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Thousands Once Spoke His Language in the Amazon. Now, He’s the Only One.

A Life of Isolation

When Amadeo, the youngest of the Taushiro, arrived with a girl named Margarita Machoa, declaring that she would be his wife, there was a sigh of relief in Aucayacu. The Taushiro line was continuing.

“She fell in love with me,” said Amadeo, recalling how he and Margarita had played with her toy dolls after meeting.

Amadeo was a grown man. Margarita was 12 years old.

Amadeo soon wound up in jail, arrested at the request of the girl’s father. He said Margarita was too young to give Amadeo her consent.

In the end, it was Ms. Alicea, the linguist, who brokered Amadeo’s release, arguing that Peruvian law allowed indigenous men to marry according to their customs. Converting the clan to Christianity was possible, Ms. Alicea felt, but the changes could go only so far.

“It was typical among natives; I had seen this with Candoshi, with the Sharpras people,” Ms. Alicea said. “They had such small girls with the oldest men. At least this was better.”

Within months, Margarita was pregnant with Amadeo’s first child, a girl they named Margarita. The baby was the first of five.

Amadeo and Ms. Alicea continued their work recording the Taushiro language, fighting pressure from the missionaries to move onto other groups. Amadeo had given Ms. Alicea a Taushiro name, ukuka, or sister, and she called him ukuañuka, or younger brother, in return.

During the birth of his last son, also named Amadeo, Ms. Alicea cut the umbilical chord by the side of the river. The two were becoming inseparable, working long hours to document Taushiro words.

“She would ask, ‘What is this called?’” Amadeo recalled. “‘How do you say nail? How do you say toe?’”

Amadeo taught his children the ways of the clan, particularly David, Daniel and Jonathan, who were becoming quick with blow guns and spears. On early mornings, he took them to gather the palm leaves they had left near termites’ nests the day before. The leaves were covered in insects — bait for fishing, a technique the Taushiro had used for generations.

Yet the dangers of the forest were always present.

“My father would say before we went to sleep, ‘Remember, a tiger can come for you,’” Jonathan said, using a common word for jaguars.

Taushiro culture, especially its language, proved isolating for Amadeo’s wife, Margarita, who came from a different tribe and was unable to communicate with anyone in Taushiro. She couldn’t even speak with her own husband, except in broken Spanish. She spent long days alone with her children, sometimes screaming at them or giving them beatings in frustration.

“Since she was married young, she wasn’t grown up,” said her daughter, also named Margarita, who remembers being thrown out of a canoe by her mother when the girl could barely swim. “It’s not the same to play with a doll as it was to play with flesh and bones.”

In 1984, after their fifth child was born, Amadeo took the family to a village where he worked construction for several months. Neighbors said the couple argued frequently. They could hear Margarita’s screams when Amadeo beat her.

Margarita, her daughter said, had gotten into a relationship with a man her own age. When Amadeo learned of it, he attacked her again.

It was the last beating she took from him.

“She left that night and said nothing,” the daughter said.

Leaving the Forest

Their mother’s sudden departure devastated the family. Without her, Amadeo became the sole caretaker of five children. The division of labor between the genders had been strict among the Taushiro, with men spending the day hunting for food and women raising the children.

“I knew nothing about how to care for them,” Amadeo said.

With his relatives in Aucayacu dwindling from old age and disease, Amadeo decided to leave the camp for the missionary compound near Pucallpa, several hundred miles away. His children, he didn’t realize at the time, were leaving the forest for good.

In the city, Amadeo sank into despair — and into alcoholism. In town, liquor was suddenly available.

“He got drunk, he insulted people,” said Mario Tapuy Paredes, a friend at the time.

Still, Amadeo held onto the project that had anchored most of his adult life, documenting Taushiro with the missionaries. He and Ms. Alicea had moved beyond a basic dictionary and grammar books into the first translations of the Bible, including parts of Genesis and sections of New Testament books like the Gospels.

But for the language to survive beyond books, it needed to be taken on by Amadeo’s children. And it was becoming unclear whether he could keep them safe, let alone teach them Taushiro.

One day when Amadeo was out of the house, Margarita, then 9, was approached by a woman offering her food. She followed the woman to a taxi, which sped away with her. Ms. Alicea called the police, who rescued the girl from a boat launch where her abductor had planned to put her into a child trafficking ring.

The abduction shook Amadeo. Feeling overwhelmed, he eventually decided to put the children into an orphanage.

It was a lonely and troubling time for them. But in 1989, a social worker came to Ms. Alicea with a request. With 40 children, the orphanage was overextended, and Peru’s Maoist rebels, the Shining Path, were staging massacres in nearby cities.

Could Ms. Alicea, the orphanage asked, adopt the Taushiro children herself? Ms. Alicea, then in her 50s, would now become the mother of the world’s last five Taushiro children.

There was an obstacle, however. Her own mother, in her 70s, was growing ill in Puerto Rico. Ms. Alicea wanted to return to care for her.

This confronted the linguist with the most difficult choice of her career: to save the Taushiro language and culture, or to save the children she had known since their birth and grown to love.

The contradictions were lost on no one.

First Amadeo, one of the last of his people, who had spent his adult life trying to ensure that his language endured, had given up his own children, virtually guaranteeing that they would never pass it along.

Then Ms. Alicea, who had devoted herself for nearly two decades to documenting and preserving the Taushiro way of life, was taking its few remaining descendants to a distant country, to be raised in an entirely different culture that would effectively erase their own.

“I was Christian first,” she said, explaining that her principal duty was to the welfare of the children.

Ms. Alicea’s decision to move the children to Puerto Rico remains a shock to linguists who know of Taushiro, arguing that her choice all but guaranteed its extinction.

“I have never heard of an equivalent story elsewhere; in any academic circle, that would have been considered an unethical event,” said Zachary O’Hagan, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley who has done research with Amadeo in Peru.

“When a language like this disappears, you have lost a key data point in studying what universal properties exist in all languages,” Mr. O’Hagan said.

But Ms. Alicea said it was unlikely that Amadeo would have ever taught his children Taushiro under the circumstances. And she said that, at the time, she did not envision a future in which Amadeo would become the last of his tribe.

In 1990, she adopted the children and changed their last names to her own. The family moved across the hemisphere.

“I love the language,” Ms. Alicea said. “But I love the people more than the language. With the blessing of God, those children had a future.”

Source: NYT > World

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