Mayan Hearts: Revival of an Ancient Book-Making Tradition in Mexico

Bound & Lettered Journal
INSPIRED BY THE PREHISPANIC tradition of painted codices, contemporary Mayan book artists are producing some extraordinary work in Taller Lenateros, the Woodlanders' Workshop in southern Mexico. This studio in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, not only prints and binds books, but also produces handmade paper for the covers and endpapers.

The Mayan word for book, jun or vun, also means paper, and the making of paper and books is an important Mesoamerican tradition. The ancient Mayan creator god, Itzamna, is credited with the invention of writing. His wife is said to have originated the universe by painting everything into existence.

The ancestors of the Lenateros-Woodlanders created the Maya codices, magnificent books written when only Native People inhabited the Americas. On stuccoed bark paper pages they painted forecasts of the movements of the heavenly bodies, prophesies, divinations, and spells. In his chronicle, The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Diaz de Castillo, a soldier who accompanied Cortes in the invasion of Mexico, wrote:

We found temples and places of sacrifice, and blood splashed about, and the incense they burnt, and other properties of their idols, also the stones on which they made their sacrifices, and parrots' feathers, and many of their books, which are folded as cloth is in Spain.

We know of only four pre-Columbian Mayan books that survived the ravages of time and war; many were destroyed by Friar Diego de Landa in the sixteenth century, as documented in his Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan:

[The Maya] wrote their books on a long sheet of paper doubled in pleats, the whole thing enclosed between two boards that made them very attractive.... 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.

Perhaps it is due to the tragic loss of their ancient libraries that Mayans say they keep
"writing in their hearts", according to the text of the most recent work of the Woodlanders' Workshop, Mayan Hearts by Robert M. Laughlin. The text for this book was inspired in the poetic metaphors the author discovered in a sixteenth century Spanish-Tzotzil Mayan dictionary.

In the Mesoamerican tradition, writing and printing were called "the red and the black" because these were the colors of the inks primarily used in books. Mayan Hearts is likewise printed in red and black and begins with an epigraph from Aztec poet Nezahualcoyotl:
"Your heart is a book of pictures."

Indeed, almost half of Mayan Heart's 126 pages reveal surprising silk-screened images, inspired in the block prints of Uruguayan artist Naul Ojeda. Some of the graphics were created especially for
Mayan Hearts; others are details and textures taken from the body of Ojeda's work, and amplified as much as 1000 times using a photocopier. Book artist Ed Hutchins's ideas and teachings were fundamental in fashioning the movable elements in Mayan Hearts, which include spinning hearts, foldout pages, and a tiny pop-open heart book.

The handmade black paper for the cover was concocted by the Woodlanders using the heart of the maguey cactus stained with mistletoe berries. A heart was stamped from the cover using a wrought iron implement resembling a medieval chastity belt; this cutout reveals the bright red of the endpapers.

The pages were bound using flexible contact cement from the cobbler's bench, reinforced with a strip of hand-woven cotton. It took most of 2002 and 2003 to produce the first edition of Mayan Hearts consisting of 500 copies in Spanish and 500 copies in English. On the last page of this extraordinarily beautiful work, the author concludes:
"My heart is a book"

AMBAR PAST, poet, alchemist, editor, and founder of Taller Lenateros, the Woodlanders' Workshop, was born in Durham, North Carolina. She has lived most of her life among Mayans in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. Her award-wining book The Lady of Ur is currently on exhibition in the itinerant show Stand and Deliver, curated by Ed. Hutchins.