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  • “I Am Those We Are Here”Multiplying Indigenous Voices through Poetic Translation
  • Clare E. Sullivan (bio)

Translation, indigenous, poetry, bilingual, self-translation, Zapotec

In the poem that gives a title to this essay, “Soy los que estamos aquí” (“I Am Those We Are Here”), Enriqueta Lunez speaks to the vibrancy of her Tsotsil culture and language. Though the indigenous cultures of Mexico are often praised in the past tense they are very much alive today. The poem begins:

We are not dead in the pastnor do we play at an appearance in this world.We are,and it weighs upon the back of calendars,upon the tender ignorance of unrecorded time.


Her title holds the key to the message of this poem: cultural identity and success are a communal pursuit, and one that is intimately tied to language. The challenge of balancing individual ego with community goals is echoed by [End Page 195] the inconsistent use of the grammatical subject in the title: “I am” (firstperson singular) takes on a plural pronoun (“I am they”) and in the subordinate clause the subject shifts to first-person plural “we are.” The Tsotsil people can only be recognized (and continue to exist) if their collective voice is heard. But the predominance of English and Spanish and the globalization of culture would seem to mediate against this survival.

Two poets who work actively to keep their languages alive are Enriqueta Lunez (Tsotsil) and Natalia Toledo (Isthmus Zapotec). To be heard, both these women don’t just write poetry but also translate their own verse into Spanish. The field of translation studies has seldom examined the role of auto-translation in the production of literary works and the promotion of languages.1 To grasp how this double role affects the translation process it is necessary to engage in a deep and detailed textual analysis.

In his book Translation and Identity, Michael Cronin posits the idea of a micro-cosmopolitan perspective where diversity is promoted at the local level. Such a capacity to recognize, react to, and sometimes absorb difference is both a logical and necessary reaction in a complex and interactive world. Cronin writes: “A micro-cosmopolitan perspective admits the importance and complexity of the local as a basis for the formation of solidary relationships but allows for the trans-local spread of those relationships, i.e. for the establishment of solidarities that are not either local or global but both local and global” (Cronin 2006, 19). This perspective is germane to the many indigenous communities in Mexico where more than one language is spoken in each community. In a Tsotsil community in Chiapas, for example, people may speak one language at home (i.e., Tsotsil) and another at school (probably Spanish). They might even speak Tsotsil with some family members and Spanish with others or a mix of the two.

In the case of indigenous peoples of Mexico, the idea of the other is a complicated question since there are several layers of language and culture within each community, not to mention across the country as a whole. Indigenous poets are at least bilingual in their mother tongue and Spanish. Though most consider the indigenous language to be their first language that is not always the case, and even those who were raised in that language must function on a daily basis in Spanish. As writers, they must translate their [End Page 196] poetry into Spanish if it is to be received by the rest of Mexico and even often by their own communities, where literacy in indigenous languages is experiencing a steep decline.2

Due to the dominant influence of Spanish and English, many people in indigenous communities are not passing their own language on to their children. There are also barriers set up by the Mexican government via an educational system that sends public school teachers to communities where they don’t speak the language. Once in their school assignment, even if they do speak the native tongue, these teachers do not have materials to teach children in their language and must rely on Spanish-language materials or create their own lessons and makeshift textbooks...


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pp. 195-211
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