DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly
Volume 14 Number 4
2020 14.4  |  XMLPDFPrint

Ticha: Collaboration with Indigenous communities to build digital resources on Zapotec language and history

Moisés García Guzmán <moy_guz_at_hotmail_dot_com>, pueblo of San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya
Felipe H. Lopez <lieb_at_ucla_dot_edu>, Haverford College Libraries
May Helena Plumb <mayhplumb_at_utexas_dot_edu>, University of Texas at Austin
Mike Zarafonetis <mzarafon_at_haverford_dot_edu>, Haverford College Libraries


There are hundreds of alphabetic texts in Zapotec languages dating back to the 16th century. Today, however, Zapotec speakers are generally unable to read these texts, due to lack of access to the texts and an unfamiliarity with the orthographic practices. Moreover, significant changes have taken place in the grammar in the intervening centuries. This results in a situation where Zapotec people may not have access to history in their own language. Ticha is an online digital text explorer that provides access to images, transcriptions, analysis, and translations of the Colonial Zapotec texts. The Ticha project includes in-person workshops with Zapotec community members as part of an iterative development process. Feedback from these interactions inform design decisions for the project. Here we reflect on transnational collaboration with stakeholders in building a digital scholarship project that seeks to use the power of digital humanities to democratize access to materials and resources which were previously the exclusive domain of a few experts. When community members have access to important documents from their own history, archiving, scholarship, and community engagement can be brought together in a powerful synthesis.


Hay cientos de textos alfabéticos en lenguas zapotecas desde el siglo dieciséis. No obstante, hoy en día los zapoteco-hablantes generalmente no pueden leer estos textos, debido a una falta de acceso a los textos como también por falta de familiaridad con las prácticas ortográficas. Además, la gramática ha cambiado mucho en los siglos intermedios. Por consiguiente, muchos zapotecos no tienen acceso a su historia escrita en su propia lengua. Ticha es un explorador digital de texto que brinda acceso en línea a las imágenes, transcripciones, análisis y traducciones de los textos en zapoteco colonial. El proyecto de Ticha incluye talleres con miembros de la comunidad zapoteca como parte de un proceso de desarrollo interactivo. Los comentarios y reacciones que resultan de estas interacciones informan las decisiones del diseño para el proyecto. Aquí analizamos y reflexionamos sobre la colaboración transnacional con los “stakeholders” en la construcción de un proyecto digital que indaga el uso del poder de las humanidades digitales para democratizar el acceso a los materiales y recursos que previamente habían sido un dominio exclusivo de unos pocos expertos. Cuando los miembros de la comunidad tienen acceso a los documentos importantes de su propia historia, entonces el archivar, la investigación, y el involucramiento con las comunidades pueden crear una síntesis detonante.

Indigenous voices in colonial history

Around 1675, Sebastiana de Mendoza, a prominent woman in the Zapotec community of Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca, created her last will and testament [Flores-Marcial 2015] [Munro et al. 2018]. In this document, she tells her descendants and executors her wishes for the final disposition of her belongings. As Flores-Marcial [2015, 52] writes, Sebastiana de Mendoza

bequeathed to her daughters, Gerónima and Lorenza, and her granddaughter named Sebastiana, an array of belongings that included religious paraphernalia, valuable agricultural goods, and finished goods and money. She divided her property in the following manner: ten magueys, a wool skirt, a cotton huipil, and ten pesos went to her daughter Gerónima. She gave her granddaughter Sebastiana five magueys and a picture of Saint Sebastian. She did not bequeath her house to anyone specifically, but she gave her daughter Lorenza a total of thirty-five magueys and declared that, as the oldest, she should be in charge of the house and its affairs.

Sebastiana was careful to distribute her property, but also scrupulous in noting her debts and obligations to others in the community as well as the debts and obligations owed to her. This complex system of interconnected social and fiscal responsibilities is known as guelaguetza in Zapotec. In the Zapotec inheritance system, her heirs inherited her guelaguetza assets and liabilities. Her last will and testament states:

chela tini pea nasaui quela queza xtenia SanJuan que / lauia li chi lucas luis chi uitopa tomin lichi Bartolo / me delos angel chi tomines lichi pedro no lasco chiui / topatomines lichi Saluador mendoza toui peso lichi / pedro mendes chiui topa tomines che la nosaui lorenso / garcia xonopeso pedro mendes no sauini xopa peso no / saui rey mundo dela cruz cayopeso nosaui quetoo / lorenso lopes chona peso — franco de agilar nosaui / ni chona peso geroni moperes no sauini chona peso / quira tomin niri que gixeni caca missa xteni qui / ropa leche lano

