Oaxac The Talk
International Mother Language Day: Speaking Zapoteco at Sears 


Stories of why I identify as diasporic-Indigenous and how Zapotec defines my Indigeneity.

The moments I realized we were a different type of Mexican

We were in the appliance section at Sears in Santa Monica, CA. It was after our family photo-shoot and my parents were trying to figure out whether they wanted to make a purchase. My father was speaking to my mom. He was speaking to her in Zapoteco. She would respond in Spanish. After several times of going back and forth, she said “habla en español.” The associate spoke Spanish–he looked like a native Spanish speaker: light complexion, dark hair, and other phenotypes that at the young age of seven allowed me to categorize people.

Parents in front of Sears, circa 1993.

It’s been over thirty years since that experience and I still remember it. Most prominently, the thoughts and feelings in the moment and now reflections as an adult. My mother’s request to have my father speak Spanish in public certainly stirred mixed feelings. My parents speak to each other exclusively in Zapoteco at home and in the pueblo. A couple explanations for my mom’s request to speak Spanish are:

  • She didn’t want the associate to be confused or feel excluded from their conversation.
  • She didn’t want us to seem too different, or not Mexican enough.

I haven’t actually asked her because I don’t think she’ll remember. It could be a mix of all of the above, or something completely different. But for a young child, these instances are the nuanced moments when we learn about who we are and about belonging. 

Going from Zapoteco in the home and Spanish and English outside the home did not faze me when I was young though. I attribute it to growing up with Zapotec being spoken all around me in the home, with family and relatives, and even growing up in the West LA neighborhood, home to many other Zapotec-speaking Oaxacans in the 1990s. 

My first grade Oaxaqueña friend, who deserves and will get her own story one day, was from San Lucas, also in Valles Centrales region of Oaxaca. At school pick ups, I would hear her mother and aunt speak Zapotec from their pueblo. Hearing Zapoteco in public was my norm, so it didn’t matter too much that we were different because there were enough of people like me.

It was in middle school when it was cemented in me that I was a different type of Mexican and Latina (though that word did not exist in my vocabulary then, just Hispano-hablante – Spanish speaking). A few of my non-Oaxacan Mexican peers let me know exactly where I belonged in the Mexican caste. I was Oaxaquita and we belonged at the bottom, below those with lighter complexion and taller stature. 

I recognize that I have some facial features that allowed me to not be picked on as caustically as other Indigenous Oaxacan peers. So being called Oaxaquita diminished when I was in high school. In that era I was more concerned with my undocumented status anyway. That’s the identity that governed my sense of belonging, my educational aspirations, and my future. So inviting friends over to my home or fiestas was no biggie, most of them knew that there was another language being spoken. But we didn’t have conversations about it.  

When I dated a Mexi-Jew in my 20’s and he said, “wow, you’re really Indian,” after hearing my family speak Zapoteco, I brushed off the identity-loaded statement. And more recently when my child’s paternal grandfather visited my son in Oaxaca–a man who identifies as native–heard my parents speak Zapoteco, he blurted a similar comment, “oh, you’re really native.”

These statements tell me two things: 1)The connection between Indigenous languages and identity is a particularly strong factor of Indigeneity 2) There’s a lack of awareness of the Indigenous languages still being spoken today in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the world. 

Some Facts about Indigenous Languages in Mexico 

In Oaxaca alone, there are 16 Indigenous languages spoken: Náhuatl, Zapoteco, Mixteco, Mazateco, Chinanteco, Mixe, Amuzgo, Chatino, Zoque, Chicateco, Popolaca, Chontal, Huave, Triqui, Chocho, Ixcateco. About a third of Oaxaxa’s population speaks an Indigenous language (roughly 32%). 

6% of the population in Mexico as a whole speak an Indigenous language. Between Chiapas and Oaxaca, we hold over a third of all Indigenous language speakers. These two states are from the south, the states that have often been othered by our Mexican counterparts. I won’t get into all the data because I’m not a linguist and there’s a whole area of study. But you can find fascinating information on Indigenous languages in Mexico and other countries on this page.  

Here are other resources that I use for reference and have come across throughout the years: The Ticha Project, which I know some Zapotec relatives are engaged with and the Tlacolula Valley Zapotec dictionary, which language leaders from my pueblo helped build. 

Why International Day of Mother Language Day Matters

Día internacional de la lengua materna en Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, MX, 2023.

