Beyond Survival

In 1982, a group of Yucatec Mayas created the Maya Literature Workshop in Yucatan, southern Mexico. According to writer Miguel Angel May May, the Workshop’s members had “a minimal degree of high school education, were all about the same age, and were native speakers of Maya.” They shared a common desire to cultivate their mother tongue. This collective experience was the beginning of a creative search by this group to produce their own works of written literature. In 1990, two of its members, Gerardo Can Pat and Maria Luisa Pacheco Gongora, published their first literary works in Maya ​​and in Spanish.

The goals of the Maya Literature Workshop represent a more involved process among indigenous peoples in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Traditional references to indigenous cultures have focused on oral traditions, ceremonial music, textile art, or pottery.  Nonetheless, since the 1980s the practices of indigenous cultural production have expanded considerably, encompassing the use of language technologies and aesthetic representation associated with Western and urban landscapes. Indigenous artists use their native languages and cultural traditions to explore a variety of media, from written literature and film, to contemporary visual arts and electronic musical instruments. Considering the issue of cultural homogenization and the alarming increase of endangered languages, the emergence of indigenous aesthetic creativity in the Americas is a significant step toward building a more linguistically and culturally diverse world. Subsequently, the promotion and strengthening of this cultural diversification constitute a key task in the realm of cultural policies, not only for nation-states but also for the private, non-governmental, and inter-governmental agencies of the international community. 

Indigenous Languages in World Literature(s)

The linkage between indigenous rights and culture has been in the forefront of global discussions since the 1980s. In June 1989, the International Labor Organization (ILO) instituted Convention 169, whose body of articles refers to the value of indigenous cultures on several occasions. The fourth article of the document states that “special measures shall be adopted as appropriate for safeguarding the persons, institutions, property, labour, cultures and environment of the peoples concerned.” Within the United Nations, the discussion on the rights of indigenous peoples began with the Working Group on Indigenous Populations appointed in 1982 by the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. After nearly three decades of discussion, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted in September 2007. One aspect that stands out in this document is the claim for the linguistic and cultural rights of indigenous peoples. With this perspective, Article 13 of the Declaration states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop, and transmit […] their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems, and literatures.” In both the ILO Convention 169 and the 2007 UN Declaration, the preservation and development of indigenous cultures constitute a central concern.

These global endeavors were paralleled by the empowerment of indigenous people not only in local struggles for land rights and self-determination, but also through their creativity in literary and artistic expression. This movement did not limit indigenous creativity to “oral literatures” but rather sought to use the aesthetic tools and possibilities of writing and other media. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the use of indigenous languages as literary language began to gain prominence among writers from indigenous communities, such as the Maya, Zapotec, and Nahua in Mexico; the Maya in Guatemala; Quechua speakers in Peru; and the Mapuche in Chile.. Emerging native poets and storytellers construct their own aesthetic identity by using their own language along with Spanish, or in the case of those who have lost their native language, by revitalizing their indigenous cultural identities. 

In Peru and Mexico, numerous contemporary indigenous writers have incorporated their languages ​in​to written literature. In Peru, the poems in Quechua by Jose Maria Arguedas and Andrés Alencastre in the 1950s and 1960s and by more recent Peruvian indigenous writers such as Dida Aguirre, Eduardo Ninamayo, and Odi Gonzalez, have given status to Quechua in the literary realm. In Mexico, writers such as Natalio Hernández (Nahua), Briceida Cuevas Cob (Yucatec Maya), and Natalia Toledo (Zapotec), who are among a prolific group of indigenous writers coming to prominence since the 1980s, have amplified the resonance of what the Maya Literature Workshop started.


