Time of the Jaguar Spirit
While it is true that every human group is constructed at the same time as it is territorialized in a given geographic space/time, it is equally true that every human group is only shaped as a culture at the precise moment at which it is able to symbolically configure its process of territorialization. Territorializing is, at once, a material doing and symbolic doing. The first corresponds to the need to resolve the material problems of existence (dwelling, eating, healing), achieved through the process of knowing and recognizing the different doings of the places/time within geographic space in which its own doing as a human community is situated and unfolded. The second is the result of the group’s process of configuring its dialogue with the world, whose comprehension allows the group to establish the narrative of its territorial existence (coexisting), which is always indicated through the revelation of some meaningful element1 in which the image of the origin and sustenance of the group’s persistence in territorial space/time is deposited.
This originating image and its corresponding narrative also lend direction to an ethical horizon, aspired to in the living (of the subjects) and in the coexisting (of the community). This horizon is defended as a material and symbolic manifestation of communality2, which is likewise summarized in a collective self-definition through the name that is collectively assumed as identity, always carrying with it the material and symbolic doing of its origin—the definition of its territoriality—but also oriented toward the permanent presence, in its doing, of the ethical horizon that enlivens and unifies the community.
Thus, the peoples of the corn (Mesoamerican Mayas), of the pineapple (the Bari of the Perijá Mountains, between Colombia and Venezuela), of the waters (the Añu of Lake Maracaibo), of the earth (the Wayuu of the Guajira Peninsula), of the squash (the Mè’phàà of the mountains of Guerrero), and so on, are born into the world—each and every one of the original peoples of Abya Yala. In this sense, the material and symbolic defense3 of the meaningful element or originating image of the group generally rests in the fulfillment of collective celebrations and the undertaking of their corresponding rituals, which take place when a determined spatial/temporal cycle of the world is completed, demanding the reanimation of the commitment to the ethical horizon that enlivens the community. Some examples are the Simirriü4 festival of the Wayuu, the sardine festival5 (Waporoü Samonkakarü) of the Añu, and the Mouse Dance of the Mè’phàà of Matha yúwaá’ in Guerrero. These ceremonies carry the double implication of, on the one hand, symbolically reanimating the commitment to the communal ethical horizon in correspondence with the reanimation of the world’s turning in a new cycle, and on the other hand, producing the necessary changes within the organization of the community in order to lend continuity, in harmony, to the task of persisting in the material doing of the community’s existence within its territory.
It is with this very celebration, the Mouse Dance, that Hubert Matiúwàa opens his book Comisario Jaguar [Jaguar Commissioner]. It could be no other way. With this ceremony, the community not only draws its memory to the present; this is also the moment of origin, the place/time in which the doing of the squash plant’s guide is revealed, as is the power of its seed. This is the revitalization of experience in the bittersweetness of the fruit, like the knowledge and taste of the always bittersweet coming-together of life. Because the seed required the earth, the earth needs the rain, the rain must spill from the clouds. Likewise, the plant demands the care of its guide, the people require the nourishment of its fruit, and the same people are responsible for the care and defense of its seed, for the continuity of the squash’s life and, with it, the persistence of them all. This is, in effect, the culmination of the cycle and a new beginning, matching the new beginning of the new time to be celebrated. And it must be a celebration, because only happiness attracts happiness. Music, song, and poetry make the seed take root, make the plant grow, and allow its bittersweet fruit to become nourishment in the hands of the community.
But one cannot attend this celebration with stains on the spirit. What lies in its depths is the cyclical reaffirmation of every one of its members, men and women, in the communal spirit, in the commitment to persist down the path toward the ethical horizon that makes them squash people. To achieve this reaffirmation, one must bathe in the river, shed the bitterness of the “I,” and thus, clean of all affronts and offenses proffered and received, enter into the reconfiguration of the “We” in the context of the reconfiguration of a new time in the world. In this way, the world’s turning, the spatial/temporal cycle, and social reordering in the doing of territoriality are manifested in the celebration as a material and symbolic whole; music, song, and poetry turn into energy that unites and protects, transforms and regenerates the spirit of the community in its territory. Memory, in this way, is made a territorial body within the bodies of the squash people.
Nonetheless, the squash people know that their seeds, their lands, and their lives are not exempt from danger6: this is the bitter part of life. This is why the mouse must be made drunk, confused. He must lose his sense of smell and the aroma of the seed now kept safe in the place where, during the celebration, it will be handed over to the one who must guide all others in its protection and defense during the new cycle: the Jaguar Commissioner. This is why the community ritualizes the sacrifice of the animal7, whose body is buried below the seat where the chosen Commissioner8 receives the spirit, the qualities, and the power of the sacrifice. He will take on the power of its vision and its gaze, the stealth of its footsteps through the forest, and the strength of its claws in struggle; he will leave behind the skin of fear because, for him, the time of the Jaguar spirit, in defense of the seed-girl-community, has arrived.
The time of the Jaguar spirit seems to be arriving for us all. More and more, the presence in our territories of those who would bleed the earth, strip out its treasures and sicken its heart, is multiplying. More arrive by the day, their tongues heavy with poisonous projects of “progress,” with the words of “science” and the Law, with which they seek to embalm our hearts, paralyze our judgment, blind our eyes, divide our communities, and thus succeed in expelling us from our lands and our memory. But we have learned—or, rather, they have taught us—how far they can get with their lie, how far the danger stretches of their false word, false science, false Law.
