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Who Can Save Ayapaneco?

How Vodafone Exploited an Endangered Language to Build its Brand

Vodafone's Cliché

Ayapaneco is a dying Mexican language with only two living speakers left…who refuse to speak to each other. Thanks to the stubbornness of two bitter old men—don Manuel and don Isidro (who’s nicknamed Chilo)—a language will be lost forever.

This story has something so compelling, so primordial, that it keeps getting repeated—in prime time news broadcasts and public radio broadcasts, on websites, and in magazines around the globe—even though it’s entirely untrue. Because of my expertise in the languages and communities of the area, every month I receive emails from curious journalists, documentary filmmakers, and linguistics majors eager to capture the Manuel-versus-Isidro conflict in more detail. I try to tell them the real story of Ayapaneco. But the fictional version continues to circulate.

On a plane flight several years ago, a linguistics colleague of mine was seated next to a playwright. When my friend told the playwright that she studied language, the writer excitedly responded that she had just written a theatre piece based on the story of the two men. Last fall, a South African ad agency approached me about doing a commercial that would air on the Day of Reconciliation, a federal holiday. Their idea was that the client, a chocolate company, produces candy bars that are so wonderful they could help the two speakers to overcome their differences and begin talking again.

Of all the various ways in which Manuel and Isidro’s story has been misrepresented and exploited, a new advertising campaign for German telecom company Vodafone stands apart. Vodafone has made the last-two-speakers story the linchpin of its new “Viva Ayapaneco” campaign, produced by the Jung von Matt agency. In a press release on the Jung von Matt website, Vodafone Group brand director Barbara Haase explains: “When a language is threatened with being silenced forever and communication between people is endangered, you need a partner who is on hand with the right ideas and technology. We are happy to be that partner for the people of Ayapa.” Their campaign is beautifully crafted, elegant, and undeniably appealing. Unfortunately, it is also breathtakingly dishonest and ill-conceived.

I first heard about their plan in March, when a reporter wrote to ask if I had been contacted by representatives from Vodafone. I hadn’t. Two months later, a “social media manager” from their advertising agency wrote to introduce himself. Then someone else from the agency wrote to inquire what my rates were for doing phonetic transcription. I ignored their emails. Shortly thereafter, a Mexican linguist sent me a link to the new Vodafone commercial along with some commentary that I can’t repeat here. After watching the Viva Ayapaneco video, I had a similar reaction. I fired off some sharply-worded replies to the advertising agency. But to date, no one has responded.

The Vodafone spot—a vivid, four-minute, expertly shot production—explains that Ayapaneco is spoken in a town located somewhere in “the middle of Mexico,” and that the language is “1,000 years old.” As somber music plays, we hear that Ayapaneco faces imminent extinction because Manuel and Isidro have refused to speak to each other for decades. The camera follows Isidro as he wanders alone through a cemetery. Manuel, standing next to a marker board with Ayapaneco phrases written on it, explains in Spanish that Isidro has no clue (“Es que Chile no sabe.”).

But then the mood begins to lift. Vodafone inspires the community to build a new school. It flies in James Fox of Stanford University, a linguistic anthropologist who did research in Ayapa in the 1990s, for one last mission: to help broker a peace between the two men. Fox, Manuel, and Isidro hold a tearful reunion in the church. They hug and vow to work together. The new language school is inaugurated; children laugh and play in the streets as they head to class; Manuel and Isidro, sitting at the front of the crowded classroom, smile at each other approvingly; music swells; text flashes across the screen, one line at a time—

Now it’s your turn: join in online

Adopt a word and help save Ayapaneco

With the power of the web it will live forever

Viva communication

Viva Ayapaneco

Click on over to the companion Viva Ayapaneco website and you’ll see dozens of video selfies submitted by people around the globe. These clips feature random, mostly well-intentioned people badly mispronouncing Ayapaneco vocabulary. The effect is weirdly mesmerizing. The website explains that you, too, can “adopt” an Ayapaneco word or phrase, selected for you randomly (if you don’t like yours, you can keep clicking till you get another), and add your own recording to this rapidly growing collection. You can do this from the comfort of your favorite coffee shop. It is set up to make you feel as if you, a word adopter, are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Manuel and Isidro, publicly declaring your support for their cause. There’s even a feature that lets you send postcards inscribed with colorful phrases to your Facebook friends.

