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Saving a Dying Language
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The Journal

ENTRIES   1   :   2   :   3   :   4   :   5   :   6   :   7

Saturday, July 20

Saturday morning started around 6 a.m. with the call that hot water was ready for the day’s first infusion of instant coffee—with lots of instant milk and sugar.

Lev Michael frequently works with Hermenegildo Diaz Cuyasa
Lev Michael frequently works with Hermenegildo Diaz Cuyasa, one of the last fluent speakers of Iquito, to document the language.

The core team members are four graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin, Christine Beier and Lev Michael of the Anthropology Department, and Mark Brown and Lynda De Jong of Linguistics. David Munro joined the team for a few weeks as a volunteer consultant on pedagogy. David is a Canadian teaching in a private school in Lima and came to know Chris and Lev when they volunteered to make a presentation to his class about some of the work they conduct in the Nanti community.

The first appointment was at 8 a.m. with Lev, Mark and one of the especialistas for an elicitation session. At 9 a.m., Linda and David were conducting a teaching methods class for the linguistas, and Chris was busy unpacking the supplies and putting the center in order. The day would be a busy one with observing classes for the linguistas, interviewing especialistas, participating in a language class for adults at 7 p.m., which was followed by an invitation to another birthday party. Somehow the invitation seemed to hinge on the fact that our hosts wanted some rice for “our” meal. Our hosts also asked if we could bring the radio as long as we were coming.

Chris Beier (center) talks with one of the linguistas, Miroslava Guimack Llona
Chris Beier (center) talks with one of the linguistas, Miroslava Guimack Llona, about the implications of the language project.

There is an upcoming election for the position of president of the Department of Loreto—similar to a governorship, and one of the candidates was throwing a party, highlighted with bingo. Earlier in the day, most of the adults loaded on to a boat bound for a larger village and the fiesta. The birthday party in San Antonio got underway around 9 p.m., with trays of masato and another, eggnog-like drink passed around.

Masato is a local drink of some importance throughout Peru and is mashed, fermented yucca. An open air fermenting process is used, and the fermentation traditionally begins with women chewing mouthfuls of mashed yucca and spitting it back into the vat. A more modern method is to use sugar cane to begin fermentation. It takes a day or two before it is ready, but there is generally always some available and you are offered a bowl at any time of day.

Masato is a fermented drink made from yucca
Masato, a fermented drink made from yucca, is a staple of the community's diet.

The masato we had at the birthday party was similar to runny yogurt—sour with a somewhat grainy texture. One cup was quite enough. On the other hand, the second drink was very good and made of eggs, milk, sugar and a sugar cane alcohol. It was tasty, but you could tell that drinking very much of it would pack a wallop.

The center’s radio was being put to good use, and because batteries are in short supply, it was rigged up to a car battery. This music lasted for several hours before the local musicians took over. Tom and I made a short night of it, again falling asleep (or trying) to the sound of drums and flutes, which got louder as the night went on and didn’t stop until the sun was up.

Sunday, July 21

While Sunday is a rest day in the village, that is not the case in the center. The team spent the morning conducting elicitations from the especialistas, laminating drawings to be used in the classes and recording, transcribing and translating traditional folktales told in Iquito.

Arturo Vargas Tuisima is one of the linguistas
Arturo Vargas Tuisima, is one of the linguistas who will carry on the language classes throughout the coming year.

During this day the importance of the center really became evident. It is somewhat of a gathering place for the community, especially for some of the children. The Panduro family, especially the five boys ranging in age from 4 to 15, were frequently standing at the windows listening intently to conversations, whether they were in Spanish, Iquito or English. They were fascinated by the computers and especially the digital camera and would gather around at every opportunity to see the pictures or just watch quietly while we typed. Adults dropped by to bring gifts of food, such as smoked grubs (a taste best described as strong, woodsy bacon), or to ask to have photos taken.

The cast of characters I would come to know over the next few days include the linguistas, Arturo Vargas Tuisima, Miroslava Guimack Llona and Hilter Panduro Guimack, as well as the especialistas, Trinidad Pacaya Inuma, Ema Llona Yareja and Hermenegildo Diaz Cuyasa. Other players include the current and former Apus, or community leaders, and Ciro Panduro Guimack, the bilingual schoolteacher. I would find during interviews that there are many versions of how the language project started and how the language was lost in the first place, to say nothing of the village politics familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a small town.

Tonight the village was quiet because everyone needed to recuperate from a weekend of birthday parties and bingo.

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