When the Mixe Got Their Phone

September 1999

"A single lonely strand of telephone wire makes its way to the high, misty land of the Mixe indians of Oaxaca. For centuries they have been separated from the mysterious world of civilization and technology by their physical isolation and language. Mixe is the language of the mountains, Spanish the language of the city, business, and technology. Thus their amazement to find that the new telephone in the town square - well, read this tale for yourself to find out ..."

A little miracle is due in our house this week. The kind folks from the cellular telephone company will be coming out and installing a neat new machine, putting us in direct communication with the rest of the world. They're bringing out a stationary cellular phone. Stationary means it doesn't move, it's held to the wall with two bolts. And there is something to those two bolts. Since the phone can't move the calls will cost three and a half pesos less per minute than if I was sporting it on my hip. Of course this stationary advance is a big deal out here on the farm, as we are just a bit too far out to have any hope of ever getting a phone line poled out to us. Yet suddenly we are on the cusp of being able to yak on the telephone from the comfort of our own home.

Pots, scale, and door in Tamazulapan

The excitement of the pending event reminded me of the story about when the potters and farmers up in Tamazulapan got their phone. It was back in the late 80's, 1986 I think. Telmex, the corrupt, national phone monopoly, was putting antenna phones into rural villages that were big enough to make the investment profitable. Tamazulapan's card came up. As was typical, they got one telephone. It was placed in the new telephone office on the town square. Someone in the village had bought the concession from Telmex and it became their career to run the telephone office. They made their income on some percentage of the take and on the fee for sending a runner out to advise people that a call had come in for them. It should also be noted that the phone clerk, who overhears all calls, is in a privileged position for picking up gossip. There are those who covet the clerk position.

None of the complexities or rewards of the phone office operation were yet understood when the phone went into Tamazulapan. It was a brand new thing and novel enough an event that it was worth leaving behind the afternoon's field work and potting to go into town and check out.

Up in Tamazulapan, Spanish is the second language. The language spoken at home is Mixe (Mee-hay). The people, also called Mixe, are very traditional subsistence farmers and potters. Their homeland rings the tallest peak in Oaxaca, a sacred mountain called Zempoaltepetl. The legend goes that the Mixe are originally from Peru, but sometime in the 1200's the tribe began a trek in search of a holy mountain. Folks who study such things say that it is more likely that they began a trek because of religious persecution. What ever the case, about 100 years later they came to settle around the skirts of the mighty Zempoaltepetl. There were some old time Zapotec settlements around the hill when the Mixe arrived. The Mixe promptly whooped them. After 100 years of travel though hostile country the Mixe were pretty tough. And they were still tough a couple hundred years later when the Spanish came cutting into the mountains with their swords and armor to spread the word of greed among the Mixe. The mountain goat Mixe made short work of running the yelping Spanish back into the flat lands.

Downtown Tamazulapan

Way back in 1986 few of the Mixe had traveled outside of their mountain world. The ways of telephones were know only through hearsay. That afternoon when the phone got plugged in the first people to use it were those few who had spent time out of the mountains and had had run-ins with the technology. They were calling friends down in Oaxaca or Mexico city to let the good phone news be known. These callers were speaking Spanish, the language of the outside world. The crowd around watched this with fascination. The majority of them, true backwoods folks, didn't speak nor understand a word of Spanish. They had no idea of what was actually being said. None the less, to see the person talk into the piece of plastic was wonderful. There was an understanding, though quite vague and unclear in the details, that at the other end of the wire someone else was hearing what was being said at this end. One of the braver, or perhaps inebriated, members of the crowd shouted out a greeting so that it would go through the phone. A thrill, though subdued , ran through the crowd. After all, the Mixe are mountain people and tend be exceptionally restrained. As the calls continued to go out the crowd watched with fascination. Then a Mixe called a family member somewhere, another Mixe. As with the previous calls the inaugurating crowd leaned in to listen. Then the person making the call began speaking in Mixe... and continued speaking in Mixe. A gasp went through the crowd, eyes widened, hands covered awe-gaped mouths. It was no surprise that the telephone could speak Spanish. For the Mixe, Spanish was the language of commerce, technology, government, everything new and many other baffling things. What else would the phone speak? But that it could speak Mixe, how could it be!?

Of course I know how it is that the telephone speaks Mixe. I've been around. But I don't have any idea how it is that this new stationary cellular phone of mine will catch and sends voices though the air, wind or no wind. And much less do I understand how two bolts in the wall make a call cost three and a half pesos less per minute. But, and here I take my cue from the Mixe who are now quite comfortable with the linguistically acrobatic phone in the middle of the village. Like the Mixe I'll just accept it as another strange miracle from the outside world, and try not to say anything too revealing while I'm yaking on it.


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