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Celebrating Indigenous Voices: New Poetry and Literature Recordings in the PALABRA Archive

(The following is a guest post by Catalina Gómez, curator of the PALABRA Archive and reference librarian in the Hispanic Division.)

As the Library of Congress celebrates National Poetry Month, the Hispanic Reading Room is delighted to introduce the PALABRA Indigenous Voices Project. The new literary endeavor aims to increase the presence of Indigenous poetry and literature in the historic PALABRA audio archive, which has been curated by our institution for almost eight decades. Thanks to partnerships with scholars and organizations who have direct access to Indigenous communities around Latin America, we will be making a robust effort to identify and capture the voices of authors from under-represented communities for this important Library of Congress collection.

The PALABRA Archive, formerly known as the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape (AHLOT), is a collection of audio recordings of poets and writers from the Luso-Hispanic world reading from their works. The collection reflects the rich linguistic diversity of the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America with recording sessions in more than ten languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, Basque, Catalan, Haitian Creole, and several others.

Until recently, the presence of Indigenous poetry and literature within the archive was very small. The collection had only three recordings in Indigenous languages. These included one by Andrés Alencastre, a Peruvian poet, who reads in Spanish and his native Quechua; another one by the renowned Mexican friar and scholar Angel María Garibay, who reads original Aztec poetry with Spanish translations; and Andrés Henstrosa, a Zapotec writer from Oaxaca, Mexico who reads in Zapotec and Spanish.

With the PALABRA Indigenous Voices Project, curators are working to address this gap, and to bring to the fore the great importance of Indigenous poetry and literature in the context of Latin American literature. Contrary to common knowledge, today the Americas are vastly populated by Indigenous peoples, many of whom still speak in their native languages and maintain aspects of their traditional cultural practices. The countries in Latin America with the largest Indigenous populations are: Mexico with 25.7 million, Peru with 13 million, Guatemala with 7.8 million, and Bolivia with 6 million. These are followed by Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil, which also have sizable populations. Today, after centuries of colonization and modernization, new generations of poets and writers in many of these Indigenous communities are re-claiming their heritage and working to preserve their languages, identities, and cultures through writing and artistic expression.

The idea for the Indigenous Voices Project took root in 2019 when the Hispanic Reading Room began a fruitful partnership with Dr. Inés Hernández Ávila, professor of Native American Studies, University of California, Davis. In August 2019, Dr. Hernández Ávila and her husband Dr. Juan A. Avila Hernández traveled to the Chiapas region in Mexico and recorded twelve Maya poets and writers for our collection. Later the same year, they captured the voices of four authors from the Mapuche community in Araucanía region in Chile during another fieldwork trip.

The Chiapas recordings are now available online through the PALABRA Archive. (The Mapuche recordings are currently being processed.) The recordings are also available via the PALABRA Indigenous Voices website, a newly developed platform that celebrates the Indigenous language content in the PALABRA Archive.

We invite you to explore PALABRA Indigenous Voices and listen to these treasured recordings. And, in the spirit of National Poetry Month, we would like to introduce some of the Maya poets included in the collection:

Portrait photo of a poet Juan Alvarez Pérez.

Juan Alvarez Pérez.

Juan Alvarez Pérez

Juan Alvarez Pérez was born in the Tseltal paraje (village) Pinabetal, in the Municipality of Chilón, Chiapas. Through his poetry, Alvarez Pérez explores his late grandmother’s teachings, his parents’ unspoken courtship in their youth, his neighbor’s relationship with the soil and their harvest. Several of his poems were published in the anthology “Jich ta xk’ayin te lajelal,” edited by El Animal in 2006. In 2010, he received the III Premio Continental de Literatura en Lenguas Indígenas “Canto de América” For his poetry collection, “Se ha cansado el silencio” (“Lubenix te ch’aben” / “Silence has become tired”).

> Read more.

Portrait phot of a poetess, Maria Concepcion Bautista Vásquez.

Maria Concepcion Bautista Vásquez.

Maria Concepcion Bautista Vásquez

Maria Concepción Bautista Vásquez is a Tsotsil writer and painter from the Tsotsil pueblo of Huixtan, Chiapas. She draws inspiration from the surrounding environment—cultures, worldviews, social themes, and views her work as a form of protest against the inequities faced by indigenous people in Chiapas. Bautista Vasquez’s most recent work is the 2017 collection, “Xch’olel osil balamil” (“Espirito de la naturaleza” / “Nature’s Spirit”).

