Reading Mexican and Guatemalan Literatures in Translation: A Conversation Between Dr. Paul M. Worley and Dr. Rita M. Palacios

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Dr. Rita Palacios is a language Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary at Conestoga College. She received her PhD in Latin American Literature from the University of Toronto in 2009. She specializes in contemporary Maya cultural production (literature and art mainly) from Iximulew (Guatemala). She recently co-authored Unwriting Maya Literature: Ts’íib as Recorded Knowledge (2019) with Dr. Paul M. Worley from Western Carolina University, and has published articles on Maya poetry, performance, and art. In general, her research interests include Indigenous literatures of the Americas, issues of gender and queerness in Latin American literature and culture, and post-war Guatemalan literature.

Dr. Paul M. Worley is Associate Professor of Global Literature at Western Carolina University. Co-written with Rita M. Palacios, his most recent book, Unwriting Maya Literature: Ts’íib as Recorded Knowledge (2019), was given an honorable mention for Best Book in the Humanities by LASA’s Mexico Section. He is also the author of Telling and Being Told: Storytelling and Cultural Control in Contemporary Yucatec Maya Literatures (2013; oral performances recorded as part of this book project are available at tsikbalichmaya.org), a Fulbright Scholar, and 2018 winner of the Sturgis Leavitt Award from the Southeastern Council on Latin American Studies. In addition to his academic work, he has translated selected works by Indigenous authors such as Hubert Malina, Adriana López, Manuel Tzoc, and Ruperta Bautista.


Rita M. Palacios (RMP): Whenever we talk about literature in the Americas, particularly that which emerges in and despite contexts of violence, injustice, and oppressive regimes, we must address the conditions under which it is written, whether or not the writers explicitly address them in their work because they affect all aspects of writing. Put another way, the many challenges (structural racism, censorship, a lack of government funding, to name a few) that writers in countries in the Majority World face directly impact how and what is written, how it’s published, and who it reaches, and so we, readers and critics, would do well to pay attention. As it refers specifically to Guatemala and Mexico, the two neighboring countries have very different histories and colonial legacies that developed into existing power structures. And even so, writers, particularly from Indigenous and Afro communities, establish bonds of solidarity through shared experiences of racism or state-sponsored violence, for example. In the Maya region, which extends across imposed national borders, the realities and struggles of each community, family, or individual is a product of the conditions dictated by the nation-state that lays claim to the territory. However, a shared understanding of the world brings communities and individuals together, despite those differences and particular challenges.

Dr. Paul Worley (PMW): I think that’s a very good point, and one of the things that we have discussed at length is how the Guatemalan and Mexican states have shaped these literatures in very different ways. Indigenous authors in México typically publish in bilingual formats (Indigenous language-Spanish) and enjoy government sponsorship. In contrast, in Guatemala, the bilingual publication is much rarer, and government sponsorship in terms of scholarships or publication opportunities rarer still. In both cases, these choices directly impact these authors and what gets published, as well as what national and international audiences think of as “literature” in these contexts. For example, as people have observed about the K’iche’ Maya Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum, some representations become almost essentialized standard-bearers of ethnicity or racial identity obscure how much more complicated things are in reality. In terms of literature, you see this reflected in the difficulty that Latin American Indigenous authors who don’t speak an Indigenous language have in getting their work recognized as being the work of an Indigenous author. Outsiders see bilingual publication as the norm, and so are at a loss when confronted by an Indigenous author who publishes in monolingual Spanish and may not speak an Indigenous language at all. Whereas in Guatemala, that’s pretty common, in México, it is virtually unheard of.

RMP: Guatemala’s particular history of racism and violence has a lot to do with the publication of Indigenous monolingual Spanish texts. We are seeing the generation that lived through the 36-year civil war trying to engage with their Maya culture and the language in this case, that was denied to them in a strategic move to protect them from state-sponsored violence and widespread racism. At the same time, we see that in Guatemala, there is little to no funding when it comes to publishing, and so authors turn to self-publishing or small publishing houses. Unlike México, there’s no sponsoring body that expects bilingual texts, for example. 

