“A Universal Jam”, Teto Ocampo

Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo. Photo credit: Carlos Solano.

Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo. In memoriam (1969-2023)

Interview and comments © Sara Ríos and Juan G. Sánchez M.

Translated from Spanish © Jocelyn Montalban

If you prefer to read this post as a PDF, please click HERE

The crickets and cicadas awake in the night, the rattle follows the rhythm of the jungle, and suddenly a sweet flute, a human blow vibrating within a reed; music born from the longing to follow the vibration of the earth, the percussion of the Amazonian forest. These are some of the images that traverse those who listen for the first time to “La llamada” (The Call), the first track of the album “Copoazú” by Hombre de barro (Mud Man), by the Colombian musicians Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo, Urián Sarmiento, and Juan Manuel Toro. There is no sheet music to follow this paleo-futuristic rhythm, only improvisation, whistling, intermittence, and blowing.

The Hombre de barro album was what led us to interview Teto, at his home in La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogotá in mid-June 2015. Our intention at that time was to publish the interview the same year along with a review of the album, but we never sat down to organize the material. Perhaps, we did not fully understand the ideas that Teto was sharing with us. Years passed, and Teto passed away in 2023. Today, we recover the recording of the interview and share and comment on some excerpts in this tribute by Siwar Mayu to Teto Ocampo and Hombre de barro.

Teto was a composer, arranger, guitarist, and sharu flute improviser. Whether for the reader who is just discovering Teto Ocampo’s work or for those who have been enjoying his projects for years, in the end, it is his music that best explains who this musician from Río de Oro, César (Colombia), was; from the Colombian folk music of “La Tierra del Olvido” (The Land of Forgetfulness) by Carlos Vives to the paleo futuristic jazz of Hombre de Barro and Mucho Indio, passing through the tropical rock of Bloque de Búsqueda and the electronic cumbia of Sidestepper.

↳ “Farewell Teto” is a tribute from Carlos Vives to his friend.

Teto Ocampo was also, or above all, an improviser, as he emphasized in our interview: “When one improvises, one can only play what one plays, what one knows how to play.” For Teto, in the art of improvisation, the sound is free, it connects with the moment as if a voice were dictating to the musician what comes next. Teto improvised, as he explained to us, not only on notes but also on musical modes and phrases; he improvised as if being carried away by a river, “playing music,” not “touching music” (from the Spanish “tocar música”.)

It is precisely improvisation that inspires the album “Copoazú” by Hombre de Barro: “Basically, we are a group of friends who are musicians,” Teto told us, “good musicians who enjoy playing together (…) We are musicians of music. We are improvisers. That comes in large part from jazz.” In 2013, Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo, Urián Sarmiento, and Juan Manuel Toro gathered to play together in the Amazonian forest: “We went for a week, we stayed in a Maloca [ceremonial house], that’s like the civilization (…) Then we went to the middle of the forest where there is nothing, and we set up a camp there with a solar-powered studio, so we could record and we recorded many takes of many things, many hours, every day, for a week.”

↳ HERE you can listen to the album “Copoazú” by Hombre de Barro

The album was recorded with the assistance of Wuapapura Music Stream Earth, who have a solar-powered mobile studio for recording in natural spaces, and with the Fundación Raíces Vivas –a project that works with Indigenous communities in the Amazonian region– who facilitated the intercultural dialogue and the permits for the meeting with the Tikuna community of Puerto Nariño (Amazonas, Colombia). Reflecting on the result, Teto remarked: “We are surprised by what sounds there. We do not even remember playing that. Many were improvisations, let’s say, inspired by the surrounding (…) More than an exchange, it is the musicians finding themselves with the forest (…) The fact of being there and playing was a spiritual performance.”

When one listens to “Copoazú,” one is left with many questions, such as how the decision to undertake this project was made, or what the motivations of the musicians were. This is what Teto shared with us: “It is interesting to go and make music with the jaguar. To make music with the guacharaca and all those birds and insects. It was beautiful. When we entered into a trance with them, it was incredible. At night it was difficult.” The immersion in the Amazon was precisely an encounter with the music that is part of the daily life of the jungle communities. In addition to the flapping of wings or the friction of cicada legs, some songs from “Copoazú” feature the counterpoint of Tikuna songs, performed by Doña Alba Lucía, specifically related to the harvest of the chontaduro (when it is sought out, when it is cut, when it is prepared), and with the seed of the huito, from which body paint is extracted.

As seen in the video prepared by Wuapapura (see below), before venturing into the forest, the musicians worked all night shredding the huito. With its juice, the Tikuna elder painted their bodies and gave them their clans. “It’s like smearing on a mango,” Teto said, laughing. Teto’s clan was the ant, he told us. As the day passes, the paint becomes darker, until it’s “black black” at night: “This is done to enter the jungle. This is done to protect yourself from pests, and so the jungle recognizes you. If one does not have a spiritual attitude and respect, the forest can kill you, spit you out…”

↳ This video was produced by Wuapapura, and gathers some images during the recording of Copoazú in Puerto Nariño.

How does life change after a week in the middle of the Amazonian forest? What remains, what images, what sounds, what thoughts? This is what Teto told us:

“Life changes… all that’s left is gratitude. To be nothing, just an ant in that green sea. Here [in Bogotá] everything is so independent, wandering alone, not caring about friends. But no, not there, if you get lost, you are left alone, no…, there the best thing is to be able to be with your friends. Fire, for example, becomes very important. Many lessons learned.” 

Teto Ocampo

“Was there any existing concept before recording?” was another question we asked, to which Teto clarified that the music we hear on the album is the product of what emerged along with the soundscape of the forest. Some songs were born there, and others were built with arrangements and notes brought from the city. In both cases, the sounds of “Copoazú” seem to mimic the sounds of the forest or, at least, to enter the same rhythm. This is how Teto explained it:

“That was the exercise we were going to do. We are aware that the universe is making music all the time. Every minute there is music, and one can catch it. Music is passing through here, through life, through everything, a man hammering, the church bell, the dog that passed by. Some things are louder than others, the hammer is louder, the dog has pads on its feet and walks on them, but it’s also making sound, it’s just that one does not hear it all at once, but the dog has a rhythm it needs because there’s something over there, another person has a rhythm he needs because who knows what is calling him there, here the minibus stopped and then the guy on the other side honked, and just like this everything is connected. And besides that, it is not just the sound, it’s everything, it’s peace, love, light, tranquility, insecurity, they are cosmic waves that are not only on earth, right? And that is a tremendous power of healing if one manages to enter this rhythm. Music is that capability of healing oneself and of healing others. And that’s the way, making it possible for oneself to enter, and for people to enter into that universal jam.”

