An Introduction to Yucatec Maya Literature

Photo: Jorge Zapata, Unsplash.

Making a selection always implies leaving out certain names. For this dossier, I have chosen quality poets whose work seldom appears in anthologies. Fortunately, the Yucatec Maya language (or Peninsular Maya, as the writers of Quintana Roo and Campeche prefer it be called) boasts a vigorous literary movement. It is only appropriate to recall those who began this production and diffusion of texts written in Maya.

One pioneer in publishing his mother tongue was Domingo Dzul Poot, a renowned oral storyteller. He published four bilingual books of stories from the oral tradition. The first three start with the Spanish version and continue to the Maya: Cuentos mayas I [Maya stories I] (1985); Cuentos mayas II [Maya stories II] (1986), and Leyendas y tradiciones históricas mayas: El adivino, Destrucción de la triple alianza [Historical Maya legends and traditions: the seer, destruction of the triple alliance] (1987). His fourth book, U tsikbalo’ob le chiich ti’ yáabilo’ob ichil sajkab / Relatos que la abuela contaba a sus nietos en la cueva [Stories that grandmother told her grandchildren in the cave] (Mérida: PACMYC, 2010) presents its stories in Maya, followed by translations to Spanish.

In Valladolid, Yucatán, the association Mayao’on brought together professors who were concerned by—and determined to reverse—the linguistic substitution proposed by the educational policies of the Mexican state. For a long time, this group was directed by the great teacher Bartolomé Alonso Caamal. Mayao’on became a Civil Association in 1991.

The Maya Language and Literature Program (founded in 1982 when José Tec Tun was directing the Regional Union of Popular Cultures of Yucatán, under whose auspices the workshop coordinated by Carlos Montemayor took place) assembled many important Maya writers. This project produced three series in the Letras mayas contemporáneas [Contemporary Maya letters] collection, the first published between 1990 and 1992 by Maldonado Editores and the Regional Union of Popular Cultures of Yucatán. It consisted of eight books, four in Maya and their four translations into Spanish. In 1994 the second volume appeared, financed by the National Indigenist Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation, including forty titles, with twenty in Maya and their corresponding versions in Spanish. In 1998, the third appeared, also financed by the National Indigenist Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation. A few of the authors included in the first two series of the Letras mayas contemporáneas collection were: María Luisa Góngora Pacheco, Andrés Tec Chí, Santiago Domínguez Aké, Leovigildo Tuyub Collí, Lucila Caballero, José Manuel Tec Tun, Martha Yam Sosa, Irene Dzul Chablé, Teresa Pool Ix, Roberta Ek Chablé, José Zi Keb, José González, Juan Flores, Miguel Chac Nah, Benito Abán May, Vicente Canché Móo, and Armando Dzul.

María Luisa Góngora has published Jo’op’éel baaxalo’ob / Cinco juegos tradicionales [Five traditional games] (Mérida: Dirección General de Culturas Populares-URCPY, 1985), U tzikbalilo’ob Oxkutzcab yetel Maní, Cuentos de Oxkutzcab y Maní [Stories of Oxkutzcab and Maní]  (both in 1993, in the second series of the Letras mayas contemporáneas collection), U kuul Duraasnoo (translation to Maya of El árbol de durazno [The peach tree] by Marco Tulio Aguilera, a bilingual book illustrated by Soledad Velasco; S/L: Fonca, Colección del Rey Momo, 1996), and Chan moson / Pequeño remolino [Little whirlwind] (México: Sedesol-INI, 1998), and for over twenty-five years she has directed the Chan Dzunun theatre group of Oxkutzcab, Yucatán.

Santiago Domínguez Aké, Carlos Armando Dzul Ek, and Jorge Echeverría Lope published in the Letras mayas contemporáneas series in 1998. In 1992, Jorge Echeverría Lope won the Itzamná State Prize for Literature in Maya Language for the novel Bukin-te nok’a (Ponte esta ropa) [Put these clothes on]. This book’s title appears in Spanish on the cover, but, besides that exception, it is published entirely in Maya (Mérida: ICY, 1993). In 2016, Carlos Armando Dzul Ek’s book was republished by Sedeculta (Trilogía histórica maya/Óox éesajil maaya ucha’antak ba’alo’ob [Maya Historical Trilogy]).

Another pole of literary production is Calkini, which has produced important poets, Maya as well as mestizo. Waldemar Noh Tzec was the first coordinator of bilingual workshops, in Maya and Spanish, in the House of Culture of Calkini; Alfredo Cuevas Cob, Margarita Ku Xool, Silvia Canché Cob, Andrés González Kantún, and Ernesto Rodríguez Moguel are a few of the bilingual poets from Calkini who got their start in the early 1990s. The journals A Duras páginas, Cal-K’in, K’in Lakam, Sonarte, and Uaualal/Páginas Sueltas feature their work. Waldemar Noh Tzec and Briceida Cuevas Cob were published in the third series of Letras mayas contemporáneas in 1998. The former is the author of the verse collection Noj Bálam / El grande jaguar [The great jaguar]. Before that, Noh Tzec had published Canto disidente de uno más que recorre el país a caballo [Dissident song of one more who crosses the country on horseback] (Campeche: Instituto de Cultura de Campeche/Ayuntamiento de Calkiní, 1992).

