zapotec language i love you
Isthmus Zapotec Poetry
In 2007, one of my Seattle neighbors asked me to translate the poem “Bedandá dxí di’ naa / Me llegó este día,” written by a poet who lived close to his southern Mexican hometown. “I Was Given This Day,” by Irma Pineda, speaks of missing one’s own language when far from home. Pineda wrote the poem while working in Mexico City, far from her hometown of Juchitán, in the Mexican Isthmus, evoking her hometown’s sounds and scents. The sound of Isthmus Zapotec, spoken by a lifelong friend in her capital city apartment, soothes her. The poem’s final sound is rooted in both time and place: “my grandfather’s stories embroidered / on the wide skirt of the afternoon.” Migration inspired this poem that I learned about because of migration.
In 2017, after a decade of translating Irma Pineda’s poems into English, I co-created a half-hour radio documentary featuring her work, with audio producer Karen Werner.1 (Listen to the 28-minute radio feature here.) We borrowed our title, “You Will Not See Me Die,” from one of Irma Pineda’s best-known poems, which is about Zapotec language and its literature. (Read the poem in all three languages here.) Karen and I spent two weeks in Oaxaca interviewing and gathering audio, intending to focus on the interplay between poetry and hip hop. When the program aired nine months later, we had done that, but we also had a story about migration and language loss. About rupture and survivance. About a hip hop song that begins:
Lengua zapoteca, nunca morirás / no aguanto escuchar que algún día partirás / y que nunca volverás / porque tú eres mi lucero / En cada despertar diidxazá, diidxazá diidxagunibinnizaa / diidxazá nunca morirás / Siempre en mi lengua, te quedarás / no te morirás, eso no sucederá jamás
Here is an English crib:
Zapotec language, you will never die / I can’t bear to hear that one day you will be gone / and won’t ever come back / because you are my guiding light / every day I wake up and it’s Zapotec, Zapotec language of my ancestors / Zapotec you will never die / you will always live on my tongue / You won’t die; that can’t happen.
Zapotec is believed to have been the first written language in the Americas, with a glyph system more than 2,500 years old.2 The Zapotec language family currently has approximately 450,000 speakers; Isthmus Zapotec, about 75,000. All the Zapotec languages are in danger of extinction. Irma Pineda’s bilingual poetry continues the long tradition of Isthmus Zapotec literature. Born in 1974 in Juchitán, Irma moved to central Mexico—Toluca and later Mexico City—as a teenager, to study and work. She began writing poetry during those years living far from home. She has since published a dozen books.
Irma Pineda: One day on Facebook someone said to me, “I didn’t know you did rap, Irma,” and I said, “I don’t do rap!” And he said, “Yes, you do rap. Look at this video of you doing rap.” And so he sent me a video, in which my poem “You Will Not See Me Die” appears, in both Spanish and in Zapotec, but combined with the song composed by Toño MC. He had done a sample of my poetry, with a song, and the rhythms of rap. And when I saw this video and heard what he had done, the truth is I liked it a lot. The video shows the people of the community, the village streets, the graffiti, and many other things that are important elements of the culture. Along with trees and nature. I thought how interesting…3
Hip hop is wildly popular in Mexico, especially among Indigenous teenagers and young adults who are writing and rapping very consciously in their home languages—rather than Spanish—to keep their languages alive: in their communities, in their minds, and on their tongues. They do this even when their personal knowledge of their home language is limited.
When we met Toño MC (aka Antonio López López) in 2017, he was a 19-year-old hip hop artist who lives in the small town of Chicapa de Castro, fifteen miles east of Juchitán. The poem he sampled, “Quí zúuyu naa gáte / No Me Verás Morir” (“You Will Not See Me Die”), is one of Irma Pineda’s best-known poems.4
Toño MC: This song has made me well known. It’s not all because of me; I really need to thank her [Irma Pineda]. I started recording with my friends. Nothing serious, just playing around to impress our girlfriends. A bunch of us crammed in my room. My mom didn’t like having so many teens at her house… I would just write and write, just get into the flow. I didn’t even have a computer. When I finally got a computer, I recorded all my written songs… I put it on YouTube and shared it on Facebook. It was people here in town who listened first and bought my CDs. So I had money from selling the CDs and that allowed me to build a sound cabin out of Styrofoam and egg cartons. And then a high-quality mic to make the sound clear. But then my parents made me take out the sound cabin. I wasn’t behaving very well.
