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.