Recovering knowledge through forgotten words

By Felipe H. Lopez, July 17, 2020

Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship, Post 4. This is the forth in a series of blog posts by participants in the 2019 ACLS Digital Extension Grant project “Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship” (PI Lillehaugen) published on GlobalSL, the Community-based Global Learning Collaborative, and Ticha. Previous blog posts are available here: Lillehaugen/January 2020; Flores-Marical/February 2020; and Kawan-Hemler/March 2020.


Only a few weeks ago, I began my position at Haverford College as a Postdoctoral Scholar in Community Engaged Digital Scholarship, funded by an ACLS Digital Extension Grant. Starting this year of dedicated work on this project, I reflect on my long journey to help preserve my language. As a Zapotec speaker and writer, I actively try to maintain my community knowledge through my language. In 1992, as I started to realize that many migrants from my pueblo in Los Angeles were not passing on our language to our young generation, I sought out the help from linguists at UCLA to try to write my language.  This effort became crystalized with an orthographic system of my Zapotec variation, San Lucas Quiaviní, and in 1999 we published a trilingual Zapotec-English-Spanish dictionary (Munro and Lopez, et al. 1999).


Now, over 20 years later, I am still learning about my language, Zapotec words, and all the knowledge and history they hold. Unable to travel to Oaxaca for in-person workshops, we recently began online “Conversatorios”, a series of Zoom meetings for Zapotec activists to talk and discuss Colonial Zapotec documents. One Conversatorio is facilitated by Dr. Xóchitl Flores-Marcial (you can read her blog post here) and the other one by me. You can see some of the Conversatorio participants in Figure 1: Sandra Gonzalez and Rogelio Hernandez from Matatlán, Juan Prospero (also Aurora Gomez who is not visible) from San Bartolomé Quialana, Moisés García Guzmán, from San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya (and also a Ticha Advisory Board Member), Mabel Iris and Leonardo (not shown) from Diaz Ordaz, and finally Noel Alejandro Santiago (not shown) from Teotitlán del Valle. Here we are going over the first lesson that was focused on colonial Zapotec documents.  


Figure 1. The Conversatorio in action


The Conversatorio that I facilitate consists of 8 people including myself (all listed above), from six different pueblos in the Valley of Tlacolula. All of them have been active in the promotion of their Zapotec language for years. Even though we all speak Tlacolula Valley Zapotec, in each town we speak a different variety; that is what really enriches our languages.  Through these Conversatorios not only do we learn from one another, but also we learn new words, or find words in the Colonial documents that have changed in meaning over the last centuries. 


For example, the word coconi that we saw in a 1614 document sparked a discussion. One of the team members recognized it as being cuni in his variation, and all of us agreed that it was indeed that word. This word was used to refer to a “virgin” in Colonial times, but no longer can be used that way. Moreover, the meaning of the modern word seems to vary a bit from pueblo to pueblo. In Tlacochahuaya, Matatlán, and Teotitlán, this word is used to refer to a young chicken or female turkey that has never laid any eggs. Interestingly, Rogelio Hernandez from Matatlán, mentioned that some people in his community pronounce the word as cucuni, which seems to be closer to the Colonial Zapotec word. In Quialana, Diaz Ordaz, and Quiaviní, we only use this in the word budycuny, which refers to a female turkey. I thought that in Quiaviní it could refer to any female turkey, young or not. However, encouraged by this discussion, I asked a member of my family back home about this word and she told me that it is used to refer only to young female turkeys “who haven’t met a boy yet”. Moisés García Guzmán reflects on this conversation in a tweet, shown Figure 2.  (Click on the link to see the whole thread—his tweet sparked further discussion online!)    


Figure 2. Tweeting about the Colonial Valley Zapotec word cuni


Going over the documents and talking about the Colonial Zapotec words not only reminds us of certain words that we use today, but also jogs our memories about other words that have been lost in our pueblos.  For instance, Rogelio Hernandez also mentioned that in his pueblo Santiago Matatlán, there exists a word dadqui to refer to the head or ruler of a town. This word is made up of two parts, the first part dad means ‘father’ and the second part qui means ‘head’.  However, this word is known to only a few people, as all the pueblos in the Valley of Tlacolula now use the Spanish borrowing pristen instead. 


