1. The challenges and joys of creating digital Zapotec language resources
Janet Chávez Santiago

Zapotecs have been writing their (hi)story for thousands of years. We can find the first written manifestation of what could have been the beginnings of the Zapotec culture in the cave paintings of Guilá Naquitz, a prehistoric place in the Zapotec Valley of Oaxaca that has the evidence of the domestication of corn, beans, chile and squash. We can also appreciate steles carved on the stones of Monte Alban, an important Zapotec city founded in 500 B.C, and Mitla, the Zapotec city of death or rest. There also exist ancient codexes that were used to register events related to the development of political, social and religious life. With the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, another way to register events was introduced –we can find and learn about another period of Zapotec history from colonial documents including testaments, bills, catholic doctrines, and others, all written in Zapotec.

Despite this early documentary history, between the Mexican Revolution and the present time, we have this big blank space with scarce documents in Zapotec. A discontinuation in writing practice yielded a situation in which we still do not have a standardized orthography, a pattern we see repeated in many indigenous communities around the world. Along with this, we face the challenge of encountering people, old and young, who remain illiterate in the language.

In the blink of an eye we find ourselves in a time where the digital world and the internet have become an easily-accessible tool, free and full of information on many topics. These tools have also become an important part of our daily lives as a way to interact with the world, that is to say with other cultures and of course other languages. In response, every language in the world evolves and continues to adapt to these new circumstances; this linguistic change happens organically, without anyone without asking or giving permission. The same is true in how new technologies enter our lives, work, education etc. - available technologies are constantly shifting and changing. As technology changes and our languages continue to evolve, we too must adapt to and embrace the changing world of communication. In my work, I focus on taking advantage of these technologies and seeking ways to create accessible content in Zapotec with the aim of enjoying and understanding our present. I’d like to share a couple specific examples of this work with you today.

One of the projects I started is the Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec Talking Dictionary (TdVZTD) ( http://talkingdictionary.swarthmore.edu/teotitlan/?fields=all&semantic_i...). The TdVZTD is a living resource where we are able to document the language with sound, in its written form, and with translations both in Spanish and English. This project has been possible with the support of Haverford College through collaboration with  Dr. Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, her students and a community of more than 30 native Zapotec speakers from Teotitlán Del Valle who have shared their knowledge and reflections on the language. Community members can look up the context and meaning of words or phrases in a click, and at the same time the dictionary is a great resource for anyone interested in learning the Zapotec language and culture no matter where in the world we are.

Additionally, as a child I never saw nor had any books written in Zapotec. To contribute to changing this situation – of not having written stories in (modern) Zapotec – I started “Na ga, xi kaniu” (What story will you tell me now), a collection of digital books for children in Zapotec that are free and are available online (https://storyweaver.org.in/search?query=janet%20chavez%20santiago)

These projects are examples of how I have found digital media to be a transformative resource that allows me to contribute to the dissemination of my traditions, strengthen the use of Zapotec language and, overall, create positive impacts like linking speakers and the digital space in their own language. The dictionary is a great example, it is an open source that actively includes native speakers and gives them credit for their contributions. As a Digital Language author and educator I have had the opportunity to be in continuous collaboration with both the community of speakers and academics, and to learn together with both communities. I hope that these projects can help encourage younger generations to enjoy the richness of the Zapotec language, culture, and heritage.


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León García