Teto Ocampo

The day we interviewed Teto, he received the remastered file of the second album of Mucho Indio, another of his collective projects. At the end of the interview, he left us with his music; and now that we think about it, perhaps we were some of the first ones to listen to the album. It is inspired by the ancestral music of the Ikv, Wayuu, and Nasa peoples, accompanied by paleo futuristic notes and scriptures, which was the methodology Teto used. This is what he shared with us in 2015:

“I have a group called Mucho Indio. (…) (…) Here in Mucho Indio, I’m searching for the spirituality of this music, and I am not so much jazz-oriented, it is more minimalist, much more simple harmonically, less complex. I am looking for the brightness, that does not lose the brightness, because that is music that makes you glow. So there are no solos, very few improvisation solos because that is full of ego, right? It does not have to be like that, but it bothered me, in the end, I ended up discarding the solos.”

Teto Ocampo

↳ Listen HERE to the complete album from Mucho Indio

While we were listening to his music, we told Teto that some tracks by Hombre de Barro and Mucho Indio reminded us of India, and that perhaps there was wordplay precisely between “indio” (as Indigenous) and “India” (the country) to which he responded: “What Hombre de Barro or Mucho Indio have most in common with Indian music it is not the music, not the melody, not the rhythm, but the purpose, they resemble each other in purpose, which is not like Western music, whose purpose is blurrier, its purpose doesn’t seem to be spiritual (…) The songs of the Indians [Indigenous peoples] are for making invocations, not for playing just anything, so in that way they resemble each other.”

At this point of our interview, Teto told us that, in addition to his cumbia heritage, seventy percent of his personal archive consisted of music from Africa, India, Turkey, and Mongolia; non-Western sounds. And amidst all of this: jazz. For him, it was essential to emphasize that Bogotá was an avant-garde jazz city: “a lot of people making very unique music, something terrific is happening here and people do not know.” For him, Bogotá had a jazz scene far superior to what can be found in other jazz cities in the world: “Every time I give an interview I say that because I am interested in people knowing. There’s an education problem here.” Bogotá jazz musicians perform alchemy with their music through experimentation with Indigenous or folk songs, producing or “liberating” creative paths. In this urban crosscultural space, minimalism and spiritual quests serve as the bridge between diverse musical traditions. Beyond harmony, rhythms, styles, and genres, Hombre de Barro and Mucho Indio demand from the listener an experience that surpasses mere listening, a sensory experience that speaks to us of non-human languages. As Teto told us:

“The music of powerful plants, for example, that’s not in the books, that can only be created by making music and ingesting plants. I think there are many people who are making new music, incredible music here, that I believe are making that music because they have taken yagé, like Toro, Urián, Héctor Buitrago, people who are in the ceremony, who know what a ceremony is and why people are in the ceremony ingesting plants. One ingests plants to heal, and the music one makes after healing is to share that healing and heal others as well. So that’s the thing, at the end of the day, it is healing. That’s it. Music can heal, and if music can heal, music must heal. I mean, I do not want to make music that makes people sick, why would I want to… So I do my best to make music that heals.”

Teto Ocampo

Throughout the musical legacy that Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo left, we can travel around the world and perceive how everything is connected through sound. One of the musician’s pleasures was precisely to record the soundscapes he encountered on his travels: “Sunrise is great because the birds sing, and you realize the tremendous difference between one place and another.” Thus, through the music of life, we learn to perceive and recognize the territory we inhabit as humans; the pleasure lies in making music that resonates with these soundscapes.

From music to territory and identity, at the end of our interview, Teto gifted us a reflection beyond music, one that touches creativity in all its directions, as well as Colombian and Latin American identity in all its wounds and futurities. Speaking about the struggle of the Indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and how they have known how to resist, but also dialogue with the settler, he told us:

“…I committed myself about ten years ago to reclaiming the sacred territory, not only that of the Sierra, but now meditating on what sacred territory is. It is not just the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta and those farms. Sacred territory is music, it is sound, or not just sound, but what lies behind the sound, I mean that spiritual purpose. What is the spiritual purpose if we don’t know? Ah, well, it might restore many things, languages, concepts, weaving, food, medicine, natural law, rights, family, life in the community, the maloca, the mamo [the elder], and his political leadership. That’s where music was left with its fair share. So the music I make does that, because I am committed to that cause, which is political, philosophical, historical, and music is its language. So I make music that is political even though it does not have to speak. That politics is the new mestizaje. It is the reverse of the mestizaje. Here, there was a biological mestizaje, but there was no cultural mestizaje. The Spanish raped the Indigenous women, and they forced their children to live as Spaniards, but second-class Spaniards, they did not let them into their house, so I am creating the new mestizaje, based on respect, on the power of coming together, of bringing two things together…”

Teto Ocampo

We are left with that invitation, Teto, to reclaim the spiritual territory; to create music, fabrics, poems, films, and dialogues that help us remember who we are and who we can be. That is a great political act. Thank you, brother, and have a good journey towards the brightness.

For more about Teto Campo, Hombre de barro, and Mucho Indio

For more about the interviewers

Sara Ríos Pérez studied literature at the Javeriana University, and currently works as a reading and writing promoter. She is a collaborator for the digital publication Columna Abierta. She accompanies the processes experienced by public and rural libraries in different parts of Colombia. She is the author of De lo Imaginario a lo Real: Cuentos y leyendas de Montes de María (“From the Imaginary to the Real: Tales and legends of Montes de María”), and co-author of  Voces que caminan territorios (“Voices that walk territories”,) an investigation on the right to communication in the Colombian Southwest.

Juan Guillermo Sánchez Martínez was born in Bakatá/Bogotá, in the Colombian Andes. He coordinates the online multilingual anthology and exhibition Siwar Mayu, A River of Hummingbirds. He has published several books of poetry, including Uranium/Uranio (Japan 2023). He works on the crossroads between Indigenous art, literature, and science. He recently co-edited the open-access volume Abiayalan Pluriverses. Bridging Indigenous Studies and Hispanic Studies with Gloria E. Chacón and Lauren Beck (Amherst College, 2024.) He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Indigenous Learning at Lakehead University (Thunder Bay, Canada). 

About the Translator

Jocelyn Montalban was born in Ontario, Canada, where she currently resides. Her parents immigrated to Canada from Guatemala City in 1997. In 2023, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminology from Lakehead University (Ontario, Canada). She is currently studying to obtain a master’s degree in Social Justice Studies. Her research focuses on Indigenous issues in Canada. In her free time, you can find her traveling or hiking in the mountains.

Un jam universal. Teto Ocampo © Sara Ríos an Juan G. Sánchez Martínez ~

Siwar Mayu, May 2024

A Universal Jam © Translation by Jocelyn Montalban

“Dance is My Vocabulary”, Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

“La danza es mi vocabulario”, Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo © 

Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

Translated from Spanish © Jocelyn Montalban

If you prefer to read this post as a PDF, click HERE

Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo is part of the Kanienkeha:ka nation (Mohawk), and the Kahnawake community, located close to what is today known as Montreal, across the Kaniatarowanenneh river (the big waterway), commonly known by its colonial name “St. Lawrence River.” Barbara is a choreographer, dancer, and director of the A’nó:wara Dance Theatre, where she creates experimental pieces that fuse Indigenous perspectives on Canadian history with powwow and Haudenosaunee dances, contemporary dance, and diverse dance styles such as hip-hop, and ballet. Barbara studied theatre at Concordia University and at the Native Theatre School. In 2015, she was one of eight dancers invited to participate in the first hoop dance competition, as a part of the Gathering of Nations in New Mexico, the largest powwow in all of Turtle Island (North America.) Barbara also collaborates with various organizations, including La Danse sur les routes du Québec and Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, with whom she facilitates intercultural educational spaces and supports Indigenous artists across all of Canada. 

