This summer, Art History PhD student Bryan Schaeffer received a LCTL (Less Commonly Taught Languages) fellowship to participate in the Mixtec Language program offered by San Diego State University in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico. The six-week intensive course brought Bryan closer geographically, intellectually, and culturally to the Mixtec peoples in the state of Oaxaca. The Mixtec peoples are indigenous inhabitants of the geographic and cultural region known today as “La Mixteca.” They refer to themselves and their language as “Sa’an Savi” or “Ñuu Dzahui,” meaning “People of the Cloud/Rain Place” (the name “Mixtec” is an exonymic moniker given to them by the Nahua groups of central Mexico during the Late Postclassic Period, the two centuries before contact with Spaniards). They are the modern descendents of the ancient peoples who created many codices or sacred books (7 of them are extant), which are the objects Bryan is analyzing for his dissertation.
Bryan’s Mixtec professor immediately introduced the class of four students to his hometown of San Juan Mixtepec (“Ñuu Snuviko”), a town that speaks one of dozens of localized variants of the Mixtec language. After spending the first two days of the summer program in the mountains of Oaxaca, the class returned to Oaxaca City to begin formal daily sessions. In addition to the daily sessions, the class had several field trips to various destinations in La Mixteca such as Apoala, the sacred primordial center of ethnogenesis for the Mixtec (as visualized in the codices), San Martin Huamelulpan, an ancient Mixtec site now studied archaeologically, and Cuilapan de Guerrero, a colonial “ex-convento” established by the Spaniards in the 16th century.
Although difficult to master because of the dozens of dialects, Sa’an Savi, which belongs to the Oto-Manguean family, is a language integral to Bryan’s dissertation project and cultural understanding. The summer program enabled Bryan to draw closer, in many ways, to the various indigenous groups (18 in all) of Oaxaca, the Mexican state with the most diverse and numerous indigenous populations. By the end of the summer, Bryan was a chaa sii ini xeen or “very happy man” who learned a great deal.