One From the Heart

Smithsonian Magazine, February 2003

An anthropologist's discovery about a Mayan language leads to a heartfelt tale
A bright red heart pierces the book's rough, black cover. Inside, some of the words are written in a mysterious language-but even in translation they read like poetry: "My heart aches: I am in love." "You perfume my heart: you give me pleasure." Wood-block images of hearts and lovers, birds and suns scatter across the pages in vibrant red and black.

Called Mayan Hearts, the hand-made book is a collection of 20-some metaphors used in the Mayan language Tzotzil. Just published, it is the work of Robert M. Laughlin, an anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, book designer Ambar Past and printmaker Naul Ojeda.

As in most stories of the heart, the tale of how this book came to be is filled with disappointment and delay, rejection and renewal. But it ends as it should, happily.

For the past four decades, Laughlin has studied the Mayan culture and, in particular, one of its languages, Tzotzil, which is still spoken by the highland Indians of Chiapas in southern Mexico. He has published two Tzotzil dictionaries, collections of Tzotzil legends, myths and dreams; a study of plant lore and a history of a Spanish proclamation. In the 1970s, Laughlin learned of a rare manuscript-a colonial Spanish-Tzotzil dictionary-housed in the library of his alma mater, Princeton University.

An anonymous Dominican friar working in Chiapas in the late 1590s compiled the dictionary of 10,000 Spanish words and their Tzotzil equivalents, recording more than 80 metaphors that refer to the heart-a testament to the Mayans' deep reverence for what they believe to be the locus of all that is human. Repentance, for example, is expressed in five different Tzotzil metaphors: "my heart cries," "my heart grows small," "my heart hurts," "my heart withdraws," and "my heart becomes two."

Eventually, the friar's dictionary was shelved in the bishop's library in San Cristobal de las Casas, the colonial capital of Chiapas. But in 1914, the Mexican revolutionary army of Gen. Venustiano Carranza used the library as a stable, and its books and manuscripts, tossed out the window by hostile soldiers, became fodder for hungry horses. Miraculously, however, Bishop Francisco Orozco y Jimenez had ordered a copy of the dictionary made and delivered to the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Historia y Etnologia in Mexico City. From there, it made its way through the hands of several American book collectors and, finally, into a vault at Princeton.

When he delved into the dictionary, Laughlin, like the friar centuries earlier, encountered a poetic wonderland where such everyday phrases as "you console me" and "I am upset" have evocative parallels in Tzotzil: "you shape my heart" and "my heart shakes." Laughlin imagined a book-a Mayan love story of sorts-composed of those metaphoric images. "They seemed so basic and so universal," he says.

But an attempt to find an illustrator fizzled and Laughlin's project languished. One day in 1987, however, while reading the Washington Post's book section, Laughlin came across the wood-block illustrations of Naul Ojeda, an Uruguayan artist living in Washington, D.C. Here was a man for the metaphors. Though Ojeda readily agreed to make some initial drawings, the project again faltered when a New York publisher coolly dismissed the pair's proposal: "'People will have as much interest in this as in a picture of a sheep,'" Laughlin remembers him saying. "That was the end of it."

Until the summer of 2001. Why die without it? Laughlin asked himself. "Do it!" Several months later, Ojeda delivered a finished set of illustrations. During a December visit to San Cristobal, Laughlin and Past wrestled the book into preliminary shape.

Then, suddenly, there was jarring news: Ojeda had lung cancer. By June 2002, he was gone.

But the book was finished. Past's papermaking cooperative in San Cristobal printed and bound 1,000 copies, 500 English-Tzotzil versions and 500 in Spanish and Tzotzil.

"My heart is seated," Ojeda might have put it. That's Tzotzil for "I am at peace."
-Victoria Dawson

The second edition of Mayan Hearts is now available. A limited number of the Spanish edition, Diccionario del corazon, is still available. The author received nearly a hundred thank you letters, many exclaiming, "wonderful," "glorious," "a treasure," "surpassed all my expectations." The Mexican Department of Education is printing a commercial edition of 35,000 copies of the Diccionario to be distributed to all the junior high schools in Mexico. Contact the author for information at