and I order [that] my guelaguetza is owing [i.e., there is guelaguetza owing to me] in San Juan Guelavía: in the house of Lucas Luis, twelve tomines; in the house of Bartolomé de los Ángeles, ten tomines; in the house of Pedro Nolazco, twelve tomines; in the house of Salvador Mendoza, one peso; in the house of Pedro Méndez, twelve tomines; and Lorenzo García owes eight pesos; Pedro Méndez, he owes six pesos; Reymundo de la Cruz owes five pesos; the late Lorenzo López owes three pesos; Francisco de Aguilar, he owes three pesos; Gerónimo Pérez, he owes three pesos. All this money they should pay, [that] will be [for] masses for us two spouses. [Munro et al. 2018, 206–208, lines 42–53]

For an understanding of the social relationships and networks of colonial Oaxaca, there are few sources as rich as testaments like that of Sebastiana de Mendoza. Documents like these are of potential interest to many, particularly those with personal and / or academic interests in the histories, cultures, and languages of the Indigenous people of Mesoamerica. This document is of particular interest to the Zapotec people of Tlacochahuaya. Yet this remarkable text — and many others like it — are practically unknown to a large group of potential readers.
Why have vital manuscripts like these not been accessible to members of Indigenous communities who would like to read them? As we explain below, they have mostly been held in physical archives where they are accessible primarily to scholars with sufficient resources and privilege to use them. That these archival resources are little known to Zapotec stakeholders aligns with the analysis that “archives have functioned as mechanisms of colonialism” [Gauthereau 2018]. For example, as pointed out by Stoler [2002, 87], “What constitutes the archive, what form it takes, and what systems of classification and epistemology signal at specific times are (and reflect) critical features of colonial politics and state power.” Ticha seeks to use the power of digital humanities to democratize access to materials and resources which previously were almost exclusively the domain of scholars. Archiving, scholarship, and community engagement can be brought together in a powerful synthesis when community members have access to important documents from their own history.

Background and corpus

Zapotec is a language family indigenous to southern Mexico, and is the third largest Indigenous language family in Mexico. Today, there are over 50 different Zapotec languages, most endangered, spoken primarily in what is now the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, by a total of approximately 450,000 people within a much larger Zapotec ethnic community. The Zapotec language family, which belongs to the Otomanguean stock, is on par with the Romance language family in terms of time depth and diversity of member languages. The Zapotecs are one of the major civilizations of Mesoamerica, with cultural traditions going back to 500 B.C. and distinct from the better-known Nahua (Aztec) and Maya.
With the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, alphabetic writing was introduced and adopted by Indigenous peoples. McDonough [2014, 199] points out that, “as opposed to being passive receivers of an imposed European technology, Nahuas have appropriated and adapted alphabetic writing for their own purposes.” The same can be said of speakers of Zapotec, who quickly put this new technology to use. Zapotec has one of the longest records of alphabetic written documents for any Indigenous language of the Americas [Romero Frizzi 2003]. Over 900 documents in Zapotec language written by Zapotec scribes have been identified, the earliest from 1565 [Oudijk 2008, 230]. The richest variety of colonial Zapotec documents are those composed in the kind of Zapotec spoken in and around Oaxaca City, known as Valley Zapotec. The Colonial Valley Zapotec corpus includes an extensive dictionary [Cordova 1578b], grammar [Cordova 1578a], and doctrine [Feria 1567], and over 200 administrative documents (mostly wills).
These documents hold invaluable information for a wide range of interested parties. They provide insight into the ethnic diversity, religious history, and familial, social, and economic structures of Mexico for a 500-year period. They create a bridge across multiple cultural borders: a link between modern scholars, colonial priests, and Zapotec people throughout time. The large corpus of Colonial Nahuatl language material has proven useful to scholars across many disciplines (e.g. [Lockhart 1992]; [Madajczak and Hansen 2016]; [Matthew and Bannister 2020]). As Colonial Zapotec is less studied and is understood by far fewer people, linguistic analysis is particularly needed to help users understand the texts and to allow them to critically evaluate any translations of the original text. Because of the difficulty in using the original manuscripts and in understanding the language, this corpus of documents written in Colonial Valley Zapotec has not been easily accessible outside of a small circle of specialists [Broadwell and Lillehaugen 2013].

