You don’t need to be a polyglot to speak Yagán, Yaghan, Jagan, Iakan, Yámana, Háusi Kúta, Yagankuta, Tequenica, and Yapoo.
That’s because all of these aren’t different languages or dialects. They’re actually different names for the least common language in the world—a South Chilean vernacular most commonly known as Yagán.
Until her death on 16 February 2022, 93-year-old Cristina Calderón was the last living speaker and guardian of its ancestral culture.
Although no longer spoken, the lost indigenous language continues to live on in one single book and multiple hearts.
Abuela Cristina: A symbol of cultural resistance
After the death of her sister in 2003, Calderón, affectionately known as “Abuela Cristina” (Grandma Cristina) by locals, was the last person in the world who could speak the native Yagán language.
Abuela Cristina died in the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica region due to COVID-19 complications.
Born in 1928 in Isla Navarino, a Chilean island located in the southernmost tip of South America, Calderón declared herself the last speaker of Yagán, which has no written form.
For many, she symbolized cultural resistance for Chile’s indigenous communities.
"I'm the last speaker of Yagán," she told journalists in 2017.
"Others can understand it but don't speak it or know it like I do." – Cristina Calderón
[DECLARACIÓN PÚBLICA]— Lidia González Calderón (@lidiayagan) February 16, 2022
Sobre el fallecimiento de mi madre, Cristina Calderón
Hoy, jueves 16 de febrero de 2022, falleció mi madre, depositaria de nuestras tradiciones, última hablante activa del Yagán. Con ella se va parte importante de la memoria cultural de nuestro pueblo
Mamihlapinatapai: More than the loss of a language
Deriving from Yagán, the word “mamihlapinatapai” held a record in 1993 for the most succinct word.
Although it is considered one of the hardest words to translate, its romantic interpretation also makes it one of the most beautiful.
Considered “untranslatable,” the Fuegian term was used to communicate a concept lacking an exact definition in most common tongues.
The term has been interpreted as an unspoken but meaningful glance shared between two people during a private moment, where both individuals know the other understands what is being expressed.
One reason for its popularity may have been its mention in the 2011 documentary Life in a Day.
Composed of crowdsourced video clips portraying a day in the life of people all over the world, one scene includes a young woman speaking about mamihlapinatapai’s meaning, origin, and possible pronunciation.
Yagankuta: Preserving a lost Fuegian language
Abuela Cristina lived her life in the Villa Ukika Chilean community and maintained the customs and beliefs of her ancestors.
The Yagán peoples were canoe nomads that once paddled through the remote, isolated channels of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in the very south of Patagonia for six thousand years.
The indigenous culture was estimated to have numbered between three thousand and ten thousand people before Argentina and Chile began exploring Tierra del Fuego in the late nineteenth century.
Disease, relocation, and exploitation caused their population to collapse rapidly, leaving just 70 people by 1930.
The pressure to speak the native language of the country they live and work in, and societal bias against indigenous groups ultimately led Yagán natives to abandon their mother tongue.
An active member of her community, Calderón learned Spanish from a friend when she was nine years old.
She worked for many years knitting Yagán socks and making reed baskets, a long-time indigenous tradition that helped her support her family of nine children and fourteen grandchildren.
This woman was listed in Guinness World Records as the only speaker of the "least common language."— AJ+ (@ajplus) March 18, 2022
Now that Cristina Calderón has died, her colonized Indigenous community and culture are becoming extinct. pic.twitter.com/N7821qGFfM
Abuela Cristina left the world with a historical gift to be remembered by—a small dictionary known as the Yagankuta, which she helped create to conserve the lost language, complete with translations to Spanish.
Her efforts earned her recognition as a “Human Living Treasure” by the Chilean National Council of Culture and the Arts.
In 2009, she was also declared the Illustrious Daughter of the Magallanes Region and the Chilean Antarctic.
Cristina Zarraga, Calderón’s granddaughter, assisted with the transcription project and even created a CD with recorded Yagán words to accompany the dictionary.
In addition to safeguarding its spoken words, Zarraga and Calderón also worked together to preserve the Yagán culture by editing a book of the civilization’s legends, songs, and tales.
Madre, para los yagán, tu partida genera un vacío irremplazable desde lo cultural, humano y afectivo. Y nos plantea la tarea de preservar tu memoria y con ella la de nuestro pueblo.— Lidia González Calderón (@lidiayagan) February 16, 2022
Ese es el trabajo que se me encomendó y con el que cumpliré por ti y nuestro pueblo
"With her, an important part of the cultural memory of our people is gone," said Lidia González Calderón, Abuela Cristina’s daughter, in a tweet translated from Spanish.
González Calderón hopes that the dictionary will preserve the language in some form, which was considered “isolated” since it is not known to be related to any other language.
"Although with her departure a wealth of especially valuable empirical knowledge is lost in linguistic terms, the possibility of rescuing and systematising the language remains open.” - Lidia González Calderón
There are still Yagán peoples alive today, although they do not speak the language which slowly reached the brink of extinction over the course of multiple generations.
Hoy a los 93 años ha fallecido Cristina Calderón del pueblo Yagán. Pero su cariño, enseñanzas y luchas desde el sur del mundo, donde todo comienza, seguirán vivos por siempre. Un abrazo gigante a toda su familia y Villa Ukika. No están sol@s.— Gabriel Boric Font (@gabrielboric) February 16, 2022
In a tweet to the Calderón family, Chilean President Gabriel Boric Font said that Calderón’s legacy and teachings will live on in the wake of her death.
Ha fallecido mi madre, Cristina Calderón, a los 93 años. Tengo una pena profunda por no estar con ella al momento de partir. Es una noticia triste para los yagán.— Lidia González Calderón (@lidiayagan) February 16, 2022
Todo lo que haga en el trabajo en el que estoy, será en tu nombre. Y en él, estará también reflejado tu pueblo pic.twitter.com/zf9ecn1qOB
González Calderón said her mother's death was "sad news for the Yagán."
"Everything I do in my work will be in your name. And in it will also be reflected your people." - Lidia González Calderón
Although now a lost language, the Yagankuta will serve as an official keepsake for Yagán, keeping its lexicon alive through whoever attempts to recover Abuela Cristina's untranslatable legacy.