The website more or less implies that if a teenager somewhere in London learns to say “You’ve got beautiful hair” in Ayapaneco then the language will live on. Maybe someone decided that this kind of thing is necessary to persuade people in industrialized countries to care about endangered languages. But look at it from the other side: the website presumes that Ayapaneco belongs to all of humanity, that anyone with access to the Internet is invited to speak it. Can an interactive website like this actually help a community that has been battered by seven decades of intense discrimination, poverty, out-migration, intermarriage, and public schools that aim to assimilate indigenous children into mainstream Spanish-speaking Mexican life? Who does Ayapaneco actually belong to? Who gets to decide its fate?


The Truth About Manuel and Isidro — and the Language They Speak

To be generous, I suspect that for the creators of the Viva Ayapaneco campaign, “the middle of Mexico” refers more to a state of mind than a location on any map. In reality Ayapa, where Ayapaneco is spoken, is a town of some 5,000 inhabitants located in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, a small, swampy, oil-rich land wedged snugly between Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula. When Louisiana resident Edmund McIlhenny needed an exotic-sounding name for his now-famous brand of hot sauce, he looked straight south to the opposite side of the Gulf of Mexico for his inspiration.

Ayapa sits just off the highway that runs between the PEMEX refineries on the Gulf Coast (PEMEX is Mexico’s state-run oil company) and the capital city of Villahermosa. If you’re not paying attention you’ll drive right by it without noticing. Step out of your air-conditioned car and prepare to be engulfed in dense, humid subtropical air; daytime temperatures can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Many Ayapa residents make their living growing cacao and other fruits and vegetables. Some fish or raise livestock. Others own small businesses. A number of them work for PEMEX. If you’re picturing a sleepy Mexican village like in the Vodafone ad, you’ll be surprised by how noisy Ayapa is: passing trucks, the drone of a thousand electric fans, people shouting, tropical music blasting out of dozens of speakers, and quacking ducks. Yes, ducks. In Ayapa, they wander in and out of houses, competing with dogs for scraps of food. A charming Tabascan Spanish expression for asking “What’s he doing here?” is literally, “What duck laid that egg?”

Linguists started calling the language of the people here “Ayapaneco” because it’s spoken in Ayapa and nowhere else. Its close linguistic relatives are spoken several hours to the northwest, further up the coast. Manuel and Isidro call it Nnumte Oote, which means, simply, “the true language.” Another name for it is “Ayapaneco Gulf Zoquean,” because it is a member of the Gulf Zoquean branch of the Mixe-Zoquean language family. (Chances are decent that you’ve never heard of this language family, but there are at least two things worth knowing about it. One of the world’s oldest writing systems, called epi-Olmec, was invented by speakers of a Mixe-Zoquean language. Epi-Olmec writing existed for roughly 500 years, between 300 BC and 200 AD. And then there’s the word cacao, the tree that chocolate comes from. This word is Mixe-Zoquean’s most famous contribution to our shared global vocabulary; in Ayapaneco it’s pronounced kaagwa.)

The Ayapaneco tongue split off from the rest of Gulf Zoquean around the time that Spain conquered Mexico five centuries ago. A safe estimate is that it emerged some 600 or 700 years ago—not 1,000 years ago as Vodafone’s campaign states. In all likelihood, it never had more than 500 or so speakers. They have always been surrounded by and commingled with larger and more powerful groups of people: speakers of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs; Chontal, a Mayan language; as well as Spanish, French, and now even German. It’s remarkable that after all this time, and with so few native speakers to be begin with, anyone still speaks Ayapaneco at all.

Two factors have been most responsible for its current state of near-extinction: the advent of universal public education in Mexico in the 1930s, which punished indigenous children for speaking their native languages, and the discovery of vast amounts of oil beneath the surface of Ayapa in the 1970s, which transformed the local economy. A sizable percentage of the residents of Ayapa who moved there after the oil boom have no particular connection to its past. When I first visited Tabasco in 2004, hardly anyone had ever heard of Ayapaneco or cared about it.

