Writing in Movement: An Interview with Tsotsil Writer Ruperta Bautista
There was no better backdrop for this conversation than San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, to discuss the lyrical work of Ruperta Bautista Vázquez, a native of the municipality of Huixtán (1975). In the Chiapaneco world, poetry pulsates in different languages, pursuits and aesthetics. One of those languages is bats’i k’op—from the Mayan language family, this is the one spoken, in addition to Spanish, by this anthropologist, educator, playwright, and poet. Her work is a feature of the contemporary Mexican literary landscape, and has been translated into English, Catalan and Italian, among other languages. She has published verse collections titled Ch’iel k’opojelal / Vivencias [Lived experiences] (CELALI, 2003), Xchamel Ch’ul Balamil / Eclipse en la Madre Tierra [Mother Earth’s eclipse] (CDI, 2008, second edition in 2014), and Xojobal Jalob Te’ / Telar Luminario [Weaving light] (Pluralia Ediciones / CONACULTA, 2013). Her latest poetry book, Me’on ts’ibetik / Letras humildes [Humble letters] (2021), is featured in the El Ala de Tigre collection, coordinated by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In this interview, we return to her ideas about Xojobal Jalob Te’ and the poems that reflect the writer’s social concerns.
Krishna Naranjo Zavala: I see two themes in your poetry: social issues and an interest in the cosmos. In Xojobal Jalob Te’, there are references to space, time and identities within the Maya universe, like archers, dancers, guardians, warriors. I would like you to elaborate on that.
Ruperta Bautista: What I did in “Lunes en el pozo” [Monday in the well] was to write about what really happened and continues to happen. There is just something that’s not working right in our country and it’s always against native peoples or peoples who are different because they don’t fit into the structures of politics, the economy, or power in this country.
K.N.Z.: We’re talking about December 22, 1997…
R.B.: Exactly. “Lunes en el pozo” is a poem I wrote at the time of the massacre in Acteal; as a Tsotsil woman, it made a great impact on me. And Xojobal Jalob Te’, which means “weaving light” in English, is a book with that cosmic intention, because I—though perhaps not fully—have an instinct that we human beings have this ability to shine a certain light, but we’re so lost in this material world that our light dims out. In that book, I try to get people to understand that there is light, that there is no need for so much violence, so much war, to create divisions amongst ourselves: the Caxlán (white, non-indigenous person) here, the Tsotsil over there. I think humankind itself is part of that cosmic design.
We Tsotsils believe that people who have great abilities and a lot of light can transmute into different things, into aspects of nature: it might be a tree, or it might be a bird, a cloud, or lightning. In “Danzante” [Dancer] I write about a woman, a girl, a young dancer; she has the ability to transmute into elevation. Off she goes, rising up into the sky. We have lost that ability. Telar Luminario is not about mere weaving: it’s the mingling of time and space, because they become one—it’s inseparable.
K.N.Z.: In Xojobal Jalob Te’, is there any sort of dialogue with your community?
R.B.: I think the dialogue is infrequent because of the context. For native peoples, this writing business is strange, but not because it’s not known. We have the concept of writing—in Tsotsil it’s ts’ib—but a shadow has been cast over it for quite some time since the conquest, so writing is seen as strange. When I have to read for a community, they find it really striking. It’s the older women, the elderly, who find it especially striking. A few years ago, I read my poems in Zinacantán. After the reading, some older women came to me and asked, “Where are you from? Who are you? Why do you speak like that? The only people who speak like that are the totiletique, the parents of the old days.” That is what they’d say. We also believe you must respect the elderly. I didn’t know what to answer, because they said I spoke like the elderly do.
They would also say “your clothing is also different,” and I would reply, “I am from a Tsotsil town called Huixtán, and I write this way because that is how I learned to talk and to think; this is the way I was taught.” They would say “that is very nice, we really like it because you speak like the totiletique.” That’s important for me; it’s so valuable to have that kind of language.
K.N.Z.: And it’s a way of keeping that language going.
R.B.: In my case, I don’t use prayers because they deserve respect: healers, prayer leaders—they are very important people. I wouldn’t like to take their words; they are not meant to be written. What I write are words, writings that I slowly shape and conceive. It is not everyday language for the Tsotsil people, but they are not prayers either because those are sacred words.
K.N.Z.: Eclipse en la Madre Tierra is a collection of poems with a significant feminine presence. What kind of impact does being a woman have on your writing?
