Ayapa Manuel
Don Manuel Avedis Hadjian

AYAPA, Mexico -- Don Manuel and Don Chilo, the last fluent speakers of Ayapaneco – a native Mexican language – are not on speaking terms. For them, love lost between neighbors has proved a more formidable communication barrier than obscure linguistics. Don Manuel says his neighbor is a bitter man; Don Chilo hints, with a wink, that Manuel resents sharing the limelight. To make matters worse, Don Manuel is hard of hearing and Don Chilo tends to speak in barely audible mumbles.

The legend of Don Manuel and Don Chilo has somehow leaked out well beyond the little pueblo in which they live, and locals are now used to directing foreign visitors to one house or the other on either side of the square in this town in the Mexican state of Tabasco. The Tower of Babel would dwarf the bell tower of Ayapa’s church, yet local tales are aware of the biblical echoes of confounded speech and brotherly feuds. Both men vehemently deny to others that they refuse to talk to one another. But no one has heard them exchange conversation in quite some time, and this reporter failed to persuade either to pay a visit to the other fellow Ayapaneco-speaker for a little chat.

Ayapa Chilo
Don Chilo Avedis Hadjian

Don Manuel (formal name Manuel Segovia), 78, and Don Chilo (Isidro Velázquez), who says he is in his early 70s though his birth certificate for some reason indicates he was born in 1843, teach Ayapaneco together to a few dozen children and teenagers. Since they work as a team, it would follow that they should talk to each other, but the reality is more complicated.

“Did you see him?” Don Manuel asks his unexpected visitor, right away, upon receiving him. He obviously assumes there is no need to clarify who is “him.” Of course they are friends, he says. “It’s just that Chilo is hateful.”

Like many other indigenous languages, Ayapaneco, or Nuumte Oote (“the true language,” as its speakers call it), began declining with universal schooling in Mexico in the late 1930s. Intermarriage, stigmatization and migrations did the rest. Of the 89 indigenous languages spoken in the country, nine have fewer than 10 speakers left, according to the Mexican Census of 2010. The Mexican government as well as researchers around the world are scrambling to save as much as possible of the vanishing languages. Yet the last two truly fluent Ayapaneco speakers have arguably been the most eccentric pair in this linguistic Noah’s Ark.

For example, on a bus trip to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in the neighboring state of Chiapas, Don Chilo became a little testy as the terrain became mountainous. To linguist Roberto Zavala Maldonado, from the Anthropology Research Center CIESAS in San Cristóbal, who was traveling with him to a conference, it became obvious that Don Chilo had not seen a mountain before. “Why would anyone build these huge mounds of earth and stones? What are they for?” he asked crankily, as Zavala remembers it. Then the other Ayapaneco speaker, Don Manuel, went to a conference of linguists in Catemaco, in the state of Veracruz, and refused to leave his room for fear of witches and covered the floor with basil leaves to protect himself against their maledictions.

At least one Ayapaneco expert claims that communications between Don Manuel and Don Chilo would be difficult even if they wanted to speak to each other, because of dialectal differences he detected in their use of the language. In an article for the journal American Anthropologist, Daniel Suslak, associate professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., notes, “…personal differences aside, one of the reasons why Manuel and Chilo do not speak to each other in Ayapaneco is because they speak it quite differently.”

In any case, quarrels in the Ayapaneco-speaking community predate Don Manuel and Don Chilo. Doña Carmela, a cousin of Don Manuel's who passed away in 2008, angrily faulted him for sharing the secret language with foreigners, Suslak reports in his article. “Those words that you sell to them, she told Don Manuel, would get scattered all around, and the next time that the French decided to invade Tabasco, the people of Ayapa would not be able to defend themselves,” Suslak recounts Doña Carmela saying, referring to the French occupation in 1863. “They would be yelling ‘Poo'yü! Too'yü!’ and the foreigners would immediately understand that they were saying, ‘Flee! Defend yourselves!’ and chase everybody down.”

Don Manuel was careful not to upset his cousin. “Carmela was a violent woman,” he told International Business Times during a recent visit. “She didn’t speak it well but she thought she did, nobody could understand her. … She wanted only what she said to be recorded.”

