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Words of the True Peoples/Palabras de los Seres Verdaderos: Anthology of Contemporary Mexican Indigenous-Language Writers/Antología de Escritores Actuales en Lenguas Indígenas de México

Words of the True Peoples/Palabras de los Seres Verdaderos: Anthology of Contemporary Mexican Indigenous-Language Writers/Antología de Escritores Actuales en Lenguas Indígenas de México
Volume One/Tomo Uno: Prose/Prosa
Photos by George O. Jackson, Jr.

This groundbreaking anthology—to be published in three volumes over the coming years—gathers works by the leading generation of writers in thirteen Mexican indigenous languages.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2004
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
271 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 b&w illus. |

As part of the larger, ongoing movement throughout Latin America to reclaim non-Hispanic cultural heritages and identities, indigenous writers in Mexico are reappropriating the written word in their ancestral tongues and in Spanish. As a result, the long-marginalized, innermost feelings, needs, and worldviews of Mexico's ten to twenty million indigenous peoples are now being widely revealed to the Western societies with which these peoples coexist. To contribute to this process and serve as a bridge of intercultural communication and understanding, this groundbreaking, three-volume anthology gathers works by the leading generation of writers in thirteen Mexican indigenous languages: Nahuatl, Maya, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Tabasco Chontal, Purepecha, Sierra Zapoteco, Isthmus Zapoteco, Mazateco, Ñahñu, Totonaco, and Huichol.

Volume 1 contains narratives and essays by Mexican indigenous writers. Their texts appear first in their native language, followed by English and Spanish translations. Frischmann and Montemayor have abundantly annotated the English, Spanish, and indigenous-language texts and added glossaries and essays that trace the development of indigenous texts, literacy, and writing. These supporting materials make the anthology especially accessible and interesting for nonspecialist readers seeking a greater understanding of Mexico's indigenous peoples.

The other volumes of this work will be Volume 2: Poetry/Poesía and Volume 3: Theater/Teatro.

