Last updateMon, 21 Jan 2019 12pm

Voices from former eras still resonate

Leave it to California to come up with America’s latest anti-imperialist twist.

In July, 300 multi-generational Mexican immigrant families and young Californians of indigenous Mexican extraction, including academics from across the country, gathered in the Los Angeles Central Library.  They came to read poetry and short stories and even rap in pre-hispanic languages – Zapotec, Tzotzil, Mayan and other languages spoken long before Europeans landed on the shores of the Yucatan.  I come to this subject as a writer, and an artist of great curiosity, because art is the instrument of human expression. And when any species of it is muted, it is a universal loss to all curious peoples of our common humanity

Says Ozy, the online news outlet: “For hundreds of years, the literature written in languages spoken before European colonization were all but silenced on the global scene. Now, interest in this writing is surging worldwide.”

Mexico has its own rich history with an estimated 130 languages spoken and published centuries ago in books bound in deerskin. When the Spanish arrived, these languages survived and still surface in words such as tianguis”, a Nahuatl word that’s still used for “market,” chiles, Nahuatl for various types of peppers, and so on. But conquests of one national culture over another in the day often meant demise or diminution for the existing culture, including language.  In Mexico though, pre-hispanic languages continue to persist. As well, they have spawned many words in the Spanish vocabulary, as well as the English.

The table below highlights some easily recognizable borrowings from Nahuatl, only one of many languages that thrive with thousands of ghostly derivatives from the original languages.


There is an unprecedented increase in global interest in native languages, which can be seen in the surge in translations in North America and Europe. Sales figures for native books, for example, are difficult to come by, but book lovers in New York have sought after newly-available English or Spanish versions of contemporary literature written in Mazatec (translates to “people of the deer,” from the Nahuatl word Mazatl meaning deer), which is still spoken by 220,000 people in northern Oaxaca. In Berlin, you can find German translations of works written in Purépecha, which is spoken by some 125,000 people in Michoacán.

Janet Martínez of the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, who organized the conference in Los Angeles, tells us international publishers have yet to realize the potential of this growing market. David Shook, a translator and co-founder of Phoneme Media, is the foremost publisher of Mexican indigenous language literature in the United States. Shook sold all 750 copies of the first edition of his tome “Like a New Sun,” an anthology of contemporary poetry published in 2015, and originally written in Huasteca, Nahuatl, Zoque and other indigenous languages. The key to the anthology was to showcase all that has been lost by dismissing these ancient but viable languages.

In the past three years, other literary conferences featuring indigenous literature 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, from within and outside of Mexico.

Lost languages are lost art, plain and simple. And these works in these ancient languages are a heritage that has a political message – the so-called conquered were never really conquered in spirit. Their literary voice lives on, spreading awareness of an existence and a character thought to have been erased or displaced by history. Exploited by colonial powers and later the Mexican government, these native communities continue to fight to be heard, while they also continue to struggle to wrest the necessities of life, water and other basic human rights from the vestiges of imperialism and white supremacy. More than 20 percent of Mexicans — 25.5 million people — identify as indigenous, and more than half of these consider an indigenous language their mother tongue. “Self-esteem in native communities increases when they see that people all around the world are interested” in their writing, says scholar and writer, Natalio Hernández. Hernández, who specializes in Nahuatl, adds that, “There’s a song you just can’t hear in English or Spanish or French.” That song is the oral beauty and poetic conceptions in pre-hispanic thought and expression, with all it’s idiosyncrasies, delicate connotations and hidden verbal mysteries. The Zapotec poetess Natalie Toledo agrees 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.”

The movement of greater awareness for this renaissance will continue. In 2012, the Ibero-American University established an annual US$25,000 prize for indigenous literature. And the Guadalajara International Book Fair each year features a Native American literature conference, paying tribute to authors of indigenous literature and encouraging its proliferation among native American authors. These efforts are also some of the best ways to help Mexico’s often impoverished native communities to integrate into the Spanish-speaking mainstream through translations and speaking engagements, reaching out, while still employing their original native tongues.