Long awaited beginnings

By Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, Jan. 31, 2020

Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship, Post 1. This is the first in a series of monthly blog posts by participants in the 2019 ACLS Digital Extension Grant project “Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship” (PI Lillehaugen).

Our ACLS grant officially started Dec 31, 2019 and this first month has been full of conversations, writing, outreach, and activity. In reflecting on the energy behind this month, the timeline of this kind of work seems relevant. While we have “just begun”, this is work that has been in motion for several years, as the capacity to undertake this current project developed. This first month’s endeavors represent a long awaited aligning of time and resources. 

The ACLS funding allows our team (including me (a linguist), Zapotec scholars and community members Dr. Xóchitl Flores-Marcial and Dr. Felipe H. Lopez, librarian and digital scholarship expert Dr. Mike Zarafonetis, and undergraduate student Eloise Kadlece) to create teaching modules based on the large historical corpus of manuscripts written in Zapotec during the Mexican Colonial period, and available on Ticha (https://ticha.haverford.edu/; Lillehaugen et al. 2016). This work is done alongside the larger Ticha team.

Zapotec is a family of languages indigenous to Oaxaca, Mexico also spoken by diaspora communities in Mexico and the U.S, especially California.  Zapotec languages belong to the Otomanguean stock and are not related to Spanish, though most Zapotec speakers today also know Spanish. Zapotec has been written for over 2,500 years. Today, there is a large corpus of texts written in Zapotec between 1565 (Oudijk 2008) and the late 1700s. Some of these were created under the auspices of the Catholic Church while others, such as the last will and testament of Sebastiana de Mendoza, shown in Figure 1, were created by Zapotec people for local administrative purposes. (View this text in its entirety on Ticha here and read an English translation of it in Munro et al. 2018.)

Figure 1. The first paragraph of the last will and testament of Sebastiana de Mendoza (1675)


Today, many people deny that Zapotec is a real language and that Zapotec was ever written. This absurd claim is consistent with discriminatory and racist ideologies that position Zapotec (and other Native) peoples and language as less than Spanish in repeated and systemic ways. Many Zapotec (and other Native) people publicly resist these false beliefs and are involved in educational activism, including—but certainly not limited to—the three members of the Ticha Zapotec advisory board: Dr. Flores-Marcial (who will be writing next month's blog post), Dr. Lopez, and Maestro Moisés García Guzmán.

Given this sociocultural context, access to the historical corpus of Zapotec language texts is particularly powerful. While a language does not have to be written to count as a language, the fact is that Zapotec has a long written history! Moreover, this corpus attests to a Zapotec history written in Zapotec. Over the next 18 months, we will be working to create publicly available teaching modules targeted for use in high schools and colleges in both the United States and Mexico based on this corpus. We already have two pilot units we built this month that Dr. Felipe H. Lopez will be using in his class “Zapotec Culture: Indigeneity Across Time and Place” at UCSD next week. One of these units introduces students to an element of Zapotec knowledge and science: the base-20 counting system. Another guides students through thinking about language shift and what all might be lost when languages are threatened. Both of these units were designed for first year college students with no previous knowledge about Zapotec language or linguistics. Several other units are already in the works and our list for others is growing. (Do you want to incorporate Zapotec history, culture, and language in your course? Be in touch!)

Since 2013, Ticha has been working to make this corpus publicly available and does so through community based methods, which – as Ortega puts it—are “the backbone of the project” (2019: n.p.). This ACLS funded project also employs community-engaged methods and views them as objects of study and reflection themselves; we explore the intersection of collaborative digital scholarship and community-engaged research. That is one of the goals of this monthly blog. We hope you’ll follow along and join in the conversation via Twitter or Facebook.


Ticha: a digital text explorer for Colonial Zapotec






Works cited

Lillehaugen, Brook Danielle, George Aaron Broadwell, Michel R. Oudijk, Laurie Allen, May Plumb, and Mike Zarafonetis. 2016. Ticha: a digital text explorer for Colonial Zapotec, first edition. Online: http://ticha.haverford.edu/.

Munro, Pamela, Kevin Terraciano, Michael Galant, Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, Xóchitl Flores-Marcial, Maria Ornelas, Aaron Huey Sonnenschein, & Lisa Sousa. 2018. The Zapotec language testament of Sebastiana de Mendoza, c. 1675. Tlalocan XXIII: 187-211. DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.19130/iifl.tlalocan.2018.480.

Ortega, Élika. 2019. Review: TichaReviews in Digital Humanities, 1 (1). https://doi.org/10.21428/3e88f64f.2cb07375.

Oudijk, Michel R. 2008. El texto más antiguo en zapotecaTlalocan 15.227-40. México, D.F.: UNAM.