Xàbò Mè’phàà: Ser uno y ser todos. The voice of we in the poetry of Hubert Matiúwàa
Hubert Matiúwàa is a poet of considerable agility. In 2016 his first book, Xtámbaa / Piel de Tierra, introduced us to a vertiginous voice which gallops forcefully in light of the violence and silence suffocating the Mè’phàà people of La Montaña in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Two years later, Matiúwàa published Ìjín gò’ò Tsítsídiín / The sombrereras of Tsítsídiín [Hatboxes of Tsítsídiín], Tsína rí nàyaxà ’/ Cicatriz que te mira [Scar Gazing Back at You] and Mañuwìín / Cordel torcido [Twisted Cord]. Recognition quickly followed, and the poet was awarded the Cenzontle (2016) and the PLIA (2017) prizes. With these four books, Matiúwàa has invited us to a conversation about life and death or, in the words of poet Irma Pineda, to read “a poetry of absence, pain, displacement of traditions, kidnapping, human trafficking, migration due to poverty, militarization and murder.”1 Indeed, a major thread throughout Matiúwàa’s work is the denunciation of injustice. However, in these brief lines I want to consider the poet’s gaze, specifically to make present the community which animates and forms the basis of his conviction as a writer in a lengua originaria.2
The voice of we
Matiúwàa’s poetry is a whirlwind of voices conjured within a single poetic “I”: it is the community which speaks. The collectivized self comes from a deep awareness, dating back thousands of years, that there is no word uttered today that has not been protected, polished, honored and given meaning by the ancestors. This happens in all world languages and their different linguistic communities; however, for some, as is the case for Mè’phàà communities, survival is a matter of enduring intolerance and marginalization. So when the voices of the grandmother (nánà) and the grandfather (tátà), the animal brother, the skin of the earth, etc., are invoked, the poet brings continuity to a universal life force which supersedes his own existence. “I” is thus constitutive of “we.” In such a way, the poetry of La Montaña centers speech unheard outside of ceremonies, as in the poem “VII”, for example: “Xtámbaa, I am with you in the world, / in dance of faceless souls, / [….] I am with you in the candles, / in the smoke engendered by the road.”3 The poem emulates the voice of the animal brother who, according to Mè’phàà thought, is a companion born alongside each member of the community.4 On other occasions, the voice of the animal brother nourishes the conscience, as guide and caretaker of the xàbò mè’phàà (human mè’phàà). In the poem “Mbàxtá / El gallo” [The Rooster], the poetic voice emphasizes this function: “The rooster said to me: / My word will grow every day / until your heart trembles / and you stop bowing your head. // Do not be afraid among other people, / the mountain lives within you / if you get tangled up in another tongue.”5 In these lines is the attempt to capture a different ontological vision, one that decenters the human position in the face of all other existence: where animals, fauna, the land, and all living beings together form a feeling, action and thought which is universal belonging. We might say that creating poetry out of these aspects allows the poet to meditate on how the defense of indigeneous land is a philosophical and intellectual issue, that the work attempts to raise awareness among Matiúwàa’s contemporaries, within and outside of the Mè’phàà community. That is, there is an intent to recover and resignify Mè’phàà epistemology, to represent it for a new generation. It is part of a process of bringing art and critical thought up to date, since as the poet says: “Our life, like that of any people, has its violent conflicts; it is a mistake to think that our system of thought is beautiful simply because it is close to nature. The Mè’phàà people have a lot to learn about themselves: they have to transform their customs, rethink their way of life, [….] as our grandparents say: “we have to expand our minds in order to learn from others.”6 It’s important to clarify, however, that language outside the realm of quotidian expression is nothing new among the Mè’phàà people; the only thing “new” is that now the once-solemn aspects of oral expression are being written and renewed, as the poet Herman Bellinghausen has observed.7
