From "The Memoirs, Volume Two" - Spring, 1995



            Then someone came up with the idea that there are, like, 28 native languages in the state of Oaxaca, besides Spanish, which of course I’d known, and that, well, we should translate our AIDS information into those languages so it could go out to the pueblos and lots more people could get our message and important, life-saving AIDS information.

            Boy, I said, that sounded like a lot of work to me.

            Nancy said, “You can do it, Bill.”

            So, we were talking it around a bit, and people always liked the idea and then, too, Nancy said, Bill, that’s just the kind of project that funding people like, you know, ethnic and such.  And I bet I could get us some money to do it.

            Well, she went to someone she knew at SEDESOL, this sort of Federal social agency which gives out money in grants, not too big, to good projects in Mexico; she knows everybody.  And she says, yes, I think there's some money there, Bill.

            Too, we had been working with CONAFE; last year they had received some thousand of our Education Packets, below.  The director was a nice guy, a friend of Nancy’s, and I met with him a few times.  It’s a state-wide program, also existing in a couple other states, I guess, mostly rural and poor states, which sends kids just out of high school into the remotest areas of the state, where they have practically no schools or education, and the kids teach in these little pueblos for a full year, like basics in Spanish, and reading and mathematics and such.  In exchange, the kids get grants for their college education.  It’s a good program.




            Our speakers had given a number of training sessions to the kids during the summer before their teaching and had been well received.  When we suggested to the director that they help us with some volunteers who spoke some of the indigenous languages and could translate our information, they were more than happy to comply and we got a good bunch of kids who wanted to help.




            We had come across a list of the indigenous languages in the state, some 27.  The principal languages each had several variants, Zapoteco, for example, listed five, Mixteca and Mixe, three each, and so forth.  We decided to start with the most populous, around nine, and for which we would be the most likely to find translators. 

            We held a number planning meetings and talked a lot about what we were doing.  Early we were made aware that any translation into indigenous languages should center on audio recordings, and not on written material.  Elí, Sergio’s friend from Juchitán and a Zapoteco del Istmo speaker, made it clear.

            “None of the state languages possessed writing.  The written forms of the languages are all the result of a sort of phonetic, Spanish spelling out.  Therefore, anyone who could read Zapoteco or Mixteco or such, could already read Spanish.  So, it was no use to spend our time on written material.”

            Fine, our efforts would go to recording audio cassettes.  We took the “script” from our original recording in Spanish which we had made for the Education Packet, and which Sergio had directed and the kids would translate in a recording studio.  The cassettes could then serve as adjuncts to our Packet and would work with our flip chart and illustrations by Enrique Flores which we had made the previous year.

            Sergio again was brought in to direct.  We asked CONAFE for two kids from each language, to have a bit more dynamics in the tape, two voices, and to be a bit more secure in what they were saying.  None of us, of course, spoke the languages and the two kids could check each other and make sure we were saying the right thing.




            We ended up with eighteen kids, two for each of nine languages.  That would be the project, the first stage, at least, with an idea to record nine more next year and nine the following year, to cover all 27 languages in the state.  We planned a week of training, rehearsals and recording.  We had become good friends with the University radio program and they agreed to loan us the space and their studio.

            We set up a little opening session on the Monday morning of the week and Nancy came, as well as Lilia and a couple others.  We had called the press and there were reporters and photographers from the papers.  Nancy gave a nice little talk to the kids and told them to work hard this week and do everything Sergio told them.  Then she turned it all over to Sergio and all the extras left.  Sergio began.  I stayed for a while and then was in and out throughout the week.  It was an interesting five days and we learned a lot.


            For one thing it was talked about that most of these communities have really two variants of each language, one of the adults, of the village elders and more formal, and another variant used by the youth, the kids, using a lot more slang and modernisms and such.  Well, of course, the youth of these communities was really our audience and whom we most wanted to reach with our message.  However, it was also noted, without the blessings of the community elders, our message stood little chance of being accepted or heard at all.  The village elders would not approve of any of what they would consider profanities or sexual explicitness.

            Well, a lot of our message talked about sex and a lot of sexually explicit information.  Then, too, a lot of these languages just didn’t have words for some things; condoms, for example, or vaginal fluids, or erections or ejaculations.  Those things would have to be explained in the language and a Spanish term defined and used.  Further, many of those things were referred to by “euphemisms.”  Semen, for example, could be called “honey from the hills.”  Well, even though everybody may know that honey from the hills means semen, as a factual AIDS information source, we couldn’t possibly say you get AIDS from honey from the hills!




            And so it went.  The kids worked hard and everybody talked a lot about how they would translate our material, to be accurate, to be accepted by the community, and to be clearly understood by those who heard it.  


            In the end we had nine tapes of our information in nine different languages of the state.  We also made a short demo tape, with one paragraph, the same, from each of the languages.  It was the first paragraph about “Sindrome” and you could hear each of the kids trying to explain in their language what a syndrome was.  It was a short tape about fifteen minutes, or less.  Nancy loved the whole thing and would call up people and say, “Listen to this!” and play the demo tape into the mouthpiece of the nine kids explaining syndrome.




            The following year we would record nine more languages with eighteen different kids, and over time hundreds of copies of the tapes would be sent out and often played on local radio stations which promoted indigenous languages, among others.  We had been thinking to translate a third nine languages, and finally cover all the 27 in the state, but by the end of the second nine, we realized we were hunting out really obscure dialects of which only a few, usually older, speakers still lived.  So we were satisfied with the eighteen we had, and never really came across others we thought we needed.


            We got some good coverage in the press and generated a lot of interest in the project.




            In addition, many of the kids who translated for us would remain good friends and occasional hangers-on for many years after, which I always enjoyed.





NOTE:  You can read more about this project and listen to the tapes on the Common Front's website under LISTEN AND LEARN:


*  *  *