In the latest of our PEN Atlas Mexican series, Pergentino José Ruiz stands up for his country’s indigenous languages, which ‘create a dialogue between Mexico’s oral and written traditions’.

Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott

Oral culture in Mexico connects the nation of today with its Mesoamerican past; it also represents the collective memory that has for centuries been contained in the spoken word. ‘In the prehispanic world, the cosmovision, the religious doctrines and the science of the ritual calendar were preserved and transmitted in two principal ways invented by the cultures of ancient Mexico: the oral tradition, and the glyphs or carvings of symbols in codices and stelae,’ says Nahuatl culture specialist Miguel León Portilla in his book Thirteen Poets of the Aztec World. Since the ancient palaces, ceremonial centres, stelae and hundreds of codices were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores when they arrived on Mexican soil, some of our only remaining links with Mesoamerican culture are the oral traditions of the sixty-four indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico today.

The cultures of Mesoamerica were no strangers to literature, as Ángel María Garibay shows in his History of Nahuatl Literature. Indeed, Garibay argues for the existence of an autonomous poetic tradition between the years of 1430 and 1521, when the Aztecs dominated much of Mexico. He bases this claim on the ethnographic work of the Franciscan friars Bernadino de Sahagún and Andrés de Olmos, whose records of Aztec culture include sacred poems, brief narratives and prayers to the gods.

And yet ever since its first years as an independent republic, Mexico has followed a tradition that dates back to the colonial era: that of seeing indigenous culture as a barrier to progress. The state has put in place very few initiatives to preserve the languages of its original inhabitants, and indeed its stance on the issue has often been sharply contradictory. For example, in the 1920s, when the fighting of the Mexican revolution was drawing to a close, the country was at once celebrating its indigenous past and introducing education policies that required indigenous populations to speak Spanish in the name of national unity.

The country then saw the beginnings of the indigenismo movement in the 1930s, when land was shared out among the peasants under the government of Lázaro Cárdenas and linguists and anthropologists started taking a greater interest in indigenous life and culture. The movement was fundamental to maintaining the public’s focus on indigenous issues, and novelists soon aligned themselves with the cause: Rosario Castellanos, José Revueltas, Agustín Yañez, José Arreola, and of course the great Juan Rulfo with Pedro Páramo. Although Rulfo’s novel touches only briefly on the hardships faced by indigenous people, it does so with a literary brilliance that perfectly captures the mood of Mexican intellectual life in the 1950s.

Nowadays, the situation of speakers in indigenous languages varies enormously depending on the region of the country. Some languages, including Nahuatl, Maya, Mixtec and Zapotec, are spoken by more than half a million people each, according to the National Institute of Indigenous Languages. For others, however, the situation is critical: Ixcatec, Kiliwa, Ixil, Papai and Cucapa, for example, have fewer than five hundred speakers each. If people from these latter cultures can be encouraged to write, it will reveal a legacy of legends, mythologies and beliefs that have been present in their speech for centuries; it will make way for other values, other conceptions of existence, in a Mexico that tends more and more towards cultural homogeneity. It will formalise and preserve their writing systems, vocabularies and grammars, and it will shine a light on the country’s cultural diversity and Mesoamerican heritage that has held on for centuries and refuses to disappear.

In my case, I speak and write fiction in Zapotec, and to give you an idea of how that language is structured I will use the example of the many metaphors in our everyday speech that are based on the word heart. There is the greeting ‘Nza nzo laxoa?‘ (‘How is your heart?’, which corresponds to ‘How are you?’). There are ways of describing moods: ‘nabil nzo laxond‘ (‘my heart is sad’), and ‘nalee nzo laxond‘ (‘my heart is happy’). There are also expressions that go deeper, such as ‘Na kap nak la, na nzod rend laxoa‘ (‘You feel nothing, there is no blood in your heart’). If we write literature in indigenous languages, we create a dialogue between Mexico’s oral and written traditions. We infuse our written culture with the collective memory and magical thinking that are still scattered throughout people’s speech in this country, and, in doing so, we keep our Mesoamerican heritage alive.