PMW: Right! And so, within concepts of “Indigenous Literature,” you end up with arguments about who is and is not Indigenous, and what can count as an Indigenous-authored text, many of which fail to take into account the local conditions that impact what Indigenous cultural expressions may look like. To give another example of these legacies of state-violence against Indigenous Peoples, the history of boarding schools in the US and Canada is well known, as is the detrimental impact these systems had on Indigenous languages in these countries. I was speaking with a Maya writer from México about Indigenous languages texts. He seemed shocked when I asserted that Indigenous literatures in the US and Canada are written almost entirely in what he considered a colonial language, English. To paraphrase the Mixe linguist Elena Aguilar Gil, languages don’t die, they are murdered, and language policy goes hand-in-hand with more direct attempts by governments and corporations to erase Abya Yala’s Indigenous Peoples. 

RMP: And so our work as literary critics, translators, and readers of Indigenous literatures is complex. We have to be aware of those essentialisms and the silences and violence they bring. Our job isn’t to determine who is and isn’t Indigenous and if they’re ‘permitted’ to write Indigenous literature, as a lot of the early criticism set out to do. Rather, we need to understand that there are many things at play that impact how the work gets written, distributed, and read. In the search for “authentic” voices, we lose sight of the real processes taking place. These processes are often mired in past and present colonial violence, including actions that target Indigenous groups as sponsored or sanctioned by governments. One example of the essentializing Indigenous languages and literatures in Guatemala is that of the urban/rural divide that gives much less importance to anything outside of the capital. This model assumes that the written word, and thus ‘literature,’ can only be properly deployed and mediated in large urban centers. This is particularly tough when publication, as I mentioned before, happens on a very small scale. In contrast, the ‘authenticity’ of a Maya literature produced in Guatemala City, written in Spanish and informed by an urban experience, is often questioned.

PMW: Exactly. For instance, one of the poets included here, the K’iche poet Marvín García, only publishes in Spanish. Along with another of the poets included here, Chary Gumeta, García is one of the region’s most important cultural promoters. In particular, he’s been a driving force behind Quetzaltenango’s International poetry festival, an important gathering of some of the region’s most important literary voices. Further, his work itself upends a lot of how we tend to think of the Guatemala Civil War in places like the US and Canada. As in the poems included here, he does not shy away from taking up taboo topics such as the fact that many Maya people were not only conscripted into the country’s military but that they were then, by definition, forced to participate in atrocities committed against their own people. Instead of a romanticized vision of endless resistance, as a “soldier’s son,” the speaker of García’s poems here tells a story that is far more complex. 

RMP: We briefly mentioned the differences between Guatemala and Mexico regarding writing literature, mainly as it refers to the challenges that Indigenous writers and their communities face. Despite those differences, there are shared experiences that come through in the poetry. For example, many Central American migrants will undoubtedly recognize the fear and uncertainty running through Gumeta’s poem “The Beast” or Matiúwàa’s relationship to ‘El Norte.’ Similarly, García, Matiúwàa, Oxlaj Cúmez write about the experience of violence at the hands of the state, something that is no mere coincidence but the result of the neoliberal agendas of each state, respectively.
PMW: Yes, one of the things that unite these two countries is that, despite their differences, their economies have been drastically reworked in the past 40 years by these economic and social policies that in many ways came about due to US pressure or from the pressure of organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. Of course, we can at least partially understand these as updates on these countries’ colonial legacies that underscore how there really are no such things as the “post-colony” in the Américas. Oxlaj Cúmez’s poem “Genocides” really underscores that point, even resituating Guatemala’s Civil War’s violence as something that is a direct continuance of a violence that first arrived with the European invasion of the continent. Like he says,

That is to say,
               there was
                              not
                                   only one
                                            genocide.