Through the Conversatorio I have also found some ways to confirm words that I had hear from my grandparents. As a child, my maternal grandmother used to count in Zapotec and some of the words stuck in my mind and I had asked many older folks about them.  For instance, I remember two words she used: gayon for 60 and ta for 80.  But when I asked other folks about these words, some of them would say they had never heard of the word or they were not sure. As I became involved with the Ticha Project, I have been able to confirm these words, which we see in the Colonial documents. As we begin our module focused on counting, I am learning how to count with higher numbers in Zapotec and I share this knowledge through Twitter, see Figure 3.



Figure 3. Sharing what I’m learning about Zapotec numbers on Twitter

As we resort more and more to Spanish over time, we keep losing words that we used to use in our pueblos. In my pueblo, I notice a big difference between my generation and the younger generation. The usage of more Spanish words is particularly reflected when counting and many people resort to Spanish to count higher than twenty.  In this Conversatorio we also talk about these types of challenges. We are learning more about our language, including how to count using only Zapotec—but how do we promote our languages more in our communities, as there is little support for this type of activism? While all of us enjoy learning, we are learning so that we can have an impact in our pueblos. For us, these go hand in hand.

Undergraduate Uncertainties: Joining Ticha and Rethinking Plans

By Collin Kawan-Hemler, March 26, 2020


Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship, Post 3. This is the third 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) published on GlobalSL and Ticha. Previous blog posts in this series: Post 1, Post 2.

I am a prospective History major in my second year at Haverford College. I also have been fortunate enough to join the Ticha team as an undergraduate research assistant on this ACLS-funded project. My interest in Ticha and issues of indigenous language rights came from watching the documentary web series Dizhsa Nabani–Lengua Viva–Living Language at Haverford in the fall 2018 semester. Dizhsa Nabani captured the daily use of Valley Zapotec in the San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya community, placing the language as a critical part of maintaining Indigenous identity and pride in a hostile national and global context. Dr. Brook Lillehaugen was my academic advisor at the time and suggested that I should attend the web series premiere at Haverford College. I was struck by the urgency of the work that had been done and valued the film’s uplifting impact on the community that it portrayed. From watching Dizhsa Nabani and listening to a panel of some of its co-producers, I was introduced to what Dr. Xóchitl Flores-Marcial vividly articulated in last month’s blog: the irrefutable need for present scholars to counter persistent colonial frameworks of interpreting Zapotec language and intellectual history.

Last semester I took a course on the history of colonial Latin America. One of our guiding texts throughout the course was Las venas abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America), by the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. My professor opened one lecture with a quote from Galeano: “I’m a writer obsessed with remembering, with remembering the past of America above all and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia.” As I piece together my intellectual interests and goals in this part of life, Galeano’s work remains an inspiring impulse to pursue Latin American studies. As Ticha’s corpus of text demonstrates, present tensions of language use and learning have deep roots that are traceable. Considering how fraught any definition of who or what is included in “Latin America,” I am eager to participate in a project rooted in a community where the complications and deficiencies of that category emerge.

When I agreed to write this month’s blog post, the semester and my involvement in Ticha was still fresh. I looked forward to reflecting on the first three months of reviewing educational units and participating in weekly Zoom meetings. I did not anticipate that this unassuming remote conferencing service would become the primary technology through which I continue much of my learning experience. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon much of the world a break with business as usual–the Ticha Project team members and the rest of the academic community are no exceptions. I can say, however, that my involvement has shown me what goes on behind producing the published findings and deliverables of a complex digital humanities project. My role has been less intensive than those with longer histories with Ticha but that has given me space to help facilitate meta-level discussions. I have prepared presentations on several other DH projects to identify what styles of pedagogical materials are being circulated and whether there are lessons for this project. I also look forward to more literature discussions so that our work is informed by important theories about co-authorship, archival practices and community-engaged scholarship. My next assignment after this blog will be developing an answer key for our first published lesson on Zapotec language shift. This pedagogical unit allows one to consider language shift in a Zapotec context and brings Zapotec language from 1578 to present day to the reader. Importantly, through videos, the users can learn directly from Zapotec experts Sr. Filemón Pérez Ruiz (from Macuiltianguis) and Maestra María Mercedes Méndez Morales (from Tlacochahuaya), as seen in the video below.


