SANTA MARIA IXCATLAN, Mexico – Silence reigns in this southern Mexican village whose only sounds are the murmur of wild palm trees, the chiming of church bells and the voice of nonagenarian Pedro Salazar, one of the six remaining speakers of a language known as Ixcatec.
A sign in that Oto-manguean tone language that reads “Ińakendikuatuxuiri Xula” (Welcome to Ixcatlan) stands at the entrance to that remote hamlet in the state of Oaxaca, although a Spanish translation also is provided for visitors.
Mexico is home to 68 indigenous languages, with Brazil being the only country in Latin America that has more. Nearly seven million Mexicans speak some ancestral language, most of whom live in the country’s heavily indigenous southeastern region.
UNESCO proclaimed Feb. 21 to be International Mother Language Day in 1999 in recognition of the fact that nearly half of the world’s 7,000 languages are at risk of falling out of use.
Don Pedro is a speaker of one of these critically endangered tongues. He remains lucid at the age of 94 and recalls learning Ixcatec as a child and speaking it frequently as a young man.
But there’s hardly anyone left to talk to now that his friends have all passed away, he told EFE while hand-weaving palm leaves inside a small cave that he – like other Santa Maria Ixcatlan residents – has built in the patio of his home to preserve the freshness and malleability of that raw material.
Pedro now only uses the local language of Santa Maria Ixcatlan to teach those curious about how to say everyday words like house, door, hat, shirt, hands or long pants in Ixcatec.
“If I had someone to talk to, I could talk about anything in Ixcatec, but since there isn’t anyone … If you answer me in Ixcatec, then we’ll talk,” he told EFE.
A few years away from reaching the century mark, Don Pedro continues to hand-craft a variety of palm products, including hats, baskets and bedrolls.
The precariousness of his native tongue contrasts with the vitality of Pedro, who lost a foot to cancer in 2015 yet responded to that adversity by strengthening his arms and hands, which he now uses to propel himself from his wooden house to his backyard cave.
Ixcatlan is a village that is silent yet active, with all of its residents hand-weaving palm leaves as their lone means of sustenance.
“If we don’t weave, we don’t eat,” said Maria Patrocinio, an Ixcatec speaker who suffered discrimination in the mid-1900s when indigenous languages were synonymous with social backwardness.
“There are no longer any people who speak (that language) in Ixcatlan … Now there are just four or five of us, because there’s another woman named Ignacia up there, but she doesn’t speak anymore because she’s quite up there in age … and her daughter only talks a little,” she said.
Simultaneously walking and weaving, she still recalls a teacher in school telling her not to speak the language of her parents and grandparents because it did not sound good and to speak Spanish instead.
“When we were in school, the teachers told us not to speak Ixcatec, and so I didn’t speak it anymore. I didn’t learn everything,” said Maria, who added that she only understands some words.
Authorities’ response to the imminent loss of this language has been tepid, with preservation efforts limited to placing signs on the town’s streets that show, for example, the word for church in Ixcatec – “nungu.”
Linguists from the Juan de Cordova Research Library in Oaxaca City, however, have taken steps to keep a record of Ixcatec for posterity, including disseminating books written in that language and making audio and video recordings of conversations by its last remaining speakers.