After the passing of his brother Esteban in 1999, Don Manuel has restricted the use of Ayapaneco to the language courses and to alert his son José Manuel to approaching brujos (“witches”) from Cupilco, the neighboring town he believes to be a nest of black magic practitioners. At his home, Don Manuel usually sits by the door, keeping watch over strangers. “Look, look! The ones in the black scooter!” he shouts in Spanish to his son and then continues in Ayapaneco.

“Is Daniel’s dictionary ready yet?” he asks me, referring to Suslak’s project on Ayapaneco, as a dog dashes in from the open street door and runs to the backyard. Panicked crowing comes from the back of the house, followed by the furious flapping of wings. The dog runs out to the street, followed by a large, enraged rooster, leaving behind him a swirl of black feathers. “Ask Daniel when is the book coming out,” Don Manuel says, oblivious to the animal wars but with a wary eye on motorbike-riding witches from Cupilco, as the rooster marches victoriously back to the henhouse and three ducks emerge from a room to inspect the little battlefield in the wake of the melee.

Don Manuel escorts me to a few feet from Don Chilo’s house but refuses to join him and hides behind a column in the square. After some grumbling that journalists never want to pay for the interviews he grants, Don Chilo agrees to speak, but his mood sours when his picture is taken, saying he looks “like a cat.” He doesn’t wait for questions to speak: “They say we Indians love gossip and gossip is that I don’t talk to Manuel.” If he were with Manuel, “We would be drinking pozol [a cocoa and corn-based local drink] and talking for hours,” he insists, but turns down my proposal to see Don Manuel, saying it's siesta time. “Tabasco no es como la pintan/ era tropical pero ya no es” (“Tabasco is not as they say/ it was tropical but it no longer is”), he sings before bidding his visitor farewell. As I depart Don Chilo’s house, Don Manuel pops from behind the column in Ayapa’s square. “What did he say? What did he say?”

There is something in the humid heat of this marshy part of Mexico that somehow numbs the senses to the farcical yet painful demise of a doomed language and the tragedies, big and small, affecting this community of two persons and their sacrificed lives. Don Manuel’s wife passed away after an agonizingly slow death from untreated diabetes – in the final months of her life, she would be screaming inarticulate sounds, with her hands stretched out begging for help, in a bed in the main room of the house, where Don Manuel received his visitors. When at home, Don Manuel didn’t leave her alone, except when in the company of a cousin as he dictated Ayapaneco lessons in the classroom he had improvised in the house.

His son, José Manuel or “Manuelito,” makes a living restoring Catholic saints’ statuettes – a reasonably profitable venture in a town where every house has a shrine the size of a small chapel and kids play soccer whenever they can, hitting everything in the ball’s path. But he is wheelchair-bound due to what appears to be multiple sclerosis. His son’s loving dedication notwithstanding, the relentless progress of the disease is now reflected in the quality of his work. A beheaded St. Jude had been immaculately brought back to life a year ago, but an angel with a broken wing Manuelito had just repaired was bore a visible scar that he was painfully trying to disguise as he resolutely held on to the brush with his enfeebled hand.

During a subsequent visit to Don Chilo’s house last summer, his son had reappeared and, a beer bottle in hand, was loudly cutting his father off as he tried to explain how he felt about the approaching death of Ayapaneco. Finally, Don Chilo’s voice prevailed. “Once I die nothing will matter anymore,” he said softly. “The dead feel no pain.”

In Mexico, however, life and death come together. As Ayapaneco is dying, another language that was unknown until a few months ago is only now coming to light.

After carrying out research on Ayapaneco for a while in the 1990s, Zavala, the linguist from CIESAS, eventually moved on to other projects, yet came across a big discovery almost by chance during a literacy campaign in the district of Simojovel, in Chiapas. Locals at the neighborhood of Ejido Caldo told Zavala there were some people who spoke a strange language, and so it was that he came across Jitotoltec – the name Zavala gave it, a language from the Zoque family and a linguistic enclave in a Tzotzil area. Outside the very small group of its speakers, nobody knew about Jitotoltec before. As the language has borrowed from Tzotzil, teachers thought the children from the Jitoltec community simply had a poor knowledge of Tzotzil. They were speaking a completely different language, unbeknownst to their very neighbors, for centuries until now.