Difficulties of access to colonial materials

Reading and translating these Colonial Valley Zapotec documents can be extremely difficult. Physical access alone can be a barrier to reading the documents, as these texts are housed in various archives not only throughout Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico, but also in archives in the United States and Europe. One must know which archive to visit and how to request a document, and sometimes that is insufficient. For example, the Archivo General del Poder Ejecutivo del Estado de Oaxaca has changed their archival numbering system, and now reference numbers like those published in Smith Stark et al. (2008) are no longer accurate. Moreover, discrimination against people perceived to be Indigenous means that some employees at an archive, including guards, may discourage and intimidate some potential users from entering the archives, as we have ourselves witnessed on more than one occasion.
Even if one has physical access to the texts, many aspects of the documents themselves can be a barrier to access. The writing and printing conventions for colonial documents can be opaque to contemporary users. Reading handwriting from this period often requires special training, and printed texts often use extensive abbreviations and may also contain printing errors (such as reversed letters and broken type) and handwritten corrections.
The Zapotec language poses additional challenges in understanding the texts. Knowledge of (or fluency in) a modern Zapotec language is not enough to translate the colonial documents due to variation in orthographic choices and regular processes of language change. The orthography in the texts is highly variable and inconsistent throughout the corpus, and there is as of yet no fully adequate Zapotec-to-Spanish or Zapotec-to-English dictionary that reflects the full range of orthographic variation found in the corpus [Broadwell and Lillehaugen 2013]. Beyond orthography, the Zapotec language has undergone language change over the last 500 years, including significant phonological and morphosyntactic alterations. Thus the grammar of these documents is also different from that of modern Zapotec languages. Potential users of such documents cannot read them without training, and, as a result, only a very small number of people use them — typically linguists and ethnohistorians with special interest in Zapotec language materials and a handful of other dedicated specialists. Other stakeholders, including most speakers of modern Zapotec languages, have no easy way to discover or read the texts that document the histories of their communities.
In addition to these more tangible obstacles, discriminatory linguistic ideologies pose systemic challenges to the access of Zapotec language materials. In Mexico, Zapotec is viewed as something less than a real language, and knowledge of Zapotec language is devalued. There are pervasive false beliefs that Zapotec has never been written, cannot be written, and perhaps even should not be written. Janet Chávez Santiago, a native Zapotec speaker and language activist, reflects (in English) on the impact of such beliefs:

When I was in elementary school in the 90s, I remember children speaking Zapotec in many contexts: playing in the streets, at parties, and during town celebrations — but never at school. Instead, we had to “behave” ourselves by not speaking Zapotec, otherwise teachers could punish us by giving us extra homework or by not letting us eat lunch or even beating us. Teachers made us believe that speaking Zapotec was disrespectful, something to be ashamed of. They devalued our language by calling it a “dialect”. As a child, I never saw anything written in Zapotec. All my books and books that my parents bought me were in Spanish, so at some point I thought teachers were right, that Zapotec was a language with no value so nobody wanted to write books in my language. By the end of the 90s there was no need to prohibit children speaking Zapotec in the school, because in order to avoid their children being punished, parents had switched to speaking in Spanish to their children at home. These days, there are very few children who speak Zapotec in my town. [Mannix et al. 2016]

These ideologies about the value of Zapotec language certainly impact access in multiple ways, but they also create a space for projects such as ours to intervene in larger questions of social justice. In the following sections we describe how Ticha addresses inequities of access in an effort to make the Colonial Valley Zapotec corpus available to the widest possible audiences. Moreover, we discuss how the creation and evolution of Ticha is done in consultation and collaboration with Zapotec-speaking community members such that both the methodology and “result” are spaces for collaboration with stake-holding community members. We consider how creating access to a corpus of historical texts in Valley Zapotec can be a form of resistance to such false ideologies, both in its form as a resource and through the collaborative methods in which we create and grow the project.

