Not long ago, I stepped inside Móntez Gallery, housed in an adobe church in the mountain village of Truchas, NM. Religious-themed artwork, of saints and madonnas, plus eclectic women’s clothing and other artifacts, adorned the walls of the cool, serene space. I asked the slender white haired man seated in a corner of the church whom he represented.
“A few hundred families in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado who descend from the Spaniards,” said Mr. Móntez. By Spaniards, he meant Conquistadors.
“I’m from such a family,” he said. “English is not my native language.”
“What did you learn to speak?” I asked.
“16th century Spanish,” he said.
“I speak contemporary Spanish,” I said. “Can you give me an example of how they’re different?”
“So, in modern Spanish you’d say manejar un coche for driving a car. But we’d say vagón (wagon), as back then there weren’t any cars.”
I couldn’t decide if I found this information charming (proud families honoring their traditions) or disturbing (stubborn families clinging to anachronisms). I wondered if there were communities in Spain that, relatively isolated from other villages, still spoke 16th century Spanish, or if that particular style of speech exists only in a small swath of the New World, thousands of miles and hundreds of years away from the motherland. I tried to imagine how people would react if, in my birth state of Massachusetts, some direct descendants of the Pilgrims still spoke like their ancestors, resisting a linguistic upgrade.
Would we celebrate or ridicule them? More broadly, is there a point at which following certain traditions impedes rather than enriches a person or a community?
Just two hours from Truchas, along a different curving mountain road, sits Jemez Pueblo. A few days earlier I had traveled through the village and stopped at the hot springs and later at a roadside stand where a husband, wife and their tween daughter sold fry bread, enchiladas, Indian tacos and other hearty food. Smoke from a wood fire tinged the hot desert air. While I waited for them to take my order, I listened to the husband speaking to another man, dressed in khakis and button down shirt, in an unfamiliar language. When it was my turn, I ordered a cheese enchilada with onions and asked him what he had been speaking.
“Towa,” he said. “We’re the only pueblo that speaks it. None of the other tribes around here understand it.”
I sat at a shaded picnic table as the wife wrapped the enchilada in foil and warmed it over the fire. With no other customers there, the husband came over and drank a Coca-Cola. His daughter, dressed in hot pink, toyed with matching glittery sun glasses.
“Our language isn’t written,” he continued. “I’m worried it might die out.” That it had survived until this day, despite the arrival of the Conquistadors and the Americans, was nothing short of a marvel.
“How many people are in your tribe?” I asked.
“A few thousand,” he said. “Luckily the community is growing. I have a new grandchild.”
He didn’t look much older than me, but he was now an elder. Cultural preservation was now his responsibility. Even so, he said they’ve incorporated some Spanish into Towa, modifying the emphasis to match Towa’s native rhythms. Leche (milk), becomes lay-CHAY. Mantequilla (butter) becomes mantequi-YAH. Perhaps a bit of borrowing was necessary to keep the language flexible and relevant so that it would continue to be spoken for at least another generation.
By then the enchilada was ready and his wife brought it over. As I unwrapped the foil, the daughter asked me where I had come from.
“Colorado,” I said.
“We’re driving to Denver tomorrow for my sister’s basketball tournament,” she said. The whole family was planning to make the six hour journey. Maybe they’d speak Towa as they navigated between their home and the destination, the familiar and the foreign, the ancient and the modern.