Oaxacalifornia Virtual Life: Reproducing Zapotec Culture and Language

November 20, 2020

November 20, 2020
Jasmine Lopez

This is the ninth in a series of blog posts by participants in the 2019 ACLS Digital Extension Grant project “Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship” (PI Lillehaugen) published on GlobalSL / Community-based Global Learning Collaborative and Ticha. Previous blog posts are available here: (1) Lillehaugen/January 2020; (2) Flores-Marical/February 2020; (3) Kawan-Hemler/March 2020; (4) Lopez/July 2020; (5) Kadlecek/1 August 2020; (6) García Guzmán/15 August 2020; (7) Park/September 2020; (8) Zarafonetis/October 2020.

The Ticha Summer 2020 Conversatorios (described in Lopez/July 2020 and García Guzmán/15 August 2020) provided a unique experience for transnational conversations with Zapotec speakers and community members. Professor Flores-Marcial led a workshop that included several students who had taken her courses at California State University, Northridge. We come from several Zapotec speaking regions including the communities of Quiavini, Lubina, Yalina and Yatee and have different levels of Zapotec language abilities which we were able to reflect on and learn through this opportunity provided by the Ticha Conversatorios. This is part one of three posts by participants from Oaxacalifornia.

Jasmine Lopez; Santa Maria Yalina, Oaxaca and San Fernando Valley, California

I found the Summer 2020 virtual Ticha Conversatorios to be an interesting and valuable experience especially as a member of the Oaxacalifornia community. My family speaks Zapotec from the community of Santa Maria Yalina (Yialhin) located in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca. The Zapotec language we speak is known as Dilla Xhon and is spoken in many different communities nearby such as Santiago Zoochila (Xshilh), San Jeronimo Zoochina (Xhiin), San Bartolome Zoogocho (Xgolle) and Santa Maria Tavehua (Tobio’o) among others. Up until now, the languages I spoke were English, French and Spanish.

The opportunity to focus on the topic of Zapotec language studies and to be in the company of Zapotecs from various Oaxacan regions was incredibly inspiring. In my entire educational experience, I had never felt myself reflected in the curriculum nor in the teachers, but the Conversatorios provided a space where I felt recognized as a Zapotec and as a heritage speaker of my parents’ native language. I have shared with my family in California and in Oaxaca that it is very validating to be able to relate to faculty members like Professor Flores-Marcial who shares the experience of being a transnational Oaxacan woman who understands my experience. I feel inspired by the paths we have followed and how we can relate to each other based on our Oaxacalifornia identity, regardless of our places of origin in the different Zapotec regions of Oaxaca. It is empowering to be able to talk to Professor Flores-Marcial about things that I cannot talk about with others who are not a part of this transnational community.

Oaxacalifornia is host to different pueblos of origin where we reproduce our language, culture and traditions. For example, my community organizes events that benefit our pueblo, they are called kermes (kermes is a borrowed word that denotes a Catholic religious bazaar). The hometown association of Santa Maria Yalina organizes an annual kermes to honor la Santa Cruz, which takes place on or around May 3rd every year. A second kermes is coordinated on or around August 15th which honors la virgen de la Asunción. At these events there is food, traditional musica de viento (winds music), tamborazos (brass bands), deejays and dancing and it is common to meet new people from our region or pueblo at these events. As a member of this transnational space in which the community gathers in celebration, it is super uplifting to be in the company of hundreds of paisanos (people from the same place of origin). It is common to hear the older generations speak to each other in Zapotec, and this allows younger generations to reflect on the meaning of this situation. Zapotec is the elder’s version of what English is to younger Oaxacalifornians who use English as our matrix language.

The paisanos I know that are my age or a little older, do not speak Zapotec. But as someone who is now learning it, I can say that a vast majority are trying to learn our parents’ language. We have grown out of that phase in which we were shy to declare our Oaxacan heritage due to the bullying that has affected older generations both in diaspora and in Oaxaca. Identifying as a Zapotec is not something to be ashamed of, and it never truly was. Oaxacalifornians from different regions in Oaxaca are now realizing that Indigenous languages most of all, are in danger and if we do not do everything we can do to preserve them, they will die.

This transnational community in California, is a space where Indigenous Oaxacans, from the same pueblo or region, congregate outside of our ancestral lands. I feel a sense of pride and responsibility, knowing that the traditions and customs my parents and grandparents had to leave behind in the process of migration, must be reproduced in California in order to survive. For example despite the 2000 miles distance separating us from our pueblos, the musica de viento bands have continued, the danzas have stayed alive, and many traditions overall are still here in our Oaxacalifornia life. Today, many Oaxacalifornians are doing everything possible to try to save our Indigenous languages.

