Just 14 years ago, Yukatek Mayan writer Sol Ceh Moo became the first woman to publish a novel in a variant of her native language, Mayan. In her town, just 13 people speak her language. But Indigenous-language authors like her construct literary traditions to sustain cultural ones, and through writing and translation, she pays homage to her roots.
One of the trailblazers forming the nascent canon of Indigenous-language literature, Ceh Moo is also the first woman to receive the Prize in Indigenous Literature of America (PLIA), awarded annually at the Guadalajara International Book fair to recognize thw work of Indigenous authors. Last year, Luis Antonio Canché Briseño, a Mexican writer of Yucatec Mayan descent, received the PLIA for his collection of short stories, Los Hombres Espinados. Briseño’s stories, which he wrote first in Mayan and then in Spanish, speak to the social function of his work, giving “a voice to people who might otherwise never be listened to,” he says, “as is often the case with Indigenous languages.”
Florentino Solano, winner of the PLIA in 2021, also leverages the power of language to foreground marginalized perspectives. His story Danza de las Balas chronicles a military incursion into his hometown in the state of Guerrero, which, as a cannabis- and opium-growing region, has been a target for soldiers and drug traffickers alike. According to translator Adam Critchley, Solano wrote the story in Tu’un sávi, a form of Mixteco, so that people from his town could read it. “His motive is not so much telling a story in terms of fiction or myth, but in terms of telling the truth,” Critchley observes, adding that Solano’s work underscores the practical function of a diverse literary canon.
Language is culture
It’s worth noting that literature in pre-Hispanic languages is not entirely new. The University of Guadalajara created the PLIA in 2012 to help legitimize the proliferation of Indigenous-language literature, a crucial component of Mexico’s national literature. Authors like Canché Briseño, Ceh Moo, Solano, and this year’s PLIA winner, Mayan essayist James Assir Sarao Cauich, aim to diversify the canon of Mexican literature, notes translator Adam Shook, in an effort to protect languages and cultures that might otherwise fade away.
Still, the work of these authors and others cuts against a broader linguistic grain that favors Spanish over Indigenous languages, with the historical suppression of Indigenous peoples and their literature and languages contributing to a diminishing speakership. There are 68 Indigenous languages in Mexico, but only 5.4% of the population speaks any of them. Some 93% of the country is monolingual in Spanish, limiting the reach of Indigenous languages. While Nahuatl’s 1.5 million speakers may offer a realistic market, languages like Seria have fewer than 1,000 speakers.
What’s more, Indigenous languages vary greatly between regions—even those in close proximity to one another. For example, Zapotec is the sixth-most commonly spoken Indigenous language in Mexico, but in Oaxaca, Zapotec speakers living fewer than 100 miles apart may not even understand each other. Spanish-language authors access the entire Spanish-speaking world; Indigenous authors writing in their native language may only reach a community of dozens.
Translation can put Indigenous-language literature on the global shelf, of course, exposing it to the Spanish-speaking world and beyond. In fact, the survival of Indigenous-language literature depends on its coexistence—and dialogue—with Spanish. Yet linguistic variety paired with an academic disinterest in studying Indigenous languages has made for a shortage of translators. On top of that, translation is an extra cost to publishers.
“There are languages like Korean or Russian or even Icelandic that have significant institutional support for translation,” Shook says. “For Indigenous languages, at least so far as I know, in the Americas, that kind of support doesn’t exist.”
Effective work-arounds exist, Shook notes. But a small pool of capable translators means most indigenous authors must translate their own work, and in many cases, sacrifice the immediacy of their language to reach a wider audience. For example, as Shook explains of Indigenous-language poets, “the vast majority of them aren’t poets in Spanish.”
For others, however, translation can be a productive literary practice. Nahua poet Juan Hernández Ramírez writes simultaneously in Spanish and Nahuatl, creating an editorial symbiosis. Victor Terán, an who writes in Zapotec, has retranslated almost all of his work, improving over time the Spanish versions of his poetry. “He has become a professional translator whereas before he was a professional poet forced to translate himself,” as Shook puts it. For bane or benefit, the canon of Indigenous literature must develop in translation, a necessary intermediary between an insular readership and a global audience.
Spanish as first step?
For Mexican authors, translation into Spanish is the logical first step. Yet while the Spanish language signals an immediate audience, it also represents a familiar oppressor—so much so that many Indigenous authors embrace English more than Spanish as a vehicle for exposure. Shook says many Indigenous Mexican authors consider an English translation of their work as a kind of “coup” against the oppressive landscape of Spanish-language literature.
“Even though it’s easy to make an argument of English as this kind of monolithic oppressive language that’s displacing others around the world, in this instance it’s not the most immediate kind of oppressor,” Shook explains, “but a sign to the Spanish-speaking world and their own communities that their languages are deserving of a wider readership and qualify as world literature.”
That the English language has become an outlet to resist Spanish reflects the tense linguistic environment in Mexico, where a history of linguistic suppression has served to diminish the status and popularity of Indigenous languages. “There are some really good reasons that speakers of Indigenous languages in Mexico choose not to teach their kids their heritage languages,” Shook says, “when they themselves were beaten for speaking them in school.”