  • Acknowledgments/Agradecimientos
  • Abbreviations/Abreviaturas
  • Past and Present Writing in Indigenous Languages/Pasado y presente de la escritura en lenguas indígenas (Carlos Montemayor)
  • The Indigenous Word in Mesoamerica: Orality, Writing, and Contemporary Prose/La Palabra indígena mesoamericana: Oralidad y escritura y la prosa contemporánea (Donald Frischmann)
  • 1. María Luisa Góngora Pacheco (Maya)
    • X-ootzilil
    • Poverty
    • La Pobreza
  • 2. Jorge Echeverría Lope (Maya)
    • X-La'-Boon-Suumij
    • Ancient Rope Marks
    • Vieja huella de soga
  • 3. Miguel Ángel May May (Maya)
    • Jump'éel tzikbaal yo'olal Yum Tzilo'ob
    • A Story about Yum Tziles
    • Una narración sobre Yum Tziles
  • 4. Santiago Domínguez Aké (Maya)
    • U pa'ak'al Ixi'im
    • The Sowing of Corn
    • La siembra del Maíz
  • 5. Isaías Hernández Isidro (Tabasco Chontal)
    • U ch'ujlom k'ajalin ta Zutz'baläm
    • The Secret of the Zutz'baläm
    • El secreto del Zutz'baläm
  • 6. Enrique Pérez López (Tzotzil)
    • K'ox xchi'uk yajval vo'
    • K'ox and the Lord of the Water
    • K'ox y el Dueño del agua
  • 7. Jacinto Arias Pérez (Tzotzil)
    • Xch'unel sk'op kajvaltik ta ch'ul na xchi'uk li jtsotsil jtseltaletike
    • Catholic Beliefs among the Tzotziles and Tzeltales
    • Las creencias católicas entre los tzotziles y los tzeltales
  • 8. Diego Méndez Guzmán (Tzeltal)
    • Lok' ta beel te Kajkanantike
    • Saint Ildefonso's Pilgrimage
    • Peregrinar de San Ildefonso
  • 9. Domingo Gómez Gutiérrez (Tzeltal)
    • Bats'il Ajaw Jwan Lopes, Kanan Chij (Jman Enantes, Swijlibja, Chilon)
    • Juan López, the Tzeltal Ajaw and Shepherd (Manuel Hernández, Swijlibjá, Chilón)
    • El Ajaw Tzeltal Juan López, el Pastor (Manuel Hernández, Swijlibjá, Chilón)
  • 10. María Roselia Jiménez (Tojolabal)
    • Jas lo'il ja statawelo, jtatawelotikoni
    • A Tale from Our Grandfathers and Great-Great-Grandfathers
    • Lo que contaron nuestros abuelos y tatarabuelos
  • 11. Javier Castellanos Martínez (Sierra Zapotec)
    • Wila che be ze lhao
    • Songs of Bezelhao
  • Cantares de los vientos primerizos
  • 12. Joel Torres Sánchez (Purepecha)
    • Ji no xukuamiska, ¡ji xurhijkirhiska! (Mindakata)
    • I'm Not a Witch, I'm a Healer! (Selection)
    • No soy hechicera, ¡soy curandera! (Selección)
  • 13. Gabriel Pacheco (Huichol)
    • Tatei Yurienaka
    • Our Mother Yurienaka
    • Nuestra Madre Yurienaka
  • 14. Librado Silva Galeana (Nahuatl)
    • In temazcalli
    • The Temascal
    • El temascal
  • 15. Román Güemes Jiménez (Nahuatl)
    • Chikomexochitl: Ne konetsij tlen tiopamitl kikuajki
    • Chikomexóchitl: The Child the Church Devoured
    • Chikomexóchitl: El niño devorado por el templo
  • Appendices/Apéndices
    • Appendix A. The Jmeno'ob, Traditional Mayan Priests
    • Apéndice A. Los Jmeno'ob, sacerdotes mayas tradicionales
    • Appendix B. Cháak, the Mayan God of Rain
    • Apéndice B. Cháak, Dios maya de la lluvia
    • Appendix C. The Mayan Alux
    • Apéndice C. El Alux maya
    • Appendix D. The Mayan P'uus
    • Apéndice D. El P'uus maya
    • Appendix E. The Owners, Lords, or Guardians of the Earth and Water
    • Apéndice E. Los Dueños, Señores o Guardianes de la tierra y el agua
    • Appendix F. The Xut and the K'ox of Chiapas
    • Apéndice F. El Xut y el K'ox de Chiapas
    • Appendix G. The Nahuales or Tonas
    • Apéndice G. Los Nahuales o Tonas
    • Appendix H. The Huicholes and the Celestial Deer
    • Apéndice H. Los Huicholes y el Venado Celeste
  • English Glossary
  • Glosario español

Carlos Montemayor is an award-winning Mexican creative writer, political analyst, and expert on indigenous cultures. He is based in Mexico City. Donald Frischmann is Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and Researcher at the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla.



I have explained on another occasion that Mexican literature encompasses at least three great branches of literary production, each important and possessing a complex and abundant history. It includes, of course, the literature written in Spanish from the sixteenth century until the present day. Also included is the literature written in Latin, a language used continually from the 1500s until the eighteenth-century apogee of the humanists, who included for the first time the concept of mestizaje as part of Mexican identity and reassessed pre-Hispanic culture: Francisco Xavier Clavijero, José Luis Maneiro, Manuel Cavo, Diego José Abad, Francisco Xavier Alegre, Rafael Landívar, and Rafael Campoy, among others. And, finally, it includes the literature which was written in Indigenous languages before the conquest and during the colonial period and which is now reemerging in various parts of Mexico, despite persistent discrediting of these languages and widespread ignorance of the artistic composition of such literature.

The Mayan expert Silvanus G. Morley affirmed, for example:

The Mayas are essentially conservative and opposed to progress; in this way they have managed to conserve their own language during four centuries of Spanish domination, to such a degree that today they continue to employ it in place of Spanish in the henequen works and in their daily occupations, in all the small cities and villages of Yucatan.

