By Kathryn Farris. Isidoro pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and caught the tears that streamed down his face as he received the first copy of the Mixtec New Testament he helped translate. Others who attended this dedication service were also in awe because they were receiving the Scriptures in their own language. Many of them had not believed their language could even be written. They certainly did not expect a work of such magnitude.
Appreciation for their language as a written tool of communication, however, is a relatively new concept for the Mixtecs. When Ed and I and our three children moved to Yosondua in 1969 to learn the Mixtec language, most of the people were curious but they were not anxious to have their language written nor to have books produced. What purpose would it serve? One man summed it up by saying, “Aren’t these people in the United States for you to mock? Why did you have to come here?” Clearly our work was cut out for us if we were to have a ministry among the Mixtecs.
First, we had to understand them and appreciate their culture. We learned they call themselves the Rain People, not Mixtecs, the name the Aztecs gave them when they swept down and conquered the region. These Rain People have a history rich with stories of brave warriors, conquests, extensive trade, expert craftsmanship and advanced agricultural methods. Some of these accounts are recorded in picture-writing (codices) and are preserved to this day. Their ancestors, who worshipped the sun, passed on stories about the creation of the world and other phenomena that occurred on earth.
They traditionally moved in family groupings and maintained only minimal contact with outsiders. In fact, the Yosondua Mixtec language does not have words for friend or neighbor. Those who lived near them and with whom they socialized were relatives, so the word jnahan served for relative, friend and neighbor. In more recent times they borrowed the Spanish words for friend and neighbor and use them today as part of their language and pattern of living.
Today the Yosondua Mixtecs, who live in the state of Oaxaco, number approximately 8,000. While many continue to speak only Mixtec, or the Rain Language, some have become bi-lingual speaking both Mixtec and Spanish. As farmers they raise corn, wheat, beans and several varieties of squash. Many of them practice the art of weaving baskets with intricate designs.
Even though they were conquered by the Spanish, they survived and have emerged as a strong, quiet people who are intensely loyal to their beliefs and traditions. Today, as reserved people, they are slow to accept change and innovative ideas and they cling tenaciously to the traditional values of their culture.
Understanding this, we realized we would probably not see them accept changes during our time with them. We had faith that God’s Word would one day make a difference, but not for a long time. We also wanted to see them with improved farming techniques, a better understanding of hygiene and the ability to read. The mainstream of Mexican life was impinging upon them and we wanted them equipped to adjust to the changes. We asked people to pray for these projects but to especially pray that the Mixtecs would be transformed by God’s Word into his children. Not to the cautious and reserved Mixtecs.
We were wrong! Wrong in our lack of faith and in our “realism.” Change came. For the catalyst, God chose Basilia, who grew up an orphan girl, unable to read or write. Her world consisted primarily of caring for her family and tending to the goats and sheep. Her husband, Isidore, made a commitment to follow Christ while working with Ed on the translation. But instead of growing, he reverted to his old ways and began drinking. Things fell apart for the family. Finances were so bad he decided to try his luck in Baja, California. There was no gold at the end of the rainbow in Baja and he began the trip back home dejected. While he was gone, some men came to Yosondua with a film on the life of Christ. Townspeople directed them to Basilia since her husband had once identified himself as a believer.
The idea of seeing a film intrigued Basilia, and she invited her neighbors to join her. That evening her one-room log house was full. The film was novelty but the message a powerful force. It challenged them as nothing else had ever done and they determined to learn more.
Isidoro returned to a wife who was different and neighbors who showed an interest in the message they had laughed at earlier. His surprise became boundless when they asked him to teach them the Bible. He had helped with the translation of the New Testament and he surely must know a great deal, they reasoned. He could barely fathom all that was unfolding. One thing he knew, he was a failure. He had not stood firm in the truth. That night God changed Isidoro’s heart, and our dreams began to materialize.
From that nucleus of believers a church of over 200 people emerged. They have dared to step out of the cultural mold to reach neighbors, friends and acquaintances with the message of salvation. And how their lives have changed. Men who had once been enemies now work side by side. Drunkards are sober. Sick children are well. Women are treated with new respect. Men take their work for the school or town seriously. Land that lay neglected is tended and produces a harvest. People prosper and live in peace. Such changes for the Rain People. An impossible dream come true! Thank you for praying.