Belly laughing with the goddess of all living things - The New Mexican

July 15, 2005
Incantations by Mayan Women, published in Tzotzil and English this spring by Taller Lenateros (Woodworkers Workshop), is a book with a face. The three-dimensional cover, cast from recycled cardboard, corn silk, and coffee, represents the Mayan earth goddess Kaxail. Her eyes open onto handmade endpaper blackened by soot and studded with palm fronds. She rules the sun, the moon, all living beings, and the primeval forest, where life eternally regenerates. Incantations seeking the lost soul's return are directed to her, as are half the texts in this collection laden with secrets, whispers, and belly laughs. Petu Bak Bolom writes:

Bring her back
with pine cones,
with wild berries,
and candles of many colors.

Let her come with her flowers blooming,
with flowers in her body,
Holy Mother Breast,
Sacred Earth,
Holy Wildwood.


Artists' Books From Spain and Latin America, an exhibit and sale at Garcia Street Books, opens today, July 15, and continues through Sept. 12. The show features first- and second-edition copies of Incantations, along with books containing the original graphic works of Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Wifredo Lam, Rufino Tamayo, and Antoni Tapies. Many of the books on exhibit are in Santa Fe courtesy of Ursus Rare Books in New York City.

Incantations is the product of a 20-year effort to compile a kind of modern Mayan codex in which art and language marry to commemorate the most fundamental beliefs of a culture that traces its roots back more than 1,000 years. Measuring approximately 10 inches square, the 295-page book contains dozens of silk-screen illustrations based on ancient Mayan folk-art patterns but painted by contemporary women, many of whom have never before held a brush. Most of the illustrations are set against a background of charcoal-based black so deep it radiates the spectrum.

The drawings exude the raw intensity of petroglyphs scratched into rocks by early human ancestors. Some echo weaving patterns so old they can be traced to pottery and reliefs found in ancient Maya cities such as Palenque and Yaxchilan, the publisher explained. Loxa Jimenes Lopez writes:

Long ago women made thread as today we make our children:
They spun them with the strength of their bodies.
When the earth began, they say, the moon climbed a tree.
There she was weaving, there she was spinning in the tree.
"Learn to weave," she said to the first Fathersmothers.
"Learn to spin!" That's how weaving began.


"The book contains songs, spells, and incantations written by contemporary Mayan women in Tzotzil, one of the 20 still-living Maya languages," explained poet Ambar Past from her home in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. Past wrote the book's prologue and a postscript. She founded Taller Lenateros, a collective known for its handmade paper, silk-screen prints, and artists books, in 1975. The workshop is a kind of testament to the promise of cultural exchange on an intimate level and is now headed by a largely Maya board of directors. The women, who deserve most of the credit for Incantations, could not be interviewed for this article because they live in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state, where the indigenous Zapatista rebellion that began in 1994 is ongoing. Telephones are scarce, privacy is prized, and many do not speak Spanish but rather Tzotzil.

Past has lived among the Maya since the early '70s, when she began establishing relationships in remote villages where she recorded (and in some cases reconstructed) rapidly disappearing recipes for making the colorful natural dyes that had characterized Mayan weaving for centuries.

In the process, she learned Tzotzil and fell in love with the language's possibilities. "I was living in rural highland villages where three or four generations of a family share a mud hut with their pigs and chickens," she explained. "They have no possessions, no change of clothes, maybe one pot and one spoon - but poetry is considered essential. Among the Maya the two most important arts are weaving and being able to speak in sonorous couplets, often breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes recalling verses created more than 500 years ago. The vocabulary of the Incantations is very old.

To understand Tzotzil ritual poetry, we were obliged to consult bilingual dictionaries made by colonial friars who were contemporaries of Shakespeare and Cervantes."