In recognition of educators’ sudden need for more digitally available materials, the language shift unit was made public earlier than planned. It is an understatement for me to say that the Ticha team and myself are facing a lot of uncertainty. How can I balance my adjustment to remote and digital learning with my preparation for work in the summer? What do travel bans and viral transmission risks mean for the project’s summer travel plans? Will the same sources of funding be available? These questions were swirling around me as I sat in my dorm filling suitcases with clothes and boxes with books before driving back home. In an odd way I was grateful to hear some of the same anxieties from other team members. We have all been working and communicating through digital means. Ticha itself is a product of digital archiving and hyperlink connections; the work will continue. Even with the chaotic situation I committed to still writing this blog because I think that anyone who is engaged in education and research at any level is sitting with similar anxious anticipations about the next few weeks and months. Amid many think pieces on productivity in a pandemic I hope that more spaces for reflection on our collective panicked and overwhelmed states are opened up.

At the moment I do not need to have all the answers for myself. But I am confident that collectively the Ticha team will craft an ethical and humane way forward with the fullest intention to achieve our project’s stated goals.

Indigenous Voices in Pedagogical Materials: Zapotec Number Systems and Indigenous Epistemologies

By Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial, Feb. 25, 2020; @xochizin


Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship, Post 2. This is the second 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) published on GlobalSL and TichaPrevious blog posts in this series: Post 1.


Ticha facilitates content which has been contextualized with the input of diverse perspectives including those of the members of the Ticha team, additional Zapotec community members, and students. Together, with funding from ACLS, the Ticha project is creating teaching materials [see last month’s blog], such as the unit on the Zapotec number system which two members of the team introduced in college classrooms over the last several weeks. I brought this content to my History of Mexican Peoples course at California State University, Northridge and Dr. Felipe Lopez introduced it to his Zapotec Culture and Language course at University of California, San Diego. Here I share the power of seeing Zapotec language manuscripts on a digital platform, bringing Indigenous language content to the classroom, and having students engage with the content through discussing Zapotec epistemology in detail.

When we talk about community-engaged scholarship we have to talk about not only including members of a community into the work, but also of including content produced by members of the community. By incorporating digital versions of sixteenth century Zapotec texts in the teaching unit on the Zapotec number system, we amplify Indigenous knowledge and extend the conversation to math, science, architecture, commerce, and the pre-Hispanic calendar system. The manuscripts and the snapshots of colonial life these provide encourage students to think about the long history of Zapotec intellectual culture and to consider ways in which Zapotec number systems were employed in the past and how these numbers exist in the Zapotec languages spoken today. Furthermore, it reminds students to be mindful of the vocabulary that we use to discuss this content and that we must credit the intellectual power of Indigenous Peoples who originally contributed to the production of these texts.

When I presented my History of Mexican Peoples course with the Ticha materials on the Zapotec number system, my class was at the end of the section that focuses on Indigenous intellectual culture in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Students by this time had seen material evidence such as Mesoamerican monumental architecture, calendar systems and writing systems alongside other monuments of history dating back over 5,000 years when Zapotecs began organizing their societies in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. I showed them Zapotec numbers as they were recorded in calendrical context circa the first century CE, like those in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Monte Alban stelae 12 and 13 showing Zapotec numbers circa 1st century CE

(Source Wiki Commons)


The 40 students in my class understood the context in which Zapotec writing technology developed. But now they had the opportunity to look closely into the Zapotec number system and to engage with Indigenous produced knowledge. For example, in this lesson they are taught the basic building blocks of the Zapotec number system, then asked to analyze larger numbers. Consider the word for 130, xopalallebichij.  Only though understanding what the word means can we fully appreciate the system.  Students learn that we can break the word up in the following way, making the vigesimal (base 20) counting system apparent:




‘six 20s and 10 (more)’ = 130


I asked students to consider ways in which Zapotec society applied this epistemology in their monuments of history as well as in their daily social actions, such as counting tortillas. One of the most dynamic parts of this discussion led to the fact that we were talking about a Native society that is not the Aztec or the Maya, societies that are commonly associated with calendar systems and monumental architecture. This part of the discussion was very lively, especially when I encouraged students to look at pre-Hispanic chronology which placed the beginnings of the Zapotec writing system over 2,000 years before that of the Aztec.

