The Indigenous Literature of the Americas

In late August, Mexico City and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico signed an agreement to teach Náhuatl language and culture to Nahua (Aztec) students in Santa Ana Tlacotenco in the high southern reaches of the city. The signatories were a deputy mayor of the city, the coordinator of humanities at the university, and an honored witness, Miguel León-Portilla, the leading scholar in the world of Náhuatl history and culture. It had been many years, perhaps centuries, since a great Mexican university had educated Nahua students in their own culture and offered a diploma to those who completed the course satisfactorily. According to some observers, it had not happened since the calmecac (school for nobles) was destroyed with the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Náhuatl culture and language had been studied in Mexican universities, but not taught as a living culture. It was yet another instance of a resurgence of indigenous culture in the hemisphere. Although writing in indigenous languages and cultures had never disappeared, the numbers of indigenous people in the hemisphere had declined precipitously after the invasion by Europeans, and the writers were few.

Now, there are many. In 2001, W.W. Norton risked publication of the most extensive anthology of Mesoamerican literature ever published in English, In the Language of Kings. This year, Aguilar published a Spanish language version, Antigua y nueva palabra. The Náhuatl portion of the anthology is the basic text for the joint Mexico City/Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico Course. A similar course in Yucatecan Maya was taught several years earlier, but without university recognition. In other parts of Mexico, in the United States, especially Alaska, and in Latin America, indigenous languages and cultures are being taught. In Mexico, where the indigenous population is estimated at 12 million, considerably higher than the official census, the number of people fluent in both an indigenous language and Spanish is very large, at least several million, and literature has ample place in which to flourish.

This issue begins with several pieces devoted to the importance of maintaining indigenous languages, then goes on to reproduce one of the most difficult and beautiful of the ancient Aztec works from a new translation into Spanish. Two sections of poems, one more clearly connected to ancient themes and the other contemporary, follow. There are stories and fables, and two descriptive essays of aspects of ancient culture still in existence, one Nahua and the other Maya.

Various works will be surprisingly modern, a surrealist poem or a devastating description of life in Mexico City. Others, a Mazateco chant in many parts among them, will seem to have been written centuries ago. Two poets, Humberto Ak'abal, who writes in Ki'che' Maya, and Briceida Cuevas Cob, who writes in Yucatecan Maya, have growing world reputations; Juan Gregorio Regino is the most prominent poet in indigenous languages. Meanwhile, the authors of a curious story from the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán peninsula have published only an amusing but not artful story in a tiny local journal.

The champion of contemporary work in indigenous languages in Mesoamerica is Carlos Montemayor, who has anthologized some of the work included here. As León-Portilla has brought the classical Aztec Thought and Culture (the title of his landmark book) to the fore, Montemayor has made contemporary writing accessible; The Profound Voice (the title of his fine anthology) of these writers owes a great deal to him and to many others, including Miguel Angel May May in Yucatán. Salvador Reyes Equiguas, assistant to León-Portilla, helped to locate work from some remote areas.

As the reader will soon see, this is not ethnography, although there may be no better way to get to know cultures hidden in full view, it is literature.

-- Sylvia and Earl Shorris

See the Table of Contents for this issue.