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A Conversation with Juan Gregorio Regino, Mazatec Poet
June 25, 1998
Juan Gregorio Regino is a Mazatec writer born in Nuevo Paso Nazareno (Chichicazapa), San Miguel Soyaltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. He is from the same people as the famous (late) Mazatec Wise Woman, María Sabina, who healed in trance using the sacred mushrooms of their region; her "chant language" is the language of the Mazatec ceremonial tradition, beautifully powerful in its inherent poetry. Regino is currently the deputy director for Development of Indigenous Cultures of the General Directorate of Popular and Indigenous Cultures of CONACULTA (the national commission for culture and the arts).
Regino is past president of Escritores en Lenguas Indígenas, Asociación Civil (ELIAC), the national association of Writers in Indigenous Languages of Mexico, as well as past president of the Advisory Board to the association. For those in the United States, ELIAC is similar in some ways to the national Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, with branches that focus on professional development; mentoring through genre workshops; local, regional, and national literary gatherings; a national literary journal, and a publication series, to name some of its activities. This association emerged most visibly in the early 1990s, out of a community-based movement of Indigenous writers, many of them beginning as bilingual teachers and ethnolinguists, all of them dedicated to linguistic revitalization and the promotion and defense of the use of Indigenous languages in all aspects of the lives of Indigenous peoples, including the use of Native languages in the creation of contemporary literature. In April of 1999 the association submitted a "Legislative Initiative on the Recognition of the Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Communities of Mexico" to the national House of Representatives. In March2003 this initiative became law with only minor modifications to the original proposal. One of the outcomes of this legislation [End Page 121] has been the establishment of the Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (National Institute for Indigenous Languages). In many ways, Regino has served as the institutional memory of the association because he has authored the group's major documents.
Regino is a poet, essayist, ethnolinguist, and activist on behalf of Indigenous languages and literatures; he is author of the Mazatec alphabet and of two books of poetry, Tatsjejin nga kjabuya: No es eterna la muerte (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1992), and Ngata'ara stsee: Que siga lloviendo (Mexico City: ELIAC and UNESCO, 1999), both bilingual publications in Mazatec and Spanish. He won the 1996 Nezahualcoyotl National Prize for Literature in Indigenous Languages (Mexico), and he helped establish the María Sabina Prize for Mazatec Literature. Some of his work has been translated into French, English, and Catalán. He is included in In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature—Pre-Columbian to the Present (ed. Miguel León-Portilla and Earl Shorris [New York: W. W. Norton, 2001]). In July2002 Regino participated in the Language Consultation: Our Living Languages, Our Living Culture conferences, which was convened by the University of Tulsa and took place in Oklahoma City (Uchi professor and language activist Richard Grounds was one of the organizers of this event).1
INE´S HERNA´NDEZ-AVILA: First, tell me a bit about yourself, about your trajectory as a writer and how you became involved in all of this.
JUAN GREGORIO REGINO: I started writing in 1987, practically right after having received a degree in linguistics. During my studies I conducted an investigation on phonology in the Mazatec language, but I also began writing poetry. It was really a way of developing something much more profound in both fields of investigation, to begin to produce, to begin to create things.
The phonological study I produced had as an objective to establish an alphabet in the Mazatec language. The previous attempts didn't manifest much knowledge of our people; the majority of the teachers were...