By Brooke O’Connor
An issue about Mexican writers would be remiss if we didn’t include some original writers in Mexico: the Zapotecs. Although Spanish is the legal and most widely spoken language, Zapotec is still one of the largest indigenous language groups spoken, comprising 58 different variations among different communities.
Many dialects and traditions are being lost to modernity, but there are some champions of Zapotec, publishing bilingual and trilingual books. More on that later.
The earliest preserved Zapotec writing is from 600 BCE, and we know this Mesoamerican script was used for well over 1,500 years. Just as they do today, Zapotec peoples had many uses for writing in the ancient thriving society. However, time has left us more monolithic billboards than personal journals.
The earliest known inscription comes from San José Mogote, northwest of present day Oaxaca City; San José Mogote reached its political peak before the establishment of Monte Albán, southwest of and closer to Oaxaca City (more writings have been preserved from Monte Albán than from San José Mogote). Many of the large engravings from San José Mogote detailed competitions and the development of urban life. They chronicled the succession of leaders and winning of battles. This led archeologists to believe that writing during this time was used mostly for political and civic education. They’ve since found those conclusions to be false.
The earlier (600 BCE to 200 ACE) writings in San José Mogote appear to be related to sacred topics; self-sacrifice, the proper oral invocation of ancestors to ensure success in warfare, the taking of captives, ritual combat with captives, and how-to manuals on burning humans alive to petition for agricultural and human fertility. Political topics included strategies and plans written by members of the elite class, designed to create division in society with the aim of developing more power as leaders.
In addition, these elites promoted an elaborate ideology that centered on a primordial covenant between humans and the divine; the ideology depended, of course, on the populace following the elites. The authors masked the inequalities between the classes, and used these ideas to create messianic movements, binding the people to one political party or another. There are other writings showing resistance to these movements, and how the elite plans didn’t always unfold as expected.
People wrote on many media – wood, pottery, leather, cloth and paper bark. These items were more portable for trade, as well as written communication between elites in all areas of ancient Oaxaca. Unfortunately, the soft nature of these media makes them highly perishable. With the ravages of time, most are lost to us.
A few items survived, or were documented when the Spaniards came. Translation can be tricky, and sociologists are taking a second look at Spanish accounts of ancient writings. It seems there may have been some creative liberties taken, to promote the narrative that “Savages need to be tamed.” The friars sent information back to Spain, and the more exotic and titillating the better.
The characters of early written Zapotec were not like the written language seen today. Many symbols represented an idea, rather than denoting the phonic sound of a letter, group of letters, or a syllable. Numbers were portrayed with lines and bars.
When the first Spaniards came, the indigenous wanted to communicate freely (arguably more than the Spaniards did), so as early as the late 16th century, Zapotec peoples appropriated the Spanish alphabet to render their own language graphically. They wrote stealthily about their traditions though. They hoped to come to an amicable agreement for the Spaniards to leave, in peace, after learning a bit about the culture. By subverting the colonial gaze, they were able to keep intact some of the important cultural identity and family issues, and still talk about exploitive political practices. Lucky for us, the Zapotecs have continued to use the alphabetic script today, and we can begin to understand more of this rich culture.
Zapotec language is full of imagery and deep meanings. It is formal and respectful, particularly to elders and people not in your immediate family. It’s a language that commands a level of humility on the part of the speaker. The natural world is invoked regularly. There is a sense of connection to the earth, the ancestors and human kind.
If you want to experience this magical, dream-like writing I highly recommend Red Ants by Pergentino José, who was born in 1981 in the Zapotec village of Buena Vista in the municipality of San Agustín Loxicha, in the mountains a couple of hours north of Zipolite. He writes both poetry and prose in Loxichan Zapotec, which he has described as “the Zapotec of the coast,” and Spanish. In 2006, he wrote the bilingual Spanish/Zapotec Y supe qué responder /Nyak mbkaabna (I Knew What To Answer); in 2013, he published a tri-lingual (Zapotec/Spanish/English) collection of poems, Ndio dis mbind /Lenguaje de pájaros /The Language of Birds. The volume is beautifully illustrated with paintings by Raga Garcíarteaga. It is difficult to find as a book, but you can download it from the publisher: http://www.avispero.com.mx/storage/app/media/libros/lenguaje-de-pajaros.pdf.
Red Ants was first published in 2012 in Spanish as Hormigas Rojas, but included expressions in Loxichan Zapotec; it was translated to English in 2020 by Thomas Bunstead, who chose to keep the Zapotec passages. Red Ants is the first ever translation of a Zapotec author. It’s a collection of short stories that are neither linear nor logical, but rather surreal, with an intoxicating perfume of culture and connection to the land. Each story builds on the last, from a different angle and perspective. There are underlying themes in these modern stories that speak to the Zapotec people’s experience through history: forced change, imprisonment, longing for a simpler time, loss of autonomy, grit to overcome even when bruised and broken, but never losing connection with the natural world.
I invite you to take time reading this. Think about the complexities of translating one language to another. Translation is always less about the actual words, and more about meaning in a sentence. Hence, translated into stoic English, we have a mystical sensation, with animals and imagery expanding in ways we may not immediately grasp. Sit with it, and let the ancestors of this land breathe understanding into you.
If you’re interested in hearing what Zapotec sounds like, and see some of the work being done to preserve and understand these languages, check out this site from the Zapotec Language Project of the University of California at Santa Cruz: https://zapotec.ucsc.edu/. The University offers an online dictionary, monthly language classes, and audio samples of native speakers. For example, this “scary story” spoken by Samuel Díaz Ramirez: https://zapotec.ucsc.edu/slz/texts-query.php?lg=&content=&query=match&text=SLZ1089-t1&parse=no