I met Barbara in the Longhouse of Kahnawake in the summer of 2023, while participating in an intercultural gathering with Kanienkeha:ka artists and educators. As part of the guest speakers, Barbara shared one of her hoop dances as well as a short-movie: Smudge, Dancing the Land. In the fall, we met again–this time virtually–to talk a little bit about her perspective on dance, so we could share her experiences with the Siwar Mayu project:

“…dance can touch people on many levels, not just on an intellectual level, you know, as reading an article. It also can touch people on emotional levels. And maybe you can even say spiritual levels (…) Dance is my vocabulary, the vocabulary where I am very comfortable, so the more words, the more moves that I know, and the better I can express things. These different vocabularies can be read by more people as well, you know. So that’s why I like to mix a lot of styles…”

Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

As we can experience in her 2017 McGill University performance (see above), coordination and technique converge with color and beat in the hoop dance, all together in the midst of a circular movement of both body and story. Before her performance in Kahnawake, Barbara warned us that everybody in the audience would likely weave a different story throughout the dance, or at least would identify different beings or scenes from the natural world. Indeed, hoop dance is highly narrative, and allows simultaneous times and spaces: a butterfly, a canoe, a harvest, a mother carrying her daughter. In this thought-provoking space, there is a connection with the ancestors and with the land, but–as Barbara clarified to me–in the moment of a performance before a cross-cultural audience, her intention distances from the ceremony, although it is inevitable that some aspects of the ceremony slip through her performance. 

“I have encountered people who would like to keep powwow dance separate from other kinds of dance, and I respect that. To me, there is a value in keeping a more pure form. I also think it’s important to evolve because I think all these dances came from their environment at the time. And, you know, where did that time start? Where did that time end? Is it just a glimpse of a 100 years or a glimpse of 500 years? Who knows, right? We don’t know. So to me, we’re just continuing what we’ve always done, which is creating our dances from our environment in our experience as Indigenous people.”

Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

Through the transformation of Indigenous cultural expressions, new generations may find an art form which they can identify with, and then receive “tradition” from this dynamic environment. Furthermore, Barbara’s dance is a powerful tool to break stereotypes that classify “Indigenous art” as “folklore,” since these dances are, at the same time, ancestral and contemporary. This aspect is clear in the short-movie Smudge.

Choreographer and dancer: Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo. Director: Pepper O’Bomsawin.
Music: “New Women Song” by Cris Derksen featuring Jennifer Kreisberg.
Dancer and additional choreography: Marshall Kahente Diabo.
Director of photography and promo photo: François Léger Savard. Editor and colorist: Eric Morel.

In the middle of the global pandemic, during the time of social distancing, Barbara had an idea for Smudge, a piece in-between film, dance, and intergenerational healing. While walking in the forest behind her house, she felt the need to dance with the land and to reconnect with the trees and insects through movement and her body. One location of Smudge is that forest. The other location is the McCord Stewart Museum and its “Wearing Our Identity” exhibition, on which Marshall Kahente Diabo, Barbara’s son, tries to reconnect with the pieces and regalia exhibited, out of reach on the other side of the glass showcases. 

“… one of the themes around this film is that when our culture isn’t accessible to us, when the land is no longer accessible to us, what do our beliefs, practices, and ceremonies mean? If you can’t access that, you know, you can go through emotions. But what does that mean? And so to have our clothing, our culture behind glass cases, inside, not outside, I found that was the perfect location.”

Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

The contrast between the museum and the forest, the son and his mother, the inside and the outside, oblivion and memory, is powerful. Despite this apparent contradiction, both dancers communicate with each other through dance, and build an intergenerational vision: perhaps the certainty that we are all one with nature, and that everything is in a state of movement, the sap of a tree, traditional practices, atoms–as Barbara reminded me. At the end of our short interview, I asked Barbara if she had any advice for the young artists who may one day read this text. In response she said: 

“…we’re all born with gifts, and we’re on a journey to discover what our gifts are. So just be your authentic self, and there is a place, an important place for you.”

Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

¡Fie Nzhinga, Barbara! Thank you. 

For more about Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

For more about Juan G.  Sánchez Martínez

Juan Guillermo Sánchez Martínez was born in Bakatá/Bogotá, in the Colombian Andes. He coordinates the online multilingual anthology and exhibition Siwar Mayu, A River of Hummingbirds. He has published the following books of poetry: Uranio (2023), Bejuco (2021), Salvia (2014), Río (2010), and Altamar, awarded with the National Prize in Colombia in 2016 (University of Antioquia). He is the author of Memoria e invención en la poesía de Humberto Ak’abal (Abya-Yala, 2012). In 2019, he co-edited the volume Muyurina y el presente profundo with Quechua writer Fredy Roncalla (Pakarina/Hawansuyo), and he is currently co-editing Abiayalan Pluriverses. Bridging Indigenous Studies and Hispanic Studies with Gloria E. Chacón and Lauren Beck (Amherst College, 2024). He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Indigenous Learning at Lakehead University (Thunder Bay, Canada). 

The translator

Jocelyn Montalban was born in Ontario, Canada, where she currently lives. Her parents immigrated to Canada from Guatemala City in 1997. In 2023, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology from Lakehead University (Ontario, Canada). She is currently studying to obtain a Master’s degree in Social Justice. Her research focuses on Indigenous issues in Canada. In her free time you can find her traveling or hiking in the mountains.

“La danza es mi vocabulario”, Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo © Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

Translated by Jocelyn Montalban ~ Siwar Mayu, January 2024

Animating Cherokee Narratives. Joseph Erb

By Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

If you prefer to read as PDF, please click HERE

At the turn of the century, animation was not the first option for Indigenous artists. Actually, when Joseph ᎧᎾᏘ Erb (Cherokee Nation) drove from Oklahoma to Philadelphia to do his Graduate Studies in Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, he wanted to be trained in sculpture. However, some days before he arrived, there was an accident in one of the sculpture studios, and the program he was interested in was all but canceled. Since he did not not know exactly what to do, some professors motivated him to go into animation. While learning this new art, someone asked him: “Why don’t you try Cherokee stories?” This was in the early 2000´s, and that question opened a door through which Joseph Erb has refined his aesthetics and traditional narratives, elevating Indigenous animation to a new level. “The Beginning They Told / ᏗᏓᎴᏂᏍᎬ ᎤᏂᏃᎮᏓ” was the first Cherokee animation in Tsalagi, the Cherokee language. Since its production, Joseph Erb has expanded the use of Cherokee ​​language in technology, cinema and education. Currently, ​he teaches at the University of Missouri Digital Storytelling and Animation.  