It is odd that for an expert in Mayan culture the idea of conserving the Mayan language means being opposed to progress. In the same vein, we find a Chontal narrative which justifies the elimination of the native language on supernatural grounds:

. . . before, they couldn't go out at midday because the chibompan, as he is called, would carry them off. That one takes the children, the young girls, the men that go to work in the mangrove swamp . . . he puts a spell on them there . . . he carries them off. The one that knows how to speak Chontal, he grabs him right away! And the one that doesn't know how to speak his language, he can't be with him, because he doesn't understand what he's saying! What the ancestors did was teach the children to speak Spanish so that the chibompan wouldn't take them.

The artistic discrediting of these languages is more far-reaching. At the beginning of the twentieth century, as he was considering the history of Spanish-American poetry, Spanish philologist Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo addressed the theme of American Indigenous-language poetry. At that time, he disdainfully stated that it was pointless to concern oneself

with the few obscure literary fragments surviving from those primitive languages . . . rather, [one should turn one's attention to] the languages that the Spanish colonists brought to America and their descendants still use. If some component of American primitivism managed to infiltrate this poetry (which is very doubtful), it would only be in this sense that such barbaric and exotic elements could have influenced the body of Latin American literature, which has followed the path of general Spanish literature in all its vicissitudes, receiving influences from the Italian classicism of the sixteenth century, the culteranismo of the seventeenth, the neoclassic reaction of the eighteenth, the romanticism of the present century, and the most avant-garde foreign literature, especially French and English. This does not exclude a considerable degree of originality in the particulars; but the basis of this originality, rather than in the opaque, incoherent, and mysterious traditions of barbaric and degenerate peoples . . . should be looked for in the contemplation of the marvels of a New World.

Menéndez y Pelayo never had the chance to become acquainted with the ancient Nahuatl, Maya, Quechua, or Guarani poetry that became known around the middle of the last century or with the new poetry that, in more than twenty-five Indigenous languages, would burst forth everywhere on the Latin American continent at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Neither could he have imagined that notable authors writing in Spanish would construct their narratives based on the influence of an Indigenous language, as is the case with Guarani in the writings of Augusto Roa Bastos, with Quechua in José María Arguedas, or with Zapotec from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Andrés Henestrosa. What is astonishing is that there are still authors who think like Menéndez y Pelayo.

Various imprecisions, historical oversights, and ingenuous beliefs have tended to confuse what should be understood by Indigenous and traditional literature: for instance, the belief that languages can be differentiated by degrees of development and that developed languages are the "real" languages whereas the others are just "dialects." Another example is the belief that developed languages are spoken in first-world countries and dialects in subjugated ones. Perhaps it will come as a surprise to many to know that there are no superior languages; that all alike consist of linguistic systems definable in the same terms, with the grammatical structures necessary for a complex range of abstract, symbolic, metaphorical, imperative, and ludic communication, based on a unique phonological system. Nahuatl is a linguistic system just as complete as German; Mayan and French are equally complete, as are Zapotec and Italian, Purepecha and Greek, or Spanish and English and Ñahñu and Mazatec. Dialectal variation is a linguistic concept that refers to the regional uses of a language. In the case of the Spanish language, regional variations at the lexical, phonetic, and syntactic levels may be observed, for example, in Andalucía, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Yucatán, or Mexico City. In the same way, different dialects of English are spoken in various regions of England itself (Scotland, London, Wales) as well as in Ireland, Australia, Jamaica, Boston, and California. The French spoken in Normandy differs from that spoken in the south of France, Algeria, Canada, or Haiti. Only in this sense is it correct to speak of linguistic "dialects."