In 1993, Valladolid, Yucatán experienced a resurgence with the Yaajal K’in Workshop, which took place at the home of the professors Gertrudis Puch Yah and Santiago Arellano Tuz. Túumben lool was the journal that brought to light texts by Flor Marlene Herrera, José Eduviges Ucab Noh, Crisanto Kumul Chan, and Miguel Ricardo May May. Through the Ak’abil Maya K’aytuukulo’ob (nights of Maya poetry) organized in open spaces (parks or the town square), these authors brought their work to the community.

Halachó has produced several notable writers, among them Vicente Canché Canul and his son Vicente Canché Móo. In 2008, the latter published U tsikbalil juntul chak nuxiib wíinik / Leyenda del hombre colorado [Legend of the red man] (Mexico City: Sedesol-INI). U tuukul mayab wíinik / La sabiduría del maya [The wisdom of the Maya] (México: Sedesol-INI, 1998) is the book with which Vicente Canché Móo won first place in the Itzamná State Contest of Literature in Maya Language (1996). This author also published, in 2002, U tsikbalilo’ob Mayab / Relatos del Mayab [Tales of Mayab] (Mérida: Indemaya); in 2004, Ma’ chéen tsikbalo’obi’ / No son solo cuentos [They are not just stories] (Mérida: ICY); and in 2015, Xéexet’alo’ob kuxtal / Retazos de vida [Bits of life] (S/L: Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, 2015).

Jorge Miguel Cocom Pech, a Maya researcher, poet, and storyteller now living in Mexico City, in another favorite son of Calkini. His book Mukult'an in nool / Secretos del Abuelo [Grandfather’s secrets] has been published in two bilingual, Spanish-Maya editions. (Mexico City: UNAM/Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Quintana Roo, 2001; UNAM/Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo /Ayuntamiento de Calkiní, 2006). Earlier, in 2000, it was published in French translation (Montauban: Editions Réciproques). At the end of 2002, he occupied the presidency of the Association of Indigenous Language Writers. In 2012, he published J-nool Gregorioe’, juntúul miats’il maya / El abuelo Gregorio, un sabio maya [Grandfather Gregorio, a Maya wise man] (Mexico City: Conaculta), and the following year, Lágrimas de oro: aquí, ¡no hables maya! / K’aak’an, ya’ il icho’ob: Waye’ ¡ma’ a t’aan ich maya! [Golden tears: don’t speak Maya here!] (Mexico City: Trillas/Conaculta).

The movement is so prolific that it has taken up theses and entire books. In 2008, a Maya author received the highest honor for Mexican indigenous-language literatures for the first time: Wildernain Villegas for his verse collection U K’aay Ch’i’ibal / El canto de la estirpe [The song of the lineage] (Mexico City: Conaculta, 2009). In 2014, among other titles, Felipe Castillo Tzec’s Ix-Ts’akyaj / La yerbatera [The medicine man] was published (Mérida: Sedeculta), a book with which he won the “Domingo Dzul Poot” State Prize for Narrative in Maya Language in 2011, as well as the verse collection Ma’ayilo’obil Tuukul / Polvos del pensamiento [Dusts of thought] by Manuel Ortiz Pacheco (Mérida: Sedeculta).

Fortunately, the participation of women in Maya poetry is increasing. In 2017, Sakalbil woojo’ob / Palabras tejidas [Woven words] (Mérida: PACMYC) was published, a book compiled by María Elisa Chavarrea Chin that brings together the production of twelve Maya women authors, in prose as well as poetry. In 2018, Ruth Pérez Aguirre published Mujeres que no callan, Yucatán / Ko’olelo’ob ma’ u chi’ob [Women who do not fall silent, Yucatán] (Comalcalco: Ediciones htuRquesa Cartonera, 2018), which includes the work of twenty-one women writers. Two among them, Marga Beatriz Aguilar Montejo and Ana Patricia Martínez Huchim, write their texts in Maya and Spanish.

To widen your knowledge of literature in Maya languages, please see:

Frischmann, Donald and May May, Miguel (editors). U túumben k’aayilo’ob x - ya’axche’/Los nuevos cantos de la ceiba. Antología de escritores mayas contemporáneos de la Península de Yucatán (Volume II, Mérida: Sedeculta/Conaculta, 2015).

Leirana Alcocer, Silvia Cristina. Catálogo de textos mayas publicados entre 1990 y 2009 (bibliografía comentada). Mérida: Instituto de Cultura de Yucatán/Consejo para la Cultura y las Artes, 2010).

Ligorred Perramon, Francesc. U maayathanoob ti dzib/Las voces de la escritura. Mérida: UADY, 1997.

Montemayor, Carlos y Donald H. Frischmann (editors). U túumben k’aayilo’ob x - ya’axche’/Los nuevos cantos de la ceiba. Antología de escritores mayas contemporáneos de la Península de Yucatán. Mérida: Instituto de Cultura de Yucatán/Consejo para la Cultura y las Artes, 2009.

Ortega Arango, Oscar. Tradición y renovación. Literatura maya yucateca contemporánea. (Hamburgo: Estudios Mesoamericanos, 2010).

Vadillo Buenfil, Carlos. “Tierra encendida: la literatura en Campeche” en Encia Verduchi (editor), Campeche: 150 años de creación artística, Ciudad de México: Secretaria de Cultura de Campeche/Conaculta, 2015: 94-133.

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LALT No. 6
Number 6

LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series. 

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