Coding | 21/11/19: Endless Network

A PhD Explains Why Loading Indigenous Languages into Endless Computers Is A Form of Activism

The classroom in San Juan Quiahije, normally filled with notebooks and young students studying math and geography, looked very different than it normally did. Having finished an eight-hour drive to the small municipality in Oaxaca, Dr. Emiliana Cruz was addressing a roomful of adults who listened as attentively as if they were students and she was a teacher explaining square roots. A stack of boxes was perched intriguingly nearby.

“It was really fascinating what happened,” recalled Dr. Cruz. Carefully, explaining each move as she went, Dr. Cruz opened one of the boxes, took out a set of parts and, before the eyes of the school committee of local officials and parents, she assembled an Endless computer herself. Most of the parents were tentative about Dr. Cruz’s next direction. “I said ‘each of you grab boxes and put it together,’” she recalled. Computer programs much less how to assemble tkeyboards, hard drives, and screens was mostly foreign to the parents, who feared breaking the parts. But Dr. Cruz was encouraging and soon 18 Endless computers were humming to life in the small-town classroom in Oaxaca.

Dr. Emiliana Cruz

The 6th graders were called in and parents, many of whom had not graduated from elementary school, explained to their children how to turn on the computers they had just built and open typing programs, a dictionary, or a built-in library of stories written in the local indigenous language: Chatino. On top of the life-changing software, baked into each computer was an activist plan to strengthen indigenous communities in Mexico that Dr. Cruz had been planning for years.

San Juan Quiahije

Dr. Cruz was born in San Juan Quiahije, a stronghold of indigenous culture that suffers from the same lack of opportunities that affect indigenous communities across Mexico—limited access to healthcare and education, plus economic limits that disadvantage the entire community. At 23, Dr. Cruz migrated to the US to receive her MA and then her PhD in linguistic anthropology. As she climbed the ranks of academia, she did not want to lose sight of the legacy of activism she had learned from her father, Tomas Cruz Lorenzo. “The lessons I learned from him were: no matter what you do in life it is good to help your community, to work with new generations, to continue with the language, and continue practicing some of the traditional ways.”

Dr. Cruz’s language was Chatino, an indigenous language originating from the Zapotecan language family and, as of a 2010 census, is spoken by an estimated 45,000 people in Mexico. Despite a 2003 General Law of Linguistic Rights that established a framework for the conservation of indigenous languages and obligated the government to offer public services in local languages, the government continued to send teachers who did not speak the variety of Chatino to local schools, meaning both students and parents had to speak Spanish to communicate with the teacher, disempowering indigenous communities and relegating them to second class educational experiences that made their local language only useful within the confines of home. “In Mexico,” said Dr. Cruz, “there are more disadvantages is you speak an indigenous language than if you only speak Spanish.”

San Juan Quiahije

Dr. Cruz was determined to change that.

First, she launched the Chatino Language Documentation Project, collecting a body of linguists who recorded the many idioms and tones of Chatino. Then, she partnered with the HARP Foundation to bring those experts to teachers and local schools for workshops to not only preserve local languages, but reinvigorate and empower the community around them.

And then, she and the developers at Endless struck on the idea of pairing technology with her linguistic activism. Together, they began to load her research into computers in the form of Chatino dictionaries, short stories, tone libraries, and a writing system to explain the grammar. “If we can use Chatino in technology, then it’s not that the language is only for home,” she said.

Endless and Dr. Cruz brought computers to two communities in Oaxaca: San Juan and Cieneguilla, where they were placed in a library and a classroom. The larger goal of the pilot program is to take Chatino beyond the home and tie it to technology and the promise of future jobs. Now, in addition to learning the basics of typing and software programs, students can write stories in their local language and share them with each other.

Dr. Cruz knows that years of subsuming indigenous language and culture won’t be overturned by a few computers. But she’s optimistic about the larger trend. “To undo the ideology that Chatino is not a useful language is going to take a lot of time and I might not see it,” she said. But watching parents assemble computers, children write in their native language, and teachers gather alongside to support the program has been an amazing experience. Ultimately, all share a common goal, explains Dr. Cruz. “We all want the best for our children,” she said. “We want our children to have access to the best of the best.”

Children use computers with built-in libraries of stories written in the local indigenous language: Chatino