Where did this idea of a feuding Manuel and Isidro originate? As best I can figure, it was a sort of “telephone game” effect. When I first learned about Ayapaneco nearly twenty years ago, the story I heard was that Manuel and his brother Esteban were the last two speakers and that Ayapaneco was practically their own private language. At that time, James Fox, the Stanford linguist appearing in Vodafone’s ad, was working with the brothers via an initiative called the Project for the Documentation of the Languages of Mesoamerica (PDLMA), which still exists today. The goal was to produce a dictionary and detailed description of the language before it was too late. After a few years, Fox and the PDLMA parted ways, then another linguist came and went. In 2004 the PDLMA invited me to pick up where they had left off.

Manuel’s brother passed away before I ever had a chance to get to know him. Manuel was devastated by the loss, but he doggedly persists in speaking Ayapaneco every day, even though people around him did not always understand him and always responded in Spanish. In this very specific sense, Manuel is the last speaker. When I began working with him in 2004, he was very pleased to have somebody like me to sit with and talk to on a regular basis—and not keen to share the attention with anybody else.

There may be as many as twenty other living residents of Ayapa who grew up in homes where Ayapaneco was spoken. Even though they no longer use it, they still remember something about it. This includes Isidro and his four living siblings. Isidro remembers the most. He also possesses a lot of patience and other qualities that made him an ideal person with whom to build a dictionary. One morning we visited his oldest brother, Ignacio, to do some recording. The look of surprise and delight on Ignacio’s face when his lips started shaping words that he hadn’t uttered in decades was unforgettable. Little by little I came to know other speakers, including Isidro’s neighbor Mauro, now deceased. Mauro was a competent speaker but nearly deaf.

Manuel grudgingly accepted the idea that I wanted to work with Isidro, too, but he steadfastly denied the existence of other speakers in his community. Though he insisted that even his wife couldn’t speak a word, I frequently caught her listening in on my conversations with Manuel and nodding her head knowingly. (She died two years ago.) Once I talked him into introducing me to his cousin Carmela. He warned me that she did not speak Ayapaneco well, but spoke it “very loudly!” Doña Carmela had little time for us, and she scolded Manuel for sharing their “secret” language with foreigners.

While it’s true that Manuel and Isidro aren’t sworn enemies, they’re not close friends, either. They’re two men with very different personalities, and they also speak Ayapaneco quite differently. This last part is not surprising; it’s what happens when there are no royal academies, editors, or ruler-wielding school teachers around to convince everyone that there’s a right and wrong way to say things.

The Future of Ayapaneco is Local

Though Vodafone’s campaign sets up Ayapaneco as a singular problem to be fixed, it’s just one of 34 officially recognized indigenous languages in Mexico with fewer than 20,000 speakers. Most of them are classified as “moribund,” which means that no children have been learning them. They will fall entirely out of use in another generation or two.

The past several years have seen steps to reclaim some of this history. In 2003, Mexico passed a sweeping series of laws that granted official recognition to its indigenous languages. The same reforms created Mexico’s National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI) to assess the state of Mexico’s many languages, identify the critically endangered ones, and foster their continued use. INALI selected Ayapaneco as a poster child of sorts to raise public awareness about the issue of dying languages, and began to fund the dictionary work that we were doing. The director of INALI traveled to Ayapa and met with Manuel, Isidro, and me. Manuel, as usual, denied the existence of other speakers and went out of his way to gripe about Isidro; Isidro, who always tries to avoid fuss and attention, didn’t see the point in contradicting Manuel.

As early as 2006, the tragic story of Ayapaneco began to appear in INALI’s press releases. As the media covered this sad tale, the dramatic elements were exaggerated again and again until the narrative of Manuel versus Isidro hardened into place. I knew something was up when our summer 2007 dictionary work kept getting interrupted by visits from reporters. Manuel was very unhappy at this turn of events—he didn’t like being portrayed in the news as a grumpy old man. Isidro simply didn’t care or worry about it much. INALI obligingly issued retractions and corrections, but by that point the story had gone, as we say today, viral. It was too good not to be true.

