Episode 34: Ana D. Alonso Ortiz on Zapotec Language Documentation & Revitalization

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2021/12/30/episode-34-ana-d-alonso-ortiz-on-Zapotec-language-documentation-revitalization/

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Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Ana Alonso Ortiz. Ana D. Alonso Ortiz is a Zapotec researcher and translator from Oaxaca, Mexico. She is an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director of the Amerindian Studies and Bilingual Education master’s program at the University of Queretaro. Her research focuses on the language description and language revitalization of Zapotec languages, and her work promotes languages by working on child language acquisition. She is currently developing a language course of Zapotec as a Second Language. Ana has worked on the production of educational materials in Zapotec in coordination with the Dill Yel Nbán Collective, a group of Zapotec scholars who seek to promote the Zapotec language. Ana received her PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2021.

I’m thrilled to be sharing this episode with everyone. Ana was such an inspiration to me. Hearing her talk about her language and her community was just so incredibly uplifting, especially hearing her speak about not only the satisfaction that she gets from her work, but also the struggles that she’s encountered and that her parents and grandparents have encountered for their language, and yet she still continues to research and to advocate. And she has such a positivity about her that I really felt uplifted after we chatted, and I’m sure that this interview is going to be really interesting and really inspiring to others who are doing similar work and wanting to get into similar research and language revitalization avenues as Ana.


Hi, Ana. How are you?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Hi, Marti. I’m good. How are you doing?

MTB: I’m good. Yeah, thank you so much for coming on to Field Notes. So, the first thing I wanted to ask you is, can you tell us how you first became a linguist?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Well, to start, in college, I majored in anthropology, but while I was doing anthropology, I had to choose between physical anthropology and also linguistic anthropology, so that’s how I started to know what was linguistics. And so yeah, I decided to concentrate in linguistics, in linguistic anthropology. Later on, I wanted to know more about my language and other languages that are spoken here in Mexico, so I decided to do a master and also a PhD in linguistics. So that’s how I become a linguist, but before that, when I was 14 years old, I met two linguists that were working on my language, so I kind of know what they were doing and also what was linguistics about. And yeah, that’s how I got involved in linguistics, and also because in my family, they always invite me or they also set me up to activities related to language. So yeah, I guess that everything [unclear 04:02] when I took my decision to become a linguist.

MTB: Do you feel like you were drawn to anthropology and to linguistics from a young age, or was it something you kind of discovered later in university?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I discovered it in college and when, yeah, in the university. I have professors that inspire me to look up at, into my history, into my language, so yeah, that’s how, yeah.

MTB: Yeah, awesome. For people who aren’t familiar, can you share something about the language context of Zapotec languages?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Sure. Well, Zapotec, it’s a language that is spoken mainly in south Mexico in the states of Oaxaca, Mexico City, and also Veracruz state, but there is also a big population of speakers in Los Angeles in California. So Zapotec, it’s a language that it’s spoken in some cities in states in Mexico and also in the U.S. When we talk about Zapotec, Zapotec is not only a language, so it’s a group of… Some people or some linguists count approximately 20 to 60 Zapotec languages.

MTB: Wow.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: And the reason why they count between 20 to 60, it’s because there are Zapotec, varieties of Zapotec, that are not, that people cannot communicate among themselves. For example, my variety is called a Southern Zapotec variety, but there is also Zapotecs that are speaking in other regions, and if I go there, I can’t communicate with them because it’s just, it sounds different, it is different — we share some words, but we can’t have a conversation. So that’s why when we talk about Zapotec, we talk about many Zapotecan languages. And one of the prominent feature of this language it’s that it’s a tonal language. Yeah, and it means that when you say a word, but if you change the tone of the word, you might be saying another word. And also, you can spell a word with the same letters, but if you change the tone, we have two different things. So yeah, that’s what the context of Zapotec.

MTB: Can you give us a minimal pair with the tone?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Sure.

MTB: Not to put you on the spot, but if you… Maybe there’s an easy one.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, of course. The word for “my son,” it’s [zhi’a 06:55], and the word for “my nose” is [zhi’a 06:58].

MTB: Okay. Oh, yeah, they do sound different.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. [zhi’a, zhi’a 07:02]. Mm-hmm.

MTB: Oh, wow.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah.