Although she didn’t want Toño recording hip hop at home, his mother told Karen Werner and me that she was glad her son was singing and making music. She wants him to continue working in both languages, but especially in their language, “because the emotion comes across more in Zapotec,” she says.
Toño discovered Irma’s poetry from a video of her reading on YouTube—even though he lives only fifteen miles from Juchitán, where she’s a prominent public figure. Irma, in turn, discovered that her poem had been used in Toño’s rap from a friend’s Facebook message. Toño explains: “I was at my grandparents’ house because there’s internet there. I was looking for tracks to make into songs.” He came upon Irma Pineda’s YouTube channel and listened to “No Me Verás Morir.” “It was a really isthmus sound,” he says of the rhythm. The six-syllable line of the title / refrain was central to the poem’s creation. Irma says she had the line “No me verás morir” in her head for years before the full poem was born. Toño listened to Irma’s poem in both Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec several times. “I thought to myself, I could put this on a bassline and make a mixdown.”
Toño MC: I’m just a guy who’s trying to make something work. And it’s going well. It’s quality. Homemade, underground quality… [My grandfather] says my music is a different genre. Older people don’t listen to it… People his age have other music, like rancheros. He thinks it’s gratifying because what I’m doing is in fashion. Even if older people don’t like it, it’s important because of the language. And other people have told him it’s good music.
Toño, who is Spanish-dominant, was inspired by the poetry of someone a generation older than him. Irma Pineda is part of the only truly bilingual generation in Juchitán. The generation of Irma’s mother (and Toño’s grandfather) is more comfortable speaking Zapotec. Irma’s students (who are Toño’s age) understand Zapotec, but speak little of it. Language loss has been heartbreakingly rapid in the Mexican Isthmus, as in so many places in the world. The impending mass extinction of languages is an almost unimaginable loss—a global rupture.
Toño MC: I wrote the whole thing in Spanish and then I went little by little asking my grandfather the things I wanted in Zapotec. I would ask him what the words were and how to pronounce them. He was teaching me and teaching me; it took us two whole days.
The skills, knowledge and collaboration of three generations made Toño’s rap possible. When Karen Werner and I visited Toño MC in Chicapa de Castro, he took us to meet his grandfather. Hermilo López Peña was surprised and pleased to learn that we had found Toño’s music on the internet. He describes his grandchildren using the internet: “They just go look for things and eventually they find them. Lots of things!” When I asked don Hermilo if he uses the internet himself, he replied, “I can’t do it. Because I still don’t know how to read.”
Hermilo López Peña: His [Toño’s] music gets all the way over there. Because of the internet, it’s easy. His music made it all the way to you! You learned his name and came all the way here to look for him!
As Toño MC struggles to learn Zapotec, he comes face-to-face with the fragility of his language in his globalized community. Both Toño and don Hermilo link the international movement of people with the international movement of hip hop. They see the migration of both people and music out of their community as part of the global economy.
don Hermilo: Here, we don’t earn much. People are poorer. Over there [in the U.S.], people can work. And a dollar from over there is worth a lot here. A lot of people from here are over there. Before, we didn’t go. I never went. Now, even children, even women are going. Some have stayed over there a long time. They’ve settled there. Some of them don’t even speak Spanish anymore. They go for one year, then another year and another year. They don’t even remember their wives!
Though Toño talks about hearing Zapotec every day of his life, and raps that Zapotec will never die, he recognizes his own challenges in learning the language. He knows that being surrounded by Zapotec is contingent upon resisting the pull of the global economy and staying home. Perhaps he will experience the wider world only through the internet. Perhaps he will never have the experience that Irma Pineda describes in “I Was Given This Day,” that first poem of hers that I translated, of missing her language when living far from home. Toño’s slow, labor-intensive process of composing rap lyrics in Zapotec mirrors a process that Irma Pineda went through a generation ago. Speaking with Tõno reminded me of something Irma had told me years earlier:
Irma Pineda: I started writing poems in Zapotec without knowing how to write well in Zapotec. I wasn’t taught to read Zapotec, so I didn’t know how to represent the sounds. I didn’t have a dictionary. I didn’t even have a grammar book.