The Ticha project

Ticha (https://ticha.haverford.edu) is a large, collaborative, interdisciplinary digital resource [Lillehaugen et al. 2016], with a diverse team, including linguists, ethnohistorians, digital scholarship experts, and Zapotec language and culture experts.[1] The core team consists of academics and non-academics as well as Zapotec people and non-Native people. Undergraduate research assistants play a large role in the development of the project, as discussed below.[2] Beyond these more formalized team members, there is broader community participation through crowd-sourced transcription and commenting, some by anonymous participants and others credited on the acknowledgements page of Ticha.
The Ticha project seeks to provide access to the corpus and language of the Colonial Valley Zapotec corpus in a way that mitigates the systemic language devalorization described above. In regards to the corpus itself, we practice post-custodial archiving [Ham 1981] [Cook 1994], using existing digital images of the documents when available, and by creating our own high-resolution digital images when not. As Alpert-Abrams points out, “In the United States, we have a long history of removing historical records from the communities that created them, often in the name of preservation… The post-custodial model of archival practice uses digital technology in pursuit of a more collaborative approach to multinational archival work” [2018, n.p.]. Post-custodial practices are usually discussed in relation to institutions that are capable of taking possession of materials — like libraries and archives. Ticha is not a library or a physical archive, nor is it an institution that seeks to assume possession of archival texts. The creation of digital surrogates and the maintenance of collaborative partnerships with stake-holding communities allow us, however, to curate a collection of texts digitally.
The Ticha interface, built in the Django framework, allows users to browse and search the corpus of Colonial Valley Zapotec texts, including the images and metadata. Given the sociolinguistic context around this language and these texts, we make any resources we have available as soon as possible, borrowing from the idea of progressive archiving [Nathan 2013]. This means that for some texts, we may just have images and metadata. For others we may have first pass transcriptions. Yet others may have polished transcriptions and translations. We invite corrections and collaboration and view the resource as a living document and a space for collaboration.
Ticha allows users to navigate a corpus that is otherwise physically dispersed. Figure 1 illustrates one interface for browsing the corpus, which can be searched or filtered along several fields, including date of document, town of origin, archival home, genre, and language of the text. The corpus can also be navigated through a timeline and a map, the latter of which is shown in Figure 2.
A table of available manuscipts including metadata on year, langauge,
                        and so on.
Figure 1. 
Browsing the corpus of handwritten manuscripts, table (https://ticha.haverford.edu/en/texts/handwritten/)
A map with over a dozen points.
Figure 2. 
Browsing the corpus of handwritten manuscripts, map (https://ticha.haverford.edu/en/texts/)
In order to make Ticha more accessible to a wide range of users, we present the texts not as flat objects but as dynamic resources. Other scholars have published translations and annotations of colonial-era linguistic materials in print form; Lockhart’s translation of a Colonial Nahuatl grammar is a notable example [Carochi and Lockhart 2001]. However, print editions are generally aimed at academic audiences and often present readers with too much detail for the interested non-academic. Presenting this material as a digital resource allows readers to view or hide different levels of analysis, depending on their needs and interests.
Figure 3 shows a page from the Arte en lengua zapoteca, a colonial-era grammar of Valley Zapotec which is credited to Fray Juan de Cordova, though undoubtedly many (uncredited) Zapotec individuals were involved in its creation [Cordova 1578a]. At the most basic level, visitors may view the scanned images of the original document side-by-side with a diplomatic transcription. As the colonial Spanish text contains abbreviations and spelling inconsistencies which may be difficult for some users to understand, a modernized Spanish version is also available. This was created in response to a request from Zapotec community members who noted that the Early Modern Spanish was a barrier to understanding the text. The modernized Spanish version updates spelling and word boundaries, but does not alter lexical choice or syntax. Feedback from speakers of modern Mexican Spanish has been clear that this type of modernization has been helpful in reading the text.
The original text and translation of Corova's Arte.
Figure 3. 
Transcription and morphological pop-ups in Corova’s Arte (1578a: 1v) https://ticha.haverford.edu/en/texts/cordova-arte/13/original/
Layers of accessible linguistic information are also used to communicate more about the Zapotec language in these texts. As the Arte is a meta-linguistic document, the text itself is an analysis of the Zapotec language. As is to be expected from the time period, this grammar is structured following the Latin model. For example, in the passage in Figure 2 describes the “declensions” of Zapotec nouns, a concept that only serves to obscure the grammar of Valley Zapotec, which has no grammatical case. While the framework is rather unhelpful in understanding the language, the Zapotec language examples themselves are invaluable. Ticha can facilitate accessibility to understanding the Zapotec here, by providing access to modern linguists’ understanding of the Zapotec language. As shown in Figure 2, clicking on a Zapotec word or phrase in the text brings up a pop-up containing a complete morphological analysis and translation of the Zapotec, which may or may not be consistent with the explanation in the original text. The interested reader, then, can compare the analysis in the Arte with that of a modern linguist.
As we considered what kind of access and collaboration could mitigate the type of language devalorization described above, we also wanted to be careful that a project on a historical corpus of Zapotec texts did not reinforce another harmful false ideology — that Zapotec language and people are only of the past, frozen in time. This type of thinking regarding Indigenous people, culture, and language is ubiquitous. We wanted Zapotec people and modern language to be clearly visible in the Ticha Project.
One way we addressed this was by bringing Zapotec voices to the site. Figure 4 shows one of the resources available on Ticha: a vocabulary of the most common words found in the corpus, along with their definitions and alternative spellings. Wherever possible, we connect these lexical entries for historical forms of words with their modern counterparts, by linking entries in Ticha’s Vocabulary with entries in online Talking Dictionaries for several Valley Zapotec language varieties (described in [Harrison et al. 2019]), including those from Teotitlán del Valle [Lillehaugen and Chávez, et al. 2019], San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya [Lillehaugen and García Guzmán, et al. 2019], and San Lucas Quiaviní [Lillehaugen et al. 2019]. The design came out of one of the in-person workshops in Oaxaca. As the room full of Zapotec speakers from different communities in the Valley of Oaxaca worked through understanding one of the colonial-era texts together, a pattern of practice emerged. For each word, speakers would go around the table, saying the modern cognate in their variety of Zapotec. The text was read, performed — even echoed — in a multitude of modern Zapotec languages. The Vocabulary on Ticha is our attempt to realize this in a digital format.
An alphabetical list of voacbulary beginning with the letter
Figure 4. 
Vocabulary of Colonial Valley Zapotec connected to modern Zapotec Talking Dictionaries
Connecting these modern lexical resources with this historical vocabulary not only allowed us to resist a reading of these materials that excludes the modern Zapotec community, but also allowed us to incorporate a Zapotec designed engagement with the texts. As described further in the section that follows, our iterative methodology includes regular trips to Oaxaca, where we not only solicit feedback and suggestions from Zapotec speakers with interest in the corpus but also spend time looking at Colonial Zapotec language texts together.