MTB: But they have the same… Does the orthography distinguish the tone or do you just kind of have to know to figure it out?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Nowadays, we have to mark the tone or to put a graphic mark on the words, yeah, because young speakers in my community are not learning the language, so now, when we are preparing materials to teach our language, we need to provide them with all the details about the language. So, for example, when I was, when I have a… When one of my professors taught me to write my language, I basically use the context of the conversation of the story to write the language without these marks, but now we need to provide all these details to the young speakers or to the young learners in order for them to learn the language. Yeah.

MTB: Okay, so that’s something the orthography has developed — even in the time since you’ve been working with Zapotec, it’s changed.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. Yes. Yes.

MTB: Wow, that’s really cool. Can I ask you about, what are your main research interests? Like what are you working on right now? And, like I know you just finished your PhD dissertation — congratulations! — but what are you working on in the future, or if you are hoping to continue your PhD research, I’d love to hear about that.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. Well, as I was saying before, now, there is a… Well, my language is in danger, so we don’t have… We have a population of elders who speaks the language, but we don’t have young people who speak the language, so we know that if we want to continue speaking this language or if we want to preserve this language, we need to transmit this language, so one of the problems that we are facing now is that parents have stopped to transmit, to teach this language to the young. So one of my main interests right now, it’s to develop, to introduce or reintroduce the language as a second language and design materials and also content for teaching for this language, and that also comes with doing work about language awareness, promote the value of Indigenous language and Indigenous and Zapotec, and promote its transmission. So yeah, that’s one of my main research interests right now.

MTB: Is there any official support for Zapotec languages? Like is there any funding to increase education, or is it just like all on your own type of thing?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Well, basically, it’s in my own way, and also, I collaborate with a group of young professionals and speakers of Zapotec, and we form like a collective, a group, and now we are trying to do something for their language. So sometimes we can apply for funds, but it’s not a guarantee that you will get them. So yeah. All the work that we are doing in Mexico for languages, for Indigenous languages, it comes from the speakers, from the community. Yeah.

MTB: Yeah, that’s tough. So you were saying that the intergenerational link has been broken, so now parents are not teaching, like or transmitting, Zapotec languages to their children. Was your family the same, or did you grow up in like a different kind of family? What was your experience growing up with Zapotec?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Well, my family, it is strange. My mom and my other family members suffer from this political demand or this state demand to, they asked them to stop speaking their language and also transmitting the language, but my grandma was very supportive of her language and also of her culture and defending her identity, so she never stopped promoting the language with us, so… And then my mom too, right? So yeah, I grew up in a family who promote the Indigenous language, the Zapotec language, but also, they also allow us to speak Zapotec, so I grew up as a sequential bilingual or a… Yeah, I cannot distinguish when I start learning Spanish and when I start learning Zapotec. For me, I learned both languages from the beginning, so I think that’s one of the really rare, strange things about my family, that they gave us this gift of speaking two languages from birth.

MTB: Yeah, that’s amazing.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah.

MTB: Yeah, I really admire that, when I see families who, they don’t listen to like what everyone else is doing and…

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah.

MTB: You know, they feel strongly about it and they continue transmitting the language even when like everyone around them is taking a different approach.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. Yeah, it’s an act of resistance. It’s an act of resisting, of keeping our language, our identity, our culture, yeah. And yeah, and I definitely think that this is one of the best things that we can do for our children or to preserve our language, yeah.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Do you have a routine on days when you’re collecting data? Do you have like kind of a typical day when you’re doing your research, or is every day different? Can you talk a bit about that?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, well, I don’t have like a specific routine or a path that I follow, but everything starts with breakfast, and then after breakfast, I help my, because I’m a native speaker doing linguistics in their own town, so yeah, everything start with breakfast with the family, and then talking about the day and about what we need to do for the day. And then I just take my voice recorder and all the materials I need, and then I start visiting kids at their house and speak with the parents. And I visit one, or sometimes I can visit three of them in a [unclear 14:12] of maybe four or five hours and then I stop — or sometimes the families invite me for lunch, so I stay there. And then I continue doing the same thing, like going from house to house, speaking with the parents, speaking about the language when we need to preserve, to promote them, and also measuring the domains of language that these kids have, yeah. So that’s what I do when I’m in the field doing research.

