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

Lopez is starting to work on a series of projects with Don Isidro and Don Manuel, which include the creation of Ayapanec grammar books, and publishing traditional stories in that tongue. INALI recently put together an Ayapanec dictionary, and plans to organize a language festival in the village of Ayapa.

The festival Lopez explained, would bring indigenous poets, musicians and story tellers to the small village, where they would perform in several indigenous tongues.

"We want the town to see that what they speak there [an indigenous language] is also spoken by others," Lopez said. "We have to get indigenous and non indigenous people interested in the value of diversity."

I asked Lopez why he thought it was so important to preserve indigenous languages, and got quite a complex argument from him.

"We don't only preserve languages because they sound pretty," he said. "When a language is lost, you lose a way of relating to one another, a way of life, the vision of life itself is diminished."

"Can you give me an example from your language," I asked, trying to understand his argument with more clarity.

"One example is how we conceive the role of a teacher," Lopez said.

"In Tzeltal we say Nop-tez-va-neh….ask me to translate that (in one word) and it means teacher. But what it really means is 'He who gets you closer to knowledge.'" Lopez said.

There are subtle differences between the Tzeltal and Western concepts of a teacher. "It's not the one who has knowledge and must share it, as in the West," Lopez explained, "But he who knows more because he was born first, and helps someone else to get closer to the truth."

Lopez had plenty of examples of how languages reflected different ways of relating to each other and different ways of seeing the world.

He spoke of how the Inuit had dozens of words for the color white, that reflected different variations of that color, and talked about how indigenous people in Mexico had words for colors that had no translation into the Spanish language.

He also argued that language was a human right, and claimed that by restoring indigenous tongues, he was helping their speakers to regain their dignity.

"As a linguist, I am aware that it is natural for some languages to get weaker, and others to get stronger," Lopez said. "But the problem is that many disappear due to the imposition and dominance of some [groups of people] over others."

During our conversation, Lopez revealed some good news about Ayapanec. He said that in his recent visit to the village of Ayapa, Don Isidro had told him that he had four brothers who also spoke the indigenous tongue. Confirming such claims, would triple the number of known Ayapanec speakers, from two, to a grand total of six.

Lopez also said that in the last national census, 21 people across Mexico identified themselves as belonging to the Ayapanec ethnic group. They live in far away places like Sonora, and Mexico City. But some of them could potentially speak the language as well.

Nevertheless, Lopez acknowledged that Ayapanec is still Mexico's most threatened indigenous language. With its known speakers approaching the end of their lives, those who want to save this tongue are in a race against time.

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