Thinking collectively, with all that we are
The “we” is more than an indicator of plurality and social fabric. In Matiúwàa’s poetry, the we is key to understanding the work’s intellectual revitalization, that intention of the Mè’phàà people to “learn from themselves,” to “expand their minds to learn from others”. The we is deeply bound to—or, rather, is born from—conceiving of life as community and a sense of universal belonging with everything living. Carlos Lenkersdorf has demonstrated, in the case of the Tojolabales of Chiapas, that the voice of we is interwoven in living, in decision-making and, above all, in the formation and education a collective identity implies. Thinking happens from within and in service of the community, what is considered the best for all beings. And the voice of we and this way of living applies to their way of thinking: one thinks aloud, one responds using all facets of being (voice, learned knowledge, experience, body, feelings). Lenkersdorf calls it acción [action] nosotrica.8 An example can be found in the poem “Ná inuu gìña/En la cara del aire” [On the face of the air]: “On the face of the air grab the stones / that come over us, / we will not always have these arms, / this face, / this body. / If we have to go out, / let it be with scorching blood, / let it be through the eyes of our father, / of our mother.”9 The invocation of a plural entity is a way of re-articulating and activating thought in the form of we. And let us not forget that poetry emulates a way of thinking which has been fractured by the introduction of the Spanish language, by violence and migration; therefore, our poet reproduces this form of not only creating intelligence but of inciting an awakening within a younger generation becoming more and more estranged from the community. This is represented in the poem “Èjèn Mè’phàà / Niños Mè’phàà”, excerpted here: “Why lock them up / if we can play? [….] We trade their slingshots for rifles, / we fill their bellies with hatred / and we teach them to sell their brothers [….] We cut off their feet / so they can’t find their way home / and we tear out their tongues / so that they will stop saying: Xàbò mè'phàà.”10 The poetic voice alludes to the presence of organized crime and corruption that victimizes the children of La Montaña. However, the poem is also playing with “the voice” of organized crime, foregrounding the role young people themselves play in the disintegration of community values. Here is another modality of the nosotrica mode, in a voice displaying a self-critical vision of the same community: the poem is thinking critically about how the disintegration of the plural entity has a direct effect on the environment and people. In other words, the destabilization of the we disturbs the transmission of values. And the self-critical gaze has to do with both the ability to recognize mistakes and the need for community transformation.
Articulation of voices, creation of absent voices
Matiúwàa’s gaze encompasses the uncharted and uncomfortable terrain of the disenfranchised. The poet assumes a difficult and painful responsibility: trying to give voice to the dead, the disappeared and the victims of human trafficking. This is part of the construction of the we, since we could not say that Matiúwàa writes from spaces of silence without including those most vulnerable to violence. In this sense, his poetry is an act of communal rearticulation. The poem “Tsú'tsún / El colibrí” [The hummingbird] invites us to consider this aspect: “Through the earth / let’s join wings, feet and head, / to fly far away / and nourish our word11 // They go down in steel worms / those who come to command our memory [….] they do not respect our word.”12 The poet alludes to a rearticulation of a symbolic body: head, feet and tongue. Elements (parts) vital for persisting in defending “word and memory,” each indispensable to the survival of communal ways of life and thought.
