Language as Alliance: A Conversation with Hubert Matiúwàa
We introduced ourselves by talking about our readings, the work of Miguel Leon-Portilla, Carlos Lenkersdorf, Alfredo López Austin, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Carlos Montemayor, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, we made plans to meet up soon, without time constraints, and talk more about the researchers and philosophers whose books had a great impact on our academic background. This is how I met the poet, the philosopher: Hubert Matiúwàa. Here’s how he shared his knowledge with me.
Osiris Gómez: The allurement of your culture grows each time someone new reads your poetry, there’s a need to understand what surrounds the poet and in this way, writing also becomes an act of learning. What does Xtámbaa offer to Mè’phàà speakers and how do those of us being introduced to your culture reflect upon it through your poetry?
Hubert Matiúwàa: The testimony of our lifetime is carried through language. Language is a tool that must continuously construct and reflect the feeling of territory; therefore, writing in Mè’phàà is an act of political vindication that enables me to say that in spite of hegemonic policy and ethnic extermination, our culture continues to survive. Writing is the last wingbeat of a language’s survival.
We are not formally taught to think in our native tongue and sometimes we forget how to speak it when we move to the city. Just like many other cultures around the world, we are in danger of disappearing; a culture that doesn’t create its own thought from its own language is more vulnerable to falling victim to a predatory system. In contrast, a culture with many artistic expressions has a much better chance at survival, like the Zapotecs, for example.
The title of the book, Xtámbaa, comes from a ceremony for newborns practiced by the elders in the community to discover who the infant’s animal is, and entrust both of them to mother earth so that they look after each other. I choose this title as a metaphor, so that we can think of the Mè’phàà language as a child who we must protect from a violent system that hegemonizes forms of knowledge. I want children to learn to respect our language, so that all the sacrifice, all the deaths, the poverty and all of our ancestors’ acts of resistance are not taken for granted.
For us the Mè’phàà, when a woman is pregnant, we say, jagò èdèe, which literally means that she carries thought, and when she’s giving birth we say naꞌni xuajín, meaning that she’s creating community. By this, it’s understood that anyone born into the Mè’phàà has the responsibility to learn the language, and to be one with one with the community. All of us, who still live in the community, base our identity on this principle. I nurture and walk side by side with my language, as any other child born into my culture would do. Xtámbaa represents who we are as Mè’phàà people.
OG: Nature and animals have a strong presence throughout Xtámbaa, acting as characters and poetic voice at the same time. Can you talk about the importance of these elements according to Mè’phàà culture and how you resignify them in your writing?
HM: All Mè’phàà people are born with an animal brother so we can help each other as we go through life. This is why caring for others and for our land is so important to us. For example, the opossum is an important animal for us, it is he who put his power into the pulque and brought us joy. Today corporations bring beer and with it sadness. I also write about a hummingbird ravaged by killings, human rights violations, mining and political parties. Our animals are outraged by the problems that surround us; this is why it’s necessary to resignify myths to respond to the present.
OG: Hubert, your environment has given you unique aesthetics in which animals dialogue with people and their surroundings, you grew up with Mè’phàà knowledge and then you went out of your community to learn more about the other ways. You traced the movement and ancient history of your culture going to countries like Nicaragua. In Xtámbaa you explore topics such as violence, racism, corruption and bad politics; how do you plan to stay at the forefront knowing the social predicaments that surround indigenous cultures? What is your next step?
HM: Xtámbaa, the metaphor, is a fundamental idea to understanding Mè’phàà philosophy, which comprises three dimensions:
- To be: to be in the world in the same condition as every other living being.
- To be the other: to have an animal brother/sister who’s also yourself.
- To be territory: to accept that we are not alone and that we’re responsible for “others” in the place where we construct our territoriality.
In order to be at the forefront, we must map an epistemology based in our language that enables us to overcome colonization and alienation so we can have an epistemic method that allows us to confront ongoing predicaments that threaten the identity and autonomy of a culture by initiating multidirectional, and critical dialogue as our civilization faces crisis.