Another error, perhaps arising from the different criteria applied to European and Indigenous cultures, is the belief that languages with a written tradition possess a literature, while Indigenous languages or those from nonliterate societies have only an oral tradition. Certainly, the term "literature" as a writing technique comes from the Latin word littera (letter), but the concept today refers more to the notion of art than to the writing itself. In contrast, the concept of "oral tradition" in the anthropological sense does not recognize divisions between the art of language (whether written or not) and oral communication. I have explained elsewhere, in detail, the art of composition in both the Indigenous languages and the Homeric epics as a complex construct that does not require writing to concretize or to transmit it. Hence I have reiterated on several occasions that the Indigenous cultures of Mexico have retained their vigor, among other reasons, because their languages have served as essential supports for their cultures, through the role they play in the ritualization of civil, agricultural, and religious life--and that, in those contexts of cultural resistance or continuity, the Indigenous languages are used in a specific manner that is in itself a type of composition, distinguished from colloquial use in the same way that in any other language artistic composition is distinguished from everyday expression. It is necessary to begin with this concept of the art of language to understand the role of literature in the Indigenous languages of yesterday and today.


Recalling some elements of the historical and linguistic oppression to which the Indigenous languages of Mexico have been subjected can help us to understand the important social function performed by modern-day Indigenous literature. Foreign dominion over Indigenous languages has often been an instrument of destruction or cultural control. The talent of the sixteenth-century Spanish friars is surprising: in a very few years, they managed to learn the numerous Indigenous languages of the New World as well as prepare grammars and glossaries, adapt practical alphabets, and write numerous songs, plays, prayers, and catechisms. This was an extraordinary achievement, especially when added to their pedagogical efforts during a number of years among the members of the Indigenous aristocracy. The result of this erudition, however, was that the numerous Indian scribes remained in the shadow of their civil or religious masters as informants; and the literature thus produced in the Indigenous languages was not exactly written in the interest of the languages themselves but rather that of the conquering religion, for purposes of instruction in the Christian doctrine.

The mastery achieved by the sixteenth-century Spanish friars over the Indigenous languages can only be compared to a twentieth-century linguistic phenomenon, also religious in nature: the Summer Language Institute, which carried out an admirable and detailed study of many languages for the purpose of translating the Bible and other Protestant evangelizing tracts into these languages. Again, the ultimate goal was Christianization. This institute produced grammars and primers that were extremely useful in the Indigenous literacy programs which the Mexican government began to promote at that time. This was a positive step, even if it did represent a type of "lay" catechism, whose ultimate goal was to replace the Indigenous languages, considered a barrier to national unification, with Spanish. It is significant that, because of these programs, texts in the same language have often been printed using alphabets that vary according to the institutions or the specialized linguists who created them.

On the other hand, we should also remember that the evolution of pre-Hispanic writing in Mesoamerica was remarkable. For peoples, such as the Mayas, who achieved advanced levels of mathematical, astronomical, botanical, and historical knowledge (and whose vast territory included large areas of Central America and Mexico), writing could not have been unknown. Perhaps the sheer number of Mesoamerican languages used at the time prompted the Mayas to develop a form of written expression which, rather than being phonetic and by its very nature regional, was ideographic and therefore universal. This writing suffered the onslaught of the conquest in multiple ways, ranging from the physical destruction of books, to the imposition of the Latin alphabet for use in the writing of their languages, to, finally, the elimination of the Indigenous intelligentsia and the permanent refusal to recognize learned Indians as genuine authors.

It is precisely from one of the greatest destroyers of pre-Hispanic books, Friar Diego de Landa, that we learn that before the arrival of the Spaniards, for example, among the Mayas of Yucatán,

the sciences they taught were the counting of years, months, and days, the celebrations and ceremonies, the administering of their sacraments, the ill-fated days and times, their ways of divining, remedies for ills, their antiquities, reading and writing with their own letters and characters in which they wrote with figures that constituted their writings . . . They wrote their books on long sheets that folded up, enclosing everything between two attractively made covers, and where they wrote on both sides in columns, in accordance with the folds; and this paper they made from the roots of a tree, and they gave it a glossy white finish on which they were able to write easily, and some of the principal noblemen knew about these sciences because they were interested in them, and these men were highly esteemed, although they did not use them openly.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo affirms that in a town located in the present-day state of Veracruz, which at that time was subject to Cempoala, "many books of paper, folded in the manner of cloths of Castilla," were found in a temple. Pedro Mártir refers to these, saying that the

