May 17, 2002

From Oaxaca to UCLA: A Zapotec’s story

By Conrad Fox
The News (Mexico)

May 14, 2002 -- It has been a long search, but Felipe Lopez has found himself.

From the maize fields of Oaxaca, he has crossed a desert and a border; he has spent time in Los Angeles kitchens and stuffy night school classrooms; he has been rejected by his countrymen and welcomed by foreigners. A Zapotec Indian, he abandoned his native language in favor of English, and later Spanish. Now, a doctoral student at UCLA and co-author of the first Zapotec-English-Spanish dictionary, he has come full circle.

“I feel I am at ease,” he says. “I have come to revalue my language.”

Lopez grew up speaking Zapotec, the language of roughly 400,000 indigenous people in the southern states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz. Like most Zapotec towns, his was poor, remote and cut off from the life of mainstream mestizo Mexico. Lopez learned some Spanish in school, but after dropping out of sixth grade, he soon forgot it.

At 16, he took a bus to Tijuana and snuck across the border in the dead of night. In Los Angeles, he worked in a series of restaurants, where his Spanish speaking Mexican co-workers derided him as a “stupid Indian.”

“This was a really painful,” he says. “All the discrimination this made me reject who I was.”

To win acceptance, the young Lopez effected the tough, gangster look of the Mexican cholos. He quickly learned English, and much later Spanish. He only felt comfortable on the weekend, when he and other Zapotecs would gather for pick-up basketball games and to talk their native language.

“And after the game,” he says sadly, “you go home and feel the loneliness and longing again.”

Quiet, soft-spoken and erudite, Lopez today is the only person from his town to have gone to college. He has a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies and is currently doing a PhD in urban planning, focusing on the role of immigration and support groups in the development of Mexican towns. Now comfortably rooted in the U.S., with an Anglo wife and two young children, he still keenly feels the hopes and pains of his native people.

“We bring a history of oppression,” says Lopez. “Yet we’ve come to get ahead and we really take advantage of the opportunities here.”

For Lopez, the opportunity was education. Even as he worked as a chef at a well-respected French restaurant, he attended night school, and later was offered a scholarship to UCLA. The sheer will to succeed and encouragement from his future wife - overcame his own fear of what he calls his “education gap.”

“It was embarrassing to go to school and find out there had been two world wars,” he recalls with self-effacing good humor. “People would look at me like ‘where have you been?

When Zapotec Indian Felipe Lopez came to the U.S. at age 16, he abandoned the language and culture of his upbringing, and sought to fit in with the mestizo, or non-indigenous Mexican immigrants he worked with in Los Angeles. After rising through the ranks of L.A. eateries, he went to college in 1992. It was then that he understood what he’d lost.

“I didn’t see any value in my language,” he said. “But slowly I began to realize that my language is a whole way of looking at the world.”

Fearful it would be lost, he approached Pamela Munro, professor of linguistics at UCLA with the idea of creating a dictionary. After six years of interviewing Zapotec immigrants in Los Angeles and the painstaking work of devising a writing system for an oral language, the pair were able to catalogue 9,000 words with definitions in Zapotec, English and Spanish. A second volume contains another 20,000.

Published in 1999 by UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, the San Lucas Quiavini Dictionary is sold on, and has been distributed throughout Lopez’s hometown of San Lucas Quiavini in the southern state of Oaxaca.

“Context is very important in my language,” he said. “We have ideas you can’t easily express in Spanish or English.”

He explained how the definitions in the dictionary draw on everyday experiences from rural San Lucas, rather than modern, western culture.

An example is the important concept of “reciprocity” or “exchange” in Zapotec.

“We differentiate between gualne’ihzy, where labor is exchanged, and gahlgehz, where a good is exchanged,” he said. “If you give me a turkey for a wedding, I must give you a turkey (of the same weight) later at some other occasion, such as a baptism.”

Today a PhD student in urban and regional planning at UCLA, Lopez must feel a long way from the Zapotec context. Nevertheless, he has not turned his back on his roots. His dissertation examines development alternatives for the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the impoverished region in the south of Mexico bordering Central America, inhabited largely by Zapotec Indians.

“How can Mexico be so rich, without providing for its people?” he asked, describing the poverty in his native land.

Indigenous peoples have been ignored by the Mexican government, and if they are to progress, he said, they will have to help themselves. One way to do this, and a central focus of his research, are the support groups of Zapotec immigrants who organize to send aid and expertise back to their communities.

Another option, he says candidly, is to leave Mexico.

“I am really grateful for the opportunities this country has given me,” said Lopez. “Of course, I am reaping the benefits of the social activists who came before me, like Cesar Chavez and Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Asked if he is bitter about Mexico, he sighed deeply. “No,” he said, “just disappointed.”

He knows his ambivalence towards his own country is unpopular, and he says he has often been called a traitor to his flag. But, he rarely finds anything in the flag that speaks for his own people. Despite the “rhetoric of racial democracy” he says, political life in Mexico is still dominated by the mestizo culture.

He laments the popular image of indigenous people drawn from the post-revolutionary murals of Orozco and Rivera, with their romantic portrayals of heroic peasant farmers in traditional indigenous clothes. “They have done us a disfavor,” he says of the painters. “They have made us into icons.”

For a Zapotec living in California, the problem of identity must indeed be acute.

Lopez has solved it for himself, and he is now determined to help others do the same. He often visits classrooms where he advises children: “You have to pursue your dream and be persistent.”

“The moment you give up and start believing what people say about you, you really are giving up the power over your life.”

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