 The state of Tabasco began to take note. In 2008 it named Manuel a “guardian of Tabascan tradition” and started paying him a small stipend to appear at events and to offer language lessons to children in his community. Manuel found himself in an awkward position: He couldn’t stand children (during our time together I was treated to many epic rants about how they were lazy, shiftless, and had no respect) and didn’t trust the government (corrupt, uninterested in helping poor people). Now, in an unexpected twist, he was being paid by the government to work with children! To his great credit, Manuel rose to the occasion, putting aside many of his grievances. His wheelchair-bound son, José Manuelito, worked alongside him to develop some rudimentary teaching materials and organize the classes.

In 2012 INALI hired a charismatic young woman named Rebecca Ramirez who immediately set about getting to know all of the speakers and helping Manuel and his son improve and expand their Ayapaneco lessons. She got Manuel to team up with Isidro, Isidro’s younger brother Cirilo, and another cousin of Manuel’s, also named Manuel. (An INALI anthropologist named Arnulfo Embriz was also instrumental in these efforts.) The four men began meeting regularly, teaching together, and making more ambitious plans. It turned out that Isidro loves working with children, and bit by bit he became enthusiastic about the enterprise. José Manuelito, who had struggled for years to deal with his disability, now had a mission: He became the group’s unofficial coordinator and spokesperson.

With INALI’s help, the group turned one of the rooms in Manuel’s home into a schoolhouse, outfitted it with furniture and supplies, and painted a logo by the doorway. They created card games and posters in Ayapaneco as well as a human anatomy guide that debuted in 2013. Manuel had transformed himself from the last speaker of this dying language to its very first author.

In the spring of 2013, Ramirez and INALI worked with the speakers to organize the first annual Ayapaneco Language Festival to foster regional knowledge and pride. Recently I returned to Ayapa for the second festival. It featured music, dancing, and speeches. Representatives came from across the Mixe-Zoque area to express solidarity and exchanges ideas about how to pass on their linguistic legacy to the next generation. The children who had been studying Ayapaneco painted, played language-learning games, and performed a dance. One of the students, an 11-year old girl, stood up in front of the festival audience and gave a short, crisp speech in Ayapaneco. She was followed by a young ambassador from Oluta who delivered a speech in Oluteco, another endangered Mixe-Zoquean language; she earned a standing ovation from the amazed crowd. Whatever slim hope exists for a future in which Ayapaneco and Oluteco are still spoken lies in the hands, brains, and tongues of these courageous girls and their teachers.

Vodafone Doubles Down

When Vodafone and Jung von Matt began planning “Viva Ayapaneco,” they may or may not have heard about these ongoing efforts to help the speakers of Ayapaneco save their language. (Vodafone and Jung von Matt declined all of my requests for information, as did James Fox, so this is speculation.)  However, when they arrived in the spring of 2014, they saw with their own eyes that there was a group of four—not two—regular speakers, plus Manuel’s son José Manuelito, and they had all been working together harmoniously for three years. They saw that with support from INALI and the state of Tabasco, the group was offering regular language lessons attended by many children. They may have started out with the best of intentions and a sincere desire to help out, but ultimately, they chose to focus on an outdated version of events that would make a bigger sensation.

They even doubled down on this strategy. According to my sources in Ayapa, they urged Manuel and Isidro to appear in their commercial as “themselves,” that is, as the two feuding old men, and they wanted the other two speakers to go away. In a show of solidarity, the group insisted that Cirilo and cousin Manuel also be compensated. So Manuel and Isidro were paid to star in the commercial, and Cirilo and cousin Manuel were paid not to star in it.

The “new” schoolhouse that Vodafone claims to have built was simply the old one with some repairs and a fresh coat of paint. The community members in the commercial who appear to be pitching in to help out, Amish barn-raising style, were all paid construction workers. In the commercial’s climax, there’s a big reveal of portraits of Manuel and Isidro on the front of the schoolhouse, with the words “Escuela de Ayapaneco Don Manuel y Don Isidro” written up above. The speakers painted over it as soon as the filming ended—first, because it was embarrassing, and second, because local teachers complained that if it was designated as a community school, then they should have access to the space, too. (Ayapa has a terrible shortage of classrooms.)