characters they use are very different from ours and consist of squares, tildes, loops, curves, and other objects placed in a line, as is common among ourselves and very similar to Egyptian writing. Between the lines they draw figures of men and animals, principally of kings and magnates, which is why it is believed that in these writings the epic achievements of the ancestors of each king are recorded, so that the printers often, in order to lure potential customers, insert in the general histories, and even in books for entertainment, illustrations representative of the protagonists . . . They also make beautiful book covers of wood. Their books, when closed, are like ours and contain, it is believed, their laws, the order of their sacrifices and ceremonies, their accounts, their astronomical annotations, and the methods and times for planting.

As J. Eric. S. Thompson suggests, these books on paper were Mayan. The Nahuas, the Mixtecs, and the Zapotecs also had books written on deerskin in various formats. Other instances of writing are to be found on the Mayan stelae and, in general, in the inscriptions carved on stones from the rocky beds of rivers. To these sculpted testimonies we owe the knowledge, for example, that certain features of Mayan writing already existed before 400 B.C.: the numerical use of bars and dots and various glyphic elements with astronomical associations defined among the Olmecs and Mayas, such as the character U, which represented the moon; kin, the sun; lamat, the stars; and the crossed-bar motif, representing the intersection of the Milky Way with the ecliptic. The glyphs on some of the stelae in Monte Albán I are even older, dating from the seventh century B.C.

Without this tradition of Mesoamerican writing, the immediate Indigenous response to the teaching of alphabetical writing in the schools established by the various religious orders in Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Yucatán would have been inexplicable. At the beginning of 1547, for example, Friar Luis de Villalpando persuaded Governor Francisco de Montejo that all the Mayan chiefs in Yucatán who so desired could send their children to a monastery school to learn to read and write. The response was immediate: more than a thousand children attended the first school, directed by Friar Juan de Herrera. From that school came teachers who in turn educated other Indigenous groups in Yucatán towns with monasteries or visitations. J. Francisco Molina Solís names as among the most enthusiastic the towns of Camkal, Maní, Izamal, Cancenote, Tihosuco, Cochuah, Chikinconot, Tikuch, Ichmul, Xocen, and Yalcón. He also mentions as learned Indians notable for their eloquence Francisco Eván, of the town of Comcel, who in the San Francisco monastery, at more than fifty years of age, learned to read and write as well as learning "all the Christian doctrine and ethics"; Nakuk Pech, author of the chronicle of Chicxulub in 1562; and Gaspar Antonio Xiu, grandson of Chief Tutul Xiu de Maní, who wrote in Spanish, Mayan, and Latin and who was entrusted by the Mérida City Council, together with Martín de Palomar, to write the report sent to the king in 1597. Molina Solís clarifies that of course

there was no Indigenous town without a certain number of literate inhabitants who were able to compose not just letters, but documents, and even some chronicles: it was essential for the caciques, mayors, and aldermen to know how to read and write, and since the latter could not be re-elected, it was necessary that every town include a certain number of literate individuals.

At present we are experiencing a reemergence of the literary arts in these languages and analysis of Indigenous cultures by the Indians themselves. This resurgence of Indigenous intellectuals and of writing in Indigenous languages represents one of the most profoundly important cultural events in Mexico at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. From the perspective of non-Indigenous researchers or state and federal government cultural workers, an understanding of the literature written in Indigenous languages will require an understanding of the various levels, phases, and objectives contributing to its complex resurgence. To stimulate the development of this new literature, it will also be necessary to have reading materials available in Indigenous languages, with a diverse literary production both traditional and contemporary in the form of books, pamphlets, collections, periodicals, and comic books, not just textbooks.

