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Writing in an Endangered Language to Honor, and Challenge, Traditions

Mikeas Sánchez writes poetry in Zoque, a language spoken by around 100,000 people. The variant she grew up with, called Copainalá, is considered endangered; some 15,000 people use it.

The shrinking boundaries of the language have not limited her gaze; rather, her work has expanded Zoque’s reach. In her new collection, “How to Be a Good Savage and Other Poems,” which will be published by Milkweed Editions on Tuesday, Macy’s store windows and buildings like “dark, silent tombs” share space with sacred mountains and flowers that teach newborns to speak. An epigraph from “Leaves of Grass” sits comfortably alongside curse words in an ancient tongue.

Sánchez, 43, is part of an Indigenous group from southern Mexico, and among the most highly regarded Indigenous writers in the Americas. She has won poetry prizes and had her work translated in journals and collections in the United States, Europe, South Asia and Latin America. But while she was the first woman to publish a book of poetry in the Zoque language, her writing is compelling in part because she manages to simultaneously honor and challenge traditions — her own and those of others — presenting a Zoque worldview in dialogue with global ecology, feminism and modernity writ large.

“How to Be a Good Savage” includes work from Sánchez’ six previous Spanish-Zoque poetry collections, presented here in triple translation: Sánchez’ own versions of her work in Zoque and Spanish, and Wendy Call and Shook’s English versions. In their excellent translators’ note, which alongside extensive endnotes on Zoque terminology serves to illuminate and enrich the collection, Call and Shook discuss Sánchez’ “insistence on women’s voices in all matters of political, spiritual, artistic and intellectual life.” The first words of the first poem, “Ore’Yomo,” are thus a fitting introduction to Sánchez’ poetic voice:

Women in Sánchez’ poetry hide “hatred in their skirt folds”; girls who have been raped “seek their childhood in a bumblebee’s buzz/and in a palm tree’s sway.” In Sánchez’ words, “all activities related to wisdom” in Zoque culture are given to men. But in the poem “Mokaya,” Sánchez turns that idea on its head, presenting the Zoque woman as the keeper of tradition itself:

Sánchez’ work is marked by a worldly solidarity with life on the margins. In one poem from her second collection, “We Are All Maroons,” inspired by her experience as a graduate student in Barcelona, she finds connection with African migrants running from the police on La Rambla: “no job/no Spanish on their tongues/Maroons who walk the street/hawking trinkets.” In another from the same collection, a Moroccan woman in Europe “guards the bitter taste of her sex/beneath her tongue.”

Partly because “How to Be a Good Savage” includes work published over the course of nearly 15 years, the images, influences and ideas contained within are diverse: streetlamps and New York City, spirit animals and “the language of rivers and hills.” There are poems about life and death, identity and coming-of-age, routine and time. In “The Soul Returns to Silence’s Cry,” Sánchez writes:

The explosion of the Chichón volcano destroyed several Zoque villages, including the one that was home to Sánchez and her family. Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

Underlying it all is a deeply felt bond with the land on which she was born. Sánchez grew up the seventh of 10 children in Chapultenango — or Ajway, in Zoque — in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. She was 2 years old when her family settled there, having lost their home, livestock and nearly everything they owned in the 1982 volcanic eruption of El Chichón, which killed some 2,000 people and entirely destroyed several Zoque villages.

El Chichón, which for the Zoque people contains a sustaining feminine energy, looms large in Sánchez’ art and in the daily life of the community. Oral tradition blames the eruption on oil drilling, and there remains significant tension over mining and oil and gas projects on traditional Zoque lands. Sánchez has been a leading campaigner against fracking and other extractive projects that she says have “taken advantage of the fragmentation of our community and taken away our way of life.” Her more recent poems, in particular, speak to what she views as the incompatibility of Zoque culture with the industrial exploitation of natural resources.

Sánchez’ environmental activism is of a piece with her work to promote the Zoque language. The Zoque people call themselves Ore’pät and Ore’yomo, or men and women of the word, and language is central to the Zoque cosmology. Speech is treated as a literal extension of the natural world; the birdlike sounds produced by the yellow wewe flower are believed to teach Zoque children to speak.

This makes the suppression of Zoque language all the more painful. Sánchez’ mother did not speak Spanish at all, and her father, who she says “was less timid about speaking poorly,” spoke only a little. But Sánchez started to pick it up at home from older siblings, then to study it when she started school. She grew up amid institutional and cultural pressures that discouraged the use of Indigenous languages, and her poems often address the forces exerted against her language and identity. In “Jesus Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers” she writes:

Sánchez’ first attempts at written poetry were in Spanish. While studying education at a university in the nearby state of Tabasco, she joined a writing group by accident, thinking it was a reading circle. Poetry turned out to be a natural fit, perhaps because it was part of her heritage. In a 2021 essay for World Literature Today Sánchez notes how poetry is part of the Zoque people’s “most solemn rituals, such as the call for rain, dances to ask for abundant harvests, prayers to the mountains and to heal the sick.” As a child she occasionally memorized verses she overheard from her grandfather, a healer.

She has since dedicated much of her energy to promoting the use of Zoque, working as a bilingual radio host and developing Zoque-language elementary school curriculums. But her writing is a significant contribution in itself. Zoque is an ancient language, but does not contain a surviving written tradition as such. A standardized Zoque orthography is even now being defined by linguists and solidified as writers, such as Sánchez, put it into use. Many of the poems in “How to Be a Good Savage” have been significantly updated from previous iterations, largely because written Zoque itself continues to be updated. This is no mean feat, as differences between variations of the language spoken from one Zoque community to another can be more drastic than the differences, for example, between Spanish spoken in Mexico and Argentina.

“How to Be a Good Savage” is thus a significant work in more ways than one. It is the first Zoque entry in Milkweed’s Seedbank series, a collection of writing mostly from Indigenous authors intended to protect the diversity of human language. The goal of the project is to “publish books that preserve or introduce different and in some cases disappearing ways of being in the world,” said Daniel Slager, the publisher at Milkweed who conceived of the series.

In “Mokaya,” Sánchez writes: “I had my own gods who taught me to curse/in a gagged and wounded tongue.” Despite the harm done to her language by centuries of suppression, Sánchez’ poetry can clearly stand on its own. But by putting writing in the Zoque language on equal footing — literally and figuratively — with English and Spanish, “How to Be a Good Savage” may be one small step toward repairing the damage.

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