Beach near Tulum // Strand bei Tulum

Searching for Stories in Southern Mexico

I’m lying on my bed in an air-conditioned hostel room in Cancún with a half-read copy of the Popol Vuh next to me. I picked up the book detailing the Maya-Quiché creation myth and cosmology from a box of free stuff at a party in September 2015. At the time the idea of a journey through Canada, the US, and Mexico started forming in my mind. It’s the last day of that journey, I’m tired from traveling and exhausted from reading in Spanish. And I’m frustrated: During my entire time in Chiapas and Quintana Roo, I didn’t manage to find out anything about contemporary literature rooted in Maya culture.

The Maya in Mexico

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, I am still hopeful about my project. The town in Chiapas used to be located in the West of the Maya settlement area, which stretched the entire South Mexican peninsula, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. A local guide offers a tour to the villages of Chamula and Zinacantán, where the Tzotzil, a people descendant from the Maya, live autonomously from the Mexican state in accordance with their traditions. Street signs and plaques are written in Spanish, Tzotzil transcribed in Latin letters, and English. We learn about the villages’ social structure, religious beliefs and customs, typical diet and artisanal products. Apart from some syncretistic religious stories, however, there is no mention of ancient myths or their relevance for the Tzotzil today.

Trilingual plaque in Chiapas // Dreisprachige Infotafel in Chiapas

Since the present doesn’t provide any clues, I turn my attention to the past and visit the famous ruins of Palenque. The size of the excavation site makes it difficult to believe that most of it remains overgrown by rain forest. Tourist groups with guides speaking all major European languages roam the grounds. Hieroglyphs are mentioned, wars between different Maya cities, important kings and their ornate tombs. No mention of myths about people made from corn. My visit to the ruins of Tulum in Quintana Roo is even less informative: The excavation site right by the sea is so small the hoards of tourists sometimes walk single file. Arguably, the fact that Tulum is mostly known for its beaches and waves should have made me doubt that it was the right place to go for my project. I interact more with surfers and long-term travelers than locals, let alone writers.

On the flight back to Germany, I wonder what I could have done differently. Throughout the trip, the places I sought out were the entrance to the stories and to the lives of those creating and spreading them. What if, sometimes, the place obscures the story? After all, I wouldn’t visit the Acropolis and expect to find out how contemporary Greek writers negotiate their heritage of classical antiquity. The physical manifestations of the past are not necessarily of great concern to those who live and create within what a culture has become. And not every culture expresses itself in writing. Maybe Maya storytelling is largely oral? Maybe stories are only told in the local languages from and to those who speak them. Maybe they are purposely kept inaccessible to outsiders. Back home, I search the university catalog to find out about the history of the Maya empire, the developments starting with the colonization by the Spanish kingdom, and the situation today. Even a search of the anthropology library yields nothing. Wrong question? Wrong keywords? Wrong language?

Palenque excavation site // Ausgrabungsstätte in Palenque

Language is key

Only when I start searching the web in Spanish do I find results: Wikipedia entries with definitions for pre- and post-colonial Maya literature, comparisons to Aztec and Zapotec literature, the names and works of internationally renowned writers of Maya descent. I learn about Ermilo Abreu Gómez, born in Yucatán (Mexico) in 1894, a writer, journalist, and dramatic advisor whose work on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz restored her place in Mexican cultural memory. I learn about Miguel Ángel Asturias, born in Guatemala in 1899, writer, diplomat, and the second Latin American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, whose novels are grounded in Maya beliefs and stress the importance of protecting and spreading knowledge about indigenous cultures.

While they both wrote in Spanish, Maya authors today tend to write in their native languages. If they want to reach a broader audience, their books are published in bilingual editions featuring the Spanish translation. A controversial figure in the field is Subcomandante Marcos, one of the anonymous leaders of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, who wrote a children’s book on tolerance and respect towards humans and nature based on the Maya creation myth. A widely accepted representative of contemporary Maya literature is Marisol Ceh Moo. Both as a professor and a writer, she is a fierce advocate of minority languages in Mexico. Her work X-Teya, u puksi’ik’al ko’olel (Teya, un corazón de mujer) is the first novel written by a woman in a Maya language.

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote. We can let language barriers stop us from seeking knowledge. And there are cases in which it is justified that languages are first and foremost used by those whose heritage is connected to them. But for any other case, Wittgenstein’s quote should be an incentive to learn more languages. Because if we keep learning, if we open up our horizons, we might begin to communicate with each other.


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