A Polyglot Brazilian in Mérida Finds The Mayan Language To Be The Toughest Challenge of All

Retired Brazilian professor Guto Fagundes is pursuing Mayan language studies at El Centro Cultural La Ibérica in Mérida. Photo: Yucatán Magazine

Augusto Marcos Fagundes Oliveira says he does not count the number of languages he speaks, but when pressed, he listed eight. 

Now a Mérida resident, he arrived from Brazil in 2019 to be with Nick, an American who later became his husband. In doing so, he left behind his position as an anthropology professor at Universidad de Estadual de Santa Cruz in Ilhéus, Bahia, where he had worked for almost 30 years.

Among this polyglot’s many languages are several indigenous tongues such as Tupi, found in a region of Brazil, and Guaraní from Paraguay. Fagundes says he started speaking a second language at age 4 or 5 when his much older sister was teaching French. He next learned Spanish and then English at school. He said the world opened up to him when he attended a high school with students from all over the world.

At 16, Fagundes began university, where he studied social science, including political science, sociology, and anthropology, receiving his doctorate in social anthropology.  Throughout his career, he worked with indigenous people.

Retired Brazilian professor Guto Fagundes is pursuing Mayan language studies at El Centro Cultural La Ibérica in Mérida. Photo: Yucatán Magazine

Before living in Merida, he had spent time in Mexico, mostly Mexico City, for scientific meetings. One time, he arrived just after the two big earthquakes there in 2017.  Fagundes met his husband online. They decided it would be safer for him to be here since Brazil, once a more united country, had become more divided. 

On moving to Mérida, “I just came,” he says. He left everything behind, gave away his large book collection to a friend and fellow professor, and made his way north.

In Mérida, Fagundes met a man who knew Mayan, and he decided to learn the language and began a class. 

“This is when things opened to me,” he says. 

The class included several foreigners, two Yucatecans, and a few other Mexicans from elsewhere in the country. He says Mayan has been the hardest of all the languages he has learned, and it took a few years.

One of his fellow students had an NGO, Jade Sociales, that worked with labor and human rights projects. They started sharing methodological and contextual information and began to work together, beginning with a project on housekeepers and how the pandemic affected them.

The organization offers pro bono legal work, informing people of their rights. They also use theater as a tool for collective and self-care through workshops and dialogue.

Fagundes, or Guto to his friends, is fond of Mérida because there are many similarities to his Brazilian home, including the food and its status as a colonial city. As for Brazilian restaurants here, he says they are “different, but good.”

Fagundes participates in festivals and programs with Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Among them is Afromoots, a cultural festival celebrating Afro-Yucatecan heritage. 

When asked how he manages to keep all the languages straight, Guto chuckles, saying sometimes it is not easy. He is starting to lose some of his native Brazilian Portuguese that one of his two sons teases him about when they speak on the phone.

Claire Tyrpak
Claire Tyrpak
Claire Tyrpak retired to Mérida in 2021 after a career managing programs for nonprofits, government and a university in the United States. She has been a world traveler since the 1980s and Mexico is the fifth country in which she has lived.
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