Thursday, June 7, 2012
Gloria Moreno walks with a slight limp under the weight of the black messenger bag slung over her shoulder. It holds something of a botanical encyclopedia, petals and leaves gathered from the streets of Greenfield, which Moreno says help alleviate any number of ailments – pain, anxiety, weak bones.
Moreno says her collection is part of a medical tradition she began practicing as a teenager in Mexico. It was there, at 15, that she says she was instructed in a dream to take up herbal medicine.
Moreno dreamt her directive in Triqui de la baja, an indigenous language of the Copala region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
As native Triqui speakers disperse, leaving behind a notoriously violent region, there’s pressure both to preserve that language, and to leave it behind.
Of an estimated 40,000 Triqui speakers worldwide, about half of them are thought to have migrated away from Oaxaca, and as many as 10 percent live in the Salinas Valley.
That density made Greenfield a destination for Javier López Sánchez, director of Mexico’s National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI), on his U.S. tour last fall. Himself a native Tzeltal Maya speaker, López is developing a directory of indigenous languages, which he hopes will parlay into better translation resources.
Courts and hospitals seek interpreters with a technical Triqui vocabulary. Blanca Zarazúa, honorary consul for Mexico in Salinas, says tracking down translators is something of an art: “We go into guerrilla tactics. It’s not like everyone’s on South Main and we’re just like, ‘Can you come over?’”
Even as institutions scramble to provide translation services, linguists and missionaries who are leading the charge to formalize Triqui worry about the language merely surviving.
Over the course of a 50-year career with Summer Institute of Linguistics, a faith-based nonprofit that supports Bible translation, Barbara Hollenbach says she’s watched minority languages die out completely.
Losing the language wouldn’t mean the end of the world, but it would mean the loss of part of it – and might mark a small landmark on the way to a world where everyone speaks Chinese. It would make traditionalists like Moreno seem more anachronistic than ever. “Without [Triqui], we lose ourselves,” Moreno says. “It’s like putting out a light.”
Triqui, spoken in short choppy syllables, connected by breathy pauses, relies on subtlety. Intone “ne” 13 different ways and you get 13 different words ranging from nap to small child to meat.
There’s no Triqui word for law or school – institutions that existed only once the Spaniards introduced them.
Experts acknowledge the ancient Mayan tongue, like all languages, has always been evolving. But as Hollenbach finalizes a Triqui-Spanish dictionary with 6,000 entries, she worries the dictionary itself will become an artifact.
“Having a dictionary will give the language some more prestige and maybe help it to be preserved,” she says, “but they’ll preserve it in the sense a museum specimen preserves some outmoded artisan product, like a woven basket.
“The only way to keep a language alive is oral transmission between generations,” she adds.
Moreno hopes for a generation of trilingual children, but many younger Triqui speakers are encouraged to trade their native tongue for English or Spanish, says a Salinas-based interpreter (who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal), because indigenous Mexicans are viewed as inferior. He trekked two hours to school from his childhood home in Oaxaca where he says he was bullied for being different.
“Because of the discrimination, parents don’t want their kids to learn [Triqui],” he says, “but then we lose tradition and culture.”
To reverse that, he hopes to get a grant or some cash to revive a bimonthly Triqui class piloted at the Greenfield Public Library two years ago. It drew about 35 students; of those, only a quarter were native speakers. The rest, mostly service providers, were there to learn Triqui.
“To speak Spanish, I used to think you had more value,” he says. “When I came here, I learned it is not that way. If you know three or four languages, you can explore and learn more.”
View Barbara Hollenbach’s Spanish-Triqui dictionary at www.sil.org/~hollenbachb/Posted.htm