OG: As the first poet of your community, you’ve begun a language revitalizing effort, also leading the transition from oral tradition to textual literature; thus, making you a reference for future poets, so what do you want upcoming writers to learn from you? What do you encourage them to do?
HM: The elders say: where there is one, there are many. My commitment is to the children; I want them to be bold enough to write in all literary genres, to delve into philosophy, or history. And most likely, the community will judge them, but they must not to forget that we are the cultural fabric of our people, we must honor our land.
One day, at a ceremony, a friend of mine was telling someone about my poetry, when all of a the sudden one of the elders stood up and said: “I thank la Mountain for having heard our prayers, I thank the ancestors who walked for hours to feed their families, I thank all the elders who went to the hills to cry, I am thankful that every single parent gave their all in order for their children to receive an education, I thank all the ancestors who have passed away so that we can be here today. Hubert’s accomplishment means that everything was worth it.” Some day I would like to deliver that same message, so that others learn that nothing we put our heart into is in vain.
OG: Indigenous Mexican writers go beyond writing, many of them are making headway in politics, radio, journalism, television, activism and music. What do you make of this versatility and its social impact?
HM: In my community, there is someone who is the town speaker, the palabrero, who shares his words so that the one who is listening can make them his own. We say, the Mè’phàà, Murigú Ajngáa ló’ “to place the word”, meaning that words are placed on the table, so that everyone can contribute and make them grow, it’s like sharing food. So, I write to share and express what is happening in my community, I think that this can encourage others to share their stories and views in diverse artistic forms.
There’s a story that my grandparents told me. A long time ago, the Mè’phàà didn’t understand joy, so the tlacuache, the opossum, realizing the situation, stole pulque from his sister “the woman of the hill” in order to give it to the Mè’phàà. This is why pulque is slimy, because of the drool and the power that the tlacuache put into it. The Mè’phàà drank it and became intoxicated. Soon they started to feel happy, but later they started to fight. Realizing this, the tlacuache was sad because instead of bringing happiness he had brought sadness, at this point the gusano oreja de olla told him that on the other hill there were men who knew how to make people laugh. El tlacuache went to look for them, he returned a few days later with these men and they brought with them a type of speech, a sort of storytelling word that united the hearts of the Mè’phàà. The word became sacred and that is how I understand art, speaking and literature, as something that should unite people, and writers should develop this gift. My people will have writers that know how to unite hearts.
Translated by Clare Sullivan
Hubert Matiúwàa, who has published under the pseudonym Hubert Malina, belongs to the Mè’phàà culture. He received his BA in Arts & Sciences from the Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero and his Master’s in Latin American Studies (UNAM). In 2016 he published his first book Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra, coedited by Pluralia Editions and the Mexican Secretary of Culture. He is a grantee for the National Fund for Culture and the Arts (FONCA).
Osiris Gómez is a researcher, instructor of language and literature, and doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on contemporary Indigenous literatures of Mexico, Translation Studies, Cultural Studies, Sociolinguistics, and Applied Linguistics. His dissertation examines Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mazatec, and Mayan poetry, specifically the experience of the writer within the context of an endangered language. He is the founder and director of the Writers and Scholars in Indigenous Languages and Literatures Conference (ECELLO) at UCSB, a biannual academic gathering dedicated to the study of indigenous and minority cultures of the world. Osiris Gómez is currently working on an anthology that compiles conversations held with various indigenous authors from all across Mexico.
Clare Sullivan is an Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Louisville, where she teaches poetry and translation. She received a 2010 NEA Translation Grant to work with Natalia Toledo’s poetry. The resulting work, The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems (Phoneme Media, 2015), was short-listed for the Best Translated Book Award. Her translation of Alejandro Tarrab’s Litane is forthcoming from Cardboard House Press.