Then, of course, you have a poem like Matiúwàa’s “When the Soldiers Came,” which is particularly poignant given how the US is currently reckoning with state-violence against People of Color. Although the soldiers in Matiúwàa’s poem ostensibly arrive in the town to help people as part of the Hemispheric “War on Drugs,” their presence gives flesh to the state’s empty promises of economic development and coercion via the overbearing threat of spectacular violence. 

RMP: And this all brings to something else, painful and persistent, particularly as it affects Indigenous peoples in Guatemala and Mexico: the violence and its ordinariness. In Gumeta’s and García’s poems, we see that violence isn’t a phenomenon but an everyday occurrence, pervasive, and all-encompassing. Its actors and victims (or actor-victims, in the case of García), the blacksmith and the barber, or, in Gumeta’s poem, a train that travels north. The question isn’t if violence happens, but when, as Gumeta suggests, when she says, “When [my star] goes put.” It’s also important to note here that there is a witnessing, a recording of the violence in the poems that, though it may go unpunished, it won’t be forgotten. 

PMW: And I think this tradition of witnessing and bearing witness as a bulwark against atrocity is something that runs throughout Latin American literature in general, and certainty unifies the poems here. Of course, on one level, this sense of witness plays a role within these authors’ families, their particular communities, and within Méxio and Guatemala nationally. As I mentioned a moment ago, García’s poem about being “a soldier’s son” who “inherit(s) the silence” complicates how Guatemala’s Civil War is remembered insofar as it reminds people that the way was not simply a matter of good/evil and that many Maya Peoples were conscripted into the military and forced to commit atrocities against other Maya. What do the people who were both actor and victim give to the next generation? How can this history be remembered? I’m glad you mentioned Matiúwàa’s “Our Seeds” a moment ago, because as a translated text, it graphically represents the hold that the drug trade has on a place like Guerrero. And most people in the US who consume narcotics from the state likely have no idea where their drugs are from, much less the impact the drug economy has on the lives of the people that live there. Even so, for all of the evil these crops bring, to people with no alternatives for survival, they are 

                                                                        ...the hope
                              of buying a new pair of sandals
                              getting our grandfather the pills he needs
                              and helping our uncle get to El Norte.
Amid so much death, violence, and chaos, people are forced to find any way they can out of it, even if it means growing poppies so you can ultimately escape.

RMP: This deep connection with the North is often ignored, too, especially when looking from the North to the South. These poems make explicit that connection, looking from the South to the North, colouring in the points of contact that escape a formal retelling of the experiences of migration, for example. What I mean is, in the poems, Gumeta and Matiúwàa make real the human experience and cost of that North-South relationship. In the same way, García and Oxlaj Cúmes fill in the blanks of official records that omit the pain and suffering of entire populations and, as a result, are unable to work towards any healing processes. In the case of the latter, there is a call out for genocide denial in Guatemala:

you took care not to record them
in your books
you stripped them from
your memories
and in their place left
beautiful histories

Oxlaj Cúmes speaks of genocide in the plural, making reference to the region’s history of colonialism and violence and the re-writing of “beautiful histories” upon which the Guatemalan nation was founded. 

PMW: So, in a way, in bearing witness, these poems ask readers in the North to recognize how we are intimately connected and that the violence people experience in places like México and Guatemala is not as far removed from people’s decisions in the US and Canada. Further, given that Matiúwàa, García, and Oxlaj Cúmes are Indigenous poets, these poems remind us that those of us who are not Indigenous are on stolen lands, lands that were violently taken from these Peoples. Insofar as this violence persists at present, these poems underscore how, to paraphrase Patrick Wolfe’s formulation, colonialism is a structure, not simply an event, with colonial legacies visible in everything from the arbitrary borders of contemporary nation-states to ongoing violence against Indigenous Peoples, whether these be the communities in these poems or the Water Protectors in the US and Canada.