In this essay titled The Women of Flower and Song, author M.S. Mekibes takes us on a journey through the history of Mexico’s rich linguistic heritage and presents some of the indigenous women writers leading the effort to preserve their tongue and traditions through literature today.
In the heart of modern Mexico lies a multicultural soul where languages, cosmogonies, music and culinary traditions converge, adapt, and survive. Mexico counts 69 official languages — 68 indigenous tongues and Spanish — making it one of the most multilingual countries in the world.
But the struggle of Mexican indigenous people to preserve their traditions is centuries-old. Even before the Spanish invasion, many local languages were replaced by Nahuatl, most likely imposed by the unification of the Aztec Empire. After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, certain indigenous languages and cultures survived, but because of the drastic decrease of the indigenous population, the writers who remained were few.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, the terms “language” and “dialect” were being used indiscriminately by academics when referring to indigenous tongues, which no doubt helped the missionary intention to integrate indigenous populations under the pretense of modernity and progress. The linguistic segregation of indigenous people thus became normalized, and adjectives such as “lagging” or “imprecise” were regularly used by ethnocentrists in response to political, economic, and religious views that seeped into the culture: vestiges from the colonial times. The enduring disdain for indigenous languages and their false identification as “dialects” became evident in policies established against their study and cultivation during the subsequent 19th and 20th centuries, and the blunt attempt of clumsily integrating indigenous peoples into “modern” society.
Approximately 113 languages have been extinct from the 17th Century until today. According to Mexico’s Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), out of the 143 indigenous languages in Mexico, 60 are at risk and 21 are critically endangered. The disuse of the vernacular languages, the decrease of indigenous populations for a variety of reasons, and the belief that the usage of these languages is a social disadvantage in front of Spanish speakers, all contribute to the weakening of ancient heritage systems.
The ‘Revisiblization’ of the Indigenous
Out of the current population of 125 million inhabitants, at least 7 million speak an indigenous language. Today, the creators and translators working with indigenous languages still have to challenge prejudices about poetic or narrative expression, the lack of a uniform writing form, and the reputation of “lower prestige” associated with oral tradition. It’s also important to note that as of 2018, at least 17.8% of indigenous people above 15 years old are illiterate. This contrasts with the country’s average of 5.5%, pointing to the need to normalize the study of indigenous tongues to their native speakers.
The high rate of illiteracy among indigenous populations also affects the work and the translation, since it will be mostly Spanish speakers interested in the subject and the ones who will consume it. But while these figures are discouraging, there have been various initiatives to promote bilingual and intercultural education which are more in line with the national reality. Nahuatl culture and language, for instance, are studied in Mexican academia, though they are not taught as “living culture”.
Nonetheless, there is a flourishing of literature in indigenous languages and, in response to this struggle, two landmark initiatives — OPINAC (Organization of Indigenous Nahuatl Professionals, Civil Association) in 1973, and the 1980’s Declaration of Patzcuaro on the Right to Language — propelled the mission towards the integration of vernacular languages. The struggle for the acknowledgment of linguistic diversity is showing progress with the promotion of bilingual public education in certain communities, and with universities creating awareness in order to protect the heritage.
Meanwhile, most indigenous authors will be bilingual which offers them the opportunity to translate their own works. There are anthologies of Mesoamerican “classic” or historic literature available in English, while most emergent writers in Nahuatl, Maya, and Zapotec indigenous languages are interpreted in Spanish.
The Women of Flower & Song
Since the first part of the 20th century, Mexican indigenous literature has been flourishing and women were actively leading this wave, writing in different genres and coming from all around the country. For many, figuring out how to use the Latin alphabet to represent their phonemes was a challenge in itself, while also having to overcome exclusion, racism, and patriarchal society to become possessors of their word.
Today, there is a growing movement of women writers in Mexico who are continuing the legacy of their predecessors and preserving their traditions, literature and culture against the same odds.
They also continue to be an active part of their communities and give us the chance to hear their existential worries and their experiences, recreating their universe with their unique modes of representation. Here, we present just some of the most notable contemporary indigenous women writers.
Briceida Cuevas Cob
Briceida Cuevas Cob is a Mayan poet who explores the role of the Mayan woman in works such as U yok’ol auat pek’ ti kuxtal pek’ (The growl of the dog in its existence), Tiʹ u billil in nookʹ (From the hem of my clothes), and Je’ bix k’in (Like the sun). She also founded the AELIM (Association of Writers in Indigenous Languages of Mexico), and in 2012, she was elected in Campeche state as the correspondent member in the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua (Mexican Academy of Language).
Natalia Toledo is a Zapotec writer born in Oaxaca, and besides being an author, she widely supports Zapotec gastronomy, textile, and jewelry. In 2004, she received the Nezahualcóyotl de Literatura award, which is the highest honor for indigenous literature in Mexico, for her work Guie´ Yaasé’ (Black Olive). Her verse collection The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, translated into Spanish by Toledo herself and then from Spanish by Clare Sullivan, is an award-winning book that describes the life in the contemporary Zapotec isthmus. Some other English translations of their work completed by enthusiasts can be found online.
Irma Pineda Santiago
In cases such as Irma Pineda Santiago, a Zapotec poet also born in Oaxaca who writes in diidxazá, Spanish translations can be found, but English versions are less accessible. Santiago’s work tries to reclaim the native voices, making allusion to her culture, the situation in which the communities live, and their challenges. Her work includes titles such as Doo yoo ne ga’ bia’ (From the navel house at nine quarters), Xilase qui rié di’ sicasi rié nisa guiigu’ (Nostalgia does not go away like river water), and Xilase Nisadó (Nostalgia of the sea).
These women, as well as other authors of indigenous languages from any gender, are claiming back their voices after centuries of segregation. The increased interest of English and Spanish readers for fresh modes of literature and their unique visions of the world is giving these authors the chance to be presented to larger audiences. The hardships in their communities persist, but their unique way of describing their reality, through their own words and voices, with flower and song, is creating increased awareness of their social issues and the importance of preserving these beautiful endangered languages.