Faculty Project Documents Indigenous Chatino Language in Oaxaca

Monday, November 2, 2015

For Assistant Professor Emiliana Cruz, walks in the countryside near her hometown of San Juan Quiahije, Oaxaca, Mexico are more than just opportunities to reminisce on past and present with friends and family. As part of the Chatino Language Documentation Project (CLDP), she has been documenting the language of her community through multimedia research using interviews and ethnographic “hiking narratives”.


With funding from the National Science Foundation (FN-50126-14), Cruz’s current project - “Language and Landscape in Chatino” - seeks to “produce the first systematic analysis of place names in the Chatino language of San Juan Quiahije, Oaxaca, Mexico (http://blogs.umass.edu/cruz/current-projects/). She hopes to understand how knowledge of the extensive communal lexicon surrounding physical pathways, environmental landscapes, plants, and ceremonial spaces is articulated, as well as tease out factors affecting the loss of such knowledge among newer generations.


“Older generations used words to navigate the landscape,” says Cruz. But, with the growing economic appeal of the city and increased usage of paved roadways, knowledge of the numerous place names and ceremonial sites and trails was not always passed on to newer generations. Early in her doctoral research, she realized this was a world she did not have knowledge about either, despite frequent visits to family and friends in the area throughout her childhood and young adulthood. Having already embarked on the project of language documentation, she began to focus her research on the narratives held within the land.


With the help of a team of local participants, Cruz has spent her summers in Oaxaca participating in walking interviews with both elders and youth throughout the countryside, documenting environmental knowledge and placenames illuminated during the course of each hike. She has recorded audio, photographic, visual, and GIS data during each outing, to be amassed into the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA). She hopes to cover the entire region with the help of community hikers.


“I think it is important to document these words,” says Cruz. “Lifestyles are clearly changing and even if [young people] weren’t going to hike anymore, they can see their land through these narratives.”


Cruz has developed many other projects within the CLDP, including a study of how hiking narratives show the community’s conceptions of its borders and ideas of land ownership, topics put into contention by the large portion of the population that has spent time in the United States. She is also working, in an ongoing partnership with the local land authority, to found an ecological school that will focus on teaching traditional ideas of citizenship and respectful stewardship of the environment.


“Home is the most important thing,” says Cruz. For both her and the Chatino community, documenting the language of home will be just the first step in promoting cultural knowledge for generations to come.


Emiliana Cruz is Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and is interested in language, landscape, and the documentation and preservation of languages now approaching extinction. She can be reached by email at cruz@anthro.umass.edu, or at her office hours in 210 Machmer, from 10am - 12pm every Wednesday.