R.B.: In Eclipse en la Madre Tierra, I wanted to show all those bad things we do to the earth, to nature, but many people have said to me that there is quite a lot of feminine presence. Because it focuses on the earth, the earth that is our mother, many poems manifest the feminine: how us women can save it, save the earth; and by saving the earth, we are saving ourselves. Maybe that’s why the issue of the feminine comes up.
K.N.Z.: When you write, do you conceive of the poem in two languages, or do you write it in Tsotsil first and then translate it into Spanish?
R.B.: I usually write in Tsotsil first and then translate it into Spanish, but some words cannot be translated into Spanish. So the word stays that way, in Tsotsil, or I find an equivalence; that’s how I work with poetry. When I write a play, I only do it in Spanish because in that case, the message goes directly to the mestizo people. I do choose to keep some words in Tsotsil so that the audience can get a taste of this kind of language, which is culturally completely different from Spanish.
K.N.Z.: How do you write? What is your process like?
R.B.: Some twenty-odd years ago, I didn’t really have much time to write because here in San Cristóbal I was a student, I worked three different jobs almost at the same time because I didn’t have enough money for university, and I also worked with children and with adults. At that time, I worked in alternative education so I had jobs in different places, but I also attended drama classes, literature classes, and I had to keep up with university coursework deadlines. I was doing diplomas in Indigenous Law; so I had a lot of work, and the truth is I worked on my poems as I walked. What I was doing was spreading myself too thin, as they say; first I needed to have an idea of what I wanted to write about, and then I would decide which words I wanted to present. So I would write down any phrases that came to mind: “oh, this is interesting.” That was the way I used to write. I remember that stage very well because my work colleagues would say to me “you’re going to walk into a pole one of these days.” I was like that all the time, writing and writing.
K.N.Z.: You did poetry in movement…
R.B.: Exactly that. Writing as I walked down the street because when I arrived at work I would save my little piece of paper in the pocket of my pants and get to work. And when I left work once again: from there to university, it was my time to write. When I got to university, I put it away again, then I would open it again, to keep working on it. I did not own a computer, only a typewriter, that’s what I’d use. Now I have enough time to write, so I do sit to think and write.
K.N.Z.: What can you say about “Lunes en el pozo”?
R.B.: When I read it I don’t only mean to transmit to the public all the horror suffered by my Tsotsil brothers and sisters on December 22, 1997. I believe the whole feeling I got, what I felt, was too hard for me. I mean, how is that possible, why so much hatred towards the indigenous peoples? It goes beyond my understanding. In “Lunes en el pozo” there are images that really represent that moment. That’s what I believe happens, and I think when people read or listen to it, they can perceive it. Let’s say I made myself a shield for the moment I read it, otherwise I couldn’t do it. “Lunes en el pozo” was written to preserve the memory. When it happened, I told myself I had to do something because that could not be kept silent, and that something was writing about it; it is going to stay there, it’s going to be captured in time.
K.N.Z.: In previous interviews you mentioned you got into writing inspired by the Zapatista movement. Do you still consider literature to be your weapon?
R.B.: Literature in Chiapas began and arose as a necessity to denounce, to vindicate the issues of native peoples. Although I believe that not all of us who write are aware of that fact because when we started writing some twenty-odd years ago, the goal was not to be a famous writer or to be on social media.
It did not happen only in literature; as I see it, it happened in three categories of art: music, painting, and literature. This movement started as part of that vindication, but with time the Chiapaneco government took ownership, co-opted the people who were trying to come up with new proposals based on art; most of them went that way out of economic interest, or… I don’t know, different reasons.
That’s the reason my poetry arose, as a need to express everything that is going on, what is happening to the community. It is in this sense that I consider literature a tool to fight, a tool where the voice of a Tsotsil woman can be manifested. We have spaces to do so now, but twenty-five years ago, you would not find anyone who wrote in Tsotsil; I mean that from the point of view of a caxlán, the indigenous woman is one who works in servitude, sweeping the streets, or selling crafts.
There were even some scholars who would mockingly say, “How are they going to do it, poor things? They are illiterate people, they won’t make it…”; it was something like “poor things, poor Indians, let them be.” And it was all about taking that challenge and saying of course we can! We can do this, we are here. It is us. We have the tools to make it. That is how we began making our way; now we have women writers, and poets, but the path had to be built by making proposals through writing. I believe there is always someone who paves the way so others can keep going—some younger women get lost on the way, or lack the understanding of how it began, but that’s like their own task isn’t it? It was not easy to understand it. There are people who don’t understand how literature arose in the case of Chiapas.