Ìjín gò’ò Tsítsídiín tsí nònè xtédè / Las sombrereras de Tsítsídiín [Hatboxes of Tsítsídiín] delves into violence against the female body. Dedicated to the problem of sex trafficking in La Montaña, the book centers on a feminine poetic subject of great strength and sensitivity. Let’s turn to the poem “III”: “Grandpa: / In what corneas will they paint my dew drops? / Will you look for me in every woman / who wanders the streets? / Will you know it’s me / who’s at work in the Senate / or when I am garnished over tables / where we will never sit down together?”13 Matiúwàa’s portrayal of the child’s voice is a heartrending attempt to invent a presence which does not speak, one buried in the impunity of oblivion. Another poem we ought to address is “I” from the section “Celestial Breeze,” in which the poetic voice denounces impunity with precision: “They arrived tied / and wrapped in plastic sheets / so the men of Acapulco could bleed out their bodies. // On the coast / green vultures swarm / and black scavengers, / in the rancid smell of their barrels / the screams rust / looking for the hollow of silence.”14 Matiúwàa presents a poetic scene that creates a memorial and, above all, a voice for victims who, upon disappearing, enter an indeterminate state, the most profound of silencings. Something similar happens with the murder victims and malicious deaths linked to the never-ending war on drugs. Poems like “VIII” and “IX” by Xtámbaa evoke the danger entailed by being young in La Montaña, a place where the poetic voice asks “why did they skin / the little deer that was going to be a teacher, / why did they disappear the brothers / whose colors would have filled your table.”15
Seeing and being seen: by way of conclusion
One might speak of Hubert Matiúwàa’s poetry in terms of orality, as a poet who emulates and renovates poetic (oral) expression, but this would fail to consider what his work means for his people and community. In effect, his writing manages to capture said orality and, at the same, time give a face to the people/characters by turning them into the poetic subjects who speak from the brutal reality that real communities live in their own flesh. On the other hand, the we helps us understand that Matiúwàa's poetic work is largely an attempt to create a literature with a double critical gaze; that is, one in which the reader sees and at the same time is being seen. I am referring to a literary space where voices and poetic subjects make their own judgment of the threat within and outside of one’s (imagined?) community16: it’s like a scar gazing back at you.17
Translated by Whitney DeVos
1Irma Pineda, “Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra de Hubert Matiúwàa,” Latin American Literature Today, vol. 1, no. 3.
2Translator’s note: “lengua originaria” can refer to any autochthonous languages or dialects in the Americas.
3Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra [Earth skin], Pluralia, 2016, p. 85.
4Osiris Gómez,“La palabra es alianza: una conversación con Hubert Matiúwàa”, 2017, Latin American Literature Today, vol.1, no. 3. Translator’s note: in Mè’phàà culture, the birth of each child also implies the birth of the child’s companion animal.
5Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra, Pluralia, 2016, p. 18.
6Mañuwìín/Cordel torcido, Universidad de Guadalajara, 2018, p. 11.
7From the prologue of Tsína rí nàyaxà’/Cicatriz que te mira, Pluralia, 2018, p. 9.
8Filosofar en clave tojolabal, Miguel Ángel Porrúa, 2005.
9Xtámba/Piel de tierra, Pluralia, 2016, p. 41.
10Mañuwìín/Cordel torcido, Universidad de Guadalajara, 2018, pp. 113.
11In Mè’phàà artistic expression, “la palabra” or “compartir la palabra” is a collective, communal artistic practice that intertwines poetry and knowledge making. It is a specifically oral and participatory form: that is, “poner la palabra” involves the group creation of a spoken language which exists outside the realm of quotidian expression and which anyone present can revise, complicate, amend, or affirm at any time.
12Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra, Pluralia, 2016, p. 21.
13Ìjín gò’ò Tsítsídiín tsí nònè xtédè/ Las sombrereras de Tsítsídiín, Universidad de Guadalajara, 2018, p. 96.
14Ìjín gò’ò Tsítsídiín tsí nònè xtédè/ Las sombrereras de Tsítsídiín, Universidad de Guadalajara, 2018, p. 80.
15Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra, Pluralia, 2016, p. 87.
16Translator’s note: Here, Gómez alludes to Benedict Anderson’s concept of the nation as an “imagined community.”
17Translator’s note: Gómez ends by invoking the title of one of Matiúwàa’s collections, Tsína rí nàyaxà ’/ Cicatriz que te mira [Scar gazing back at you] (2018).
Osiris Aníbal Gómez is Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He specializes in contemporary indigenous literature of Mexico. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming collection of essays Caleidoscopio verbal: lenguas y literaturas originarias (Oro de la Noche Ediciones, 2020).
Whitney DeVos is a writer, translator, and scholar. As a PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz, she is currently completing a doctoral dissertation on documentary poetics in the Americas after 1945. Individual translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Chicago Review, Copper Nickel, and The Acentos Review, and a translation of prose by Sergio Chejfec will appear this year with Ugly Duckling Presse. She is also the author of a chapbook, On Being Blonde, and an assistant poetry editor at Asymptote.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo