Words of the True People: An Anthology of Mexican Indigenous-Language Writers (volumes 2 & 3)

Montemayor, Carlos and Donald Frischmann, eds. “Volume Two: Poetry.” Words of the True Peoples, Palabras de los Seres Verdaderos—Anthology of Contemporary Mexican Indigenous-Language Writers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. 295 pages. $50.00 hardcover.

Montemayor, Carlos and Donald Frischmann, eds. “Volume Three: Theater.” Words of the True Peoples, Palabras de los Seres Verdaderos—Anthology of Contemporary Mexican Indigenous-Language Writers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. 304 pages. $50.00 hardcover.

Words of the True People

These two volumes, together with Volume One on prose writing, represent a monumental contribution to the world of indigenous language literatures. The voices of indigenous writers across Mexico articulate in colors and sounds the values, traditions, and wisdom that have bound and continue to bind their communities together. The writers speak out of and to their own cultures but also to a world that does not know them. Most have been honored with national and international prizes for their literary production. Their work is known to those specialists who work in one or more of the indigenous languages of Mexico or who have read them in Spanish translations. This is the first effort with which I am familiar to make this literature available in trilingual editions—indigenous language-Spanish-English.

The volumes are a result of a collaboration across borders between the two editors, Carlos Montemayor, a distinguished Mexican writer and observer of Mexican cultures, and Donald Frischmann, Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies with appointments both in the United States and Mexico. It is also, in a very important sense, a collaboration between them and the indigenous writers represented here. Editors spent time with poets and dramatists, each coming to know and respect the other. This deep mutual knowledge made possible the beauty and depth of the poetry and plays in all of the languages. Careful footnotes present the reader with subtle details of choices—choices of words made by the indigenous writers, choices of translations made by the translators, and, as with all creative writing, the choice of words that are filled with condensed meanings. One example I would offer is from the notes to Isthmus Zapotec poet Victor de la Cruz’s poem Chupa si diidxa (Just Two Words). Part I of the poem describes a scene reenacted in many Juchiteco homes in the nine days around the Day of the Dead and All Souls. Those familiar with Isthmus Zapotec observances of the Day of the Dead, and especially those who know the Isthmus Zapotec language, will understand all of the poem’s meanings and double meanings that these elegant lines convey with not a single extraneous word. The notes provide that background so that the reader without specialist knowledge can appreciate the depth of the poem and the vividness of the images. Similarly, the notes for each of the plays in volume three provide explanations of linguistic play that allows the reader to appreciate the double entendre and bilingual punning that illustrates the confrontation between Mayas and Spanish-speakers. One of the cleverest of these occurs in Carlos Armando Dzul Ek’s play El auto de fe de Maní o Choque de dos culturas. In it, Tutul Xiú, the Maya king of the Maní province, meets Fray Diego de Landa, the Franciscan provincial in charge of Yucatan and Guatemala. The conversation that ensues plays on the similarity between Maya words and Landa’s name, with Tutul Xiú purposely misunderstanding the Spanish. The rich historical background in the notes gives us the context in which to draw the very subtle and complicated meanings that arise from the weaving of history, tradition, and language.

The front material gives the reader valuable information in knowledgeable and carefully crafted essays that appear in both Spanish and English. The first essay in each of the two volumes provides all the necessary background about the languages and their alphabets, including the number of speakers. The information about the alphabets of all the languages in the volume, especially the references to the groups responsible for the official versions, would be difficult for the specialist in any one of the indigenous languages to accumulate. Having it here in one place is an excellent reference tool as it stands or as a guide for further research.

Montemayor’s essay in Volume Two, Poetry in Mexican Indigenous Languages, outlines first the choices to be made in translating any poetry—does the translator attempt to recreate the sounds or the content or both? He then discusses the peculiar challenges presented by indigenous languages such as unequal vowel length, tonal pitch, and glottal stops all of which make for a rich auditory experience quite apart from any poetic conventions of sound, pause, and phrasing. He illustrates the powerful effect that these indigenous characteristics can have with examples drawn from specific instances of the languages and poets in this volume. The discussion about the Spanish translations is extremely helpful both in terms of the process itself and the individual choices to change the meaning from one language to the other. He writes thorough and insightful mini-histories of the indigenous writers for each group. His analysis of indigenous Isthmus Zapotec writers is impeccable and allows him to situate each of the three poets in the cultural and historical context. With this background, the reader can see why particular poets, out of many others, were chosen for inclusion. My own area of specialization is the Isthmus Zapotec language and culture but I found this essay invaluable for understanding both the specific histories of the other languages as well as the trajectory of indigenous language literary production in general.

Frischmann’s essay, Spirit-Matter-Word: Contemporary Mexican Indigenous Poetry, explores the rich variety of imagery and themes through the words and lives of the poets. He succeeds in demonstrating the vivid qualities of each language and each poet so that we begin to appreciate the profound affect of the natural world and healing ritual on Mazatec poetry, the heritage of Aztec tradition and philosophy on Nahua poetry, or the nostalgia and ties to home of the sensory Isthmus Zapotec poetry. While these broad generalizations are drawn, Frischmann also shows us the distinctive voice of each poet. The two essays are like a conversation with each writer picking up the thread from the other, expanding it, embellishing it, so that the results in far more than the sum of two essays—it is a sensitive and profound portrait of the poets, their cultures and languages, and their craft.

