Indigenous women are publishing the first Maya works in over 400 years

I’D STUMBLED UPON TALLER LEÑATEROS—THE “Woodlanders Workshop”—completely by chance.

I was walking aimlessly through the pastel-hued streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, trying to get a feel for what my guidebook had described as southern Mexico’s “most beautiful colonial city.” One particular street was quiet, dusty, and less colorful than the rest. But there was something about it—perhaps the faint sound of a Mexican ballad escaping from a rusted window, or maybe the beat-up aquamarine VW Beetle at the end of the road—that invited me to turn down it.

I hadn’t been walking long before I spotted an unusual sign outside a sad-looking, graffitied colonial house: a black-and-white etching of an ancient Maya riding a bicycle, wearing an enormous feathered headdress that fluttered in the wind behind him. Next to it, a handwritten note pleaded “Save our workshop!”

To find the Taller Leñateros collective in San Cristobal de las Casas, you have to know where to look.
To find the Taller Leñateros collective in San Cristobal de las Casas, you have to know where to look. JESSICA VINCENT

Intrigued, I pushed open the unlocked wooden gate and stepped inside. The walls of the courtyard, though peeling and rotten with damp, popped with floor-to-ceiling splashes of orange, green, and yellow block prints. The dusty adobe brick floor was covered with discarded books, posters, cardboard, and plastic, leaving barely enough room to stand.

Rising proudly from the sea of paper that sprawled across the courtyard, a handmade tree cobbled together from sun-bleached driftwood held three thick, heavy books on its leafless branches. Careful not to trample the paper debris that now covered my feet, I leaned forward to get a closer look. As I did, I heard a low, shy voice behind me.

“Ah,” said a woman standing there, wearing a thick wool skirt and a hand-stitched, fuschia-pink blouse. “You’re here to see the books? Come with me.”

As she led me from the paper-strewn courtyard into a small gift shop filled with handmade books, posters, and notebooks, I learned where I was.

Taller Leñateros is Mexico’s first and only Tzotzil Maya book- and papermaking collective. Founded in 1975 by the Mexican-American poet Ambar Past, the workshop is dedicated to documenting and disseminating the endangered Tzotzil language, culture, and oral history. And it does so environmentally, using only recycled materials (leñateros alludes to those who get their firewood from deadwood, rather than felled trees).

Wearing a fuschia-pink blouse, a woman named Petra—the daughter of a founding member of the collective—works with her colleagues on new notebooks.
Wearing a fuschia-pink blouse, a woman named Petra—the daughter of a founding member of the collective—works with her colleagues on new notebooks. JESSICA VINCENT

The project began when Past, escaping an unhappy marriage, traveled to the rural highlands of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. She wound up staying, and for the next 30 years lived among the indigenous women of San Cristobal’s surrounding villages. As she learned their language, she noticed that they spoke in couplets similar to those found in the Popul Vuh—the most famous and informative ancient Maya book yet discovered.

But none of these women could actually read or write Tzotzil. They used the historic, metaphor-riddled tongue in everyday conversation, but had never put their own words on paper. Inspired, Past got to work recording and translating their ancient Tzotzil poetry. Her hope was that, one day, they would publish the world’s first modern Maya book by the female indigenous community of Chiapas—and, in the process, grant us insight into both an ancient language and an ancient way of looking at the world.

Once 150 women agreed to let her record their poetry, Past bought property in San Cristobal. She set up a modest workshop there so that she and the women could collaborate. Past would transcribe and translate the recordings, and the women would produce the book using ancient Maya bookbinding techniques.

“It took over [20] years to make,” says Petra, the woman who had welcomed me to the workshop (and the daughter of one of the original 150 women). “Past had to first record hundreds of hours of poetry and then carefully transcribe it, not to mention the work that goes into handmaking a book from natural materials.”

The workshop’s small gift shop is filled floor-to-ceiling with handmade books, posters, and notebooks.
The workshop’s small gift shop is filled floor-to-ceiling with handmade books, posters, and notebooks. JESSICA VINCENT

As Petra spoke, she turned the thick, grainy pages of Incantations: Songs, Spells, and Images by Mayan Women—the first book in over 400 years to be written, produced, and published by indigenous Mayas.

The book that had caught my eye on the leafless tree featured the face of Kaxail, whom some call the Maya goddess of the wilderness, made from recycled cardboard, corn silk, and coffee. Inside the book, 295 handmade pages and silkscreen illustrations tell Tzotzil women’s stories of love, death, birth, marriage, sex, and survival, deploying an elaborate syntax that’s changed little since the Mayas’ rule here in the year 600.

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