Post 55 / The Next Language
August 23, 2021
A New Day in Mexico
Since my reentry into Mexico after close to 50 years elsewhere I had a growing hunch that things were different today. This was confirmed last Saturday after our visit to the Zapoteco: San Juan de Elotepec. This was a never-recorded language that has never had a New Testament.
We went directly to the highest elected official (the Mayor) and asked permission to record Bible stories. Within an hour they called a junto or village jury. We were told that 200 people convened under the shadow of a huge Catholic church. We were conducted to a cement room that was to be home for the duration of our time there. We were told that we could not be present for the junto but that we might be called to answer questions.
I started to get concerned after 6 hours went by and the meeting still continued. I remember in 1966 when Jim Mittlestedt and I were attempting similar entries into Zapeteco villages and sometimes we were forced to leave, but we also knew the very real potential of a mob lynching taking place. The village traditional power structures were used to keep unwanted people and ideas out and preserve the status quo. Most often this was fueled by alcohol and by a very protective Catholic priest.
Praise God! Such was not the case Saturday. At the end of the meeting the Mayor asked for at least ten language speakers to volunteer to work with us to record their language. We were blessed that one of the first to step forward was a very timid man named Martin from a neighboring village called Llano Monte. He grilled us until it was clear that both of us were evangelicals. Martin wanted to help but needed his pastor’s permission. The pastor was also a Zapoteco speaker. We indicated that we wanted to worship with them the next day, but he said we would not be welcome unless his pastor agreed with our doctrine. Thus we endured grilling by a second jury.
Sunday morning Martin showed up at dawn and had a notebook in which he had already started translating the creation story. He and his brother led us by foot about five kilometers over the mountain ridges to their church. After a service and a meal it was agreed that Monday we would begin to record.
We learned that indeed about 50 years ago the first believers here were shot and beaten but due to their faithfulness they are today a majority in Llano Monte.
The economy of this region is almost entirely subsistence. Necessary corn, beans, goats, and other victuals are grown on thousands-year-old terraces up among the pine trees. For every family we talked to, we learned the only way for them to earn cash was by going out to work in the commercial agricultural camps in northern Mexico or in the USA. This is the norm for rural Mexican areas that have no local economy.
Over the years the Gospel story has been getting back to the villages through distribution efforts at those migrant camps. We were blessed to see with our eyes the results of GRN’s decades-long efforts in Culiacan and other camps! Few missionaries or evangelistic efforts have taken place directly in these villages. Those who got Scriptures or ethnic teaching materials in the camps brought them back home with them. An interesting sidelight is that these areas have maintained their languages robustly. Others, like the Elotepec, are suffering from a process called linguistic termination. Monolingual speakers are all over 80. Fluent speaks are over 70. Most of those over 40 understand the language, but none of the children are learning the language. Now, however, after two years of no school and the ravages of covid, people are very sympathetic to anything that will preserve their language. (All of this helps explain what the 6+ hours of talk at the junto on Saturday were all about, as people discussed among themselves these identifiable trends and their results.)
In a few weeks the Elotepec will have the Gospel published in their own language. Some would say they don’t need it any more … but at least three other communities that still speak that language might disagree.
Our visits with the survey teams to acquire word lists have indicated that the situation in Elotepec is not unique or merely anecdotal. It is illustrative of a new day in Mexico where people are more open than perhaps any period in history to compassionate, sensitive, mother tongue invasion. Praise God it’s happening here!
My question is: Could this be happening elsewhere in the world?
Larry DeVilbiss | Executive Director
Global Recordings Network USA