by Javier Domingo in conversation with Dora Manchado
Getting to Doña Dora’s home on foot is no picnic. It’s a long way, and stray dogs can be a serious threat. But it’s all part of my job with the Intercultural Bilingual Education System of Santa Cruz, coordinated by anthropologist Marcela Alaniz. It’s what I call “the nicest job on earth”: seeking to recover what’s left of the language, in order to return some depth to the identity of the small community at the southern edge of Patagonia that is known as Tehuelche (and that today self-identifies as Aonekko).
It’s what I call ‘the nicest job on earth’: seeking to recover what’s left of the language, in order to return some depth to the identity of the small community.
While slipping and sliding on mud, I rehearse the scene of my arrival. The house has no bell, but there are seven or eight dogs that bark so loud that Dora, way in the back, knows to come open the door. I step in and greet her: “Uáinguesh, Dora! Kenk mpe?” (Hello, Dora! How are you?) No matter the aches and pains in her shoulder, or her knee, or her stomach, she invariably answers: “Uáinguesh, kketo!” (Hello, fine!)
Out of my backpack come the tape recorder, ham, yogurt, fruit (as much of it as can be had around here), and dark bread—Dora needs to eat more fiber. I try to start a conversation: “How’s your new granddaughter? Today Myrta came by the office. In the morning it was colder; they say it may snow tonight.”
I make an effort to use the few Tehuelche words I know, but she almost always answers in Spanish. Sometimes it’s hard for her to remember her language: with whom? Today I need to put together a list of animals, and it pains me to ask her to repeat. How many times must she have done it? “Doña Dora, how did one say ‘cougar’?”
Easier to start with dogs: there’s more than enough uachen in this house. The one called Peque barks, wanting attention. “Kkom (enough), Peque, I’m not giving you anything!”—but then she slips him some ham under the table. There’s a surfeit of cats, too, but for ‘cat’ “there’s no pronunciation.” Yet, the dictionary I carry with me lists the word pel—but Dora says: “That’s another cat, a bigger one, so big that it once ate a cat I had, which liked to go wandering. I went out to look for it and only found its hind parts, that was it. I told my husband: My cat! I don’t know what ate it! And he told me that it was one of those cats that go around at night. A pel had caught it.” Clear enough to me now that the pel is a different kind of cat (a wild cat, perhaps the pampas cat or Geoffroy’s cat?).
There are no more animals in the house at this point to add to my list. My workspace is Dora’s kitchen, with a window that opens onto the patio. I don’t have many more options than to show her some drawings, such as that of the cougar, and Dora tells me: “This is the goolen, I think it is. There used to be goolen up there in the Cañadón (gully), now I don’t know. They say there are some on the other side of the river. They go around hunting guanacos and sheep, but they hide; you can’t see them.”
We go on with the sheep: “Qampen… This one is easy, but there are no more qampen in the Cañadón. Who knows why there are no more qampen, why they no longer let people keep qampen. What are people going to eat?” I show her a guanaco: “Nau. That’s what the goolen eats, but if the nau sees it, mainoshkk (off it goes), the nau! And no way that the goolen can grab it then.” We continue: “This other one is a ttashel (cow), but there were none of these in the Cañadón. Qampen milk was all we drank.”
I run out of drawings, so now we’re left with going over the Tehuelche dictionary. I try to pronounce kkanter (lizard), but Dora recoils: “Yuck, that’s disgusting, the kkanter! It reminds me of a neighbor who always went around with a kkanter in his pocket to frighten me. ‘Would you like a candy?’ he would ask, picking out the kkanter. The kkanter would fall asleep with the heat of his body, becoming torpid. That’s how one day he was left with the kkanter’s tail in his hand.” Dora teaches me that an effective remedy for the (admittedly rare) Patagonian heat is rubbing a kkanter on one’s forehead. Will have to try.
The tcheeper (beetle), too, is yucky for Dora. And it makes her angry, because it was the tcheeper that asked Elal, the one who created the world, for there to be death. “‘There’s going to be a lot of people, and they’re going to step on me,’ said the tcheeper.” In revenge, Dora always squashes the tcheeper whenever she sees one.
I read out “qam,” but Dora asks: “And what’s that?” I read the translation to her: “Cuis (southern mountain cavy),” and then Dora remembers: “A cuis! It’s that one forgets, you know, here alone. But of course! That’s why I call ‘qam’ that little dog that Diana has, which is small like a qam. And I no longer knew why I called the dog that way…”
The pajer (Patagonian mara, or Patagonian hare) is easier for her to remember. “Earlier on, Peque would run after the pajer, when he would still go run outside, but he would never catch them, because he has short legs. Karen says that they come by at night, but I don’t see them, as I don’t have a window to that side.”
