Several University of Arizona researchers are working with a set of tape-recorded interviews in the endangered Yaqui language describing firsthand accounts of tribal persecution by the Mexican government.

Maria Florez Leyva, a native speaker of Arizona Yaqui, was working with associate linguistics professor Heidi Harley on the grammar of the language when she mentioned her tapes.

Harley said she could hardly believe it when she learned Leyva had been working since 1969 to document the history of persecution of the tribe. She had stored away interviews with tribal elders who recalled childhood memories of deportations by the Mexican government.

There are no other known first-person accounts of that period in Yaqui history, Harley said.

What Leyva gathered is "the kind of material no one could collect except a member of the community," Harley said. All of the interviewees have since died.

Through a $30,000 grant from the UA, they preserved the audio and are now working on transcriptions.

Jim Blackwood, an audio-production engineer at Arizona Public Media, spent hours with each tape, digitizing the sound and cleaning up background noise.

"We're already discovering completely new things," Harley said, including words not contained in the published Yaqui dictionary.

The recordings can be used to study the cultural use of the language, how words are pronounced, how tone is used and the difference in the dialects of Tucson speakers and Sonoran speakers.

Later this year, a student with some Yaqui ancestry will enter the transcripts into a database of language examples. A Yaqui grad student will conduct a study in linguistics.

Leyva is working with history grad student Anabel Galindo on transcriptions for a historical analysis.

The history is usually told as a story of development, of Mexicans modernizing the Yaqui region and doing it by capturing and deporting Yaqui people, said history professor William Beezley, an expert in the history of Mexico who is guiding Galindo's work.

"What we hope is contained in the tapes is the Yaqui history of the same events that we've only heard from the other side," he said.

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at 807-8012 or