In “The Beginning They Told / ᏗᏓᎴᏂᏍᎬ ᎤᏂᏃᎮᏓ”, Grandpa Beaver, Little Water Beetle, and the Great Buzzard work  together somehow to create what today we call the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. It is not just the use of Tsalagi and the syllabary that makes this short animated movie Cherokee, but also the way the elder-ones talk respectfully with each other, and are comfortable with their long silences. Furthermore, small pieces of a complex cosmology are shared in these stories such as the relevance of the numbers 4 and 7, or references to specific places where the community gathers medicines. As Erb explains, not all audiences pay attention to these details, and Indigenous animation is sometimes classified as “fiction” or “myth” in film festivals. Nevertheless, Erb prefers to call his art “traditional narratives”, because –as the animation title above suggests– these stories are still being told, believed, and followed by some members of the community. These short animations are not about supernatural beings, but contemporary representations of stories –which have many versions– that teach how to walk in “the proper way” (Duyuktv.) 

When you ask Joseph Erb about the challenges of doing what he does, he has plenty of stories to explain. Indigenous animation is not just about designs and aesthetics, but also about having the right tools, resources and technology. For instance, the software, app, or program being used needs to offer the syllabary keyboard and include the appropriate fonts to represent the language. This special consideration requires  establishing relationships with big companies such as Google, Apple or Microsoft. Once you finally have the technology, you would never imagine that the syllabary font has to be approved at some point by the tribe, because the digital version is a different one than the 1820’s type that some elders are accustomed to. Now, after all of those negotiations –extra work– with both tech companies and the tribe, imagine that  the moment to share your work has arrived. If the animation’s voice over is in Tsalagi (the Cherokee language), then you hope the non-Tsalagi-speakers will engage with the version with English subtitles, which is not something that some audiences enjoy. At these crossroads, Erb’s art finds the proper way to represent Cherokee narratives  between codes, channels, and audiences. As Erb told me, elders who he worked with in “The Beginning They Told / ᏗᏓᎴᏂᏍᎬ ᎤᏂᏃᎮᏓ” were really excited about the possibility of seeing the Great Buzzard represented for the first time in this code. “A couple of elders made me actually animate it”, said Erb laughing.

The first animation that I encountered by Joseph Erb was “Mini Wiconi / Water is Life”, an artivist piece dedicated to the protectors of water at Standing Rock Sioux Nation. As voice over, Standing Rock Chief David Archambault II guides the animation with a clear message. Black uniforms over a red horizon in which fences disrupt the land are juxtaposed with black and red buffalo running free through the great prairies. How can an artist adequately represent the fact that 31 million buffalo were slaughtered at some point as a settler-colonial stratagem? Mountains of buffalo skulls in white fill the screen so the snake/train –a metaphor for progress and extractivism throughout Abiayala– can cross. Instead of the rhythm of buffalo’s hooves on the land, we suddenly  can hear only  bulldozers. Led by women, all types of peoples, all nations will always protect water for future generations. No Dakota Access Pipeline.

When I asked Erb about his vision for the future of Indigenous animation and game design, he was excited about the possibilities for indigenizing “narrative structures” with those unique flavors that place and community can add to creativity. “A place-based robust aesthetics” is Joseph Erb’s advice for younger Indigenous designers. One of his latest projects is Trickster, an app-video game in which the player drives the journey of a young person who is rescuing words in Tsalagi within a forest. While the player enjoys the obstacles and visuals (i.e. tree bark tattooed with Mississippian designs, or the underworld patterned as a basket), everytime he hits a word, they are able to listen one of the beautiful languages of one of the first peoples of the Appalachian mountains, the Cherokee.

Trickster. An app-video game by Joseph Erb

More about Indigenous animation and Joseph Erb

About Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

He grew up in Bakatá/Bogotá, Colombian Andes. He dedicates both his creative and scholarly writing to indigenous cultural expressions from Abiayala (the Americas.) His book of poetry, Altamar, was awarded in 2016 with the National Prize Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia. He coordinates Siwar Mayu, A River of Hummingbirds. Recent work: Bejuco (2021), Muyurina y el presente profundo (Pakarina/Hawansuyo, 2019); and Cinema, Literature and Art Against Extractivism in Latin America. Dialogo 22.1 (DePaul University, 2019.) He is currently Associate Professor of Languages and Literatures, and Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of North Carolina Asheville.

Plains of Forgetfulness: Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez

Xti Saquirisan Na Pe / Planicie de olvido / Plains of Forgetfulness © Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez. Cholsamaj, 2020

Translations from Spanish © Paul Worley and Juan G. Sánchez M

Miguel Angel Oxlaj Cúmez is Maya kaqchikel, from Chi Xot (Comalapa, Guatemala). He holds a degree in Mass Media Communications from the University of San Carlos Guatemala, and a Specialization in Linguistic Revitalization from the Mondragon University of the Basque Country, Spain. He is a professor at the Maya Kaqchikel University –Chi Xot campus–, a union leader, and a social/digital activist for Indigenous languages. He is one of the organizers of the Virtual Latin American Festival of Indigenous Languages. Miguel is a representative for the Mayan, Garífuna and Xinka peoples (UMAX) before the University Reform Commission -CRU- of the University of San Carlos Guatemala, as well as a representative for the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and other Forms of Discrimination Movement, of the Public Services International Organization -ISP- for Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic. He is a member of the collectives: Kaqchikela’ taq tz’ib’anela’, and Ajtz’ib’. In 2009 he was awarded with the National Prize for Indigenous Literatures B’atz, Guatemala. He has published: La misión del Sarima’ (“The Sarima’s Mission”, narrative), Mitad mujer (“Half woman”, narrative), and Planicie de olvido (“Plains of Forgetfulness”, poetry.) His poems have been published  in digital magazines and anthologies in both Kaqchikel and Spanish. He has written about one hundred stories for the Guatemalan Ministry of Education’s textbooks, which have been translated into Maya languages such as ​​Q’eqchi ‘, Mam, K’iche’, Tzutujil, Q’anjobal, Achi, Ixil. He writes poetry and narrative, both in Spanish and Kaqchikel –his native language.


Rïn chuqa’ xinaläx kik’in ri kaminaqi’

xinaläx chuxe’ ri ruk’isib’äl q’aqajob’q’aq’ ri ruk’wa’n wi ri kamïk

ri q’aq’ nib’ojloj toq nkamisan ja wi ri’ ri uxlak’u’x

ri nima oyowal yeruxe’qeq’ej wi konojel ri rurayb’el ri qak’u’x

ri q’aq’ nkamisan ruk’ojon wi ri taq qachi’

xa xe wi ri kib’is ri xe uk’we’x 

nuretz wi jub’a’ ri maq’ajan

rik’in ri ruk’isib’äl taq kich’ab’äl

rik’in ri ruk’isib’äl taq kitzij

rik’in ri ruk’isib’äl kitzij ri xkijosja’ kan

rik’in ri ruk’isib’el taq kib’ixab’änïk

rik’in ri ruchoq’omalil ri kisamaj kichapon

Rïn yenwak’axaj wi

ja ri’ wi ri lema’ ri yinkiwartisaj

[ronojel taq tokaq’a’]

ja ri’ wi ri achik’ ri yennataj toq nsaqär pe

ja ri’ wi ri itzel taq achik’ ri yik’asb’an

[rik’in xib’iri’il]

kik’in ri tzijonem ri’ xinwetamaj ri sik’inïk wuj

rik’in ri ronojel re’ xinwetamaj xinsik’ij ruwäch ri k’aslemal

rik’in ronojel re’ xinmestaj ri kikotem

Ja k’a ri’

toq ri e k’äs pa kik’u’x

majun wi yeq’ajan ta

juk’a’n wi yetzu’n apo

yetze’en wi rik’in janila b’isonem

nikijalwachij wi ki’

nkikusaj wi ri k’oj ri kikusan konojel

yeb’ixan wi chi re ri amaq’ ri ya’on chi kiwäch

chuqa’ yexuke’ wi chwäch ri ajaw ri man itzel ta tz’eton

Ja ri kojqan 

xa xe wi ri yek’ase’ 

Ja ri toq xinch’akulaj ri kamisarem

ri kamisanel q’aq’ chuqa’ ri ajch’ayi’, rije’ ri’ xe’ok wetz’anel

ri kamïk xok nuchajinel


jun peraj chi re ri nuwinaqil

k’a tal tajin nisk’in

ri jun chïk tanaj

nrajo’ ta nuyupij jun runaq’ ruwäch chi re rik’aslemal

pa runik’ajal re jun li’an re’ rulewal ri mestaxinïk


I graduated with the class of the dead

I was born under a hail of gunfire

rifles were peace

the war crushed our dreams

bullets sewed our mouths shut

and the silence was only broken by the cries

of the disappeared

by their fraying voices

their last words

their murmured goodbyes

their final advice

their reasons for fighting

I listened to them

they were my bedtime stories

[every night]

they were dreams I remembered in the morning

the nightmares that awakened me


the histories with which I learned to read

to understand life

to forget about happiness


those who thought they were alive

kept silent

averted their gaze

smiled sadly

disguised themselves as normal

put on whatever mask was fashionable

sang the anthem to a country that had been imposed on them

and prayed to an authorized god

The only plan

was to survive

That’s how butchery naturalized me

how I played at bombs and soldiers

how death became my main babysitter


part of me 

keeps screaming

while the other

tries to wink knowingly at life

on the plains of forgetfulness

Pachäj, Comalapa, Chimaltenango (Iximulew/Guatemala) © Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez


Man ajtz’ib chuqa man aj pach’un tzij ta

rik’in k’a jub’a’xa tzalq’omanel

ruma re samaj re’

man choj ta chi yanojin chuqa yatz’ukun

k’o ch’aqa b’ey nakamuluj ri xk’ulwachitaj yan

ja k’a ri yatzalq’omin jari’ ri b’ama jantape’ 

Naq’asaj pa jun chïk ch’ab’äl

ri ruju’il ruka’ ri ati’t toq njok’on

ri ruju’il ri rasaron ri mama’ toq nuchoy ri ruwach’ulew

ri mank’isel taq samaj pa akuchi’ tikil ri kape

ri janipe’ ralal ri juq’o’ wok’al juna’ ri e ejqan chi tapäl

ri ruq’axomal ri jantape’ yatiko’n po majun achike k’oltiko’n nak’ul

Man ajtz’ib chuqa man aj pach’un tzij ta

rik’in k’a jub’a’xa tzalq’omanel

naq’asaj pa jun chïk ch’ab’äl

ri kiq’axomal ri nimaläj taq che’ ri xechoyoyex

ri ruq’axomal ri raqän ya’ etzelan

ri ruk’ayewal ri ajxik’ ri majun rochöch ta

ri xtutzolij ri qate’ ruwach’ulew ruma ri ruq’axomal qamolon

Man ajtz’ib chuqa man aj pach’un tzij ta

rik’in k’a jub’a’xa tzalq’omanel


Neither writer nor poet

maybe a translator

Because this work

isn’t just the act of imagining or creating

sometimes it’s recreating

but it is more translating

Translating to another language

the compass of my grandmother’s grinding stone 

the rhythm of my grandfather’s hoe

the chores in the coffee grove

the weight of five centuries born on a mecapal *

the pain of sowing so much and reaping nothing

Neither writer nor poet

maybe a translator


the silent groan of the fallen tree

the funeral lament of the polluted river

the miseries of nestless birds

the immediate defensive reaction of our wounded mother

into another language

Neither writer nor poet

maybe a translator

* Mecapal: cord rested on the forehead, used to bear a load on the back

La milpa, la vida (“Cornfield, life”) © Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez

Ri wati’t ri nimalaxel

Ri q’ijul man xtikïr ta chi rij

xpapo’ chupam jun rub’olqo’t ri ruxoq’op

xsach ruk’u’x chuwäch ri ruwachib’äl ri rupo’t

xsach chupam ri rub’eyal ri jalajöj taqruyuchuj rutz’umal

Ri wati’t ri nimalaxel

Ri ruponib’äl

Xetal ruchapom rupub’axinïk ri pom

ruchapon runojsaxik ri kajulew

rik’in rujub’ulil 

juq’o’ taq oq’ej

juq’o’ ruwäch b’ixanïk ri man e tz’eqet ta

rik’in k’a jun sutz’aj rayb’äl ri e oyob’en

Ri cera ri jalajöj kib’onilal

kichapon ruk’atïk ri kib’isonem chuwäch ri Tyox

nikisaqirisaj ri rokib’äl ri kamïk

nikisaqirisaj rupaläj ri meb’el ri xe tal k’o 

ri man nib’e ta

kichapon rutijik ri tz’ilan rurayb’äl 

re jun amaq’ re’

[ri man choj ta nk’oje’]

Ri kaji’ jäl (saqijäl, q’anajäl, raxwach chuqa’ ri kaqajäl)

xetal e k’o chuwäch ri Tyox

tajin nkichajij ri ruq’ijul ri wa’ijal

richin manäq xketoqa ta chïk

richin manäq xkemestäx

richin xkexime’paki natab’äl ri winaqi’

ri xeti’ojir rik’in kisamaj ri qawinäq

Ruxara ri k’äy

ruk’u’x ri q’ijul

ruk’ulb’a’t ri q’axomal rik’in ri k’ayewal

akuchi’ [xa jub’a’ ma] xe tal nasäch awi’

(richin akosik, richin ab’ey, richin ab’is…)

ri xara ri’ xetal yakon chuxe ruch’atal ri Tyox

ruchapon ruch’amirsaxïk ri b’isonïk

yerukuxka’ ri 


taq animajinäq

[ri majun kitzolib’äl ta]