Digital scholarship and community engagement

In this section, we turn to directly examining the structure and methodology surrounding our development process, and in particular the role of stakeholding communities in our project design. Thorpe and Galassi note that long-term engagement with stakeholding communities requires libraries to challenge their traditional workflows and “establish new ways of practice that allow Indigenous people and communities to guide and control the process” [2014, 91–92]. These ideas are echoed in the literature on community-based linguistic research, where scholars have recently emphasized community collaboration and sharing control of research project design [Czaykowska-Higgins 2009] [Rice 2011]. Ticha prioritizes community engaged methods not only as a goal, but as a means throughout the project; as Ortega notes in her review of Ticha, “the engaging of a community of Zapotec speakers is very clearly the backbone of the project and, through recurrent workshops, has given shape to its other components” [2019].
Our project benefits from other digital scholarship projects working with Indigenous languages, corpora of manuscripts, and community engaged projects generally, especially those working with marginalized communities and languages. We are aware of one other project that also makes Zapotec language texts publicly accessible: Satnu: Repositorio Filológico Mesoamericano (https://satnu.mx/), which as the name suggests is a repository and digital archive for texts in Mesoamerican languages, including — but not limited to — Zapotec language texts. The Early Nahuatl Library (http://enl.uoregon.edu/), for example, gathers together 16th- through 19th-century Nahuatl-language manuscripts with transcriptions, translations, and historical context. In this issue, Matthew and Bannister describe NECA: Nahuatl/Nawat in Central America (https://nahuatl-nawat.org/), a digital project that makes a corpus of Nahuan-language documents produced in Spanish Central America publicly available. Olko (2019) describes a community-engaged approach in which archival work on Nahuatl language texts is fused with ethnolinguistic fieldwork in a project that seeks to “combine Western/academic and Indigenous methodologies” [2019, 7]. Moving beyond Nahuatl, the Proyecto Oralidad Modernidad (https://oralidadmodernidad.wixsite.com/oralidad) uses a community-engaged approach to language documentation that encourages Indigenous Ecuadorians to connect with their history through language as they document the knowledge of elders [Haboud 2019]. Far outside of Latin America, The Notebooks of William Dawes (https://www.williamdawes.org/; [Nathan et al. 2007]) makes accessible threatened language documentation from the century on Darug/Dharuk, a language of Sydney, Australia, through images, transcriptions, and connections to modern speakers. Originally located at the SOAS and now a free-standing resource, the Notebooks of William Dawes brings archival texts, commentary, and modern language together online and through a companion print version [Nathan et al. 2009]. Ticha combines elements of many of these projects — and especially that of the Notebook of William Dawes — connecting stakeholding communities to Zapotec history through colonial-era documents while acknowledging and engaging with the social-political power of Zapotec writing, spoken Zapotec language, and Zapotec communities.
Ticha extends the traditional user-centered approach to design by defining user groups as communities. Each community brings its own skill sets and experiences to the project, which shapes the technology and workflows that make up the project. The array of communities that make up Ticha include the Zapotec community members, Haverford College linguistics and computer science students, scholars in linguistics and ethnohistory, and librarians, though membership in these categories may overlap. Each community is both a user and a participant in their engagement with the project web site. Access to the materials includes traditional methods of discovery, but also engagement with and close reading of the materials through features like transcription, text encoding, and audio recording. The artifacts of this engagement become part of the Ticha workflow (e.g. manuscripts transcribed by Zapotec community members or Haverford linguistics students, recordings for the Talking Dictionary by Zapotec community members, or morphological analysis of Zapotec words by linguists), and emerge as additional points of engagement for the project’s communities. As such, the design of the project accounts for the experiences and needs of each community, is informed by feedback from its communities, and is iterative in its approach. The morphological analysis is done in Fieldworks Language Explorer (FLEx), and discussed in Broadwell and Lillehaugen, 2013. This is exported as XML and processed with the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) encoding of the text by a Python script and XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations) to ultimately produce HTML. This HTML creates the public-facing interface for the encoded texts.
