Mikeas Sánchez’s English-Language Debut Poetry Collection Centers Indigenous Resistance

Mikeas Sánchez's "How to be a Savage and Other Poems" is her English-language debut

Mikeas Sánchez poetry collection

 Credit: Mikeas Sánchez; Milkweed Editions | Courtesy

Based in Chiapas, Mexico, Mikeas Sánchez is a Zoque poet who is the only woman in history to write and publish a book of Zoque-language poetry. This past January, she published her latest collection, How to Be a Good Savage and Other Poems, marking the first time her work has been translated into English. Each poem is in Mikeas Sánchez’s original Zoque and Spanish versions, side-by-side with the English translations by Wendy Call and Shook. In this way, the book is her reclamation not only of her language but also of her roots and beliefs. Along the way, she also explores the intersections between the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Mexico with the rise of colonialism and oppression of Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and refugees everywhere.

“[This book] is sharing the magic of my culture so that readers may have the opportunity to reach my territory just by saying Tzitzunhkotzäjk. When they pronounce it, they will feel the power of Pyokpatzyuwe, the lady who cares for the volcano El Chichón, because when we name the sacred spaces, they listen to us and help us remember that we are connected energetically,” Sánchez tells HipLatina. “Poetry is a universal language that has the ability to connect human beings, so I am very confident that those who read the book will be able to feel my territory up close, and perhaps even be allies for its protection.”

Sánchez grew up in the Mexican state of Chiapas in the town of Ajway, more commonly known as Chapultenango, shortly after the eruption of the volcano El Chichón in 1982. It’s often credited as the largest natural disaster in Mexico’s history, as it killed almost 2,000 people and nine Zoque villages. Nonetheless, the volcano is believed to have sacred feminine energy and appears many times throughout her new collection like in the poem “Mokaya”: “There will my ancestors await / celebrating an endless fiesta / under Chichón’s skirt.”

From the beginning, this tragedy, which continues to affect the lives of Zoque people, is what pushed her to want to become a writer and tell the stories of her community. Starting as far back as high school, she enjoyed writing short stories and developed her craft with the encouragement of one of her literature teachers, who often lent her books. But it wasn’t until she went to college that she discovered poetry, growing to the form so naturally that her first poems ended up being published in the school magazine. She went on to write and publish several books of poetry in her native Zoque and Spanish, as well as travel all over the world to share her work abroad. At this time, she most enjoyed writing love poems and vulnerable self-reflections about her life.

While these experiences helped her work evolve, she credits her eventual return home to Ajway in 2016 as inciting a fundamental change in her work. Up until then, she had carried “my childhood memories where everything was wonderful: the rain, the perfect temperate climate, the stories my mother told me. I wanted to go back to that childhood, I dreamed of coming back.” Remembering those beautiful moments kept her close to her cultural identity even when out in the wider world.

But when she did return, what she discovered was cruel evidence that outsiders, including the Mexican federal government, had abused their traditional lands through mining, fracking, and destructive oil and gas projects. Not only was the land suffering, but its Zoque caretakers were feeling the consequences of violent ecological destruction.

“My romantic idea of Ajway fell apart. I found a fragmented territory with few children talking Zoque, less rain, more heat, threats from extractive projects. My writing evolved because I also evolved from seeing poetry as something intimate and personal to a common good,” she says.

In many ways, it has also affected how she writes poems. Coming from a lineage of family healers, she uses musical elements like pacing and rhythm to mimic their traditional prayers and oral storytelling practices, such as sharing stories around the fire. The same, she explains, is true for how she gets inspired to write them.

“A poem begins with a memory, an idea. I pursue the aromas, the colors, the sounds, the sensations, and emotions…and like the rivers, they all flow into the sea. I usually let them rest in that sea, sometimes for weeks, months, even years. Sometimes it happens to me that I return to a poem and I do not recognize it at all, even being surprised to have written it.”

Of course, being a bilingual Zoque and Spanish speaker since the age of seven, language always plays a big part in the creation of her work as she essentially acts as both a writer and translator simultaneously. Sometimes she starts a poem in one language, only for it to end up in another to honor its linguistic needs, creative energy, and what it wants the rhythm to sound like.

Even so, readers will find that select Zoque words, many of which reference their stories and mythology from over 3,500 years, still appear within the Spanish and English translations of many of her poems. This is especially true in another stanza of “Mokaya”: “I bless the day of my birth / that rainy September when the Tzujsnäpajk River / overflowed its memory and made me into a girl / descended from Pyokpatzyuwe / guardian of the mountains and Tzitzunh.”

Throughout the collaboration process with her book’s two translators, this was an ongoing question of when to translate Zoque, when not to, if it would confuse or alienate readers. Luckily, they decided to solve the problem by providing a glossary of notes at the back of the book, where readers can learn the definitions of Zoque words, as well as understand certain aspects of their mythology and references to land names that Sánchez uses throughout her poem. For her part, leaving these words in wasn’t only an intentional choice, but also a necessary one.

“Many words in Zoque have a particular energy, a vibration that connects with the territory. If it is replaced by another word, it loses that energy, that force, that vitality that gives meaning to its existence. And we do not speak of any word, but of names of mountains, of rivers, of sacred spaces.” In this way, she adds, “Writing in Zoque helped me to find my own voice, return to the origin, and communicate with the mountains, the river, and the Pyiokpatzyuwe volcano.”

In addition to writing poetry, Sánchez is a fierce advocate for Zoque language revitalization, speaking it in her role as a bilingual radio host and developing Zoque-language curriculum for elementary schools. She’s also done important work for land defense and restoration in Chiapas. Even today, Zoque traditional lands continue to be threatened by federal abuse and exploitation. As a result, she’s led many campaigns protesting industrial projects like mining and fracking, not only for the sake of the land but also for the protection of her community. Not to mention the development of her writing craft, which is the beating heart at the center of all the different aspects of her work. But she emphasizes that she doesn’t claim any title or name when it comes down to it. In the end, she’s only following her calling.

“I don’t consider myself a defender of the earth, nor a guardian; rather I am convinced that it is the opposite, that it is the land that protects me, the one that has guided me to where I am,” she explains. “I don’t do anything extraordinary, I just thank that earth energy that sustains life with my poems. Of course that resonates as activism, but I honestly don’t think Nasakopajk needs my poetry. I am the one who needs this strength to stay alive and I get that strength as I name it.”

Sánchez is currently a part of Mexico’s most prestigious arts program, Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Artes, whose participants contribute in some way to the country’s creative identity through their work and have influence abroad. As part of the program, she is working on a project highlighting the ongoing problems that Zoque communities are facing in Chiapas. Her passion for her work, her people, and her land keep her writing and wanting to increase visibility of a culture that has so long been erased in Mexico’s national identity. For her and many other Indigenous writers, she emphasizes that you cannot separate Indigenous writers from that act of resilience and fight against invisibility. She notes:

“Indigenous writers are heirs to the resistance. There is no distinction. We come from persecuted families who have been spiritually violated. Since we were children, we have learned to survive adversities and generate mechanisms of physical and intellectual resistance. We have adapted to the world in which we were born, not easily, but out of necessity. But after this long night of abuse, we finally learned to use the tools and technology of today’s times. Writing is the technology that personally works for me to keep resisting. My writing creates a bridge to show the culture I belong to. With the nascent literature of native peoples, we went from being objects of observation and food of folklore and historical subjects to possessors of philosophy capable of writing literature and creating art…and we are still here, resisting.”

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