprisingly, Don Manuel offered no resistance to my presence there. He was easy going and laughed throughout our conversation.

"Some students came yesterday," was one of the first things he said. "We also had a group from the Basque country," his female friend added.

Pictures that Don Manuel had taken with linguists from Germany and the US over the past two decades, hung on his otherwise bare living room wall. After some small talk, I fired the question that had brought me to this humble home.

"What do you think about what they're saying in the papers?" I said mentioning some articles that repeated the information on Google's endangered languages site. "Are you fighting with Don Isidro?" I asked.

"It's not true. I have no problems with him." Don Manuel said, in Spanish. "The truth is that people are selfish here. They think that foreigners are coming here to give us money, so they make up stories like that one, to bring us down," Segovia said.

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