Our development process has a clear institutional component, as Haverford College Libraries is an active partner in the design and development of the Ticha project site. The Digital Scholarship group, which partners with faculty and students to produce multimodal scholarship through the use of digital tools and methods, has been primarily responsible for web design, web and application development, server administration, archival and preservation workflows, and data curation practices for the project.
Ticha is a system of tools that fit together in ways that meet the needs of its community members. The skill sets and tools available to each community determines the choices of tools and methods for the project. While the library is responsible for technical development of the project site, digital scholarship librarians and student employees are often developing tools or features for the first time. The library exercises a strong preference for existing tools that meet community needs and standards and prefers to develop custom-made solutions only when the project exceeds the capacity of ready-built tools. The ability to export data in standard formats (e.g. JSON, CSV, XML) is essential for each tool so that future flexibility is built into the project in all areas.
Existing tools come with their own set of limitations, as they are not developed in the context of a specific project but instead designed to be used broadly. When the needs of a community reach beyond the limits of — or are not being effectively met by — existing tools, it is necessary to built upon existing project features. An open channel for feedback is crucial, and that feedback drives iteration on the features that require it. Feedback comes in two primary forms: workshops and web analytics. Web analytics (Ticha uses Google Analytics) provide meaningful data on site usage and user location, from which we can draw useful conclusions. For example, analytics in late 2017 suggested that users that visited the home page of the project site often moved on quickly, while those who visited specific manuscripts directly (from a link shared on social media or search results) tended to engage with other areas of the site. This data strongly suggested that a redesign of the home page was necessary to provide users with more information on what they can do in the Ticha project site, and such a redesign was implemented during the summer of 2018.
Some of the most meaningful feedback comes from engagement with members of the Zapotec-speaking community in Oaxaca. Transcription workshops helped the project team see the tools in action on the equipment available to its users (i.e. tablets or computers that aren’t necessarily current, running the latest software, or reliably connected to the Internet). A series of workshops with students at the Centro de Estudios Tecnológicos Industrial y de Servicios No. 124 (CETIs #124), a high school in Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oaxaca, was significantly affected by Wifi connectivity issues, highlighting the need to account for access to the manuscripts and some features of the project site when the network connection is unreliable. As a result, the project now features a PDF export option for manuscripts that include high-resolution images of the documents and associated metadata that can be saved to a storage device for offline access.
The transcription feature for the manuscripts on Ticha is a particularly instructive case study of this iterative approach. In 2015, members of the Zapotec-speaking community expressed a strong desire to transcribe the manuscripts through the project site. While the Haverford College Libraries could have attempted to build a custom transcription interface, the Digital Scholarship team did not have technical capacity to develop such a feature. The project was already using Omeka as a digital collections platform to serve and describe the digitized manuscripts in parallel with the Django project site. The Scripto plugin for Omeka provided a ready-built solution for a transcription feature. Implementation of that feature occurred in the spring of 2016, at which point the project group conducted two workshops with Zapotec-speaking community members in Oaxaca on document transcription. During these workshops, the affordances and limitations of the Scripto interface became apparent. Users of the web site needed to perform three or four clicks to move from the manuscript viewer to the transcription tool, and the interface itself was difficult to customize for language and format. With this feedback, the digital scholarship group developed its own transcription interface in parallel with the already-launched Scripto interface, which then replaced Scripto in the spring of 2018. The new transcriber is completely integrated within the existing manuscript viewer interface, accessible by only one click or tap from an input device.
An interest on the part of academics and/or community members to contribute to online transcriptions and translations should not be assumed, as demonstrated in the context of NECA (Nahuatl/Nawat in Central America) in Matthew and Bannister, this issue, who also express encountering similar limitations with Scripto in their project.

