Community Members Bio: Sisters Sonia and Mónica Vita

By ELAR Archive|November 12, 2020|Community Member Bios|0 comments

This week on the ELAR blog, ELDP grantee and ELAR depositor Pablo Fuentes interviews sisters Sonia and Mónica Vita Manquepi, two members of a Pewenche community in Butalelbun, in the Alto Biobío region of Chile.

Sonia Vita is a linguist and native speaker of Chedungun, the Mapudungun variant spoken by the Pewenche people. Her sister Mónica, also a native speaker of the language, is a permanent resident in Butalelbun, a valley surrounded by volcanoes and Araucaria groves. Monica’s role has been crucial for the development of the project, especially since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. In effect, since last April, she has conducted all the recordings and interviews in the field by her own, while Sonia and Pablo have focused their work on the transcription and edition of previously recorded material. The project has entered a self-documentation stage, and the team looks forward to continuing their collaborative work.

The documentation team. From left to right: Mónica Vita, Pablo Fuentes, Sonia Vita.

Sonia, can you tell us about yourself and how you became a linguist?

My official Chilean name is Sonia Vita Manquepi, but my name in Chedungun is Pünoylew. I am from Butalelbun, one of the valleys in the region of Alto Biobío, where the Pewenche people have lived for centuries. When I was only six years old, I had to leave my community and move to the local city of Los Ángeles, where I coursed my primary education. It was there that I learned to speak and read in Spanish. We all did because my father, Pedro Vita, was deeply convinced that we should get a formal education. In time, I came to understand that he always wanted that for himself, but his parents never allowed it. It’s hard to understand how he managed to learn to read. Later in his life he travelled to Argentina in the summers, three or four hours on horseback across the Andes, just to buy books and bring the world to our minds.

When I finished high school I started my university studies in Santiago, for which I also had to work. I was interested in language, but I did not know what Linguistics was. I became a teacher first and gradually started to teach Mapudungun near Santiago. There was no established methodology, so I started to research myself, and eventually, with the help of my husband Mauricio, created a methodology to teach Mapudungun, with great results.  Some years later, I met linguist Dr. Daniel Lagos Altamirano, from Universidad Playa Ancha in Valparaíso, who guided me in the formal studies of indigenous languages. Shortly after, he convinced me to start a masters programme in Linguistics, which I completed last year. Writing and defending my thesis has been one of the greatest challenges in my life. We invited all my family to the graduation ceremony… it was very special.

And what about you, Mónica? Can you tell us about yourself and your contribution in the project?

My name in Spanish is Mónica Vita Manquepi, my pewenche name is Tügueyllan, which means ‘to pick up stones’ in Chedungun. I was born in Butalelbun and I have lived here for the last eight years. My initial role in this project was interviewing, most of which I did with my parents and neighbours. I’ve learned so much. Very soon I found myself bringing ideas as to the topic of the interviews, how to arrange a natural setting, and then issues that were related to the development of the project itself. The team has always worked like that, very inclusive when making decisions. Eventually, when the pandemic arrived, we all held a meeting and decided that the best thing to do was that I assumed, additionally to the interviewer role, all the issues related to the recordings in the field. That included camera, recorder, tripods… I received an afternoon training and there I was, setting the camera and recorder and the next minute doing an interview. I have to confess that more than once I started recording with the camera and forgot about the recorder! We all took it with a dash of humour when we had to start all over again. Especially my parents, who have been so well disposed towards this project. They cherish conversation, especially the idea that these conversations will last over time.

Mónica Vita interviewing Pedro Vita and sisters Victorina and María Ester Manquepi. Photo by Pablo Fuentes

How was that experience of interviewing your parents and documenting their lives? What have you learned?

It has been a beautiful experience. Since I came back to Butalelbun, eight years ago, I’ve been in a process of reconnecting with my roots. Interviewing my parents has been part of that process. Many of the things we talked about in the interviews I’ve heard them before in a summerland lunch, or drinking mate by the fire, because good conversation is something very respected in our family. Now I enjoy those same conversations with a bit more awareness, learning again what was already there all the time. The experience of my parents in the summerlands, the way they have managed to live with very few goods, the words that they still use and that are inevitably being forgotten… all that nourishes me. It is difficult to put it into words, but I think that working in this project I have come to know my parents beyond the paternal and maternal figure. I have come to know them as the wonderful persons they are, as Pedro Vita and Victorina Manquepi.

Sonia, what do you think is the importance of this (and potentially other) documentation project(s) for the preservation of Chedungun?

As a linguist and native speaker of this beautiful language, I should say that preservation is something that people of the community have always done. To some extent, tell someone the same story that your mother told you as a child is a natural exercise of preservation. This is something that is carried out with some degree of awareness and some of spontaneity, at least in my family, where the traditions and practices of our ancestors are deeply respected. The pewenche summerlands, which immediately became the main subject and natural setting of the project, are a prime example. These highlands is where we take our animals for pasture for a six months period. All the activities that surround that event (which includes cheese making, collection of seeds and herbs, storytelling and long conversation) are expressed and encoded in our language. I think that documenting a language is not just an exercise of what means what—it is making all the ancestral knowledge that is encoded in a language accessible.

The opportunity to materialize this project, with this beautiful team in this beautiful land, allows us to show current and future generations that this knowledge is alive thanks to the silent labour of our mothers and fathers, and of their mothers and fathers, of our ancestors. We are simply continuing the chain. And I am especially proud to show that the Pewenche valleys of Queuco river have one of the richest linguistic vitality in our country, a place where you can see children speaking Chedungun fluently and being proud of it. By depositing this material in ELAR we are inviting current and future generations to see our world. That is the beauty of self-documentation. We are not just answering question to an external observer who brings and extracts knowledge with some compensatory agreement. We are part of the process, and in some way, so are our ancestors.

Sisters Sonia and Mónica Vita Manquepi. Photo by Pablo Fuentes

And what you think it can be done to make the process of self-documentation smoother?

Sonia: There are always things that can be improved. Ideally, get more people from the community involved. Even in a highly participative project like this, it is easy to imagine a greater degree of participation at all levels, technical and non-technical.

There are also practical issues. It is a well-known fact that language documentation is time consuming. Especially the transcription and annotation process. It requires considerable effort to keep a good pace and at the same time reveal every aspect of what is said in the conversations. This needs collaborative work and specialized knowledge. I am thinking about the younger generations, the younger Pewenche. Why has nobody asked them if they want to become linguists? Why are our local policies oriented to the view that some external expert has to be the one that brings or extracts the  knowledge? Why has the possibility of offering our young native speakers to become professionals in this field been overlooked? The experience of our team shows that we can do this in a participative and deeply respectful way. We were given the opportunity to participate and here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, self-documenting our world. Given the current scenario, it is difficult to think of a more productive strategy than to give the communities the chance.

Mónica: Despite the fact that the pandemic interrupted a process that was rolling perfectly, and that we had to adapt the project to the new circumstances, which included me staying in the field and carrying out safe self-documentation, I think we all extracted some very positive conclusions. I also think integrating more people from the communities is the way to go, but also organizing them in more focalized groups, with specific targets, like travelling to other summerlands, talking to a group of weaver women, or spending an afternoon talking to the elderly about the history of this land. And also experimenting a bit, why not? There is so much to do! Obviously, to assure a good final product, which is what we all want, we need to learn more and improve our working tools, with further support to our future projects. I think we are prepared for bigger challenges.

View of the pewenche summerland, where most of the documentation was carried out. Photo by Pablo Fuentes

Thanks Pablo, Sonia and Mónica!

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