> Read more.

Portrait photo of a poet, Manuel Bolom Pale.

Manuel Bolom Pale.

Manuel Bolom Pale

Manuel Bolom Pale is a Tsotsil essayist and poet from Jocosic, Huixtan, Chiapas. Much of his poetry emphasizes the importance of looking to Indigenous community elders for guidance and wisdom. Bolom Pale is driven by a desire to overcome the centuries of oppression for the Tsotsil people, preserving the language and history of his community. His work is published in several collections, including “Buch’u Shainoj li vitse” (“¿Quién habita esta montaña?” / “Who Lives in This Mountain?”). In 2016, he received the Premio Nezahualcoyotl, a national literary prize for Indigenous writers.

> Read more.

Portrait of a poet, Andrés López Díaz.

Andrés López Díaz.

Andrés López Díaz 

Andrés López Díaz is a Maya Tsotsil poet from Chilimjoveltic, Chiapas. Much of his work focuses on the cultural tension between Spanish colonizers and Indigenous communities. After moving from his small pueblo to a large city, culture shock led López Díaz to suppress his language and traditions. His epic poem, “Ojov,” invokes the spirit of a forgotten deity, emphasizing how Maya religious customs are interwoven with the dominant Catholicism.

> Read more.

Portrait photo of a poetess, Adriana del Carmen López Sántiz.

Adriana del Carmen López Sántiz.

Adriana del Carmen López Sántiz

Adriana del Carmen López Sántiz is a Tseltal poet from the community of Chanam del Carmen in Ocosingo, Chiapas. When she was 12, Lopez Sántiz was inspired by the works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her work explores collective Tseltal spirituality and tradition, as well as her own family relationships. Lopez Sántiz’ work is published in several books and anthologies, such as “Flor de siete pétalos,” “Ma’yuk sti’ilal xch’inch’unel k’inal” (“Silencio sin fronteras” / “Endless Silence”), “Jalbil k’opetik” (“Palabras Tejidas” / “Woven Words”).

> Read more.

Portrait photo of a poet, Edgar Federico Martínez.

Edgar Federico Martínez.

Edgar Federico Martínez

Edgar Federico Martínez is a Tsotsil poet with a passion for the revitalization of the Mayan oral tradition. His work is inspired by the stories, accounts, and anecdotes that have been passed down for generations by his grandparents and the other elders in his pueblo. Written over the course of many years and distinct moments, his poems reflect on the teachings of Tsotsil elders. He juxtaposes celebration and sorrow, spiritual beings and the physical world.

> Read more.

Portrait photo of a poetess, Cristina Pérez Martínez.

Cristina Pérez Martínez.

Cristina Pérez Martínez

Cristina Pérez Martínez began her poetry career when she left Chiapas at 17 years old. In 2001, she entered the poetry studio of master poet Javier Molina. Pérez Martínez’s work is expansive and dynamic, touching on gender, sexuality, feminism, community, and nature. Her poetry has been published in the books “Yisimtak ts’unubil” (“Semilla y raices” / “Seed and Roots”) and “Buch’u Shainoj li vitse” (“¿Quién habita esta montaña?” / “Who Lives in This Mountain?”).

> Read more.

Portrait photo of a poet, Mikel Ruiz.

Mikel Ruiz.

Mikel Ruiz

Mikel Ruiz is a Maya Tsotsil fiction writer and essayist from San Juan de Chamula, Chiapas. His creative work is inspired by the trend of youths who leave their Indigenous communities to pursue life in Mexico’s major cities. He highlights the suffering and the resilience of today’s young Tsotsil people in the face of modern technology and ideology. Other events in his narrative draw from Ruiz’s experiences in his pueblo, such as the public murder of a community member when he was young.

> Read more.

Dr. Hernández Avila’s recording sessions in Chile and Mexico will serve as a pilot for the work that curators in the Hispanic Reading Room wish to replicate more broadly with the help of future additional partners in the U.S. and Latin America. These successful collaborations have the potential to increase exponentially the number of Indigenous languages recorded for the archive. We hope that this is just the beginning of shining a long overdue and much deserved spotlight on Indigenous literature.

(Credit for all photos: Juan A. Avila Hernández)

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