When there are enough volunteers, my hometown’s association organizes danzas which take place in the annual kermeses. It is an honor to be selected as a participant and to represent the culture of our pueblo of origin. Because it is a very serious commitment involving many efforts, the danzas are not always performed at the kermes. However, as someone who has participated in this reproduction of Zapotec culture in California, it is with great joy that I am able to provide the background on what this danza represents for Zapotecs in diaspora from la Sierra Norte de Oaxaca. A maestro de danza (teacher who specializes in traditional folk dance) from Santa Maria Tavehua taught me a danza called Danza Huenche Nene (Güench Bdaó), or also known as La Danza de San Jose (Guaya San Kwse). I performed this danza in May of 2018 in honor of la Santa Cruz and in August of 2018 in honor of la Virgen de la Asunción.

I would like to thank Malequias Allende and Luis Revilla, the leaders of the Grupo de Danza Familia Zapoteca based in Oaxacalifornia for conducting the research and translation from Zapotec necessary for me to be able to share this story.

The Danza de San José was danced around 1900 and 1906 and originates in the barrio of Santiago el Mayor Apóstol of Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, located in la Sierra Norte de Oaxaca. This danza and the musica de viento that accompanies it, was created by the late Ausencio Celiz, a danzante and musician. The original name was Danza Huenche Nene and was later changed to Danza de San Jose, but it is still the same danza and can be referred to as either one of those names.

The second part of the danza, served for the evangelization of the pueblos in the Sierra Norte and is portrayed in the photograph below (see Figure 1). This danza was created by Bonifacio Verá, Dionicio Vera and Pablo Mestas. It consists of the father, Jose, dancing with virgin Mary and el niño Jesus (baby Jesus). This part is called, xthawbe which means grandparents in Classic Zapotec. The first woman who represented virgin Mary was Adelaida Celiz and the first niño Jesus was represented by a doll. It stopped being performed for a while but in 1940, the organizers of the patron Saint celebration of the barrio de Santiago el Mayor Apóstol, (Juan Celiz, Juan Ipolito Molina and Severiano Gaspar) had the idea to rescue it so it would not become lost. The only two people alive at that time with experience of having danced it before, Adelaida Celiz and Pablo Mestas, helped them as well through their expertise. The grandmother dresses in an everyday huipil (traditional blouse) with a petate (reed mat) and a pillow in hand to lay el niño Jesus down, while the grandfather carries a chair for the virgin Mary to sit in, and a hoop which has cookies and candies hanging from it as an offering for el niño Jesus, which you can see in the link below.

It is also important to note that in the part in which Mary and Jose dance together, they also sing in Spanish, which is said to be how it was done the first time it was ever performed. During most of the danza, baby Jesus’ grandparents dance and joke around, in Zapotec. But at the end of the part between Jose and Mary dancing which is usually about 25 minutes, they sing and part of the performance involves both of them gossiping or making fun of things that have happened in the pueblo. This part is a form of comedy used to entertain the people watching the danza. They pretend to be arguing and hitting each other, with the intention of making the crowd laugh. An example of this can be shown in this video (Danza Huenche Nene, Yalalag Presente en Oaxacalifornia 2019; minute 29:00 – 34:00). which was performed almost a year ago in the festivity organized by the commission de Santa Catalina, one of the many hometown associations of the comunidad de Yalalag in Oaxacalifornia, in their annual festivity to honor la virgen de Santa Catalina Martir.

In this danza, I represented Maria and my partner represented Jose. And el niño Jesus was represented by my sister Ariana. Different pueblos in the Sierra Norte have adopted this danza, and others, to honor the saints they celebrate in their festivities.

Figure 1. A reproduction of the traditional danza de San Jose from the Sierra Norte performed at the kermes de Santa Maria Yalina in honor of la Santa Cruz.
Figure 2. La danza de San Jose at the kermes de Santa Maria Yalina in honor of la Virgen de la Asunción.

On the other side of Oaxacalifornia, in the Oaxacan context (see Figure 3), many of the new generations of Oaxacalifornians are multilingual, we speak Spanish, English and Zapotec. So when we are visiting our pueblos, we might end up speaking in English to each other because it is the language we are accustomed to speaking with the contemporaries in our place of residence in the United States.

Thanks to my experience as a participant in the Ticha Conversatorios, the biggest lesson I learned is to learn our Indigenous languages while they are still alive! We have teachers in our parents, grandparents and other members of our communities on both sides of Oaxacalifornia (Indigenous Oaxacan organizations are also coordinating Zapotec language lessons). Traditions, languages and political systems only survive for as long as the new generations preserve them. Another positive result of this experience is that I started connecting with others from neighboring pueblos, or even from other parts of Oaxaca, at least on the socials for now (because of Covid restrictions). Finally, inspired by the Conversatorio experience, one thing led to another and I am now learning Zapotec via Zoom.

Figure 3. Santa Maria Yalina, Oaxaca photo courtesy of Jasmine Lopez


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