The awakening of or the struggle for indigenous identity runs through most of these writers’ works. Peruvian Quechua poet Dida Aguirre, here translated by Maureen Ahern, sings to a collective awakening, a process deeply rooted in the Andean space: “Let’s strike like lightning! / from the dark cavity / of Mother Earth, / because we’re people / rooted in rock.” In a similar vein, Nahua author Natalio Hernández, translated by Sylvia and Earl Shorris, expresses the indigenous struggle for identity: “Sometimes I feel that we Indians / await the coming of a man /…/ But this man who knows all / and can do all / will never come: / because he lives within us, / he is found within us / he walks with us; / he awakens; yet he sleeps.” Native authors also testify to more global issues, such as the survival of humankind in the face of apocalyptic times. For example, Yucatec Maya poet Briceida Cuevas Cob, translated by Rebecca Chase, projects her own response to this crisis through the surviving figure of an owl: “The fossils of the people / move nowhere. / The moon paints the tombs of the cemetery / which has begun to chew the weeds. / The owl / practices a song to life. / It refuses to predict its own death. 

The use of the metaphorical power of indigenous languages has also gained strength in less populous countries. This is the case of Chile, where in 1989 the prestigious Editorial Universitaria published a book of poetry by a Mapuche author: Se ha despertado el ave de mi corazón (The Bird of My Heart Has Awakened) by Leonel Lienlaf. This book was published in Spanish and in the Mapuche language—Mapudungun, “language of earth.” Lienlaf successfully introduced the language of his people, which has traditionally been oral, in the written literary culture. His poetry shows that Mapudungun is a language of aesthetic value, rich in metaphors and symbols. While Lienlaf uses alphabetic writing as a medium, he simultaneously stages the tensions in doing so: “My hand would not write / what wasn’t my own /../ My hand / told me the world / could not be written.” In this expressive struggle, however, Lienlaf finds a way to craft a sense of self-recognition around the Mapuche home space (ruka), as stated in these verses: “Along that trunk I walked through / hundreds of generations, / aching, laughing, / and I saw a cross that severed / my head / and saw a sword that blessed me / before I died. / Mother, I am the trunk / that burns / in the hearth of our ruka” (trans. John Bierhorst, Ül: Four Mapuche Poets, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1998).

In Guatemala, the Maya Q’anjoba’l writer Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez incorporated his language into the written system of the novel. In 1992 Gonzalez published his novel La otra cara, in English, A Mayan Life, which tells the story of a Maya child who confronts cultural differences among members of his people and “ladinos” or non-indigenous Guatemalans. In 1996, he published an edition in Maya Q’anjob’al and Spanish, entitled Sb’eyb’al Jun Naq / La otra cara, which begins in his native language, here translated as “It all began when the gods inscribed their great signs on the stelae of time. It was on the day Thirteen Ajaw.” In this symbolically suggestive style, the Mayan Q’anjoba’l language acquires the status of novelistic language, in a position equal to Spanish or any other Western language.

The use of native languages for literature is not unique to countries with large indigenous populations such as Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru. This literature also emerged in areas where native peoples have been “minoritized,” as is the case of Colombia or Chile. In recent years, anthologies of contemporary indigenous literatures have come out in English, demonstrating the global relevance of indigenous aesthetic empowerment in writing. The use of indigenous languages in literary terrains and the subsequent translations of these texts into Spanish, English, and other languages have helped bring recognition to the complex aesthetics of native languages. The rise of indigenous languages in world literature also compels states and international authorities to develop cultural policies that protect both the linguistic rights of indigenous peoples and provide the material resources necessary for the printing and dissemination of these literary works.

Urban Sounds

In the early 2000s, a group of young Mapuche raised in Santiago, Chile, formed Wechekeche Ñi Trawün, a band that creates its music with electronic instruments like the electric guitar, drums, and a synthesizer in combination with Mapuche instruments such as the trutruka, a native wind instrument, and kultrún, a native percussion instrument. Wechekeche Ñi Trawün means “meeting of young people,” which reflects the composition of the group. With more than ten members, this band has managed to shape a musical aesthetic that mixes the sounds of kultrún and trutruka in fusion with hip hop, reggae, Argentinian rock, and ranchera music, among others. Their musical compositions, filled with abundant bilingual twists (Mapudugun and Spanish), extol the value of being Mapuche and vindicate land claims. 