Of course, there exists a powerful acculturation process that accelerates the loss of ethnic values in many individuals and groups. But another process is gaining strength now, which is also powerful and profoundly aware of its objectives: to reinforce and consolidate these ethnic values throughout the course of the twenty-first century. These new writers may be said to represent a dual process: a national one, corresponding to ethnic development and empowerment; and a personal one, consisting of their commitment to their bloody histories of oppression, to their individual cultures, and to their own languages that describe our territory in a fresher and more natural way. Many languages have managed to survive and even now continue to be the repositories of their cultures' religious heritage. Those religious heritages are based, among other things, on an idea current among the ancient Greeks and Romans which is no longer understood by Westernized peoples: that our planet is not something inert and inanimate, but a living being.


This important cultural phenomenon--the emergence of writers in several Indigenous languages--began to take place in Mexico during the 1980s. The concurrent appearance of these writers in practically all areas of the country, albeit not coordinated in the beginning, was a result of the evolution of the Indigenous organizations themselves and of the educational programs promoted in Mexico by different and at times contradictory language policies. During the last five hundred years non-Indigenous national and foreign researchers have defined Indigenous groups and explained what they think, how they behave, and in what they believe. With these new writers we have the possibility for the first time of discovering, through the Indigenous groups' own representatives, the natural, intimate, and profound face of a Mexico that is still unknown to us. Many of these writers, working as bilingual specialists in regional or national government offices, have participated in, stimulated, or confronted government educational and cultural programs. Since 1990 some government departments have decided to support them, but their specific emergence was the result of individuals or independent projects rather than of government policies.

The development of these Indigenous writers and the individual nature of their texts vary widely throughout the country. Some areas and languages have a greater degree of activity and even several generations of Indigenous literature. Four essays are instrumental in understanding this phenomenon: "La flor de la palabra" (The Flower of the Word) by Víctor de la Cruz (Zapotec); "Vivencias de nuestra palabra: El resurgimiento de la cultura maya en Chiapas" (Our Word's Life Experiences: The Resurgence of Mayan Culture in Chiapas) by Manuel Pérez Hernández (Tzotzil); "La computadora y sus aplicaciones en la escritura de las lenguas indígenas" (The Computer and Its Applications in Indigenous-Language Writing) by Jesús Salinas Pedraza (Ñahñu); and "La formación de escritores en lengua maya" (The Development of Mayan-Language Writers) by Miguel May May (Maya). These essays demonstrate the different ways in which these processes evolved among the Mayas of Yucatán, the Tzotziles and Tzeltales of Chiapas, the Zapotecs of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and several writers of different tonal languages for whom Jesús Salinas Pedraza has designed computer programs.

For example, the support of retired military personnel and Juchitec artists was an integral part of the growth of Zapotec literature in the Isthmus; the Harvard University project directed by Evon Z. Vogt, the persistence and goodwill of Robert Laughlin, and the consulting of North American theatre director Ralph Lee were essential in the evolution of the Tzeltal and Tzotzil literature of Chiapas; the University of Florida at Gainesville and Professor H. Russell Bernard provided support to Jesús Salinas Pedraza and his wife, Josefa Leonarda González Ventura; and in the case of Yucatán, my own participation facilitated the formation of an important group of writers. To these four evolutionary processes we must add one more, which predated all the rest: the one promoted by Miguel León-Portilla from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which has been of importance for the pre-Hispanic, colonial, and contemporary history of literature in the Nahuatl language.

I have worked with Mayas from Yucatán and Campeche; with Tzotzil and Tzeltal groups from Chiapas; with Zapotec poets from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; with Zapotecs, Mixes, and Chinantecs from the Sierra de Oaxaca; with Mixtecs in Guerrero and Purepechas in Michoacán. I have dealt personally with other writers from the Huasteca regions and from the Sierra Tarahumara and collaborated in the organization of the First and Second National Congress of Writers in Indigenous Languages, as well as in the creation of the Association of Indigenous-Language Writers. These experiences have allowed me to appraise and weigh some elements of this evolutionary process. For example, the strong collective nature of some literary genres--narratives, drama, and songs--makes these genres interesting not so much as individual expressions of their authors but as group participations which include the spectators. Popular songs are heard during festivities; storytelling and plays take place at community gatherings. These arts are collective because they represent a process of linguistic reaffirmation in which the strengthening of the language and the collective memory of the community are more important than the subjective vision of an individual author.

