On a rainy winter evening, seventy people jammed into a Seattle recording studio to listen to poetry by Irma Pineda, who had traveled from her hometown of Juchitán, Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. She writes in Isthmus Zapotec, the mother tongue of several people in the audience that night — immigrants from Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec who were anxious to hear the sounds of home. Most others in the audience had never heard Zapotec before, much less listened to its literature. Pineda’s traditional, formal dress had filled most of her suitcase: a cropped black-velvet tunic embroidered with fuchsias, calla lilies, and purple irises, and a matching floor-length skirt. The embroidery and her gold-filigree jewelry glowed against the gray curtains covering the studio walls.
The program began with Isthmus dancers winding their way through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that spilled into the hallway of Jack Straw Cultural Center, which is both a recording studio and a community audio arts center. They danced to a high-spirited guitar-and-marimba son, music deeply rooted in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Juan Carlos Sérbulo, an acoustic guitarist from the Isthmus who lives in Seattle, had composed six songs inspired by Pineda’s poems especially for the event.
Isthmus Zapotec has one hundred thousand speakers, but the language may fall silent this century. Fewer and fewer children speak it fluently, as televisions, radios, and internet cafés in Oaxaca relentlessly bleat Spanish, and sometimes even English. Zapotec shares its grim fate with approximately thirty-five hundred other languages worldwide. While about 7 percent of the planet’s known plant and animal species are in danger of extinction, 50 percent of the world’s languages are similarly endangered. That is to say, half of our global repository for recording human experience, naming the world around us, and understanding our place in the ecosphere might soon be lost to us.
Zapotec remains the dominant language in Juchitán’s five-hundred-year-old central market, where horse-drawn carriages carry local flowers, fruit, and fish, but at the edge of town, employees at Bodega Aurrera (a Walmart-owned Mexican chain) and Burger King address customers only in Spanish. Pineda, who writes in Zapotec and then creates what she calls “parallel poems” in Spanish, strives to change this situation. She is not alone. Juchitán is an epicenter in the geography of indigenous-language literature. Within one hundred miles of Pineda’s hometown, indigenous writers perform and publish fiction, poetry, and drama in more than a dozen languages, including Zapotec, Mazatec, Tzotzil, and Zoque. As much of the world bends toward the blandly global, the specificity of these languages insists on the local. Zapotec’s dialects are so diverse that Pineda might have trouble understanding other Zapotec speakers who grew up just sixty miles from Juchitán.
Most Zapotecs, educated entirely in Spanish, can’t read or write their native language, even though it has the longest written history in the Western Hemisphere. Zapotecs invented a glyph writing system around 600 BCE — one of the few times that writing was invented, rather than adopted, in the New World. That glyph system died a millennium ago; archaeologists and linguists are still unraveling its mysteries. In the 1890s, Isthmus Zapotecs began to write their language once again, using a transliterated Latinate alphabet, but for most Zapotecs, their language remains primarily oral. For this reason, Pineda, who has published six books of poetry, considers performance an essential aspect of her creative work.
There is a saying in Juchitán: “Xtiidxanu’ hruzá’ xquendabiaaninu‘” (“Our language molds the gift of our thoughts”). Stories are preserved, history is contained, and worldviews are shaped through the simple act of using Zapotec. The specific words of poems, stories, songs, and jokes transmit culture, history, and ways of expressing place and landscape from one generation to the next. Among translators there is a truism that no precise equivalencies exist between languages; it’s simply not possible to convey in Spanish all the meaning contained in a Zapotec poem or story.
PINEDA BEGAN THE EVENING by reading “Biuuza‘ / The Guest,” while the marimba player and Sérbulo performed. The music had an easy rhythm that recalled a swinging hammock, as Pineda read poems she had written while pregnant with her son. That poem and her next, “Ti lari huiini’ ziña’ / A Red Belt,” tell of birth preparations: a mother tucks garlic into the corners of her home; weaves a frangipani garland for her child and “threads her heart onto it”; and ties a red rope around her waist to “warn the old north wind” of her pregnancy, so he might protect her.
Pineda’s poems weave universal themes of birthplace, homeplace, and the human connection to the natural world. Two other poems, which she performed to music matching the rising and falling tones of Zapotec, are part of a series that describes choosing a clay pot for her child’s doo yoo. This “cord-house,” holding the baby’s umbilical cord and placenta, is buried on the family’s land, physically connecting person and place. Isthmus Zapotecs speak metaphorically about “home” as doo yoo: both the specific site of their buried cord-house and the broader landscape to which they are intrinsically tied. Pineda says of doo yoo, “This tradition happens less and less often. We’re becoming less and less connected to the earth.” She writes in another poem about the doo yoo:
The clay vessel is wide and cool
so your soul might rest
protected by the land of your grandparents
the land bathed with their sweat
the land blessed with their labor
In the Zapotec version of this stanza, Pineda uses the word guenda, which exemplifies the Zapotec connection to the earth. The word appears frequently in Pineda’s poems and resists straightforward translation. She translates it into Spanish most often as “soul,” but also as “totem animal,” “spirit,” “guardian,” and “gift.” In Pineda’s poems, these gifts include a woman’s brilliant gaze, one’s whole life, a child’s smile, and the darkness in the eyes of the dead. Talent — say, for writing poetry — is also a guenda, as is taking on an important community responsibility such as being elected town mayor. “Guenda is also our parallel being in this life,” Pineda says. “This parallel being journeys with you through life. If something bad happens to your guenda, you will be hurt, as well.”
IN ONE OF THE FINAL poems Pineda presented, “Ti guiichi / Thorn,” the poet speaks of the connection to home and Zapotec tradition as a thorn buried deep in one’s flesh, both painful and permanent. The poem returns to the image of the cord-house, when a migrant speaks of homesickness, yearning for:
this same earth
that cloaks the clay pot
house of my birth-cord
the earth that sustains my lifeline
After the performance, several Zapotec immigrants approached Pineda, telling her how much it meant to hear their native language in her “luminous voice,” in a city so far from home.
“I create poetry as a way to keep collective memory of my culture alive and to reflect on what is happening to our culture. When I say ‘our culture,’ of course I’m also referring to the earth, to the sea,” Pineda says.
She says of the doo yoo and other Zapotec traditions, “Perhaps these things are going to be lost, but at least people will know how we once did things.” As Pineda shares her gifts — her language and her art — with us, she composes poems against forgetting, inviting us all to listen, to remember.