Around this time last year I was serving as a committee member at our community museum, Ta Guil Reiñ. In collaboration with the turismo y cultura team at the municipality, we planned the día de la lengua materna event. Leaders from the Zapotec language project MC and led the various activities: storytellers, singers, and games, all in Zapotec! 

My aunt, an aunt that was instrumental in my identity formation, happened to be visiting. This tia speaks Zapoteco effortlessly. It rolls off her tongue with an ease, even though she’s been away from the pueblo for over 30 years, too. She left when she was young, she barely finished high school in the U.S., worked at movie theaters, restaurants, and went to beauty school. She can switch between English, Spanish, and Zapoteco with an ease that makes me admire her deeply. Her thickest accent is in English, but I think she wants it that way. Her accent feels like a resistance. Her Zapoteco, though, a secret weapon. She walks around the pueblo in ways that make it known she hasn’t been there for a while (how she dresses and styles herself) but her mother tongue unequivocally brands her as a Matateca (citizen of Santiago Matatlan). 

She hadn’t been in the pueblo in five years so I invited her to attend. Towards the end of the event, I asked her what she thought. She laughed and said in Spanish, “cuando íbamos a la escuela, nos pegaban las maestras si hablábamos zapoteco, teníamos que hablar a escondidas. Y ahora estamos queriendo rescatarlo.” [In English: “when we were in school, the teachers would hit us for speaking Zapotec, we had to speak it secretly. Now we want to rescue it.”]

In her tone, I felt a coldness. A hurt that hadn’t been tended to. I know that feeling because sometimes that’s how I feel about people reconnecting with Indigenous roots without really knowing first-hand the pain, the othering, the isolation, discrimination that we did experience in our lifetime so others could have access to some pathways to reconnection. In the end, she said she enjoyed it. 

Language is a Key Characteristic of Indigeneity and Belonging

Languages give us access to worldviews, beliefs, cultural norms, and laughter. I emphasize laughter because one of my favorite activities is sitting with family and having my tio tell his jokes in Zapotec. Everyone’s jaws hurt from all the laughter. Comedy is its own language, and when people laugh at a comedian, it’s because they communicate something relatable. Imagine, my fluency in Zapotec gives me access to pueblo comedy. I won’t even attempt to explain it, but I feel so special and a unique sense of belonging that’s not replicable. 

 * * * 

My father was explaining to me that the way a couple towns over speaks Zapotec has different connotations. That while we can understand each other, they each have their own cadence. He shared that, for example, while we have words for coffee and chocolate, the other town will say black coffee for what we consider regular coffee and brown coffee for chocolate, in their Zapoteco. And that the way they greet people when they’re visiting is also different. For example, some are more direct and informal, and others have more formality to them. I saw somewhere that Zapoteco is an umbrella language for many other variations and idioms. That is why Indigenous languages, each dialect, has its own worldview. 

This is why Mexicanizing all of Oaxaca has real consequences. Because while I don’t have the hard data or numbers, the tourism economy is pushing people to choose between English and our native languages (or even Spanish) because of the opportunities it offers. There are cultural consequences to tourism, and the loss of Indigenous languages is one of them, or it feels like it. 

Practicing our Indigenous Language as Respectful Reconnection 

That’s why I’ve chosen to push myself to speak more Zapotec, with myself, with my son, and parents. My indigeneity is about remembering the moments when I was othered because of it, and thanking my parents, family, and younger self for not letting others define me. 

The prize is walking around the pueblo and being asked “tuxh xhin li?” (whose child are you)? And I get to respond, “xhin Stel chal Neil.” And then seeing their eyes widen and ask “apoco eres tu Fabiola, racbeu dizzah” (it’s you Fabiola? You understand Zapotec). 

As a parent, sprinkle Zapotec phrases and words quite naturally when my son is home with me. I try to practice with him and I often use our pueblo’s oral dictionary. 

We are at a moment when Zapotec speaking people in Santiago Matatlán are a smaller crowd. At the same time, in spite of our proximity to Oaxaca City, our high migration rate to the US in the last decades of the 1900s, and our cultural inheritance (mezcal) making waves in the global market, the memory of Zapotec is still present. There’s still hope of its survival, or a new version of it, but with the roots being honored.

In an era of reconnecting with our Indigenous roots, it feels necessary to share these vulnerable stories. Each person has their own process and journey. This is mine.

Sears portrait, circa 1993.