MTB: Yeah. Are you able to stay with your own family when you’re doing research, or do you go to other places where Zapotec is spoken?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Right now, yeah, I stay with my family. I’m working on my own community, and in the future… I’ve been visiting other towns, so I know that the work I’m doing in my community, we also need to do that in other communities, so in the future, I’m really looking forward to visit and also to work in other communities that want to implement some activities and to promote the language in their, in the community.

MTB: Do you find it difficult to take a day off when you’re working in the community because everybody kind of like knows you and knows where you are, or is it okay for you to set those boundaries like, “I’m off today; we’re not recording”?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I can take some days off, and I definitely take them, because I… Yeah, there are festivities and there are other social gatherings, so yeah. I stop bringing with me my voice recorder and all my other materials, so I just enjoy my time there. I left my town when I was 12 years old, and even though now I can visit, but it’s never the same. I cannot stay more than three months, so the last time I was there, I stayed for three months, and that’s the maximum that I’ve been able to be there.

MTB: Oh, okay.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah.

MTB: Why is that?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Well, you know, education, yeah. [unclear 16:33]

MTB: Oh, just like busy life.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, busy life, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MTB: Okay.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah.

MTB: When I go to Japan, I can only stay for three months, but that’s because of like a visa thing, so I thought maybe it was something like that.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: I see. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. No, it’s because they, [our 16:53] busy lives in the city, and now I’m not actually living in my own state. I’m living a little bit far away or far away. So yeah, it’s getting more complicated to return, but hopefully one day.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Has COVID-19 affected your plans at all? Have you still been able to do the research you intended, or have things been postponed?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Well, achieving my, doing my fieldwork for my dissertation, it was… Wow, yeah, it… I had to move my data collection for a year.

MTB: Oh, wow.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, but my assistantship ends in this year, so my advisor advised me to try to collect data and see how to do it. And I managed to do it, so that’s why I have the fortune to graduate this year, and now I’m in a… I have an associate position in…

MTB: Oh, you do.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yes.

MTB: Oh, congratulations.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, thank you. Yeah, so I had to postpone my data collection for a year because data… Yeah, because the COVID pandemic and because my hometown just closed the doors for more than a year, yeah. Yeah.

MTB: Yeah, that’s really tough. Yeah. It’s just the same thing that everyone is struggling with, isn’t it?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, but the one of the things that I think we learn about this is that Indigenous communities are really getting affected by the pandemic — and not only because they don’t have access to the health insurance or to the health services, but also because you know that there are many inequalities in the, among Indigenous people, and so yeah, I think that waiting, if we can wait for research, I think that’s one of the good things we can do to preserve these communities.

MTB: Definitely. Yeah, for sure. Yeah, I agree. Can you speak to some of the challenges or the advantages you’ve experienced as an insider researcher, and does working as an insider researcher cause the community’s perception of you to change, in your opinion?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, well, one of my main struggles is that sometimes it is difficult to find collaborators or just people that support my work. As I was saying before, from the government, we have received this information that we need to stop learning our language because we need to learn Spanish in order to become a citizen of this nation, and basically the people doesn’t want to know anything about their language. They just want to learn maybe Spanish or English or any other language. So sometimes when I’m working there and I have a project, I don’t receive enough support as I would like to receive, and also I’ve been seeing this in other communities that people know that they are losing the language, so they say, “Well, yeah, let’s do it. Let’s just come together and let’s do it in the community to preserve our language,” but in my community, it’s difficult. It’s difficult to do that, but now, like after seven years of being there every year, maybe three times in a year, now people know who I am, what I want to do and yeah, this perception or these attitudes to my work and to the language has been changed a little bit, but I think we are moving things there, so yeah, I cannot say that it has a broad impact, but we are doing it a little by little.

MTB: Yeah, do you think people are more disparaging towards you because you are a community member and they, if they feel that the language is not valuable, then they don’t, they want you to be doing something with a like more prestigious language or something else, or what do you think?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, I think that… Well, I’ve been seeing this that, when outsiders go to the community, well, they receive them, they support them, they are willing to interchange, to chat, to many other activities, because sometimes I guess that we need to see someone else other than us to do something with our culture, our language, to value them, to give them some value. So yeah, I think that that’s the reason, because I’m an insider.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that sounds really tough.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. It is. It is, because you can see your colleagues, your peers over there, and yeah, it’s just different. [laughs] Yeah.