Past, who was born in the United States but became a Mexican citizen in 1985, is the author of 10 published books in Mexico. Rather than seeking to spread American values among the Maya, she has acculturated while recording hundreds of hours of women's conjuring spells and drinking songs in remote Indian villages. Much of her work is reflected in Incantations. Mayan women wrote the text and drew the illustrations; Taller Lenateros designed the layout, made every page, and hand-sewed the manuscript. They chose a piece of sculpture by Norwegian artist Gitte Daehlin, a resident of nearby Oaxaca, for the book's haunting cover design.

The workshop's first publication, Bon tintes naturales, is an 80-page bilingual (Spanish/Tzotzil) instruction manual for making natural dyes.

In 1992 the workshop began publishing La Jicara (The Gourd), a literary and artistic journal with the aim of preserving Mayan culture. When 36 years of civil war ended in Guatemala in 1996, La Jicara devoted a 115-page issue to the stories, documents, letters and artwork of Maya survivors. In the Maya tradition, writing is sacred and not distinguished from painting, carving, or embroidery. Munda Toston writes:

The words grow out of the heart
and flow along the ways
of our lifeblood.
The seer comes singing
and finds the word,
the caress of the word
inside the veins.


Toston's words chime with the sentiment of El Ritual de los Bacabes, dictated to Spanish friars in the 17th century and cited in Incantations:

Through writing we know
the origins of the word.
The glyphs will give us the answer.
How will it be said?


According to scholar Michael D. Coe, the first Mayan glyphs can be traced back almost 2,000 years; they relate the stories of leaders. Archaeological finds dating to the height of Mayan civilization, A.D. 600-900, are replete with images of scribes wielding brushes and pens. For much of the 20th century the world's most respected Maya scholar, Eric J. Thompson, retarded the deciphering of Mayan glyphs because he insisted they represented complete concepts and had no phonetic component. Today it is believed that the glyphs were originally written in Ch'ol, a language still spoken in Chiapas by neighbors of the Tzotzil. At the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the ancient Mayan cities had been abandoned for hundreds of years, but the culture's calendars, rituals, and history were elaborated in books known as codices. Their destruction is referred to by Friar Diego de Landa in his book Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan. He writes: "There were many beautiful books, but as they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the Devil, we burnt them all, and this affected (the Maya) deeply, causing them great sorrow and grief." Only four pre-Columbian Mayan books survived into modernity, but their cultural essence lives in the Maya people, Past said.

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Artists' Books From Spain and Latin America: exhibit & book sale
Today, July 15; through Sept. 12
Garcia Street Books, 376 Garcia St.; 986-0151

Rhymes of the heart

According to Robert M. Laughlin, a curator of Mesoamerican and Caribbean ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, Tzotzil is grounded in the senses of sight and sound and therefore richly descriptive. Tzotzil words are concrete not abstract, and concepts are expressed pictorially using word combinations. Single words embody metaphors English can express only in entire phrases.

Other metaphors are automatically implied because the same word often stands for disparate objects. "Many root words are based on shapes or evoke shapes in motion," Laughlin said. "The word for 'thatched roof' also describes a woman's messy hair. Onomatopoeia, words sounding like their meaning, is another characteristic of Tzotzil that lends itself to poetry. There are no words for abstracts like liberty or faith. To say that someone is free, you construct a sentence that means 'he can do anything he wants.'

Just like the ancient Maya, Tzotzil makes no distinction between writing and painting; the word Tz'b (b pronounced m) signifies both. Poetry, Nichimal k'op, translates as 'the word in flower.' "

Laughlin, the author of two Tzotzil dictionaries, derives many of his definitions from a colonial Spanish/Tzotzil dictionary he found in the vaults of his alma mater, Princeton University. The manuscript contains 80 heart metaphors. When we are in love our hearts "ache," when we repent our hearts "grow small," "become two," or "withdraw." When upset, our hearts "shake," and when consoled, our hearts are "shaped." The heart at peace is "seated."

In 2002, Taller Lenateros published Mayan Hearts, Laughlin's compilation of Tzotzil heart metaphors translated into both Spanish and English. Illustrations, both raw and luxurious, accompany the text, written on handmade paper with a thick, black, agave-fiber cover that exposes a crimson endpaper heart.