In an interview with Critchley, Solano reinforced that point, saying of his schoolteachers: “If they heard us speaking in our language in school, they would make us carry rocks from the river for building works in the school.”
Today, Mexican culture and politics still reinforces links between language and power, legitimizing Spanish and dismissing Indigenous languages as antiquated and vocationally impractical. Admittedly, Indigenous languages are vocationally impractical outside of literary, interpretive, and perhaps medical realms. For obvious reasons, Mexican students studying a second language will opt for English, hoping to learn a more globally applicable language.
Furthermore, the professional and cultural dominance of the Spanish language in Mexico’s literary landscape stigmatizes Indigenous languages. Shook cited the late poet David Huerta, who observed that most Spanish-language poets “don’t consider poetry written in Indigenous Mexican languages to be part of the Mexican tradition as they conceive of it.”
Aside from occasionally having Nahuatl sections (replete with dictionaries and bereft of literature), most bookstores in Mexico do not sell literature in Indigenous languages, says Nadia Cervantes Pérez, a lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University, noting that a literary desert necessarily disincentivizes the creation of Indigenous-language literature.
Publishers as gatekeepers
Publishers are gatekeepers: they cater to an established readership, but at the same time, establish this readership themselves. Will Evans, who founded Dallas-based Deep Vellum Books, refuses to blame readers for corporate ambivalence to indigenous-language literature. “Of course there’s no readership for these books because they’ve never been published,” he said of lesser-celebrated books written in lesser-spoken languages. For indigenous-language literature to thrive, publishers need to give it a chance.
Deep Vellum, primarily through its imprint, Phoneme Media, is committed to this exposure. Phoneme has published Red Ants, a book of short stories by Pergentino José, originally written in Sierra Zapotec. Like A New Sun samples Mexico’s linguistic diversity, with poems from indigenous authors in Huasteca, Nahuatl, Isthmus Zapotec, Mazatec, Tzotzil, Yucatec Maya, and Zoque. Next summer, the press will release a transcribed oral folktale, illustrated for children.
At presses like Deep Vellum, an appreciation for linguistic and cultural diversity justifies the costs of translation; a commitment to authors over profit makes for a more diverse selection of literatures and languages. In Mexico, several small and independent publishers endorse this ethos. Pluralia Ediciones pays homage to oral tradition through anthologies of indigenous folk tales; Editorial 3 Abejas has translated children’s books into Nahuatl, Tzotzil, and Tseltal; Editorial Resistencia publishes trilingual children’s books. All seek to integrate indigenous literature into the popular Mexican canon.
Indigenous authors amplify Mexican literature through linguistic novelty, at the same time uncovering hidden threads in Mexico’s literary tradition. While regarded as distinct, indigenous languages permeate the Spanish spoken in Mexico. Slang in Spanish literature is inevitably speckled with “nahuatlisms,” words borrowed from Nahuatl, Mexico’s most widely-spoken indigenous language. Critchley, who works with Editorial Resistencia, said, “There’s a lot of words that passed from the indigenous languages into Spanish in Mexico which are used every day. Hundreds.” Tracing such origins integrates Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past into the country’s literary present, at least in an etymological sense. Mexican literature, even in Spanish, testifies to the country’s rich, albeit tense, cultural history.
Indigenous literature exposes linguistic patterns as well as cultural ones. The value of storytelling, quintessential to many indigenous cultures, informs the work of many indigenous authors. According to Shook, Zoque poet Mikeas Sánchez writes to simultaneously uphold and disrupt her culture’s oral history. Shook says Pergentino José nods to the Sierra Zapotec tradition of storytelling through the ethereal structure of his poems, while Víctor Terán transmits orality through rhythm more than content. Oral tradition influences, but does not rigidly define, indigenous-language literature–just as it informs Mexican culture.
Through indigenous-language literature, readers can approach–and appreciate–the multiplicity of Mexican life and thought. Critchley has translated folktales, many of which, “are based on myths that are themselves based on the worldviews of these peoples, which is quite different to us as Westerners.” This cultural gap poses a challenge, or at least a puzzle, for publishers, who must contextualize motifs such as the inframundo (underworld) or nagua (spirit animals) without presenting them as cultural tropes. Understanding the value system informing this vocabulary of symbols requires dialogue with indigenous-language speakers, or others familiar with their cultures. Publishers must demystify the indigenous significance of astrology, the animal world, and nature, striking a balance between explanation and ambiguity.
When possible, Shook takes a hands-off approach to contextualization, noting that “readers are pretty damn smart if you trust them to be.” Phoneme Media has been pleasantly surprised by the propensity of readers to buy–and enjoy–indigenous-language books. All it took, after all, was a nice cover and a central spot on the shelf. The preservation of indigenous-language literature–and the cultures behind it–demands this work. Critchley notes, “A language contains an entire worldview… You can’t really understate the importance of preserving it.”
Cecile McWilliams is a writer in Austin, Tex.