One World, Many Voices

Language Communities

Isthmus Zapotec: Language, Memory, and Identity

Our language is a red macaw that descended from the sky carrying the umbilical cord that ties our soul to the clouds. This is where our identity lives. This is where our memories reside. I endeavor to protect our language, so that the soul of our people may endure, so that our children will continue to sing the words our elders have sung for centuries: may the language of the clouds live on.
— Víctor Cata, Isthmus Zapotec speaker, Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, Mexico

The Zapotec language family of Oaxaca and Veracruz, Mexico, comprises a large number of distinct indigenous languages that can be traced back some fifteen hundred years. Speakers of Isthmus Zapotec from Juchitán de Zaragoza in Oaxaca, Mexico, are involved in language maintenance as writers, poets, musicians, and knowledge bearers. Many take part in Saa sti ca binniza, an evening celebration in honor of Zapotec and Catholic deities, which is vital to social life and interaction. The celebration includes the adornment of female participants, special food preparations, decoration of the church, and traditional music. In this celebration, language is critical in fostering cooperation and enabling the transmission of knowledge across generations. Although it is a vibrant celebration, the Saa sti ca binniza represents one of a shrinking number of contexts in which Isthmus Zapotec is used today.

This presentation was made possible by Dirección de Salvaguarda del Patrimonio Cultural del Gobierno de Oaxaca, the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Recovering Voices Initiative, and the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas.


Festival Participants:

Rosaura López Cartas, artisan tortilla maker, knowledge bearer
Víctor Cata, writer, language activist
Reyna López López, field researcher
Natalia López de Paz, writer, language activist
Velma Orozco Trujillo, expert cook, knowledge bearer
Martín Fabian Peña Santos, musician
Vicente Guerra López, musician
Gerardo Valdivieso Parada