Toño MC competes in hip hop competitions, does radio interviews, and produces and sells CDs. Still, the primary way that he distributes his music is through YouTube, a visual medium. (See his music video here.) Toño MC’s video for “No Me Verás Morir” begins with his grandfather, don Hermilo, rising out of a chair, lifting up a hand-carved cane as he stands slowly to his full height. The camera follows his calm, intent face. Viewers have an intimate glimpse of daily life in Chicapa de Castro, through the courtyard of don Hermilo’s home: a bicycle taxi, mango trees, a bag full of dried corn, and the water well. Just as the composition of the rap’s lyrics began with don Hermilo, the video—Toño’s public expression of his rap—begins with his grandfather.
Irma Pineda: It’s very difficult to maintain our language against dominant languages, which have been imposed in so many ways. Here in Mexico, Spanish was imposed through violence, through physical abuse, through punishment. It’s been imposed through mass media and public institutions. There’s a constant struggle by minority languages against dominant or hegemonic languages. It’s important to maintain [Zapotec’s] vitality, because it defines us and it’s our way of naming the world. Of course, now we learn how to speak in other languages and how to express ourselves in other ways, but there are always things that just can’t be expressed fully, because we can only think and say them in our own language. No one wants their family or their bloodline to die. For us the language is a part of our lives. If a language dies, it is like having a hand or a foot amputated. In the end, we are left incomplete, because the language is what makes us feel whole.
The video then cuts away from don Hermilo in his courtyard to Toño MC sitting, standing, and walking along his hometown’s unpaved streets: the exterior landscape of his daily life. We see a woman’s hands embroidering a flowered huipil, a man poling a canoe through a river, and children chasing each other across a schoolyard. Bright murals stretch across the walls of pink, sky blue, and melon-colored buildings: a portrait of an elder woman highlighted as if by spotlight, a field of stylized flowers (like those embroidered on women’s huipils), and a young man in a fedora. The deep connection to place and across generations is not particular to Toño MC’s videos. Similar imagery and lyrics celebrating elders, traditional fiestas, social rituals, and local architecture, flora, and fauna can be seen in the videos of other indigenous Mexican hip hop groups. (See Juchitan’s prize-winning trio Juchirap.)
Irma Pineda: I gave [the poem “No Me Verás Morir”] life. I gave this child feet and other people are giving it wings. They are giving it meaning that I would never have imagined. It is flying; it doesn’t need my voice to be heard anymore. Now, it is heard through other people’s voices, with other rhythms… In the end, poems are like children, they start to walk on their own and it’s better that way.
On September 7, 2017, just as Karen Werner and I finished our radio documentary, the Mexican Isthmus suffered a devastating earthquake. Most of the buildings in Juchitán, Chicapa de Castro, and other isthmus towns and cities collapsed, or later were razed because the earthquake rendered them unsafe. Half of the private homes in Juchitán were destroyed, as was every single school—from preschools to the university where Irma teaches. Many people had to live outdoors under makeshift tarps, through the intense rainy season, because the earth would not stop trembling. For the entire school year, (pouring) rain or (blazing) sun, students attended classes outside, in courtyards, next to piles of rubble that were once classroom buildings.
In the weeks and months following the earthquake, an ode / elegy / love poem to the isthmus region was collaboratively created on social media. Through their online posts and conversations, isthmus residents metaphorically rebuilt their cities and towns. As people came to terms with their losses via social media, they circulated a poem—one that represented their spirit of survivance. The poem was Irma Pineda’s “You Will Not See Me Die.”
You will not see me die / you won’t forget me / I am your mother / your father / your grandfather’s old stories / age-old traditions / the tear welling from an old willow
Rainier Writing Workshop