The most farcical aspect of the whole enterprise is the set of “language lessons” that Jung von Matt recorded and put up on the website. Much of the vocabulary on the website is badly mangled. Rather than paying attention to what Manuel and Isidro and company were actually trying to teach their students, Jung von Matt had the men translate a list of phrases such as “you have a sparkle in your eyes” and “you groove.” They filmed these sessions and edited them into short clips for the website. Many of the phrases they requested are things that one would never say in Ayapaneco and make no sense. But the two men gamely tried to comply and cooked up some unintentionally hilarious answers. Manuel’s version of “you have pretty hair” literally means “you have nice body hair.” Perhaps in homage to the local duck population, it can also mean “you have nice feathers.”

Real Support Looks Like This

Viva Ayapaneco forms part of a larger Vodafone initiative called #Firsts, in which Vodafone uses its patented technology to bring people together and do bold, creative things that have never been attempted before. Here the big idea is to use new communication technologies to revitalize dying languages. In an interview with Marketing Magazine, Gregor Gründgens, the brand director for Vodafone Germany, states: “This First demonstrates how language—one of the oldest forms of communication—can be given a new lease of life thanks to modern communications—mobile technology and the internet.” (Gründgens also did not respond to requests for comment.)

Those of us involved in language revitalization know that mobile technology and the Internet has been central to revitalization initiatives around the globe for quite some time, well before Vodafone. It is not even the first German corporation to get in the game of “saving” languages. The Volkswagen Foundation, for one, sponsored dozens of such projects between 2002 and 2013. The best of these initiatives empower speakers of endangered languages by equipping them with the training and technology needed to document and revitalize their own linguistic heritage, as they see fit. If implemented correctly, these projects can be sustained with minimal outside assistance, long after the experts have left. A real contribution by Vodafone would have been to design the Viva Ayapaneco website to serve the needs of actual Ayapa residents, using its impressive design elements to make language learning fun and exciting for the children of Ayapa, not to mention children in other nearby endangered language communities such as Oluta.

Another real contribution would have been acknowledging the work that INALI has been doing in Ayapa since 2012. Because Vodafone wants the credit for itself, it would have you believe that they built a language school for Ayapa from scratch and convinced Manuel and Isidro to start teaching language lessons. After they discovered that the last two speakers who don’t speak to each other is a myth, they decided to exploit it anyway in order to develop their brand. The truth is that they rehabbed and repainted a school that was already there and claimed all the credit for convincing Manuel and Isidro to do exactly what they had been doing for years.

True, these efforts might have been modest, but they were remarkable nonetheless and worth highlighting by Vodafone. I’ve tried to do some of that here. Instead, Vodafone opted for the cheap and insulting cliché of a white man parachuting in to solve the problems of hapless dark-skinned locals. Imagery like this infuriates my Mexican colleagues. It undermines the goodwill that Americans and Europeans have worked hard to build by participating in linguistic and cultural revitalization projects with a bit more humility and a greater willingness to collaborate. It took us far too long to realize the value of doing things this way. I used to have a great deal of respect for Fox, but seeing him used like this by Vodafone made me cringe. Did his recent visit lead to the tidy resolution of a decades-long dispute which now makes the salvation of Ayapaneco possible? It’s pure chinh jaygwyaakax. That’s Ayapaneco for “bullshit.”

Still, one could argue that Manuel and Isidro willingly played along. They entered into this arrangement with Vodafone with their eyes wide open and received a significant amount of money and other benefits—a refurbished school, a new computer—for their time and trouble. Also, the ad campaign attracts needed attention to a worthy cause. This is a good outcome, right? Unfortunately, the campaign has also generated a lot of negative attention. A few weeks after the Viva Ayapaneco campaign began to air, the Mexican newspaper el Economista announced that “the Ayapaneco case is a fraud.” Back in Ayapa, the sudden influx of money and visitors has strained the social fabric and spawned nasty gossip and accusations. Some locals still believe that Manuel invented Ayapaneco in order to sell it to gullible foreigners. Others wonder how they might be able to get a piece of the action.

It’s not too late for Vodafone and Jung von Matt to set the record straight by replacing the current campaign with one based on fact, not lore. They’re reportedly planning to return to Ayapa in August 2014 for more filming. If the company is sincere in its intention to “be a partner with the people of Ayapa,” there are a lot of ways that it could make a positive difference—by improving local internet and cellular access, donating technology and training to a local elementary school, or offering scholarships to the girls working so hard to learn their languages. Unlike their claim that they’re the first to pitch in here, these actions would be real #Firsts.