Why you should care
Because the real Montezuma’s revenge might just be books in indigenous languages.
It was standing room only in the Los Angeles Central Library last July. The crowd of some 300 ranged from multigenerational Mexican immigrant families to young Californians of indigenous Mexican extraction to academics, some of whom had traveled across the country for the event. The participants enjoyed readings of poetry and short stories and a rap performance by Pat Boy. And yet none of the material was in Spanish — it was in Zapotec, Tzotzil, Mayan and other languages spoken long before Europeans washed up on the shores of what is now Mexico.
Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes … Mexico’s Spanish-language literature is one of the richest in Latin America. But for hundreds of years, the literature written in languages that existed before European colonization were all but silenced on the global scene — even though they were well-recognized by many Mexicans. Now, interest in this writing is surging worldwide. And it has its own rich history: In some traditions of pre-Columbian Mexico, when an estimated 130 languages were spoken, books were bound in deerskin, students were obliged to memorize poems and songs, and a misused or forgotten word was considered a cause of illness or death.
I write in Zapotec because it’s my right.
Natalia Toledo, poet
This increase in global interest can be seen in the surge in translations. Sales figures and other data are difficult to come by, but book lovers in New York can find English or Spanish versions of contemporary literature written in Mazatec, which is still spoken by 220,000 people, mainly in northern Oaxaca. In Berlin, you can find German translations of works written in Purépecha, aka Tarascan, which is spoken by some 125,000 people in the highlands of Michoacán.
According to Janet Martínez of the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, who organized the conference in Los Angeles, international publishers have yet to realize the potential size of this growing market. David Shook agrees. A translator and co-founder of Phoneme Media, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that is the foremost publisher of Mexican indigenous language literature in the U.S., Shook was shocked when he sold all 750 copies of the first edition of Like a New Sun, an anthology of contemporary poetry published in 2015 and originally written in Huasteca, Nahuatl, Zoque and other languages. Natalia Toledo’s collection, The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, sold at least that many copies, Shook says, and was shortlisted for the 2016 National Translation Award.
In the past three years, two other literary conferences have launched in Mexico in areas with big minority populations. The Conference of Female Indigenous Language Poets in Juchitán, Oaxaca, and the International Conference of Indigenous Poetry in Mexico City were the first of their kind, and packed with attendees. And all three symposiums launched with little or no knowledge of the others. Toledo, who is perhaps the best-known Zapotec poet in Mexico, notes that “in the past couple years … people have started to get interested in this Mexico that’s long been buried, but that’s suddenly becoming visible through its literature, its textiles, its artists.”
This literary growth also is politically potent in that it spreads awareness of the value — or even just of the existence — of indigenous Mexicans. Exploited by colonial powers and later the Mexican government, these native communities continue to fight for their ancestral land, water and other basic human rights. And they are many: More than 20 percent of Mexicans — some 25.5 million people — identify as indigenous, and more than half of those consider an indigenous language as their mother tongue. “Self-esteem in native communities increases when they see that people all around the world are interested” in their writing, says writer and scholar Natalio Hernández.
And yet, as always, nothing beats reading the works in their original languages. Hernández, who specializes in Nahuatl, says, “There’s a song you just can’t hear in English or Spanish or French.” Growing up in Mexico City, Shook was “fascinated by languages you could hear in the tianguis” — a Nahuatl word that’s still used for “market” — “which took on this mysterious life to me.” Toledo explains that “the biggest thing you lose in translation is the musicality of the poem,” and even goes as far as to say that “when I read my poems in Spanish, they’re dead.” She notes idiosyncrasies of her native language: Sentences begin with a verb, and there are no gender distinctions.
Indeed, the escape from deeply gendered Spanish may help to explain why so many female authors write in indigenous languages. Historically, males have dominated Mexican literature. But scholar after scholar notes that the best and most prolific indigenous writers coming out of Mexico are women. Martínez suggests that this may be related to the traditional role of women as guardians of tradition, although they may also be doing so because it’s an activity that’s already “othered” and as such allows for a space less tightly bound by traditional bias.
Granted, people were paying attention to this literature in Mexico prior to the past few years. An early collection, The Broken Spears, edited by Miguel León-Portilla, was published in 1959. Taller Leñateros, which was founded in 1975, produced contemporary books in Mayan — the first such works to be published in 400 years. In the decades that followed, the government funded initiatives such as the Program of Indigenous Language and Literature and the National Indigenous Languages Institute. In the ’80s, Carlos Montemayor, a novelist, poet and essayist who anthologized indigenous writers, led a group that tried to increase academic recognition of these works. In 2012, the Ibero-American University established an annual $25,000 prize for indigenous literature.
It’s all the more remarkable that this oeuvre continues to re-emerge in the face of an entrenched colonial mindset, which holds that the best way to help Mexico’s often impoverished native communities is to encourage them to integrate into the Spanish-speaking mainstream. But as we are frequently reminded, the political starts with the personal: Natalia Toledo says that above all, “I write in Zapotec because it’s my right.”