The development of the Indigenous writer is a more laborious and delayed process than that of the Mexican authors who write in Spanish. Not only is it an individual vocation; it is also a project with collective consequences, influenced by many aspects of an educational and social nature and by the choice of which alphabet to use. Up to now, the definition of these alphabets for Indigenous languages has been done solely by official institutions, based on the opinions of Indigenous specialists who no longer form an integral part of their communities or those of non-native linguists and specialists. The agreements about unifying the use of different alphabets in diverse official publications have doubtless been somewhat useful, but they are not comparable to the real, productive literary use of those alphabets by authors who are neither "official" nor subject to the guidelines laid down by government programs.

Because of these factors, the Indigenous writers are confronted by a cultural commitment that obliges them to rethink almost everything having to do with their language from the very moment when they decide which alphabet to use. Other challenges, such as their formal literary training, come later. Among the Zapotecs of the Isthmus one finds highly sophisticated poets, masters of an art which contains national and regional references. Authors like Gerardo Can Pat (Maya), Juan Gregorio Regino (Mazatec), Librado Silva (Nahua), Víctor de la Cruz and Javier Castellanos (Zapotec), and Gabriel Pacheco (Huichol) are individual cases whose work shows a great deal of sharpness and elegance.


Generally speaking, contemporary Indigenous authors tend to write drama, essays, narratives, songs, and poetry. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the genres of the essay and the short story are often confused in certain languages, since short stories are considered to consist of the cultural, religious, historical, or geographical information possessed by a community or a region; they contain information that can be verified and that is compiled from diverse testimonial or documentary sources, very similar, in short, to historical research.

Similarly, the authors who write about customs, history, or traditions exercise their craft in a manner very like that used by the story writers. Both transmit information about probable facts or those related to invisible entities or prodigies which in themselves constitute "historical" information. When I was preparing the two volumes of Escritores indígenas actuales, I asked various authors for stories and essays; some gave me, under the heading of stories, what to me seemed more like essays, while others gave me as essays works that were closer to my idea of stories. This was the case with "Alux," by Santiago Domínguez Aké (which I included in the short-story section), and "El temascal," by Librado Silva Galeana (which I placed in the essay section). On that occasion I remarked that the considerable weight of oral tradition has led to the emergence of a narrative art with a historical, medicinal, or religious content that makes artistic narrative similar to historical or anthropological research. In reality, from the Indigenous perspective there is no clear demarcation between a short story and the medical, religious, or historical information contained in a communal tradition. That is to say, it is not always possible to speak of fiction writing, since all narrative writing is based on traditional information and is therefore of historical and social value: in other words, nonfiction.

The criterion that I employed in order to distinguish between the two types of narrative was the idea of narrative sufficiency or autonomy: if a story was self-sufficient based on its episodic, objectual, or character motifs, it was considered to belong to the genre of short story; if its composition required supplementary information or elements of research which were distinct from its narrative motifs, it was considered an essay or a chronicle. Nonetheless, the essayists (chroniclers and historians) partake of the literary art just as much as the "creators" (poets, short-story writers, playwrights) do. Such was the case with the classic Greeks and Romans: literature was everything that was written--science and poetry.

Narrative exercises a great attraction among writers of Indigenous languages. The majority of the narrators work with traditional materials; very few attempt fiction, perhaps because the traditional themes are extensive and still provoke a powerful feeling of cultural commitment.

The authors included in this volume are examples of these diverse trends in contemporary literature in Indigenous languages. Each of them has broad experience as a writer, researcher, or cultural promoter. From 1993 to 1999, I coordinated the publication of the Colección Letras Mayas Contemporáneas (Contemporary Mayan Letters Collection), which contained fifty bilingual volumes written by authors from Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas. The collection was financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. This project gave me the opportunity to be close to the authors and to some traditional ritual officiants or priests. I met Javier Castellanos in Oaxaca around 1980, along with other young Zapotec, Mixe, and Chinantec writers. Those meetings are described in a book I published later. I have worked frequently with Purepecha authors during several periods of residency in the lakes and mountainous regions of Michoacán.

