Cristina Calderòn, last Speaker of Yanguas, dies at 93

Daniel Greenman, 807 Editor

With the death of Christina Calderón, also known as Kuluana—or grandmother—Cristina and Abuela Cristina, the Yamana language, also known as Yaghan, lost its last remaining speaker on February 16. According to NPR News, Calderón, who died at age 93 of COVID-19, “lived in a simple house” in Villa Ukika—a town made by the Yagan people in Puerto Williams—on Navarino Island in Chile’s Magallanes region. Calderón supported herself by selling knitted socks in her town. She also was known for making “traditional reed baskets” and teaching the Yamana language. The Yamana language has hope of surviving in some form through the Yamana-Spanish dictionary made by Calderón’s sister, the second-to-last speaker, who died in 2003.

Calderón was born in Robalo in Puerto Williams on May 24, 1928. According to The Guardian, Her father, Juan Calderón, was an informant to missionary and anthropologist Martin Gusinde. Calderón was orphaned at the age of four and went to live with her grandparents, who taught her Yagan Culture. She lived in poverty with her grandparents, often going hungry, according to interviews she gave to the journal Anthropos and Landscape Magazine.

Calderón also learned of violence from settlers and the Yagan history of resistance and learned to hunt and craft. When she was nine years old, she learned Spanish from friends and then learned English from her aunt. She first married at age 15 to Felipe Garay because of financial and family pressures after initially refusing. She had three children with him, and he died of appendicitis in 1948. Since Garay was not formally divorced from his first wife, his money went to her and not to Calderón.

Calderón had five children with Lucho Zárraga, her second husband, who died in 1962, possibly of tuberculosis. In 1964, Calderón met Tedosio González, who she had known since she was young. Calderón described her close relationship with González as something “she had wished for even as a girl”, according to her interview with Anthropos. The two were married until González’s death in 2009. In later life, Calderón was an active resource in Villa Ukika. In 2005, she published a book of Yagan legends and stories, titled “Hai Kur Mamashy Shis,” or I Want to Tell You a Story.

Lidia Gonzalez—Calderón’s daughter and one of Chile’s representatives and who serves on behalf of the Yagan—is one of the representatives currently drafting a new Chilean constitution. She stated that “although with her departure a wealth of especially valuable empirical knowledge is lost in linguistic terms, the possibility of rescuing and systematizing the language remain open”. Chilean President Gabriel Boric Font also made a statement in Spanish commemorating her “[affection, teaching and struggles]”, stating that they will “[remain alive forever]”.

The Yagan people are an ethnic group thousands of years old that used to live in the archipelagos of the very south of South America—now Chile and Argentina—and near the Antarctic. Currently, the Yagan population numbers a few dozen. But the Yamana language has faded over generations, partly due to its “isolated” status, given because the origins of its words were hard to determine.

Calderón’s biography, “Cristina Calderón, Memorias de mi abuela Yagán,” was published by Calderón’s granddaughter in 2017.