“It’s no coincidence that we’re meeting right next to the church dedicated to the Virgin of Solitude,” author Sandra Cisneros told the group crowded into the living room of a 300-year-old home in Oaxaca City, Mexico. “I often wonder, ‘Isn’t the Virgin of Solitude the patron saint of writers?’ Because we have to spend so many hours alone.”
For three days in mid-November, 15 women set aside writerly solitude to attend the first gathering of Macondo-in-Oaxaca. “I had always intended for Macondo to become an international community of writers,” Sandra says of the writers’ workshop she founded in 1998 at her kitchen table in San Antonio—also with a group of 15 writers.
Elena Poniatowska, author of more than 35 books, led a seminar at the July 2010 Macondo Workshop in San Antonio. That same month, Sandra invited me to organize a small gathering of indigenous writers in Oaxaca for the following year. I, in turn, invited Mexican-Zapotec poet and translator Irma Pineda to collaborate with me. For 18 months, Irma and I worked from our respective kitchen tables in Seattle, Washington and Juchitán, Oaxaca, to bring Sandra’s vision to fruition. Key ingredients: a grant from San Antonio’s National Association for Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC), and Irma’s wide network as former president of Mexico’s national association of writers who work in indigenous languages—known by its Spanish acronym ELIAC.
Macondo’s mission, Sandra says, is to support and unite writers “who view their work and talents as part of a larger task of community-building and non-violent social change.” Macondo-in-Oaxaca brought this vision to Mexico, inviting women who write poetry, plays and short stories in Spanish, Tojolab’al, Tzotzil, Zapotec and Zoque to discuss the challenges they face. As most of Mexico’s 60 native languages (and language families) are endangered, these writers are staving off linguistic extinction. For years I have visited Mexican bookstores and requested their books. Usually booksellers stare blankly. Sometimes I’m directed to the anthropology and ethnography section. Only once have I been directed to the poetry shelf.
Writer Mikeas Sánchez’s experiences exemplify these writers’ struggle for acceptance—both inside and outside Native communities. From the state of Tabasco, Mikeas is one of approximately 45,000 speakers of Zoque, but as far as she knows, the only poet working in her language. She published her first book five years ago, at age 26. Mikeas’ mother—who is illiterate and does not speak Spanish—passed on her gift for story to her daughter. Still, the concept of “authorship” doesn’t exist in her mother’s world. “My community doesn’t read me, but they do hear me,” Mikeas explained to her peers in Oaxaca.
A single mother, she works long days as a producer at a trilingual Spanish-Tzotzil-Zoque radio station, creating audio stories about Zoque narratives, art and history. To make time for poetry, she goes to bed when her four-year-old daughter does, rising at 3 a.m. to write until dawn.
Author and singer Roselia Jiménez Pérez writes poetry and childen’s books in Tojolab’al, a Mayan language spoken by about 45,000 people in Chiapas. Roselia was one of the first women to participate in national gatherings of Mexican indigenous writers, more than two decades ago. She considers it crucial for indigenous women to write and disseminate their work and to maintain deep connections to their communities. She has traveled to France, Italy and elsewhere to perform, but says, “For me, that’s not the important thing. I like to stay in my community because there is so much work to be done there.”
A career public school teacher, Roselia was forced into early retirement two years ago, at age 50, because of her community activism. She now devotes herself full-time to community organizing. She served as a volunteer advisor to the Zapatistas in the mid-1990s, during their negotiations with the Mexican government for the San Andres Accords, the peace agreement that resulted from the Zapatistas’ armed uprising in 1994. At Macondo-in-Oaxaca, Roselia recounted her experience. When she left one meeting, a taxi driver kidnapped her and turned her over to military captors. Convinced they would kill her, she decided that she had to attempt escape, even if they shot her. “I just ran away,” she told the group, “because I remembered that I’m a brave woman. I learned that from my mother.”
Seventy years ago, Roselia’s mother escaped an abusive first husband when she went to the city for a market errand and never returned home. She created a new urban life for herself, though she was illiterate, spoke no Spanish and had taken nothing with her. In different ways, all the Native women writers who gathered for Macondo-in-Oaxaca have taken similar bold action in their lives, stepping outside familiar, confining roles and taking risks for their art—and for their communities.
The Macondo Writers Workshop plans to bring several of the writers to San Antonio, Seattle and other U.S. cities in 2012 to share their multilingual literature.
Wendy Call is author of No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy, winner of the 2011 Grub Street National Book Prize for Nonfiction, co-editor of the craft anthology Telling True Stories and translator of Irma Pineda’s Zapotec-Spanish poetry into English.