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Writing in a disappearing language to honor and challenge traditions

Written by The Anand Market

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Mikeas Sánchez writes poetry in Zoque, a language spoken by approximately 100,000 people. The variant she grew up with, called Copainalá, is considered endangered; some 15,000 people use it.

The increasingly narrow boundaries of language have not limited his outlook; rather, his work broadened Zoque’s reach. In his new collection, “How to Be a Noble Savage and Other Poems,” to be published Tuesday by Milkweed Editions, Macy’s store windows and buildings, like “dark, silent tombs,” share space with sacred mountains and flowers that teach newborns to speak. An epigraph from “Leaves of Grass” sits comfortably alongside expletives in an ancient language.

Sánchez, 43, is part of an indigenous group in southern Mexico and among the most beloved indigenous writers in the Americas. She has won poetry awards and had her work translated in journals and collections in the United States, Europe, South Asia, and Latin America. But even though she was the first woman to publish a book of poetry in the Zoque language, her writing is compelling in part because she manages to simultaneously honor and challenge traditions – her own and those of others – by presenting a Zoque worldview in dialogue with global ecology. , feminism and modernity in the broad sense.

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“How to Be a Good Savage” includes works from Sánchez’s six previous collections of Spanish-Zoque poetry, presented here in triple translation: Sánchez’s own versions of his work in Zoque and Spanish, and English versions by Wendy Call and Shook. In their excellent translation note, which, along with extensive endnotes on Zoque’s terminology, serves to illuminate and enrich the collection, Call and Shook discuss Sánchez’s “insistence on women’s voices in all matters of political, spiritual, artistic and intellectual life. The opening words of the first poem, “Ore’Yomo,” therefore provide a fitting introduction to Sánchez’s poetic voice:

Girl
your father wanted a boy
because he didn’t know what to do with your lark song

In Sánchez’s poetry, women hide “hatred in the folds of their skirts”; girls who have been raped “seek their childhood in the buzz of a bumblebee/and under the influence of a palm tree.” In Sánchez’s words, “all activities related to wisdom” in Zoque culture are entrusted to men. But in the poem “Mokaya,” Sánchez reverses this idea, presenting the Zoque woman as the guardian of tradition itself:

I’m a woman and I celebrate every vein
where I keep the secrets of my ancestor
the words of every Zoque man in my mouth
the wisdom of every Zoque woman in my brooch

Sánchez’s work is marked by a worldly solidarity with life on the margins. In a poem in her second collection, “We Are All Maroons,” inspired by her experience as a graduate student in Barcelona, ​​she discovers a connection with African migrants fleeing the police on La Rambla: “no work/no Spanish in their language/Maroons walking in the street/peddling trinkets. In another from the same collection, a Moroccan woman in Europe “keeps the bitter taste of her sex/under her tongue”.

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In part because “How to Be a Good Savage” includes works published over a period of nearly 15 years, the images, influences and ideas contained are diverse: streetlights and New York City, spirit animals and “the language of rivers and hills.” There are poems about life and death, identity and coming of age, routine and time. In “The Soul Returns to the Cry of Silence,” Sánchez writes:

My memory is that of a lost plane
(Black Box
How to access the libation of sea water
(of such sweet saltpetre?

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The explosion of the Chichón volcano destroyed several Zoque villages, including the one where Sánchez and his family lived. Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

Underlying it all is a deep connection to the land on which she was born. Sánchez grew up as the seventh of ten children in Chapultenango – or Ajway, in Zoque – in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. She was 2 years old when her family settled there, after losing their home, livestock and almost everything they owned in the 1982 El Chichón volcanic eruption, which killed about 2,000 people and completely destroyed several Zoque villages.

El Chichón, which for the Zoque people contains an enduring feminine energy, occupies an important place in Sánchez’s art and in the daily life of the community. Oral tradition attributes the eruption to oil drilling, and significant tensions remain regarding mining, oil and gas projects on traditional Zoque lands. Sánchez is a leading activist against fracking and other extractive projects that she says “have taken advantage of the fragmentation of our community and taken away our way of life.” Her most recent poems, in particular, speak to what she sees as the incompatibility of Zoque culture with the industrial exploitation of natural resources.

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Sánchez’s environmental activism is part of his work promoting the Zoque language. The Zoque people are called Ore’pät and Ore’yomo, or men and women of the word, and language is central to Zoque cosmology. Speech is treated as a literal extension of the natural world; The bird sounds produced by the yellow wewe flower are thought to teach Zoque children to speak.

This makes removing the Zoque language all the more painful. Sánchez’s mother did not speak Spanish at all, and her father, who she said “was less shy about speaking badly,” spoke little. But Sánchez began learning it at home from her older siblings, then studying it when she started school. She grew up amid institutional and cultural pressures that discouraged the use of Indigenous languages, and her poems often address the forces against her language and identity. In “Jesus Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers,” she writes:

The Archangel Michael never listened to her
my grandmother’s prayers were sometimes blasphemy
yukis’tyt she said and the pain stopped
walk she screamed and time passed under her bed

Sánchez’s first attempts at written poetry were in Spanish. While studying education at a university in the neighboring state of Tabasco, she joined a writing group by chance, thinking it was a reading circle. Poetry proved to be a natural choice, perhaps because it was part of his heritage. In a 2021 trial for World literature today Sánchez notes that poetry is among the “most solemn rituals of the Zoque people, such as the call for rain, the dances to ask for abundant harvests, the prayers to the mountains and to heal the sick.” As a child, she occasionally memorized verses heard by her grandfather, a healer.

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Since then, she has devoted much of her energy to promoting the use of Zoque, working as a bilingual radio host and developing elementary studies programs in the Zoque language. But his writings constitute a significant contribution in themselves. Zoque is an ancient language, but does not contain a surviving written tradition as such. A standardized Zoque orthography is still defined by linguists today and solidified as writers, such as Sánchez, implement it. Many of the poems in “How to Be a Good Savage” have been significantly updated from previous iterations, largely because the Zoque writing itself continues to be updated. This is no small feat, as the differences between variations in spoken language from one Zoque community to another can be more drastic than the differences, for example, between the Spanish spoken in Mexico and Argentina.

“How to be a Good Savage” is therefore a significant work in more than one way. This is the first Zoque entry in Milkweed’s Seedbank series, a collection of writings from primarily indigenous authors intended to protect the diversity of human language. The project’s goal is to “publish books that preserve or introduce different, even disappearing, ways of being in the world,” said Daniel Slager, the Milkweed editor who designed the series.

In “Mokaya,” Sánchez writes: “I had my own gods who taught me to swear/with a gagged and wounded tongue.” » Despite the damage done to his language by centuries of repression, Sánchez’s poetry can clearly stand on its own. But by putting writing in the Zoque language on equal footing – literally and figuratively – with English and Spanish, “How to Be a Good Savage” can be a small step toward repairing the damage.