Yaqui language lives
May 4, 2005
 Retired teacher shares love of idiom with kids By Levi J. Long



As a 5-year-old girl, Maria Molina remembers tales told to her about her pearl-diving great-grandfather.
Diving off the coast of northern Sonora, he would gather the pearls and sell them as needed.
Juana Amacio, Molina's Yaqui grandmother, also told her stories about their family's history and culture.
"She always used to tell me to look under a tree for a cache of pearls," Molina said. "To her dying day, she'd always say, 'Go back. Go back to look for those pearls.' "
Molina, 66, made a promise to her late grandmother to help raise her younger siblings and to carry on the Yaqui language and history.
It's a promise Molina has worked to keep.
She helped start the first Yaqui language program in Tucson United School District elementary schools in the 1980s.
Today Molina voluntarily teaches Yaqui at the Pascua Neighborhood Center, 785 W. Sahuaro St., near West Grant and North Oracle roads.
Each Friday, about 15 students - from 5 to 20 years old - come to the center and sit in a circle for the lessons.
The free lessons revolve around the basics - learning the names of colors and animals; nouns; pronouns; and simple introductory sentences.
"I want the students to feel comfortable hearing the sounds and not feel intimidated by the language," Molina said. "I want students to feel the words in their mouths."
Bert Gastellum, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Richey Elementary School, has been taking the classes since they started in April.
"We're learning simple stuff now, but it's getting easier," Gastellum said.
Peter Acuņa,, 20, said that except for himself and a sibling, most of his family speaks Yaqui.
"I've wanted to learn the language for a long time," Acuņa said. "There aren't a lot of places to take classes."
As the oldest student in the class, Acuņa said it feels good knowing that he is serving as an example for younger children.
"It's good to be here for the kids," he said. "If they see me doing it, they might get interested, too."
Loretta Ishida, program manager for the PRO Neighborhoods partnership, said the language is tapping directly into the community.
The PRO Neighborhood philosophy (People, Resources and Organizations) is based on individuals coming together to use their talent and passion to do positive things for their neighborhoods, Ishida said.
"It's very inspiring," Ishida said of the work being done by Molina, a retired preschool teacher. "She's a very gentle woman, but her passion comes across in her commitment to her history and her people."
Molina grew up in the desert outside Marana. Before heading to school, she and her three siblings used to take baths in an irrigation ditch near their home of ocotillo and mud.
At the dinner table, meals included homemade corn tortillas, gruel made of cornmeal and water, dried beef and her grandmother's stories.
Among the many stories was one about her then 12-year-old grandmother being taken from her family by Mexican soldiers and put on a ship headed to the Yucatan Peninsula, where she was ostensibly to be used as slave labor.
Molina's grandmother escaped with the help of a soldier, known in the stories only as Muņoz. She and her family eventually moved to the United States to escape persecution.
"It was a terrible time for the Yaquis," Molina said about the persecution.
With those memories lingering in her grandmother's later years, she told Molina and her other grandchildren not to learn English or Spanish.
"It must have been all the hurt and pain she suffered, that she wanted us to speak our language," Molina said.
"Now my main interest is to keep our language alive," Molina said. "That's why getting the classes started was important. I don't want their suffering to be in vain or to forget the tragedies they suffered."
Getting more neighborhood children involved with the classes could also promote unity and positive interaction in each other's lives, Molina said.
"We've gone so far from knowing what it means to take care of each other," Molina said. "We need to come back to those traditional beliefs."
● Contact reporter Levi J. Long at 807-8414 or llong@azstarnet.com.