Ja ri rij rupo’t

Loq’oläj sik’iwuj

akuchi’ xutz’ib’aj ri runa’ojil

akuchi’ xupab’a’wi ri ruch’ob’oj

akuchi’ xuyäk kan ri rumanq’ajanil

akuchi’ xerupach’uj ri rutzij

K’a xetal rewan ri ruk’u’x ri aq’ab’äl

tunun k’a paruwi’ ri ruch’atal ri Tyox

royob’en toq rija’ xtiyakatäj chik pe

richin ruq’ejelonik ri nimaq’a’

[bisbissbisssbis, bisbissbisssbis

bisbissbisssbis, bisbissbisssbis]

Rub’ixanik pa bisis

xetal nq’ajan kik’in ri q’eqal taq jäb’

nroq’ej toq ye’ik’o ri al

nxik’an k’a kik’in

nib’e, nanimäj

ruma man tikirel ta nib’an ri tiko’n

chi rij ruq’ab’aj

ma x ata chi rij ruxikin

Ri wati’t, ri nimalaxel

Ja ri’ toq xluke’ qa ri rij

ja ri’ toq xsach rutzub’al

ja ri’ toq chajir ruwi’aj

ja ri’toq xetzaq el ri reyaj

Ronojel ri’ man ja ta rurijixik xub’ij

man ja ta ri raq’ab’äl xutzijoj kan

Xa jari’ wi rusipanik xuya’chi re ri k’aslem

Jari’ ri ruwinaqil xutzolij 

chwäch ri jalajöj kiwäch taq kamïkri xepe chi rij ri ruwinäq

Rusemetil ri ruq’ab’aj

ri pa’k xel pe chi rij ri ruxtuxil

ri chikopiwinäq ruch’ami’y

ri ruchajil rupo’t

man ja’ ta ri ruch’ojixinik ri meb’alil akuchi’ xya’ox wi

man ja’ ta chuqa’ ri retal ri ruq’axomal

Jari’ ri rija’tz ri xutik kan

ri rayb’äl xretaj ri chuwäch apo

Ri wati’t ri nimalaxel

Ri q’ijul man xtikïr ta chi rij

xpapo’ chupam jun b’olqo’t richin ri ruxoq’op

xsach ruk’u’x chuwäch ri ruwachib’äl ri rupo’t

xsach chupam ri rub’eyal ri jalajöj taq ruyuchuj rutz’umal

My grandmother the nimalaxel [1]

Time could not stand her

it stopped in the weaving of her xoq’op [2]

it was confused by the code of her huipil

it got lost in the labyrinths of her wrinkled skin

My grandmother, the nimalaxel…

Her incenser 

continues erupting copal

saturating the universe

with the aroma

of a million laments

of a thousand shapeless songs

of a cloud of hopes

The colored candles

continue burning their silence before the Tyox [3]

lighting death’s arrival

illuminating misery’s persistence

consuming the illusion


of a people


The four ears of corn (white, yellow, black, and red)

remain, intact, before the Tyox

watching over times of hunger

so they are not repeated

so they are not forgotten

so they remain tied

to the memories of men

who get fat with the sweat of our people

The jar of k’äy [4]

nectar of time

border between pain and misfortune

[almost] mandatory point of disconnection

(richinakosik, richinab’ey, richinab’is…) 

kept in reserve beneath the table of the Tiox

aging sorrows

dressing the



[without return]

Her huipil, the rijpo’t,

sacred book

where she wrote her memories

where she engraved her thoughts

where she expressed her silence

where she gave shape to her verses

It continues encrypting the afternoon’s code

And folded on the Tyox’s table

It waits for her to wake up

for the morning ceremony

[hmmhmmmhmmmhmm, hmmhmmmhmmmhmm

hmmhmmmhmmmhmm, hmmhmmmhmmmhmm]

Her hummed song 

still livening up the pouring rain

crying as the falcons pass

she flies with them

leaving, fleeing

because no one can plant the seed

on the back of her hands

or behind her ear

My grandmother, the nimalaxel…

Her curved back

her lost look

her grey hair

her deformed teeth

were not the symbol of her old age

nor the signs of her sunset

they were her offering to life

her [human] answer

to the bloodbath of pillage

The callus of her hands

her torn heels

her chewed up cane

her faded huipil

Were not a complaint about her impoverishment

nor a testament to her pain

They were a planted seed

the mathematical projection of every dream she harboured

My grandmother, the nimalaxel…

time could not stand her

it stopped in the weaving of her xoq’op

it was confused by the code of her huipil

it got lost in the labyrinths of her wrinkled skin

[1] Nimalaxel, literally means “sister or older sibling,” but can also be used to designate ones who “help” the Texel. The Texel is the female version of a town’s cofradía. In other words, Nimalaxel is a position of leadership and community service. 
[2] Hairbrand with a strip of fabric.
[3] Tyox is the Kaqchikel-ization of the Spanish “Dios” and this is how one refers to the “plurispiritual” altar where Chiristian images and elements of Maya spirituality are venerated.
[4] K’äy: liquor, literally “burning water.” 
Richinakosik, richinab’ey, richinab’is: reasons often said before having a drink. Literally "for your fatigue, for your path, for your sadness..." 

Volcanoes Agua, Acatenango and Fuego (Iximulew / Guatemala) © Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez

B’ix qaya’

Ri achi xuk’ol xuk’ol ri’

k’a xb’os na pe ri k’aqatläj ak’wa’l

ri nipuxlin rutzub’al

Xutukukej k’a ruxe’el ri ruch’ab’äq ri ruk’u’an pa ruk’u’x

xub’än utzil ri rupub’, xirukanoj, xiril, k’a ri’ xiruk’äq k’a pe wakami

kik’in re juläy etzelaneltaq tzij re’

Ri nuchi’ ruk’ojonwi ri’

choj ja’e wi yitikir ninb’ij a po chi re

Xaxe’ wi nink’utula’ qa chuwe

achike choq’oma

achike choq’oma chuwe rïn

Xinya’ k’a chinuwäch chi nintaluj

rik’in k’a jub’a’ k’o ri ntikïr nutzolij tzij chi re


-Majun niq’a’xta chuwe rub’anob’al ri kaxlan ajaw- xub’ij toq xqachop qa ri ruwaxulan

¿Achike rub’anik nub’än chi re toq ye’apon chwäch ri kik’aqatil ri ajawarem chuqa ri k’utunïk ri meb’a’?

¿Achike choq’oma junam rejqalem nuya’ chi ke wi retaman chi man e junam ta?

¿Achike k’o paruk’u’x toq xetal yeruto’ ri ajawarem ri yatkitij, ja k’a ri chi re ri meb’a’ xa choj utziläj taq rayb’äl yeruya’ pe chi ke?

¿Wi retaman chi janila’ tz’ilanem xtik’oje’ ruma man oj junan ta xub’än chi qe, achike choq’oma man qonojel ta säq, man qonojelta q’äq, man qonojel ta qawinäq o man qonojel ta aj b’i la akuchi’la xub’än ta chi qe?

¿Nrak’axaj ta k’a ri qachaq’ qanimal toq yek’utun chi re jub’a’ paqach’ab’äl jub’a’ pa kaxlan?

