Hayden's Ferry Review


Foreign Tongues: Isthmus Zapotec

HFR publishes contributors from all over the world, in languages and from places that some people (we're not pointing fingers) have never heard of. This recurring post Foreign Tongues will give you a little culture and a little history, a way to better understand the background behind some not-so-familiar peoples and languages.

Victor Teran is a Mexican poet who writes not in Spanish, language of the conquerors, but in a little known language by the name of Isthmus Zapotec. Teran was born in Juchitán de Zaragoza in 1958. The city is located in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He is a well-established poet in Mexico, with many works published in anthologies and magazines. Although he is considered a poet, he has also written novels in Zapotec. When he is not traveling the world showcasing his poetry, his day job is a teacher of media education in the Oaxacan Isthmus.

Zapotec is a varied language, meaning that there are different dialects and versions of the language. The names people call it in their dialect or version vary from Diidxaza to Didxsaj. What’s really interesting about Zapotec is that some of the dialects and variants are completely different. One person speaking in one dialect will not understand another person speaking in a different dialect. Because of these differences, the Mexican government now recognizes about 60 Zapotec languages. Zapotec is related to Chatino, which is a sub group of the Oto-Manguean family, which is mostly spoken in Mesoamerica. Oto-Manguean is a family comprised of Native American languages. Another cool thing about Isthmus Zapotec is that it got its current alphabet in the 1950s.

The Zapotec civilization is about 2500 years old. Zapotecs or present day speakers of Zapotec, live in the same Valley of Oaxaca as their ancestors. Although Zapotecs have been using the Isthmus Zapotec alphabet only since the 1950s, they did have ancient writings using glyphs. Zapotecs also have a different cuisine then many other Mexicans and Native Americans. In their enchiladas, for example, they put a variety of black mole as their stuffing. They also eat iguana and armadillo. So if you are ever in the Valley of Oaxaca don’t forget the enchiladas!

Teran's work, translated by David Shook, appeared in HFR issue #45.