The last living speaker of Yaghan

She may be a reluctant hero but Cristina Calderón is passing on the secrets of her mother tongue to the next generation in Chile's south.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011  
Calderón is living in the stunning town of Puerto Williams, the world´s most southern town. Calderón is living in the stunning town of Puerto Williams, the world´s most southern town.

At 83 years of age, Cristina Calderón is the last living speaker of the Yaghan language. Sitting in a ruca, or traditional hut, built for tourists in the southern town of Puerto Williams, Calderón is a rare link to an all but forgotten past. She has been declared an 'illustrious daughter' of the Magallanes Region and two years ago,  was declared a national Living Treasure in the lead-up to Chile's bicentennial celebrations.


She lives in the small town of Villa Ukika, along with close to 70 other descendants of the nomadic Yaghan people who have paddled on canoes between the freezing islands of Chile's deep south for the past 6,000 years. Most of them live in houses like Calderón's, painted in bright colors with muddy entrances and shaggy dogs out front.


Outside the weather its freezing cold and Calderón concedes that she isn't fond of the traditional Yaghan way of life. As a child, she learned to paddle the traditional canoes but she has never enjoyed it.


“I was nine years old when I went on my first trip and ever since then, I haven't liked doing it,” she told La Tercera. “I used to go to Yendegaia with my cousin to hunt otters and I didn't like it. It was very cold and I used to tell her that when I grew up, I wouldn't marry a Yaghan, because I didn't want to keep doing that type of thing.”


Keeping her word, she has married and outlived three men, none of whom were Yaghans. Today Calderón has nine children and 14 grandchildren, and one of them, Cristina Zárraga, has taken an interest in her heritage.


Zárraga's passion for the Yaghan culture was cultivated by her great aunt, Ursula, before she passed away in 2003. Since then, she has been working with her grandmother to preserve their common Yaghan past. Together they have worked on a book called Hai Kur Mamashu Shis (I Want to Tell You a Story).


Following Calderón's recognition as a Living Treasure, the pair obtained funds to develop a series of workshops on the Yaghan language and culture in for school students Chile's south. In the classes, they teach the children words and phrases with the help of a small illustrated Yaghan dictionary and a CD with recordings of Calderón speaking the language.


Macarena Barros from the National Arts and Culture Council says these classes are an important way of maintaining the ancient Yaghan language, which is a integral part of Chile's cultural heritage.


“The words don't just contain meaning, they are also transmitters of the deep, ingrained expression of a particular culture,” she told La Tercera.


But with winter beginning to set in, the most important thing for Calderón is ensuring that she keeps warm. Even though she is a Living Treasure with a unique key to the past, she still has to live in the present.