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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Keeping a language alive


Taller Leñateros in Mexico is a workshop solely dedicated to documenting and safeguarding the endangered Tzotzil language, culture, and oral history. Tzotzil is a Mayan language spoken by the indigenous Tzotzil people in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas located along the border with Guatemala. The workshop was founded in 1975 by the acclaimed Mexican-American poet Ambar Past. Travelling through Chiapas at the time, Past ended up living among the Indigenous women in the small town of San Cristóbal for the next 30 years. Noticing none of the women could read or write Tzotzil, Past made it her mission to record and translate the language. 

Her goal was simply to inscribe the countless stories, incantations, magic spells, songs and poems she was hearing out in the highland Mayan countryside. The end result — Incantations: Songs, Spells, and Images by Mayan Women — took more than 20 years to complete and became the first book in more than 400 years to be written, produced and published by indigenous Mayans. It is, writes Jessica Vincent for Atlas Obscura, an “insight into both an ancient language and an ancient way of looking at the world”. Employing an elaborate syntax that’s changed little since the Mayans’ rule in Mexico more than 1,400 years ago, the book contains 295 handmade pages featuring silkscreen illustrations that recount age-old stories of love, death, birth, marriage, sex and survival. 

“We may have changed and adapted to modern times, but our language, traditions, and way of life essentially remain the same,” one of the custodians of the workshop, Petra, told Vincent. “Recording our Tzotzil language, and bookbinding itself, is the only way we know how to protect that heritage. We want to encourage our people to reconnect with their own culture, and they can teach their children and grandchildren to be proud of their culture too . . . because it is they who now have the responsibility of keeping it alive.”

ABOVE The Taller Leñateros or Woodlanders Workshop has been operating since 1975 using recycled materials and traditional bookmaking techniques.

PHOTO Jessica Vincent

December 29, 2019

| WATCH how Taller Leñateros make their notebooks

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