It’s true: the window of Dora’s kitchen, the room where she spends most of her time, opens to the other side. Looking that way, she tells me: “The qalderoo (southern lapwing) must be just about to arrive, by the 15th they will. They arrive first at a farm back here, and from there, they come this way singing. ‘I’ve arrived!’ sings the bird. They come almost at the same time when that other one with a small red beak appears too, the sheet (unidentified bird). Who knows where it comes from… from the north, must be. Of those sheet, you can see many… others you can only hear, like the keshkesh (another unidentified bird), which is one that sings up there in the sky. Not now, but later on you can hear those sing. You never see them; up in the sky they sing: keshkeshkesh! they sing; they call out their own name: keshkesh! In spring I listen to them, but they’re unfriendly, those ones; they always stay far away. They’re unfriendly like the chamberrot (a kind of plover?), the one that has long skinny legs, which is why I call Viviana that way.”
“And at night, Doña Dora?,” I ask. “There’s the amen (eagle owl). Sometimes I see it fly by. And then there’s the kokoo (barn owl), which is smaller than the amen, but it’s a bad omen. When they sing in front of a house, you can be sure a neighbor is going to die.”
I search my mind for more birds, but I don’t know that many. Lucky me, she volunteers: “Those of which there are many are the che’ (sparrows), those brownish ones that are so abundant.” I tell her that my grandmother ate them with polenta,* and she laughs at the implausible idea that one can eat a che’. “The ieperpar (falcon?) are the ones who eat the che’, but they aren’t coming yet either. It’s a small skinny one that always goes after other birds. Once I chased after one to grab the bird away from it, but it flew high and took the bird with it. Those that are nice are the seelak (swallows). They come here and leave right away, though, like soldiers… Seelak… they’re black, shiny they are, how lovely they are! But what a pity that they leave so soon. Luckily it won’t be long before they arrive. As soon as the cold is gone they will come. From here I can see them that way, where pools of water form sometimes, but now they’re building a house there, so maybe this time they won’t come.”
I go back to the dictionary: “Qaldak (ibis), Doña Dora?” “There aren’t any of those here, either. In Laguna Azul there are many.” She promises that if I take her there she’ll show them to me. It’s hard for her to walk, but she loves to go on car rides. In winter, though, Patagonian roads are difficult—and there are no birds. We go on: does she know the bolan (Patagonian negrito)? “Bolan! I had forgotten about the bolan! It’s a black birdie. Those arrive for the New Year. They fly around there all the time, the little birdies… Bo-lan… it has a red tail… Bo-lan… First comes the guy, ‘cause it’s a rascal. It comes to see what the weather is like here, and then comes the wife.” She keeps smiling and repeating the name again and again: bo-lan… bo-lan… Her delight melts away the embarrassment I came in with, and I can almost hear Doña Dora’s kitchen fill up with trills. I’d like to keep asking, but she can remember no more. “I used to know more, but have forgotten. All the creatures around here had names in Tehuelche, and now they don’t anymore, they’re ancient words.”
‘I used to know more, but have forgotten. All the creatures around here had names in Tehuelche, and now they don’t anymore, they’re ancient words.’
Dora knows I visit her because of the language; that’s why she had a CD on the table. She wants to listen to it to see whether she can remember more animals. We hear the voice of an old woman, and Doña Dora translates a few sentences for me, interrupted by Peque who wants more ham: “The fox farted… the ostrich stepped on the mara’s tail… someone grabbed the cougar’s balls.” The naughtiness brings out laughter: “Sometimes when I’m alone I listen to those stories to get a laugh.” The recording ends, and she wants to listen again—and again: “The fox farted… the ostrich stepped on themara’s tail… someone grabbed the cougar’s balls.” And so again until the sun goes down, the mud hardens with frost, and I return home, kicking garbage and worried that someone might mug me and steal the recorder with Doña Dora’s voice saying that the fox farted…
Several days later, I go along with Dora and her granddaughter to a kindergarten where a group of children chose the name chelelon (butterfly) and another patten (fox). The kids are sitting around on the floor, and a community member is giving them a chat about their people. When the “surprise” arrives, they receive her with a loud “Uáinguesh, Dora!” Hearing that brings tears to my eyes—and it’s enough to look at Dora’s eyes for me to realize that yes, all this work really is worth it.
Translated from Spanish by Luisa Maffi
* [Ed.’s note: Originating from the northern Italian region of Veneto, Javier’s grandmother would have eaten polenta e osèi (polenta and birds), a traditional cornmeal dish served with a variety of small wild birds including sparrows, which would have been roasted on skewers or pan-fried.]
Javier Domingo hails from Bariloche, Argentina, and is working on a revitalization program for the Tehuelche language of Patagonia. He holds masters’ degrees in Comparative Languages and Literatures and in Italian Language and Culture for Foreigners from the University of Bologna, Italy, and a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnolinguistics from the University of Venice.
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