Since the production of their first album in 2004, one of the leitmotifs running through the lyrics of Wechekeche Ñi Trawün is the rejection of national and transnational corporations and their exploitation of lands and forests in areas associated with Mapuche communities. Their songs also echo a desire that has marked the contemporary struggles of the Mapuche social and political movement in Chile and Argentina: the reconstruction of the Mapuche nation, or the Wallmapu, a collective concept that links Mapuches from both sides of the Chilean-Argentinian border. As a result of such a musical and political desire, this band of young urban Mapuches has toured cities and rural communities in both regions. In these performances, their mixture of styles and genres from contemporary pop music and native instruments resonates with the visions of the rural and urban youth, while raising awareness of the historic Mapuche struggle. In southern Argentina, another Mapuche voice is heard: Beatriz Pichi Malen. Her musical work, beginning in the early 1990s, also plays with non-indigenous rhythms and styles mixed with Mapuche music. In March 2000, Pichi Malen released “Plata” (Silver), her first album, with songs that vindicate the culture of her people in an Argentina where Mapuches have historically been marginalized. 

In Guatemala, under the name Bitz’ma/Sobrevivencia (Survival), a group of Maya artists have created a musical style characterized by a mix of rhythms and sounds of the tum, flute, and marimba, accompanied by electric guitars and drums. In this way, Bitz’magives life to their rock MayaBitz’ma was established a decade ago as the collective project of a group of Maya youth from San Ildefonso Ixtachuacán, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. In their songs, they incorporate a multilingual repertoire of Spanish and Mayan languages and musical mixtures. They tour communities within Guatemala as well as communities of the Guatemalan Maya diaspora in Mexico and southern California.

The Guatemalan Maya musical group called Sin Rostro-Tujaal Rock is doing something similar, as their songs are in various Mayan languages such as Mam, Sakapulteko, K’iche’, and Kaqchikel. These Maya musicians, with more than a decade of experience, have created a musical fusion, combining Maya rhythms and sounds with reggae, ska, son, and ballads. In an interview on April 16, 2011 for a Guatemalan newspaper, drummer Miguel Felipe Tz’ikin’, one of the six members of Sin RostroTujaal Rock, commenting on the name of their recent musical production, “Resurgimiento” (Revival), states: “The word then does not mean so much to ‘reappear’ because we have always been here, but rather we now return over our steps to contribute to the construction of a better humanity.” Thus, they stress the close relationship between aesthetic practice—the language of music—with a “resurgence” anchored in Maya tradition, but also in a contemporary and cosmopolitan outlook. 

A significant impact of these artistic groups in their communities has been their ability to sensitize indigenous youth to engage their people’s cultures and histories. Through their music, groups such as Wechekeche Ñi TrawünBitza/Sobrevivencia, and Sin Rostro-Tujaal Rock channel the energy and aspirations of indigenous youth into broader cultural, social, and political goals. They thereby counter the culture of individualism fostered by neoliberal societies and the increasing trends of crime or drug consumption that mark public life in contemporary urban settings.

Cinematic Beginnings

In 1985 in Mexico City, the Latin American Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples’ Film and Video (CLACPI) was founded. This group was created to link native media groups to young people from indigenous communities who exhibited a creative command of camera technology. Since the mid-eighties, CLACPI has organized 11 international festivals and numerous workshops dedicated to promoting indigenous advancement in the media arts. These festivals have taken place in countries like Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Chile.


According to Amalia Córdova, the Latin American Program manager of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, “a significant innovation of indigenous cinemas” has come to the forefront with “the use of native languages ​​in the productions, which makes the works accessible to cultural and linguistic communities where traditions are kept.” Córdova states that indigenous filmmaking “also stresses the importance of using native languages to indigenous youth, who are more likely to lose it.”