It is there, in this confrontation with the State’s imposition, with its laws as the language of invasion and dispossession, where Hubert situates the third part of his book: “El Primer Abogado,” “The First Lawyer.” This is the moment in which the community discovers that the State’s notion of Law has nothing to do with justice. In fact, it is unfairness and injustice that take on the power of imposition in the legal context, and it is legality, in place of justice, that the State imposes.
Such an aberration is incomprehensible for societies whose notion of justice is based upon the fact that, faced with any situation that disturbs the social harmony of mutual aid, the just choice is an effort to reconcile this disturbance. In such terms, justice is understood as the carrying-out of the actions necessary for the restoration, the repair, of the harmony of the communal heart and its relationships with others, even in their condition as aggressors.
So the community, in its need to repair the long-standing “problem” of its rights to land and territory, and through mutual aid, manages to send one of its own to be trained to understand the language of these justiceless laws and this heartless justice, to thereby direct its defense and guide its struggles against the State. And yet, the First Lawyer, the son of all, returns and is no longer the same. Some unhealthy air, with no cure in the community’s medicine, has taken him from us, and his heart has been lost, waylaid on the path that separates the “I” learned from others from the necessary “We” of the community.
This text brings us face to face with an familiar experience, lived through by most of our peoples, in which we supposed that the offer of academic education in the systems of Western society and the State would allow for a dialogue capable of bringing about restorative repair to the disharmony provoked by the confrontation continually imposed upon us. But, in fact, this education system rests upon the old notion of a fight to the death for survival in which only the best adapted may triumph. The first thing this system forces us to abandon is any idea implying an action of mutual aid. Its essential purpose is the de-We-ifying of its subjects: that is, their extreme individualization, with the goal of surviving in a society transformed into a permanent battlefield.
For this reason, all those who are sent away to study come back changed, if they come back at all. Now we know how they remain on the outside, circling the madness of no longer forming part of us, and the rejection of their individual lot in life in favor of a society that will never recognize them as anything but a folkloric example, at best, or at worst as collateral damage to their program of reducing our civilizations to a mere image, like the Indians who, unable to be like the whites, end up as beggars or alcoholics, discarded on the streets of the big cities. Nevertheless, the opposite can happen; that is to say, the subject can succeed in returning to us, to the community, in one piece. This is always understood as a failure of the system, a dangerous exception to the rule, since such a subject might be prepared to fight every day and, as Brecht would say, to become indispensable in the context of his people’s struggles.
And so, we can happily say we find ourselves here with a book of true Indigenous literature, not because its author is a son of the Mè’phàà people, a speaker of his native language, and an inhabitant of the mountains of Guerrero, but because this is true literature in that it evinces the poet’s resounding decision to create a discourse and put it in writing, giving it aesthetic form in images that lead us to listen to and see the reality and life of his people, losing not a single shred of the path of memory that he traces as a member of the Mè’phàà people and the Mè’phàà struggle.
We can call this genuine Indigenous poetry because, when we read it, we are drawn back to the word in song, spoken in ancient voices—because the word cannot stop telling its stories from memory, just as it cannot stop questioning the present. This is why we can dare to say, with no fear, that Hubert Matiúwàa’s Comisario Jaguar is a book that will count in the memory of the Indigenous art of Mexico and of all our Abya Yala, and as part of the history of poetic art in the context of our peoples’ struggles.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
The photos included were taken by Anya De León during the celebration of the Mouse Dance in the Mè’phàà community of La Montaña de Guerrero.
1The sign of the political ontology of the group, to use terms put forward by Arturo Escobar.
2To use terms put forward by Jaime Luna.
3Defense is the fifth element in the process of Making Community, composed also of dwelling, eating, healing, and coexisting. Defense forms part of the organization of social relationships and power within a given society.
4Currently known as the Kaülayawaa (Goat Dance). This change occurred with the cultural transformation of the Wayuu people, who went from cultivating cassava and corn to herding sheep and goats (Kaüla) with the arrival of the Europeans and their animals, previously unknown to the Wayuu.
5Now disappeared, as this species has moved away from our waters in the Gulf of Venezuela as a consequence of oil industry activities.
6Especially in this time in which the people-eaters and the dog-faces relentlessly stalk their territories, the former with mining projects and the latter with criminal actions.
7Hubert informs me that this sacrifice is now undertaken using the body of a wildcat, as there are few if any jaguars left in the mountains of Guerrero.
8A person chosen by the community by virtue of bringing together, in their everyday doings, the constituent parts of their ethical horizon.
José Ángel Quintero Weir is a member of the Añu people of the Venezuelan state of Zulia, whose ancestral lands border Lake Maracaibo. He is coordinator of the Indigenous Studies and Cultures Unit and full professor of the School of Letters at the Department of Humanities and Education of the Universidad de Zulia. As an activist and an indigenous intellectual, he has spent many years taking part in the ongoing struggle of Venezuela’s indigenous communities.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
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