Stories from a Collective: The Books of Taller Leñateros

by Edward H. Hutchins

In the highlands of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas lies the beautiful colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas. In the heart of San Cristobal is a cooperative artist workshop for making handmade paper and innovative books. Founded in 1975 by Mexican poet Ambar Past, the cooperative seeks to preserve, support and promote Mayan and related culture, mostly in the form of paper, prints and artist books. Over the past 25 years it has produced several landmark books. In many cases the best stories are not only the ones found between the covers but the tales that record how the book came to be important in the first place.

A Dyeing Textbook Revives a Dying Craft

At the time Taller Lenateros was founded synthetic aniline dyes had so completely replaced natural dyes that the original recipes, passed down for centuries, were on the verge of being lost. Ambar Past visited the many Indian villages surrounding San Cristobal and interviewed grandmothers who remembered their grandmothers dyeing yarn using natural materials.

Ambar began collecting recipes, though frequently only portions of recipes had survived. By experimenting it was possible to reconstruct the ancient alchemy that was done in generations past. In the process new natural dyes were invented as well. This led to the founding of the Natural Dye School for Native American Women. Ambar crisscrossed Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua holding workshops. Since each event was site-specific, a different set of recipes was taught in each area depending on what plants and materials were available locally.

From the start there was a need for a written record that would preserve and pass on the new and rediscovered recipes to future generations. In 1980 one of the first publications of Taller Lenateros was "Bon tintes naturales," an 80-page bilingual (Spanish/Tzotzil) instruction manual for creating natural dyes. Inexpensively offset-printed on newsprint, the book contained recipes, plant illustrations, poetry, charts and a fold-out map for locating supplies in San Cristobal. Each plant description and recipe is in a separate section so it can be taken out to be used or shared individually.

The text sheets are presented in a colorful silkscreened folder with a bookmark of braided threads dyed using the techniques found in the book. The Natural Dye School was a complete success. Within ten years many more natural dyes had been invented, teachers were training a new generation of teachers, and natural dyes were again being used for ceremonial and commercial purposes.

The dye school still exists. Women trained in the program bought their own building and it houses a natural dye cooperative. "Bon tintes naturales" is still in print and in its second edition.

Conjuring Spells and Drinking Songs

After the success of the Natural Dye School, interest at Taller Lenateros turned more and more to papermaking and book production. The Mayans had a long history of bookmaking before the arrival of the Spanish invaders and books were always important to the San Cristobal collective.

Up to this point several books of poetry, a children's ecological book and a collection of autobio- graphical portraits of Tzotzil women had been published. A desire for more books and an interest in recycling fueled a growing interest in handmade paper.

Even before launching the workshop Ambar had gone out to remote Indian villages and to record the songs, poems and stories of Mayan women. In time, she recorded hundreds of hours and assembled the most comprehensive collection of Mayan women's literary works, mostly in the form of conjuring spells and drinking songs. It was only left to share the results of this research in book form.

Over 150 people worked for 23 years to make the book possible. The title is "Conjuros y ebriedades, cantos de mujeres mayas" (Conjuring Spells and Drinking Songs of Mayan Women). The finished volume measures 25 cm (about 10") square, has 200 pages and 50 original silkscreen illustrations by Tzotzil and Tzeltal women. The end papers are recycled paper with palm fronds, logwood and soot added. The three-dimensional cover was created by Norwegian sculptor Gitte Daehlin and is cast from paper made of recycled cardboard boxes, corn silk and coffee.

The edition consists of 1000 copies plus an additional 650 deluxe copies printed on special handmade paper.
The most remarkable accomplishment of this entire project is that it is the first book written, illustrated, printed, bound and published by the Mayan people in 1,000 years.

Preserving a Literary and Artistic Heritage

AIn 1992 work began on "La jicara" (The Gourd), a literary, artistic and historical journal to preserve and promote Mayan culture. From the start it was decided to publish only historical documents and material either created for the journal or never before published. A trial edition (Number "zero") of 200 copies was released in 1992 with selections of Chiapas literature and artwork from the Tzeltal potters of Amatenango.

Ambar proudly recalls, "the copies lasted ten minutes." The first "official" issue (Number 1) of 400 copies came out in 1994 and those copies were quickly snapped up as well. Issue Number 2, on the theme "Chiapas 1994" carried this note in the colophon: "we don't even know how it was done, but there are 700 of these." Future issues would grow to 1,000 copies and explore the topics of witchcraft ("this codex was found by Taller Lenateros in the Lacandon jungle"), Chiapas de Corzo (celebrating the poets, writers and lacquerware artists who live on Chiapas de Corzo street in San Cristobal), the artists and writers of Oaxaca (a neighboring state), and the stories and designs of the Lacandon jungle.

Expanding Creative Limits to Celebrate Peace

Previously, in 1986 the Taller decided to put together a collection of literary pieces, artwork and reprints of historical documents to celebrate the end of more than 30 years of civil war in Guatemala. There was one problem: the war was lingering on and peace seemed illusive. It would be ten more years before this project could be realized.

In 1996 the miracle happened: a permanent peace finally came to Guatemala after decades of civil war. The issue of "La jicara" planned ten years earlier could now be published. There were no creative limits set for the special issue celebrating peace in Guatemala. Archives were searched for important and revealing official documents and personal letters that could be included.

Some time previously Ambar had found a stationery store in Tuxla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, that had gone out of business in the 1920's. There she discovered a treasure trove of vintage stationery and envelopes. These were used to reprint the historical documents. Often, readers will open their copy of "La jicara" and exclaim, "This is an original letter!" No, it is one of 1,000 reproductions printed on authentic period paper and envelopes. In the course of collecting material for this issue, Ambar visited the demobilization camps where she interviewed a 75-year-old guerrilla fighter who had joined the resistance movement in 1960. He had been fighting throughout the entire 36 years of civil war.

Much of the artwork for the issue came from the Guatemalan village of Rabinal. Cover-sized pieces of cardboard were passed out and a contest was held among the women for the best designs. The first place prize was 300 quetzals, or about one month's wages (there were other prizes for everyone who participated). The winning design was silkscreened in red, yellow and black for the actual covers.

Another contest among the men yielded a selection of gourd carving designs that were also used in the magazine.

The finished issue (Number 8), which was ready in 1998, is a triumph of literature, art, design and paper engineering. Twenty people needed eight months to print all the pieces which are offset printed with 150 different silkscreen impressions added. It took two and a half years to assemble the 78 pieces into the final copies of "La jicara."

In addition to the basic concertina structure of 115 pages, there are envelopes with letters and telegrams inside, fold-out pages, overlays, tipped-in artwork, books within books, a full-size newsheet from 1968, postcard enclosures, a separate English translation booklet and many other surprises.

The entire construction is wrapped with a string threaded through a carved gourd (imagine carving 1,000 gourds!). It is a masterful accomplishment worthy of the Maya's pre- Hispanic bookmaking tradition.