MTB: How do you keep from getting discouraged by that?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Well, I guess that I have this… This is something that I want to do for my language, for my community, and also because my family have struggled a lot about, with our language. And my grandma, she went to jail because they didn’t want to stop using the language, and yeah, stop transmitting to my mom and my other uncles and yeah. So this is like my act of giving back to my grandma and to my family and also to my community that even after this or those difficult times, some of them, they are speaking and preserving the language. So I’m doing this for me, for my family, for my community, and because this is the… Speaking this language, it makes me see different and exist with other people in this world and being, you know, understanding more these everyday life or challenges that we have. So yeah, that’s how I stand.

MTB: So do you feel, would you say that you have like a calling?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yes, I do.

MTB: Yeah.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah.

MTB: Do you have any recommendations for how we can have more community member linguists involved in language documentation and language research?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. Well, sometimes we, in our linguistic classes, we use this podcast or maybe reports like this in our classes, and if someone listen this, sometimes as linguists, we work with collaborators in the communities, and these collaborators are [not 24:15] native speakers of the language, and I think that one of the best ways to return to them or to give back to them is to train them in linguistics and support them if you want to pursue a college degree or any other degree in linguistics. Sometimes for us in the communities, it’s difficult to step outside of our community and pursue our dreams, and sometimes all we need is a little bit of support to do it, to be brave and do it. So yeah, I encourage and invite linguists and other colleagues and also members of the community that can listen to this podcast to speak up, and to speak and ask for help or ask for support if they want. We cannot only be collaborators of linguists or other researchers; we can also do our research in our own community and documenting our language or researching our language. So yeah, let’s support them. Let’s support the speakers of the communities, and yeah, that’s one of the best ways that we can do, we can return to them what they are offering or sharing with us.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That’s very well said. Okay, and then the last thing I wanted to ask you about is, do you have any advice for someone who wants to do similar work to you?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yes. It is difficult. It is difficult to work in your own community, but don’t give up. Be a [storm 26:00] about it.

MTB: Yeah.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I guess that, yes, that what I’ve been doing the last seven years. Three or four years ago, my own community, the mayor of the town stopped one of my projects, and it was a pain. I was in so much pain.

MTB: Oh, no.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: And yeah, it was really sad for me, but I’m back. I’m back, and I don’t want to give up. Yeah.

MTB: Yeah.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Because it’s easy to give up, but you will never return, and also you will never do what you want and what makes you happy, so yeah.

MTB: Yeah. I think that’s something that everyone can relate to — insider, outsider — the like burnout is very real in field linguistics just because it’s so full on. Like it’s probably real in every area of academia, but yeah, I often see people struggle with this, like burn out, just like overextension.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, that’s right, yeah.

MTB: Especially after the PhD.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. Yeah.

MTB: Can you share with us what future research you’re most excited about, so something from your own research that you’re planning or something you’re excited to see other people do in the future?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah, I felt that we have gaps in one of them, in pragmatics, in studying pragmatic of the language, but before doing pragmatic, you need to also understand how the language works. Right? But yeah, ambition of, or I really want to do some things about pragmatic, about how people tell or talk about gossip and [enchantment 28:01] and other topics that, yeah, that are more maybe culturally valued or more important for the… I don’t know, it’s just, it’s something that we don’t really work in or see and study in linguistics, and yeah, that’s what I’m excited about for the future. And also, of course, doing more applied work like putting the language out there in the community, make it visible for the young, for the elder, and yeah, just putting the language in all the walls of the community, in all the public spaces. So that’s something that I’m doing maybe in two or three months after I get some funds that I need to be released. And yeah, so yeah, those two things, that’s what I’m more about, excited about.

MTB: Absolutely. Well, thank you, Ana, so much for coming on to Field Notes. Can you tell our listeners where people can find you online if they want to read your papers or learn more about your work? Where should they go?

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Yeah. Well, my research or my publications, there are, in Academia, you can find them there, but to see more exciting things and not academic papers, you can visit us in… We have a web, a Facebook fan page and also an Instagram, and you can find us as dillyelnban, and these two social medias, there we share the work we are doing as a group, as a collective of young professional and speakers that want to promote their language in the digital area or the digital media. Yeah.

MTB: Awesome, great, and if you send me those links, I will…

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Of course.

MTB: Add them to the show notes as well.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Okay, yeah.

MTB: Okay.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Perfect.

MTB: Thank you, Ana.

Ana D. Alonso Ortiz: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

You’ve been listening to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco, and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

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