2,500 years ago, Zapotec urban planners in concert with architects and religious specialists used complex mathematics to design, organize and construct many buildings that still stand to this day. In my lecture that day, I showed images of Zapotec archaeological sites, focusing on specific buildings such as building J in Monte Alban, Oaxaca. This building was constructed in the first century AD, and served as an astronomical observatory where Zapotec intellectuals recorded the movement of the heavens and developed a rich repertoire of scientific knowledge that was used in other social engagements such as politics, agricultural production, and the recording of history. Many years later, the Zapotec number system was recorded using an alphabet introduced by Europeans in the first half of the sixteenth century, as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Zapotec numbers

(Cordova 1578a: 102r;


Today, one of the most gratifying aspects of the Ticha work is that, as a Zapotec scholar, I get to share the intellectual accomplishments of my ancestors with the internet community. As a member of this Native society, I strive to facilitate scholarship on Zapotec studies and relay information that my ancestors recorded over the course of hundreds of years. Throughout my own K-12 education experience I had never felt included in the academic curriculum. Thus, my inspiration for this work was born the very first time I read about Oaxacan history in a college classroom. When I finally saw the history of my ancestors included in an academic conversation, I felt empowered and encouraged to learn more. It was a powerful sentiment that I hope to extend through the teaching modules we are creating.

At the same time, it is an opportunity to remind people that many speakers of Indigenous languages continue to speak their languages in the 21st century. Zapotec is a threatened language and the Ticha team hopes our efforts will increase awareness of the Native language and help people understand that many other Indigenous societies like the Zapotec have a history of complex Intellectual life that we can understand and applaud from our own position in history. We need to hold scholarship accountable for how it has treated Indigenous Peoples’ contributions to the world. This project is a small step in favor of encouraging a heightened understanding of Zapotec language and intellectual culture.

Long awaited beginnings

By Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, Jan. 31, 2020; @blillehaugen


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 (; 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:

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:

Ortega, Élika. 2019. Review: TichaReviews in Digital Humanities, 1 (1).

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

Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship - ACLS Digital Extension Grant 2019-2021

By Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, May 15, 2019

In this ACLS-funded project, we explore questions of collaboration in digital scholarship and the intersection of collaborative digital scholarship with community-engaged research. This project leverages an existing project, Ticha, and propels it forward through the creation of publicly available English and Spanish language teaching modules that will be targeted for use in high school and college level courses in both the US and Mexico. This work will be done with an interdisciplinary team including the PI (a linguist), Zapotec activists and scholars, digital scholarship experts, and undergraduate students. The community-engaged methods employed will not only be a means by which a particular digital scholarship project achieves advancement, but will also be objects of study and reflection themselves.

Ticha, a digital text explorer for Colonial Zapotec (, is a digital scholarship project that allows users to access and explore many interlinked layers of texts from a corpus of texts written in the Zapotec language during the Mexican Colonial period. Users can navigate images of the original documents, transcriptions, translations, and linguistic analysis. Ticha seeks to make this corpus of Colonial Zapotec texts accessible to scholars in diverse fields, Zapotec community members, and the general public.

Zapotec is an indigenous language spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico and by diaspora communities in Mexico and the United States, especially California. There is a long history of alphabetic writing in Zapotec language and this corpus of texts are a rich and underutilized resource on Zapotec language, history, culture, and personal heritage. Since 2013, the Ticha Project has been engaged with research on and dissemination of this corpus through the creation and growth of a digital platform for exploring these texts, and in person workshops that both utilize and further annotate these texts in a circular creation of knowledge. The Ticha project is committed to: (i) maintaining a project that is sustainable and innovative; (ii) creating work that engages Zapotec voices at all stages; (iii) ensuring that the archive of colonial texts repeatedly, and in its very design, points to the Zapotec community; and (iv) playing an active role in the larger community of digital scholarship, learning from and providing a model for others interested in community-engaged digital scholarship.

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High school or college educators interested in inquiring about collaboration should contact Dr. Lillehaugen at