Preserving Language Through Poetry with Ofelia Zepeda

The poet and Tohono Oʼodham Nation member led a workshop highlighting the humanizing power of verse

When composing a poem, it’s helpful to start with the facts.

That was part of the counsel imparted by poet Ofelia Zepeda during a writing workshop at Breed Memorial Hall on March 8. Zepeda, a 2021 honorary degree recipient from the university, gave the example of a poem about styling a daughter’s hair. One could note the length and the way her hair smells. “Those are the facts,” Zepeda said. “The rest is what you feel, how the facts make you feel.”

With her own hair pulled back in beaded barrettes and the rest falling past her waist, Zepeda, the author of two books of poetry, Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (1995) and Jewed’l-hoi/Earth Movements, O’Odham Poems (1996), then handed the microphone to the workshop’s participants, a group of more than 25 students, staff, and surrounding community members.

“Start reflecting upon, maybe not so much women in the greater sense, but a particular individual—or maybe a group of individuals—but they have to be women,” said Zepeda, in recognition of the date of the workshop, which fell on International Women’s Day. “It doesn't have to be a family member. It can be somebody who you look up to as influential. Or it can be someone who was not so good to you and made an impression on you.”

Earlier in the program, Zepeda read a passage from Ocean Power incorporating elements of her native Oʼodham: “Like so many others, these women talked about the movements of potential rain clouds. They watched the sky more in the summer. They spoke of the clouds, the ones ‘mat aṣ e-padc’ (that just ruined themselves). These were the clouds that fell apart, that did not build up enough to cause rain. These were clouds that people said ‘aṣ t-iatogĭ’ (just lied to us).”

A renowned linguist and the director of the American Indian Language Development Institute at the University of Arizona, Zepeda has also written a book of Tohono O’odham grammar, A Papago Grammar (1983). (The Papago Nation was renamed the Tohono O’odham Nation in 1986.) While delivering the Russell Lecture on Spiritual Life the previous evening, in which she expressed her views on language preservation, Zepeda said, “Poetry is a safe way for language learners to access the language, so they not only access words and vocabulary. They also access certain cultural knowledge, traditional knowledge that is held in the language and in some of the themes that I have written about over time.”

“For some, it's the first time that they've heard the language spoken, and then they become curious. They want to read what I have written. And so, they become students of the language and second-language learners for the rest of their lives,” said Zepeda during the Russell Lecture.

Wielding the Quiet Force of Poetry

Zepeda closed the workshop on a gentle call to action: “Some of you who are students, depending on what you plan on doing with your lives… will make an impact and will influence somebody or something, and cause change to start occurring.”

“And I think it's an important area to try and write about in a different way,” Zepeda said. “In poetry, you hit a different audience, because you don’t think about it as teaching something. But you can have poetry that does, even if it’s just a couple of lines… whether you’re speaking about people, or animals, or the land, or plants that need help being heard. You can do it without asking permission.”

People lingered briefly in conversation before leaving Breed Hall. “I’ll be chewing on today’s experience for a while,” said Muri Mascarenhas, A25, for which Zepeda’s work in passing on the O’odham language was particularly meaningful. “I lived 10 years in Brazil speaking only Portuguese and coming here, the language barrier is real. [But] having English as a second language for me is different from what it is for her. Her language needs this extra support.”

Ananya Gita, A25, participates in a writing workshop led by Dr. Ofelia Zepeda

One of the members of the University Chaplaincy's Interfaith Ambassador program, Ananya Gita, A25 (in blue), participated in the workshop. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“I'm honored to be in this space with Dr. Zepeda and to learn from her, to have her guide us in this workshop and time of exploration of our own skills—expressing them in the form of poetry,” said Anayna Gita, A25, an interfaith ambassador at the University Chaplaincy. “She has a style of making sure that this type of poetry is accessible to everyone, just thinking about our memories about our families and culture. Even the topic about women in our lives feels very timely.”

Karolina Rico joined the workshop from outside the Tufts community. She found Zepeda’s approachability as a teacher most encouraging. “Her humbleness in talking about herself and her family and just being a real person, it’s inspiring,” Rico said. “You just have to be yourself. You don't have to be very unique or special.”

“Maybe we all are, but we don't need to be. We don't need to perceive ourselves as great people to have a voice. Let yourself be yourself. That’s what she carries with her,” Rico said.

The Russell Lecture on Spiritual Life is the oldest endowed lectureship at Tufts and offers a spiritual perspective on this historical moment. This year’s lecture was co-sponsored by the University Chaplaincy and the Indigenous Center.

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