In the annotations to the texts in Indigenous languages, the reader will find pertinent information about the alphabet and the approximate number of speakers of the language. These data are taken from the map La diversidad cultural de México, published in 2000 by the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes (National Council for Culture and the Arts) through the Dirección General de Culturas Populares (National Popular Cultures Office). These notes do not always correspond to the annotations for the Spanish and English texts. For various reasons, I have included more lexical and grammatical information in the notes for the original texts. One reason is that at times the authors have chosen to present concepts in the Spanish versions that are different from the ones originally expressed in the Indigenous languages. This is the case with Jorge Echeverría, who uses the Spanish word cenote to express the Mayan word ch'e'en; with Enrique Pérez López, who has translated the Tzotzil word ch'upak' as amole, a nahuatlism, in the Spanish version; and with Román Güemes, who uses the Spanish word huacalitos for the Nahuatl pilatekontsij. Finally, I have attempted to make the published versions of the texts in Indigenous languages correspond to Spanish and English typographical customs, so that the comparison of the original text with the translations will be easier for the reader. In no case have I altered the original text or the type of alphabet that each author decided to use.

In regard to the Spanish texts, I have left almost intact the versions of five authors: Librado Silva Galeana and Román Güemes, who write in Nahuatl; the Mayan writer Jorge Echeverría; the Chontal writer Isaías Hernández Isidro; and the Tzeltal writer Diego Méndez Guzmán. In the other cases I have participated in varying degrees and circumstances in the editing of the material, whether in the actual writing in Indigenous languages or in the first or final versions in Spanish. During the editing stage of the publication of the Colección Letras Mayas Contemporáneas, I translated or revised the final versions of translations for almost all the works. For the present book I have newly revised the texts of the chosen works both in their original languages and in their translations to Spanish to such a degree that readers familiar with both books will find numerous changes. The most recent revisions of the texts anthologized here are the following three: the one written by Joel Torres, with which I have worked since it was a draft in Purepecha; the text written by Gabriel Pacheco, at his request; and the one by Javier Castellanos, who did not accept my revisions willingly, as he considered the final version "too Spanish." On certain occasions and in some specific passages, the authors have considered their narratives in the vernacular and the corresponding Spanish versions to be independent of each other. Nevertheless, Donald Frischmann and I have attempted in all cases to remain as faithful as we could to the original text, evoking as far as possible the unique mode of expression characteristic of the Indigenous language. In some of the notes for the Indigenous texts, we have also resorted to grammatical explanations in an attempt to clarify those passages where the translation was not successful in expressing the original meaning.

Finally, I would like to mention the case of Tzotzil author Jacinto Arias, which differs somewhat from the others. Given the importance of his actions in Chiapas and his numerous cultural, political, and literary contributions, we have included here, rather than a narrative in an Indigenous language, an excerpt from one of his works which is vital to the understanding of the religious nature of the Mayan communities. This work is, among other things, the first approach to Western religion (Christianity) from the perspective of Mayan spirituality. It was originally written in English as a master's thesis in anthropology at the Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.); the Spanish version is from the first Mexican edition.

In addition, Donald Frischmann and I decided to include in the Appendices the cultural, religious, or symbolic information that was impossible to summarize in the notes. We believe that the annotations to the texts, Appendices, lexical variants, versions, and preliminary studies will serve to provide the reader with a broad spectrum of information about the new literature in Indigenous languages being written and discovered today. This literature is making a place for itself in early twenty-first century Mexico and constitutes a significant part, though by no means all, of the literature in Indigenous languages appearing throughout the entire continent.

Mexico City
July 2002



“This is a fabulous project . . . an extremely important contribution to Latin American literary study.”
Cynthia Steele, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Washington, Seattle