In the volume on theater, Montemayor’s essay, Theater, Which Once was Dance, and Frischmann’s A Question of Balance: Indigenous Theater at the Conjunction of Millenia are similarly woven texts. Montemayor offers valuable background on the several movements and institutions that gave rise to the rich theatrical traditions of the Maya groups in particular but also the Nahuatl. Going back to the 1950’s, these performance traditions, first of puppets (Teatro Petul), then human actors, established the practice of taking theater to what Frischmann calls ‘natural gathering places’—markets, plazas, schoolyards, and municipal basketball courts. Theater functions as a mass medium connecting actors and audiences to their historic roots and recognizing their continuity. The editors provide chronologies of key institutions, such as the Chontal Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena, and the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Teatro CONASUPO de Orientación Campesina, the Sac Nicté troupe,and Sna Jtz’ibajom (La Casa del Escritor). They also trace the practice of ritual and dance performances back to the pre-Columbian Rabinal Achí and later to Caste War performances by the Yucatec Maya. Frischmann tells us, in captivating style, about his own involvement, dating to the 1980’s, in popular and grass-roots theater in Mexico and with the Mayan collectives. Chronicler and performer both, his essay is a profound and vivid examination of the forces for and against these popular efforts as well as a sampling of the plays, their authors, and the actors.

The contributing poets and playwrights are introduced by a biography oriented toward their professional life—publications and honors, that makes clear their major standing in the literary world. It supplements the lively sense of who they are as people in the introductory essays. The photographic portraits by George O. Jackson, Jr., taken in settings familiar to each writer, are amazing windows onto their individual humanity. They are as carefully and sensitively crafted as the conversations in earlier sections and I cannot imagine the book without them.

All of this provides the setting for the poetry and plays. The poetry spans eight indigenous languages representative of the three major language families of Mesoamerica. The poems offer the reader a rare glimpse of the variety, deft manipulation of sound and meaning, richness of sentiment as much modern as ancient that characterize this literary tradition. The symbolic meanings are subtle, not awkward references to traditions and places scattered among the words of the poem, but rather are meanings embedded in the language itself, meanings that well up from those fundamental values that the language embodies. This is the real gift of these volumes—that they let us see beyond the outward and obvious signs and labels. The poets whose work we read and re-read, holding the sounds and images in our head and heart, speak to their own communities reflecting for them their value.

The playwrights, often as members of cooperatives, use humor, political events from the distant and not-so-distant past, and domestic drama to capture identities that while changing with circumstance, hold to enduring values. Not surprisingly, a number of them are wickedly subversive. None provide easy answers. The Nahuatl play by Ildefonso Maya, Ixtlamatinij (The Learned Ones), for example, deals with children of monolingual parents who prefer Spanish to their native language and are often ashamed of the older generation who seem backward by comparison. All the tension generated by acculturation policies in general is revealed in the conflict between the two sons. The plays included in this collection were written and performed in Yucatec Maya, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Nahuatl. They are representative of the larger tradition, some indication of which we are given in the editors’ essays, for example the Purépecha theater group Ariel and the theater group Los Panchos from Papantla, Veracruz. As with the plays in the collection, the repertory of these groups was presented in many communities within and outside their home states.

Reading the two volumes in tandem, one notices the difference in both dissemination and authorship between poetry and theater pieces. Indigenous poetry is authored by individuals and published in small chapbooks in limited editions. Within the last five years or so, collected poetry has been made available in CD format bringing it to a wider audience. Even though we know of pre-Columbian poetry, the “flowery speech” of Nezahuacoatl, for example, there does not seem to have been a continuous tradition which has left a record. In contrast, theater has deep and continuous roots in ritual behavior and performance. It has always been embedded in community and accessible to quite diverse audiences. Indigenous playwrights have found support in organized acting and writing groups while poets only quite recently have come together in conferences celebrating indigenous writing. The messages in both, however, reflect the common experience of indigenous peoples in a largely mestizo nation.

Clearly, these volumes have been a labor of love and dedication as well as of immense scholarship. I know of no other work of its kind and scope. It is a major contribution to the scholarship of Mexican indigenous languages and cultures, and is a model of linguistic sophistication. Moreover, because it is bilingual in Spanish and English, it will be read by scholars and publics in both the United States and Mexico, perhaps better, the English-speaking and the Spanish-speaking worlds. It will set the standard for anyone working in indigenous literatures for a long time to come. Most importantly, these two volumes open our ears to the voices of the true peoples.

Anya Peterson Royce is Chancellor's Professor of Anthropology and of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. For the past 40 years, she has done ethnographic research with the Isthmus Zapotec of Juchitan, Oaxaca. Her research spans many areas including the performing arts, identity, and the role of local intellectuals. She has worked with Juchitan's artists—musicians, painters, and poets, collaborating with them on a documentary film and translating one of the local poets. Her most recent book, Becoming an Ancestor: The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death (in press), examines beliefs and commemorations as they have changed or remained the same from pre-columbian times to the present. It features the work of local artists and poets.



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