The Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas

Emiliano Cruz Santiago (1986–2015)

Emiliano Cruz Santiago, an SSILA member and Miahuatec Zapotec-speaking linguist who dedicated his life to documenting his language and culture, has died at the age of 29.  Rosemary Beam de Azcona has written an obituary that includes a list of his publications.


Emiliano Cruz Santiago

February 8, 1986 – October 27, 2015


Emiliano Cruz Santiago, the Miahuatec Zapotec-speaking linguist who dedicated his life to documenting his language and culture, has died at the age of 29, leaving behind his 8 month old son, José Enrique Cruz Mendoza, his young widow, Ricarda Mendoza, his bereaved family, and his shocked and saddened colleagues around the world. He published the first book in his language, an anthology of folk beliefs and traditions, and leaves behind two other books to be published soon: one is a nearly 500 page document consisting of a grammatical sketch, orthography primer, and mostly glossed and translated texts transcribed from recordings, and secondly a dictionary of which he is the first editor, with more than 6,000 entries and around 10,000 lexical items including subentries.

Emiliano began working as my consultant at the age of 19 while still a high school student. He was a bookworm who spent his free time in the Andrés Henestrosa library and was always carrying a newly checked-out stack of books as well as a notebook which he used to write down anything that interested him. On the second day we worked together I was comparing two forms, one that ended in a vowel and the other which didn’t, and he asked me, “Isn’t that apocope?” Years later when I asked how he had known that term he supposed that it was something he remembered from some books about ancient Greek poetry that he had checked out of the library. On the third day we worked together he said to me as soon as he sat down, “Do you know that in my community we have a 260 day calendar that we use to dictate when we perform certain rituals? I asked my father about it last night and took all these notes…” and then he showed me pages of details he had carefully recorded about this Mesoamerican ritual calendar which survives in his community. I don’t know at what point I concluded that he was a genius, but I knew that he was born to be a linguist the minute I heard him say “apocope”.

The Fundación Alfredo Harp Helú awarded him a scholarship to study an undergraduate degree in Linguistics at the University of Sonora, where he was advised by Zarina Estrada. He first visited the United States through a program run by the US State department for what it considered leading indigenous university students from Latin America. Through follow-up activities led by the State Department he later met in Mexico City such notable people as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and then-first lady of Mexico, Margarita Zavala. He collaborated with me on an ELDP grant that I received and subsequently was awarded his own grant from ELDP, visiting London for their training workshop. He worked for four months in Washington, D.C. on a project with Mark Sicoli, Víctor Cata and Gabriela Pérez Báez to analyze tone in verbal forms in 11 Zapotec languages for the purposes of reconstructing tone in Proto-Zapotec. He was well matched to this task because he was always keenly aware of tone since our first few months working together. He also attended a language documentation workshop led by the Living Tongues Institute in Santiago, Chile. His first linguistic presentation was at the Instituto Welte in 2007 in Oaxaca. He conducted several orthography workshops in San Bartolomé Loxicha and in the last year he was involved in an initiative to get primary school students to compose literature in Zapotec. On that occasion he performed his own composition of spoken word poetry in Zapotec having to do with Mexican history and politics, and sang the Beatles’ classic “And I love her”, which he had translated into Zapotec. One of his last academic presentations was an invited talk on the 260 day ritual calendar at the Biblioteca de Investigación Juán de Córdova. He had hoped to study a master’s degree in Linguistics at CIESAS in Mexico, and a PhD at UT Austin.

All his life Emiliano suffered from hypokalemia, a condition which caused his body to have dangerously low levels of potassium and suffer temporary paralysis. Several attempts to diagnosis his condition in Mexico failed and often resulted in doctors telling him it was all in his head. While on his State Department-sponsored trip to the United States he suffered one such attack and was taken to an emergency room in Arizona, where he received the correct diagnosis. Since then he was mostly able to keep his condition under control through diet. However, on the night of October 25, 2015, an attack began with atypical symptoms and, not recognizing it as such, he did not take his potassium salts. Over the following day his condition worsened. On the morning of October 27th his family sought medical attention in San Agustín Loxicha, another Miahuatec Zapotec-speaking town, adjacent to his own community and the hometown of his wife. One doctor turned him away. The next doctor could see the severity of his condition but had run out of potassium. The town ambulance was called but was out of town on an errand and they had to wait for an hour and a half. In the ambulance Emiliano had difficulty breathing and they tried to give him oxygen but the ambulance’s oxygen tank was empty. He died en route to the hospital, about a half an hour away from the potassium injection that could have saved his life. During his wake and burial his family honored his memory by documenting the funerary traditions they were practicing in Zapotec, considering that he dedicated his life to documenting such traditions in their language.

Emiliano’s life as well as Emiliano’s death reveal certain realities faced by people in many indigenous communities throughout Mexico. As he documented himself, Emiliano came from a culturally and linguistically rich environment. He was someone with the potential to contribute to humanity by sharing this cultural and linguistic knowledge, which he did tirelessly for 10 years. He produced more cultural and linguistic documentation than many older academics produce over much longer careers. His family, his community, and our discipline have nevertheless been deprived of the opportunity to see how much more he could have accomplished over the coming decades, this because indigenous communities such as the Loxichas are typically marginalized and lack the health care (and other) resources available in urban population centers, basic resources like full oxygen tanks. Emiliano was someone who connected disparate cultures—in his short life he met foreign dignitaries and academics, indigenous language activists, and people from many walks of life. He translated John Lennon compositions into Zapotec and Zapotec folk beliefs into Spanish. To those of us who did not grow up in Southern Zapotec communities he shared his language and culture, and to those who spoke his language he shared an orthography, a catalog of traditions, and a knowledge of how the language documentation revolution might contribute to preserving their history. We all benefitted from the wealth of knowledge he shared in life, and now we suffer this loss with his unnecessary death. Both the richness of what he gave us and the injustice of what we now lose are the result of where he was born and where he died—the Southern Sierra Madre of Oaxaca.


Works by Emiliano Cruz Santiago:

  1. Jwá’n ngwan-keéh reéh xa’gox – Creencias de nuestros antepasados. Colección “Diálogos, Pueblos Originarios de Oaxaca”. Oaxaca: Culturas Populares.

(With Rosemary Beam de Azcona et al.) 2013. “El hombre que conoció a Cocijo”. Tlalocan.

(With Rosemary Beam de Azcona) In press. Los compuestos verbales y las expresiones idiomáticas en el zapoteco miahuateco de San Bartolomé Loxicha. In Francisco Arellanes, Mario Chávez-Peón and Rosa María Rojas Torres, eds. Lenguas Zapotecas. México: UNAM.

(First editor, with Rosemary Beam de Azcona as second editor) Forthcoming. Diccionario del zapoteco miahuateco de San Bartolomé Loxicha.

Forthcoming. Xith reéh kwent: Moód tixu’t mén noó kéh’ mén dí’z déh Guéz xíil

Entre tantos cuentos: Para leer y escribir el zapoteco de San Bartolomé Loxicha.


Additional materials produced by Emiliano Cruz Santiago are to be archived with ELAR, including video recordings and ethnobotanical fieldnotes.

Updated: December 4, 2015 — 9:21 am

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