¿Achike choq’oma janila’ xyoke’ toq xpe wawe’ pa qaruwach’ulew?

¿Wi nub’ij chi rija’ ajowab’äl, achike ruma xa xe’ k’ayewal, xa xe’ meb’alil chuqa’xa xe’kamïk xuk’ämpe chi qe?


Pan anin xinpab’a’ ri rutzijonem

man ninrayij yitzijon chi rij ri na’oj re’

kana’ ta ri natzijoj ri kamik’ayewal chupam ri kamik’ayewal

ruma chuqa’janila’  wi ninrayij ninwak’axaj ri kurij k’un

ri rub’ixanik runojsanwi ri k’ichelaj


-Nib’ix chi ri Israelí xek’ayewatäj juq’o’ juna’

röj ojk’ayewatajnäq juq’o’ wok’al juna’

chupam k’a ri q’ijul re’ xetal sanin chi qe ri nib’ix chi kij ri Israeli’

pa ronojel ruwäch ri qak’aslemal

richin manäq niqanik’oj ri qameb’alil qa roj

richin juk’a’n yojtzu’un chuwäch ri qak’ayewal k’o chiqawäch

¿Akuchi’ ek’owi ri kaqchikela’ taq Moisesa’ 

ri xkejote’ el paruwi’ ri Junajpu’ richin nb’ekiponij ri Ajaw?

¿Akuchi’ ek’o wi?

Nik’atzin chi yetob’os qik’in

richin nkik’ut ri saqb’e chi qawäch

richin nkitzalq’omij runa’oj ri q’aq’ chi qe

richin yojkelesaj chupam re k’ayewal

richin yojkik’w’aj chi kojik’o chupam ri kik’ palow

richin yojkik’waj chi nb’eqa chapa’ 

ri qak’aslemal


ri qana’ojil

ri qach’akulal

ri qulew

ri jantape’ qichin wi

Etaman jeb’ël

chi eb’osnäq chïk chuwäch re jun ruwach’ulew re’

kikolon chïk kik’aslem chuwäch royowal ri k’ak’a’ ajpop

po wakami xa tajin yejiq’

yejiq’ chupam re jun raqän ya’ ri etzelanel

¡Kan kekol tib’ana’ utzil!

Ri kurij k’un xutanab’a’ rub’ix

xub’än jun ti maq’ajan

ri raxq’ab’

numalama’ rij ri ch’eqel ruwach’ulew

Jun na’oj xik’o pa nuwi’


– Nib’ix chi ri maq’ajanil k’o pa ruk’u’x ri raxq’ab’

Jeb’ël akuchi’ ri sutz’ niqa paruwi’ ri ruwach’ulew


– ¡Tawoyob’ej na! – xcha’ pa oyowal

Ri maq’ajan man chi ri’ ta k’o

man xa xe’ ta chi ri’ –xub’ij– 

ri maq’ajan k’o chupam ri ruk’u’x

ri xti xtän ri xetzeläx

ri xtala’ ri xetzeläx

ri ixöq chuqa’ achi ri majon ronojel chi ke richin xetok meb’a’

ri ajtiko’n ri xmaj ri rulew

ri ixöq ajtiko’n ri xq’ol 

ri raqän ya’ ri xtz’ilöx

ri k’echelaj ri xtililäx

ri ruwach’ulew ri xpororäx

ri kurij k’un ri majun chïk  ta rusok wakami

Xa jub’a’ ma wi yojapon qa chuchi’ ri raqän ya’

ruqul ri jun qupib’äl che’

man nuya’ ta q’ij chi nak’axäxkib’is ri loq’oläj taq che’

xanupimirisaj ri kaq’ïq’

yeruxib’ij ri tz’ikina’ 

– ¿Napon pan awi’ re ninb’ij chawe? – xuk’utuj paroyowal

– Ja ri rat wik’in rïn oj achi’el junmay – xcha’

kan oj achi’el ruk’u’x rijuyu’

ja ri rat wik’in rïn oj juqun k’äy

kan achi’el ruk’u’x ri q’ijul

ja ri rat wik’in rïn oj chajinela’

niqachajij jalajöj kiwäch taq k’aslemal

rat wik’in rïn xa oj moch’öch’il

ojaj q’equ’n

oj ruk’a’tz chi re ruq’ajarik ri saqil 

rat wik’in rïn oj achi’el ri q’aq’

ojb’anön richin yojaq’oman

rat wik’in rïn oj achi’el riq’ijul

xojb’an richin man nipeta ri mestaxinïk

rat wik’in rïn roj ri aj

xojb’an richin man nqaya’ ta qi’

rat wik’in rïn roj ri ruch’ujilal ri ramaj

xojb’an richin man niqat’zapij ta qachi’

¿niq’ax pan awi’?

Ri q’axomal chuqa’ ri k’utunïk

ri b’isonïk rik’in ri kikotemal

ri rayb’äl rik’in ri q’axomal k’u’x

kichin juq’o’ ruq’ijul k’aslem

ye’anin chikipam ri k’uxuchuq’a’ ri qach’akul

juq’o’ mama’aj

juq’o’ ati’t

yech’i’an chupam ruk’u’x ri qach’akul

ke re’ k’a yesik’in:

tawelesaj chupam ri ak’aslem

ronojel ri xuk’ämpe chiqe ri majon ulew

ruma’ rutz’apen ri qana’oj

ruma’ niqatz’ila’ qi’ koma ri kityoxi’

ruma’ nimayon ri qak’u’xaj chirij ri pwaq

ruma’ oj q’olotajnäq koma ri manqitzij taq tzijol

kaxutun chuwäch re jun ruwäch k’aslemal re’

tamestaj ronojel ri ruq’oloj rusanin pan ajolom

tawetamaj ri qach’ab’al

kan takusaj k’a

tawetamaj ri qana’oj ri qab’anob’al

kan tak’aslemaj k’a

katzolin chupam ruxe’el ri qak’aslem

qawinaqir junchin b’ey…

– Tatz’eta’ rat – xinxoch’ij apo – 

¡ri Pixcayá nimarnäq!

– Man Pixcayá ta rub’i’ ¿man awetaman ta? – xub’ij pe

B’ix qaya’ keri’ rub’i’ paqach’ab’äl

“rub’ixanem ri qaya’

rub’ixanem ri qaya’

jeb’ël b’i’aj richi jun raqän ya’

 mank’o ta ruk’exel rub’ixanem

jun utziläj aq’om richin ri q’axomal …

K’a jari’ toq tikirel xqajäl ri qatzinonem

B’ixqa ya’

The man backed away

the rebellious child emerged

sparkling gaze

He shook the bottom up from the depths of his being

he charged, aimed and bombarded me

with these poisoned darts

My mouth was sewn shut

I could barely answer him in monosyllables

I just wondered


why me

Now I am sharing

maybe someone can answer him


“I don’t understand God’s role — he said while we began descending the slope

How does he manage to process in his office the whims of masters and the cries of slaves?

