Reviving the Mazahua Language in San Antonio La Ciénega

MazahuaApp is the tool created by César Cruz, a native of San Antonio La Ciénega, as a thesis project while studying Mechatronics at the Faculty of Engineering of the UNAM.

Reviving the Mazahua Language in San Antonio La Ciénega
César Cruz is rescuing the Mazahua language with a cell phone application. Images: UNAM

For César Cruz, returning to San Antonio La Ciénega is not only a return to his hometown; it is also a return to Mazahua or Jñatrjo, to the language he was unable to learn as a child but which he has begun to teach to local children and adolescents. "The language was at risk; the only speakers were the elders, who number about 100, and we have fewer and fewer left, so it was necessary to do something to prevent its death."

The 1,500 inhabitants of this rural town, located in the northwest of the State of Mexico at 2,600 meters above sea level and very close to the border with Michoacán, usually describe the place as a place where nothing happens, or where nothing used to happen because a few months ago an innovative Mazahua language introduction program was launched in the local primary, secondary, and high schools, based on a cell phone application developed by César as a thesis project.

"This tool is called MazahuaApp and was created while I was studying mechatronics at the Faculty of Engineering at UNAM. Being so far from home makes you remember your loved ones, and that nostalgia put me in front of a computer to shape software that, from the beginning, was thought of as a way to return part of its essence to my community.

The people of San Antonio La Ciénega have always been very proud of their indigenous roots, so much so that the locals refer to the town by its Mazahua name, Roxaxi—"the place where there are roses"—but apart from that word, they know no others, because for five decades—and many still do not understand why—the people stopped speaking the language and consider it "grandparents' stuff,"  a situation they are now trying to reverse.

Paula Segundo, a septuagenarian woman from the town, remembers that when she was a child, only Jñatrjo was spoken. "Before, it was rare to hear Spanish; today it's the opposite," she shares sadly. "When I meet young people in the fields, I tell them kjimidya ('good morning'), maxkjodya ('goodbye'), and pje gi kjatr'o? ('What are you doing? '), ¿ja gui jyasu̷? ('How did you wake up?'), but since they don't know Mazahua, they don't answer me. "

César understands that situation very well because he is one of those young people. "I would like to speak fluently with the elders, or "tios" (as they are called as a sign of respect for the elderly), but I barely know a few expressions. To develop the application and in the absence of that much-needed knowledge, I was supported by two graduates of the Language and Culture program at the Intercultural University of the State of Mexico and residents: Avisahín Cruz and Diego Mateo. I was in charge of the information technology, the technical part, and the visual design, and they were in charge of the pedagogical and linguistic aspects.

His dream is to get Mazahua spoken again in San Antonio La Ciénega as it was in the time of his grandparents, and he has joined many unlikely allies in this task. "Despite their distrust of new technologies, the elders were the most enthusiastic about the project." They opened the doors of their homes to us and, for the first time, faced a microphone. The voices heard in the application are their own, as they allowed themselves to be recorded so that the new generations will know firsthand how to pronounce the real jñatrjo, and how it is used in real life.

The town of San Antonio La Ciénega, Mexico.
The town of San Antonio La Ciénega, Mexico.

The Importance of Preserving Indigenous Languages: A Look at the Mazahua and the History of "Castilianization" Programs in Mexico

The myth goes that when the world was born, Father Sun and Mother Moon paired up to give birth to a race of giants called ma ndaa that disappeared, then to another race of dwarves, the mbeje, which also did not survive, to finally give birth to the jñatrjo, a word that designates the Mazahua and whose literal meaning is "those who speak," palpable etymological evidence that, for this culture, if there is no language, there are no people.

César confesses that one of his greatest frustrations is not having learned Mazahua as a child. "I learned computer languages before I learned the language of my ancestors," he says, and he adds that this was not due to a lack of interest; "it was because my parents were not taught them either, and the link was broken."

Regarding the loss of so many speakers from one generation to the next (from 2010 to 2020 alone, there will be between 136,000 and 132,000 people who know some Mazahua, according to INEGI), Avisahín Cruz explains that this decline is due, in large part, to the "Castilianization" programs promoted by the governments of the last century to erase indigenous languages.

The argument, adds the co-author of MazahuaApp, was that this would strengthen national identity, as Justo Sierra argued in 1902 in a speech in which he spoke about the ideals and goals of public education: "We call Castilian the national language not only because it is the language spoken since its infancy by the current Mexican society and because it was later inherited by the nation, but because, as the only school language, it will come to atrophy and destroy local languages, and thus the unification of national speech, an invaluable vehicle of social unification, will be a fact."

Fortunately, that way of thinking has been left behind, assures César, who explains that to start the Mazahua teaching courses in San Antonio La Ciénega, he received support from the UNAM through the Scholarship System for Indigenous and Afro-descendant Students and the Institute for Research in Applied Mathematics and Systems (IIMAS), as well as from the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI) and the Intercultural University of the State of Mexico. "There is increasing awareness, at all levels, of the importance of preserving our native languages."

Ninety-nine years after Justo Sierra's speech, in 2001, Miguel León-Portilla responded to such positions in a congress held in Valladolid, Spain: "There are those who consider that the death of indigenous languages is inevitable and that there is no reason to grieve since linguistic unification is desirable. In contrast, some think that the disappearance of any language impoverishes and greatly enhances humanity.

You can use MazahuaApp to study the Jñatrjo language.
You can use MazahuaApp to study the Jñatrjo language.

Learning the Jñatrjo Language with MazahuaApp: A Journey of Improvement and Fulfillment for Children and Adolescents in La Ciénega

The children and adolescents of La Ciénega have been learning the Jñatrjo language for three months with the MazahuaApp application, and their families are beginning to see the results and, above all, to listen to them, since part of the task is to repeat the lessons at home and learn the vocabulary.

"If they're already on their phones all day, it's great that now they're using them to study," says a mother as her daughter walks a few meters away from her, engrossed in her cell phone, while she presses her finger on the drawing of a cat to make the word mixi (which translates as "little hairy face") sound and then on that of a dog to make dyø'ø sound.

Teacher Mariana Medina is in charge of teaching the course and says that the students have begun to show a growing interest in the language. "They don't just ask me about this or that expression; now they go to their grandparents to ask them questions and come to class with new concerns." "They want to know what a certain part of the body is called or a certain color."

César explains that MazahuaApp is a company in constant improvement, as he attends the sessions to take note of what is not working and introduce improvements. "We are in the pilot phase; the goal is to perfect the software, and if we get good results, the next thing is to take it to neighbor communities, although of course adapting the application to fit the variants of Mazahua spoken in those areas."

The young man explains that he chose to make this program a phone app rather than a web page for practical reasons, as only 3% of homes in San Antonio La Ciénega have internet, and "all the children here have access to a cell phone."

For the engineer, having completed this project is, in part, fulfilling a childhood dream, since he would have liked to have had a tool like this while he was in elementary school. "Today I would be a different person because knowing another language gives you a much broader vision of the world."

For now, it only runs on Android, so one of César's plans is to create a version for iOS systems as well as integrate a voice recognition system, which, although it will involve effort, also represents something pleasant for him. "Every time I work on the app, I learn Mazahua." Maybe that's where my involvement comes from because, for me, this is making up for lost time and having that opportunity today that wasn't given to me as a child."