Impact and reflections

As part of our commitment to community-led research, Ticha includes an advisory board of Zapotec community members. While community workshops provide feedback on the functionality of the site, members of the advisory board give ongoing advice to shape the project as a whole. In this section, Moisés García Guzmán and Dr. Felipe H. Lopez, two members of the advisory board, reflect on the impact of Ticha in their community. Their words speak best for themselves and thus are intentionally presented here as they were written by the co-authors. García Guzmán, a Zapotec educator and activist, offers the following reflection:

Many local communities in Oaxaca were not aware of the existence of documents in Zapotec. Ticha has helped them to see how important their language was in official procedures in the past, but has also helped to create a link with revitalization efforts that are going on, by showing community members that their proposals on contemporary Zapotec can lead to a new standardized written system. García Guzmán, a Zapotec educator and activist, offers the following reflection:

As a speaker and activist in my community, Ticha is a great tool in raising awareness on all revitalization efforts. Young kids can see how our language played an important role in some activities of our towns in the past. But also I encourage them not to see the language as only a part of our past, but to also work towards restoring use of our language in many contexts where Zapotec seems to be losing ground. In the end, I hope to instill in them the idea to work towards an official recognition again. I also hope that our efforts will encourage local authorities to give us better access to archives, by showing them all the work that is done. The existence of Ticha makes archival authorities more open and cooperative with these efforts.

Overall, it has been a great experience, and as the work progresses, it helps students, speakers and communities to strengthen the sense of identity with our native language.

Lopez has been key in starting and facilitating the workshops at the high school in Tlacolula. He offers these reflections:

I have always believed that the youth could be very influential in their communities today and have sought ways to engage with them to promote the Zapotec languages in their pueblos. For the last three years I have had the opportunity to participate in Zapotec workshops at CETIs #124 in collaboration with Haverford College and the Ticha project. These workshops have become pivotal for engaging with students and school officials to rethink the value and importance of Zapotec. In a sense, these workshops have given this school community a different access to the language. In these three years, I have witnessed the way the students involved in these workshops have strengthened their values towards their own language at the same time their identities.

At the beginning there was some skepticism about these Zapotec workshops given that only six students participated. However, each year there has been an increase in the number of students participating, and last year there were more than 20 students who signed up for the Colonial Zapotec workshops.

This particular workshop gave students an opportunity to understand their language from a historical perspective and to work with Colonial documents. The Zapotec students tried to understand Colonial Zapotec words and to think about the equivalent modern Zapotec words. Through these documents, they understood that Zapotec is a living language which has been written for hundreds of years, dispelling the notion that Zapotec is not a written language. All the students found commonalities between Colonial Zapotec and the various Zapotec languages they spoke. Furthermore, they were pleasantly surprised to learn ways to count in Zapotec. As is the case in my own community of San Lucas Quiaviní, most students can only count up to ten or so and then use Spanish words, and so through these Colonial Zapotec documents they learned something about their own language.