K.N.Z.: What voices do you recognize from Tsotsil literature?
R.B.: Because of the path we have made, it is now possible to talk about Tsotsil poetry. In Tsotsil narrative there are very few. There are people who say we have come a long way, that we have taken a leap because they believe there are very good works, but if you stop to really think about the time we have been writing this way, it is very recent. I try to read everyone’s work to know what they write about, how they are writing it, what they are thinking, what they are focusing on.
I believe there is good literature in Tsotsil, I even try to read Tseltal writers: Tseltal is a language very similar to Tsotsil, along the same line, the same branch. I generally try to read writers of indigenous languages in Chiapas and throughout Mexico—you need to know what is going on. Whenever there is something new, or different here in San Cristóbal, I like to go and see what it is about, what is being proposed. In general, I try to read the literature being made in Chiapas. It is important to fill yourself in. I consider myself to be demanding because that is how I was raised. I remember my mother used to say, “If you are going to do something, do it well, otherwise it is better not to do it.” So that is how I approach my work. I try to do it; I say try because it is not always possible.
K.N.Z.: Which poets do you read, which ones do you like?
R.B.: This might seem contradictory, but I like reading poetry written by caxlanes. I like Baudelaire; Paul Auster because of the way he constructs his characters. Now I’m trying to get myself into novels, to read more narrators to know their ways. As for indigenous poetry, I think one of the books, I can say it is both poetry and narrative, is the Popol Vuh; I like reading it because it is one of the foundational books for our culture. I also read María Sabina because her words are very wise and take you into the cosmic realm.
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, May 3, 2018
Translated by María Florencia Fernández and Juliana Galán
María Florencia Fernández is an Argentine translator currently pursuing an MA in Translation Studies at the University of Exeter. After specializing in legal and business translation for ten years and working in-house at the Argentine Foreign Office, during her postgraduate studies she has focused on literature and the impact of publishing practices on the language of Spanish translations, which will be the topic of her dissertation.
Juliana Galán is a Colombian Bachelor in English teaching. After more than twelve years teaching English as a second language, she decided to pursue a Masters in Translation in the UK, which she is currently doing at the University of Exeter. Her main academic interest is the relationship between language, culture, and identity, which is why she has made literary translation her main focus, and the translation of culture-loaded literary texts the topic of her dissertation.
Krishna Naranjo Zavala is professor-researcher at the Faculty of Letters and Communication at the Universidad de Colima. She is a member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana Corresponsalía Colima. In 2021, she received the “Griselda Álvarez Ponce de León” award for her career in the field of literature. She has participated as a speaker in national and international literature conferences and taught courses on current Mexican poetry, creative writing, and literary creation, aimed at the university community and the general public.
Ruperta Bautista Vázquez is a Tsotsil Maya community educator, writer, anthropologist, translator, and actress from San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. She is the author of the poetry books: Me’on ts’ibetik/ Letras humildes (2020); Xojobal Jalob te’ /Telar Luminario (2013); Realtà non necessaria (Italy, 2009); Xchamel Ch’ul Balamil /Eclipse en la madre tierra (2008, republished 2014); Ch’iel k’opojelal /Vivencias (2003); Palabra conjurada, cinco Voces cinco Cantos (Coautora,1999; and Indigenous Children: We are Not to Blame (stage play). Her work forms part of the anthologies: Yenerevista.com (Santiago de Chile, 2021); The Funambulist 15 Clothing Politics #2 (Paris, France, 2018); Chiapas Maya Awakening: Contemporary Poems and Short Stories (University of Oklahoma, 2017); Antología de poesía de mujeres indígenas de América Latina (Quito, ESTACION SUR 2011); Jaime Sabines 83 aniversario, 83 poetas (CONECULTA 2009); Poètes indiens du Chiapas (Paris, 2007); and has appeared in Red Rock Review (Community College of Southern Nevada, 2003). Two of her poems have been set to music: “Jtij vobetik” (“Tamboreros”) and “Jsa’ ch’ulelal” (“Buscadora de Alma”). Her work has been translated into English, French, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese, and Swedish.
In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.