One of the pioneers in indigenizing the art of the camera is Alberto Muenala, a filmmaker from the Kichwa community of Otavalo, Ecuador. His cinematic production began in the early 1990s. In short videos, Muenala incorporates the realities and languages of ​​Kichwa communities. This is precisely what happens in the film Mashikuna / Comrades (1995, 40 minutes), which tells the story of two children as they embark on their life journeys, from the pain of dealing with racism and oppression to becoming activists in an indigenous social and political movement. 

The Mapuche filmmaker Jeannette Paillán represents another trajectory with the camera in a short film entitled Punalka (1995, 26 minutes) – an assemblage of powerful and poetic images, sounds, and voices. The camera pans the waters and mountains of Alto Bio-Bio in the Andean region of southern Chile, where a Mapuche community (the Pehuenches) struggles to live with their own language and traditions. While the Paillán’s camera highlights the human and natural environment, the voice of the poet Leonel Lienlaf tells, in Mapudungun, the story of Punalka—a being that, according to Mapuche traditions, is sovereign over the waters of the river. In this way, the film highlights the sacred significance of the natural environment for this community in a region where a hydroelectric plant installed in the Alto Bio-Bio in the late 1990s had a devastating impact. Paillán’s film alternates space and time in which the poetic use of Mapudungun (“language of earth”) resonates with the background of the Andean mountain range. 

Indigenous Aesthetics?

How should one interpret these aesthetic practices led by indigenous artists in language domains that come from native traditions in Latin America? What implications do these practices have for indigenous people who seek to exercise their right, as stated in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007, “to revitalize, use, develop, and transmit” their own “languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems, and literatures?” Various indigenous aesthetics have been recorded, voiced, or envisioned in contemporary languages and forms in both urban spaces and “natural” environments in crisis. This occurs at a time when global and local powers tend to undermine indigenous claims to language, culture, territory, and political self-representation.


If something is affirmed though this new wave of indigenous written literature, musical fusion, and visual arts, it is that it represents a desire for not only continuity, but also for re-invention of indigenous identities under the conditions of contemporary urban, technological, and cultural life. However, it is important to note that most of the aforementioned indigenous writers and artists forge their cultural expressions with limited material resources. Even though there are legal bodies that invoke “indigenous rights” in many Latin American countries, actual government practices dismiss indigenous artistic and cultural projects that do not benefit their own short-term political agendas. This is the case of the artists and writers I have presented in this article, whose works embody demands of self-determination and sovereignty and take a critical stance toward state and government politics. Therefore, they do not have significant support from state entities. 

In 1989, ILO Convention 169 urged states and governments not only to promote indigenous cultures but also to guarantee agency of indigenous peoples in the exercise of their cultural rights. Article Six of the Convention states the need to “establish means by which these peoples can freely participate, to at least the same extent as other sectors of the population, at all levels of decision-making in elective institutions and administrative and other bodies responsible for policies and programmes which concern them.” To this end, I believe that the  two key challenges facing public institutions in each country as well as in the international community, are: first, to provide material resources that strengthen indigenous linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural creativity; and, second, to ensure that their cultural policies guarantee the autonomy of indigenous writers and artists, not only in the aesthetic realm but also in the political arena.  The demand for indigenous autonomies is, to a large extent, an invitation to think and imagine cultural policies that foster diversity in the twenty first century world.

LUIS E. CARCAMO-HUECHANTE is a scholar of Mapuche origin who grew up in Tralcao, a rural village in the River Region of Valdivia in southern Chile. He studied Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Universidad Austral de Chile, obtained his MA at the University of Oregon, and earned his PhD in Hispanic Studies at Cornell University. He taught at Harvard University between 2001 and 2009, and now teaches Latin American and indigenous literatures and cultures at The University of Texas at Austin, where he was elected a member of the Society for Teaching Excellence in Fall 2011.

About Author

Luis E. Carcamo-Huechante

Leave a Reply