The openness of the Principal Dr. Marcos Pereyra Rito and the support of the main advocate of this program, Abisai Aparicio, has given this opportunity to students, despite the absence of a clear precedent in the educational system in Mexico. In fact, historically, schools served as an instrument of assimilation and punished people who spoke their Indigenous language. However, as part of this collaboration at CETIs #124, the vice-principal, who isn’t a native speaker of Zapotec, made an effort to read a message in Zapotec to the participating students in the workshop last year. Also, one of the teachers, Dr. David Velasco, was willing to accept work written in Zapotec in his literature course. I have also witnessed how students have changed their behaviour towards using their language since these workshops have started. I see students talking Zapotec more openly on campus, whereas prior to this project, we were told that students were embarrassed to speak Zapotec on campus or even to admit they spoke it at all. So, the conditions in which these students decide to use their language is being reshaped at this institution, hopefully as well as outside. These efforts, then, are working to reshape the sociolinguistic possibilities at this institution, and potentially even beyond.


As Nakata and Langton say, effective community collaboration is not just “consultation” with the community, but “dialogue, conversation, education, and working through things together” [2005, 5]. Ticha embraces this philosophy by working through an ongoing conversation with user communities. Our iterative approach allows the technical design of the project to continually meet the needs of its communities. Furthermore, it situates the project in dialogue with other digital projects that employ similar tools or methods, and provides a model for doing truly community-engaged digital scholarship. For example, Albert-Abrams et al. describe their work as being practiced “not through a static set of methodologies, but rather an ongoing process of learning, unlearning, and restructuring in pursuit of a collective good” [2019, 1]. We recognize our own practice in this description, as well as in the framing provided by Duff et al, that “Social justice is always a process and can never be fully achieved” [2013, 324].
Our engagement with the Ticha project has yielded many positive results, both for scholars and members of the Zapotec community. The Zapotec language documents in Ticha are a resource for those interested in Zapotec people, their languages, and their history. Ticha’s project design is grounded in well-established theories of cultural and linguistic reclamation and revitalization. Scholars have long discussed the importance of schools in creating positive language ideologies, particularly among youth [Lee 2007], as well as the complexity surrounding the roles that Indigenous educators can have within these systems, in particular in Mexico [McDonough 2014, 160]. Researchers have also noted the power of Indigenous community members directly preserving their own histories [Hoobler 2006]. Given this, we think it is likely that similar results might be achieved in other communities following our methods, adapted for local priorities and practices. While a handful of projects exist, as mentioned earlier, we could imagine even more projects like this not only in Oaxaca, but in Latin America more broadly, and world-wide where such historical corpora exist. All of the Ticha encoding and scripting is freely available to anyone who would like to use or adapt it for similar projects.
As local language ideologies in Mexico favor Spanish over Indigenous languages such as Zapotec, a project like Ticha serves as a resource for local language activists. In particular, Ticha forefronts Indigenous voices and knowledge. As Pratt says: “If one studies only what the Europeans saw and said, one reproduces the monopoly on knowledge and interpretation that the imperial enterprise sought” [2007, 7]. Important historical documents, like the testament of Sebastiana de Mendoza, demonstrate in a very concrete way the long literate history of Zapotec people and the importance of the Zapotec language to understanding this history.
We also take this project to be a clear demonstration of the power of digital humanities projects to democratize access to materials and resources which might otherwise be used primarily by scholars. We seek to practice transformational work as part of a larger interdisciplinary project that we would also classify as engaged scholarship. When community members have access to important documents from their own history, we are able to bring together archiving, scholarship, and community engagement in a powerful synthesis.


We want to acknowledge our appreciation to the editors Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Clayton McCarl for all their work in making this issue possible, including their advice in the development of this piece. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for the helpful and encouraging feedback and to K. David Harrison and Peter Austin for their thoughtful suggestions. We are grateful for comments from attendees at the following conferences: the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, Encuentro de Humanistas Digitales, and the Coloquio sobre Lenguas Otomangues y Vecinas. In addition, we thank Julie Gonzales and Eloise Kadlecek for their editorial support in the preparation of this manuscript. Special thanks for K. David Harrison and Jeremy Fahringer in facilitating the connection between the Zapotec Talking Dictionaries and Ticha’s Vocabulary.
The Ticha project is grateful to funding from the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford College, the Provost Office of Haverford College, the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities at Haverford College, the Haverford College Libraries, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Tri-Co Digital Humanities. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


[1] The full list of current team members can be found at: https://ticha.haverford.edu/en/team/.
[2] Current and recent research assistants include Felipe Acosta-Muñoz, Kimberly Aguero, Carolyn Jane Anderson, Ian Davis, Ian Fisher, Eloise Kadlecek, Collin Kawan-Hemler, Filip Kesicki, Emily Lin, Jaime Metzger, Tomas Paris, Heewon Park, May Helena Plumb, and Conor Stuart Roe.

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