A lasting legacy of Ignacio Tomichá Chuvé: Revitalizing the Besɨro language on the internet

Photo of Ignacio Tomichá Chuvé by Anna Luisa Daigneault for Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Used with permission.

Note: This post is in memory of Ignacio Tomichá Chuve who passed away on September 6, 2023.

A gathering called “Conectándonos” or “Let’s Connect” organized by Rising Voices held in the city of Cochabamba in December 2011 served as a space for inspiration leading to action. During the panel discussion portion of the event, members of the collective Jaqi Aru discussed in detail how they were leveraging the internet to make sure that the next generation of speakers would not find the same lack of digital content in their native Aymara language. By using social media and audiovisual materials, they would take it upon themselves to be the catalyst for their language.

Listening to the presentation that day was Ignacio Tomichá Chuvé, a speaker of the Besɨro language from the Eastern lowlands of Bolivia. Little did anyone know that the wheels were spinning in his mind, imagining all the different ways he could similarly share his native language using digital tools. As soon as he returned home to the city of Santa Cruz, he began recording audio files to upload on his Soundcloud account, which included traditional songs, how to say greetings and other short lessons of the language. As a result of this peer learning and inspiration, his voice is present despite his absence and will remain available for future generations. Other platforms where his work can be found include a Facebook Page, YouTube channel, and Twitter account.

Born in the town of Naranjito located to the south of the city of Concepción in the department of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Ignacio later grew up in the community of Monte Verde located 110 km to the north. For later studies and work, he then moved to the country’s largest city Santa Cruz where he found himself as a minority within the large metropolis.

In an interview he gave with Netza López for Rising Voices as part of his participation in the @ActLengus rotating Twitter account, he shared about his motivation:

Mi situación de estudio de secundaria y superior, en varias oportunidades se vio cargado de racismo y discriminación a los indígenas (colegio y universidad), y lo que había visto es la muy poca información real en el idioma Besɨro en el internet es por ello inicié utilizando herramientas digitales para dar a conocer el MONKOX (chiquitano), mi identidad.

My secondary and higher education experience was often marred by racism and discrimination against Indigenous people (both in school and university). What I had noticed was that there was limited information available in the Besɨro language on the internet. That's why I began using digital tools to promote MONKOX (Chiquitano), my identity.

He became part of a team that wanted to change the narratives around Indigenous people living in city settings. As a result, several members of Indigenous communities living in Santa Cruz would form the collective Voces Indígenas Urbanas (Urban Indigenous Voices), which started publishing on social media, its own blog, and a weekly radio program. One of the group’s co-founders, José Chuvé comments in an interview with Rising Voices:

Fue una de las primeras personas en utilizar las TICs para la difusión del idioma bésɨro , lo cual permitió llegar a más público, joven, sobre todo. Como comunicador indígena, en el programa radial Voces Indígenas Urbanas, espacio en el que conocí a mi amigo y hermano, transmitía cantos y cuentos en el idioma bésiro. Una persona muy querendona y comprometida con la nación Monkox chiquitana.

He was one of the first people to use ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies] for the promotion of the Bésɨro language, which allowed reaching a wider audience, especially the youth. As an indigenous communicator on the radio program “Urban Indigenous Voices,” where I met my friend and brother, he would broadcast songs and stories in the Bésiro language. He was a very affectionate person and deeply committed to the Monkox Chiquitana nation.

After news of his passing, Voices Indígenas Urbanas held a tribute program in his honor.

Programa radial Voces Indígenas Urbanas – VIU Programa Especial A la memoria del educador, investigador, hablante del idioma besiro y radialista IGNACIO TOMICHÁ CHUVÉ

Programa Especial A la memoria del educador, investigador, hablante del idioma besiro y radialista IGNACIO TOMICHÁ CHUVÉ

Posted by Voces Indigenas Urbanas on Saturday, September 9, 2023

Another VIU co-founder, Isapi Rúa, a guaraní communicator, provides this insight into Ignacio's work:

Ignacio Tomichá expandió los caminos para la revalorización de las lenguas indígenas, desarrollando no solo investigación si no además difundiéndola en diversos espacios entre ellos, en la radio. Junto a Ignacio fundamos el programa Voces Indígenas Urbanas, durante 10 años, su participación fue clave en ampliar los conocimientos de los pueblos indígenas de tierras bajas para potencializar estas prácticas en las comunidades urbanas y rurales.

Ignacio Tomichá paved the way for once again demonstrate the value of indigenous languages, not only conducting research but also disseminating it in various spaces, including on the radio. Together with Ignacio, we founded the Urban Indigenous Voices program, which ran for 10 years. His involvement was instrumental in expanding the knowledge of lowland indigenous peoples to enhance these practices in urban and rural communities.

Ignacio Tomichá Chuvé broadcasting as part of the Urban Indigenous Voices radio program. Photo by Voces Indígenas Urbanas. Used with permission.

His work soon began to be recognized on an international level where he took part in workshop Enduring Voices: Digital Media Workshop for Speakers of Endangered Languages in Latin America organized by the Enduring Voices Project (Living Tongues Institute + National Geographic Society), where Ignacio started working on a Bésiro Living Dictionary that included audio entries.

Anna Luisa Daigneault, from the Living Tongues Institute, wrote a moving tribute on her Facebook account, including these excerpts:

Today, I mourn my Bolivian colleague, Ignacio Tomicha Chuve (1985–2023). A kind, inquisitive, helpful and driven person, he possessed all the qualities of a great leader. And indeed, as one of the first-ever Indigenous Bésɨro linguists, he invested himself into the documentation and revitalization of his native tongue with great dedication.

This past year, I had the great honor of helping him edit and upload over 900 new words and phrases in his language into an online dictionary that he had authored, the Monkox Bésɨro (Chiquitano) Living Dictionary, which we had started back in 2013 at the Voces Duraderas workshop in Chile. We had plans for uploading hundreds more entries this year alone. His unexpected passing leaves a great sadness in me. I send my sincere condolences to his family and loved ones in Bolivia.

Gathering of participants at the Enduring Voices workshop. Photo by Rising Voices. Used with permission.

Oxford University doctoral student Brittany Hause met Ignacio through collaborating on organizing an international virtual conference Ignacio himself named Bobikíxh, which brought together academics and speakers of Indigenous languages of the Chiquitana region of Bolivia. Brittany said,

Ignacio/Ñasio was convinced that the language of his parents and grandparents was something to be valued, rejoiced in, and cultivated by its speakers now and for generations to come. He didn't view Bésɨro as an intriguing relic of the past, but as an integral, non-negotiable feature of his daily existence. The myriad ways he lived this conviction as father, son, researcher, writer, teacher, translator, and public speaker compelled his relations, neighbors, friends, and colleagues to share his view of Bésɨro as a communal asset to be nourished and cherished rather than as a dying force to be prematurely mourned. For those who knew him in life, that influence remains strong, and the books, recordings, and other materials Ignacio/Ñasio's years of dedicated work have left behind will continue to inspire and encourage the same perspective even in those, young or old, who never had the chance to meet him.

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