How can he give them the same amount of importance without flinching?

How can he support the aggressions of the impoverishing and sustain the impoverished with promises?

Why, I say, if he knew there would be so much inequity when he made us different, why didn’t he make us all white, all black, all indigenous, or all aliens?

Will he understand our Kaqchikel siblings when they pray in Kaqchiñol?

Why did he take so many centuries to come to our lands?

Why, if he claims to be love, did he only bring us death, misery and pain?


I interrupted him straight-out

I didn’t want to talk about it

it was like talking about war

in times of war

I also wanted to enjoy the song of the kurij k’un *

his trills filled the forest

* Kurij k’un: local pigeon. 


“They say that Israel was captive for 400 years

Well, so far we’ve been captive for 500

and such is the time in which they have imposed on us the same as Israel

in every space of our daily slavery

and so we downplay our condition

and thus we alienate ourselves from our own circumstance

Where are the Kaqchikel Moses-men and Moses-women who

will ascend to Junajpú and burn pom for the Ajaw? *

Where are they?

It’s imperative they appear

to guide us through the saqb’e **

to interpret the foretelling of fire

to get us out of this daily horror

to make us cross this sea of blood

and lead us to the conquest

of our lives




of this land

that was always ours


they already arose in this land of confusion

they survived the sword of modern pharaohs

but they are drowning

drowning in the river of repression

Somebody save them from the river!”

The kurij k’un had stopped singing

a small silence was made

morning mist

caressing wet earth

An idea crossed my mind

I tried:

“They say that silence is at the heart of mist

right where the fog sits upon the earth…”

* Junajpú:  Kaqchikel name for Volcano Agua (Antigua, Guatemala.) 
Pom: ancient Maya word for copal and incense.
Ajaw: expression to name the Creator. 
** Saqb’e: literally “white path.” Expression for the Maya “good living.” 


“Wait a minute! — he rebuked annoyed 

silence is not there

it’s not only there — he emphasized

silence is in the heart

of the girl who has been raped

of the child who has been abused

of women and men who have been impoverished

of the farmer who has been displaced

of the peasant who has been deceived

of the river who has been polluted

of the forest who has been riddled

of the land who has been looted

of the kurij k’un who has been left without a nest”

We were approaching the river

the scream of a chainsaw

silenced the sadness of trees

strained the wind

disturbed the birds

“Do you understand what I’m talking about? — he asked almost disappointed

You and I are a cigar — he continued

the pure essence of the woods

you and I are a shot of moonshine

the pure essence of time

you and I are guardians

guardians of different forms of life

you and I are shadows


imperative for the meaning of light

you and I are fire

we were made to heal

you and I are time

we were made not to forget

you and I are the pillars

we were made to fight

you and I are the madness of time

we were made not to shut up

Do you follow?

Pain and sorrow

sadness and joy

dreams and frustrations

of four hundred generations

they all ride on our atoms

four hundred grandmothers

four hundred grandparents

cry from our chest

and yell:

decolonize yourself

dereligionize yourself

dedocument yourself 

desinform yourself

rebel against this egotistical system

unlearn so much banality

relearn our language and use it

relearn our thinking and live it

return to your roots

humanize yourself…”

“Do you see it? — I interrupted

The Pixcayá river has grown!”

“It’s not called Pixcayá, did you know that? — he said

his Kaqchikel name is B’ix qaya’

the song of our water

the song of our water

a beautiful name for a river

a marvelous song

a balm for deep wounds…”

And right there we finally could change the subject

Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez



¿Jampe’ xqachäp ruk’oqpixik pa taq qak’u’x?

¿Jampe’ xqachäp ruk’ojoxik ruchi’ richin manäq chïk nich’o’n ta pe chiqe?

¿Jampe’ xqatz’apij qaxikin richin manäq niqak’axaj ta rutzij?

¿Jampe’ xqamestaj rutzuquxik?

¿Achi’el toq xqamestaj chi ri qati’t qamama’ xekäm ruma rukolik?

¿Achi’el toq xqamestaj chi toq ri juläy xkisok, xkipaxij

ri qate’ qatata’, ri qati’t qamama’

xkimöl ruchi’



chuqa’  xkiya’ kan kik’aslemal pa ruk’u’x?

¿Kan chanin xqamestaj chi ri nab’ey t’uj ri xuya’ riqak’u’x xk’oxoman paqach’ab’äl?

¿Kan chanin xqamestaj chi ri qach’ab’äl ja ri’ ri xojk’asb’an?

¿Kan chanin xqamestaj chi xqatz’umaj chi paq’ij chi chaq’a’?

Ri qach’ab’äl janila’ yawa’

ruchapon kamïk

nikäm pa qak’u’x

ruchapon kamïk 

chuchi’ taq qaq’aq’

pa ruk’u’x taq qochoch

Our Tongue


Since when did we start tearing it out of our hearts?

When did we sew her mouth up so she would stop talking to us?

Since when did we start covering our ears to stop listening to her?

When did we forget to feed her?

How did we end up forgetting that grandmothers and grandfathers died for her?

How did we forget that when she was hurt

our mothers and fathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers

took care of her

healed her

captured their own life in her words?

Are we going to forget so easily that our first heartbeat resonated in Maya Kaqchikel?

Will we forget so quickly that it was our language who gave us life?

Are we going to forget so easily that we sucked from her for days and nights?

Our tongue is sick

very sick

she agonizes within our hearts

she agonizes in front of the kitchen fire

in the heart of our homes

Sunset at B’oko’ ©Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez

More about Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez:

“I urge you, if I die, to live as happily as you can. I want you to be a good person, who works hard, who has joy in her heart, who is grateful, whose heart sings, whose lips whistle, and who has a smiling face. This is life, my child, this is how life is.”

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Digital activism

Other Mayan artists featured on Siwar Mayu

About the translators

Paul M. Worley is Associate Professor of Global Literature at Western Carolina University. He is 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), and with Rita M Palacios is co-author of Unwriting Maya Literature: Ts’íib as Recorded Knowledge (2019). He is 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, and Ruperta Bautista, serves as editor-at-large for México for the journal of world literature in English translation, Asymptote, and as poetry editor for the North Dakota Quarterly.
Juan G. Sánchez Martínez, grew up in Bakatá, Colombian Andes. He dedicates both his creative and scholarly writing to Indigenous cultural expressions from Abiayala (the Americas.) His book of poetry, Altamar, was awarded in 2016 with the National Prize Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia. He collaborates and translates for Siwar Mayu, A River of Hummingbirds. Recent works: Muyurina y el presente profundo (Pakarina/Hawansuyo, 2019); and Cinema, Literature and Art Against Extractivism in Latin America. Dialogo 22.1 (DePaul University, 2019.) He is currently Assistant Professor of Languages and Literatures at UNC Asheville. 

Xti Saquirisan Na Pe / Planicie de olvido © Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez

Translations from Spanish © Paul Worley and Juan G. Sánchez M. ~ Siwar Mayu ~ May 2021

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