Starting this morning, I am redoubling efforts to learn Tzotzil and the Mayan side of the story. I am going to beg Loxa, Amelia, Eliza to see if they’d be willing to take me to their families on the outskirts, and introduce me to their customs.

In addition, I am reading the poetry and prologue of Incantations whose authors are the living and breathing Mayan women we are coming to know at Taller Leñateros and the surrounding areas. More than photography or my mere observations could ever show, these words give insight to a contemporary civilization in Chiapas, Mexico.

From time to time, I will describe the process of discovery of some of my most fascinating finds from the Taller Leñateros collection.


…These incantations were dreamed by Maya women in the Highlands of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. The Tzotzil authors of this anthology claim their spells and songs were given to them by the ancestors, the First Fathermothers, who keep the Great Book in which all words were written down. Pasakawla Kómes, an unlettered seer from Santiago El Pinar, learned her conjurations by dreaming the Book. Loxa Jimenes Lópes of Epal Ch’en, Chamula, tells of an Angel, daughter of the Lord of the Caves, who began whispering in her ear, and then, in dreams, showed her the Book with all the magic words to be learned…

This 300-page book is a treasure, from the expressive written language translated from Tzotzil to English… to the ethnic accompanying serigraph art work that illustrates so many pages. Even more personal, is the fact that each page paper was handmade, handbound, and authored by 150 Mayan women, some who are becoming my friends.

“Even though few of the authors of this anthology can read, even though the Tzotzil Maya have no libraries nor bookstores near their houses,, a wise person is said to have “books in the heart,” according to Robert M Laughlin’s translation of a sixteenth century Spanish-Tzotzil dictionary.

The Mayan word fo book, jun or vun, also means paper, and the making of paper is an important Mesoamerican tradition. During rituals ancient Mayan women pierced their tongues and dripped blood on paper which was then burnt. Even today in the amate papermaking town of San Pablito Pahuatlán in Puebla, paper is still burnt as an offering to the gods.

In Tzotzil, to write and to paint are the same verb (tz’ib) just as the color (yox) serves for what English speakers perceive as both blue and green. Antonia Moshán Culej of Huixtán asks: “How is it that María Tzu can paint if she can’t write?” Weaving is today considered to be a form of script and Tzotzil women can read the verses on their looms…”

This is true in Guatemala also, where the tejidos and embroideries told a rich stories of the quetzal, and their Mayan legends on the clothes they wore, and the needlework was so fine and woven with intention that I keep it safely kept in my home in California as a piece of art. There, we spoke Cachikel.

“The Maya seem to hold ancient memories of their libraries. Even today, the oral poetry of ritual speech is referred to as tz’ib (that which is painted or written down.” Poetry is called nichimal k’op, “the word in flower.” We know of only four pre-Colombian 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 Relación 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.’

I can close my eyes and also grieve their inconsolable pain of loss, a civilization’s most treasured heritage becoming nothing more than carbon ash in the air upon the arrival of the Spanish conquest. Even though it happened five centuries ago, I wonder if the literature-infused dust that strewn across the territory by wind also made this land as magical as it seems.

Song is a book that will not burn. In the early colonial period, a number of ancient texts in verse were dictated to European friars who transcribed the Mayan words in Latin characters and translated them into Spanish. The best known of these is the Popol Vuh–the sacred book of the K’iche. The Yucatec Maya conserved their magical writings in the Books of Chilam Balam, the Codex of Calkiní and–perhaps the most exquisite poetry left us by the ancient Maya–a volume of incantations entitled the Ritual de los Bacabes.

[This book] Incantations by Mayan Women is the first book Mayan people have created, written, illustrated, printed and bound-in paper of their own making-in nearly five hundred years”

Note: This is limited edition, available in Tzotzil-English, Tzotzil-Spanish. $1300 Pesos. Get it here.

Spanish Words of the Day–Techniques and Things:agurrás” turpentine | “papel pergamino, albanene” vellum paper | “pulpa, pasta” paper pulp | “estopas, retazos de algodón” cotton shreds, threads