Imagine taking a trip back in time to the Mayan civilization, around 750 BC. You would witness the construction of monumental architecture, including large temples. But you might have a few challenges: reading the hieroglyphic writing native to the residents of these ancient cities. Because of this, a group of indigenous women-run workshops dedicated to documenting and disseminating the language (specifically Tzotzil), culture, and oral history of this ancient time period.

Inspiration for the project

The book- and papermaking workshop, Taller Leñateros, is Mexico’s first and only Tzotzil Maya collective to focus primarily on documenting the Mayan language. Founded in 1975 by Mexican-American poet Ambar Past, the workshop uses recycled materials to make entirely new books. In the beginning, Past didn’t know much about the Tzotzil language, but she was eager to learn while living for 30 years in Chiapas, Mexico.

She met numerous indigenous women of San Cristobal’s surrounding villages, and she began to learn their language. The women knew their language, but they didn’t know how to read or write Tzotzil. They would communicate only by the tongue, but they never had to write their language on paper. They were talented writers and poets, but they could never visually see their writing on paper.

Inspired by this, Past decided to use her knowledge of poetry to record and translate Tzotzil poetry spoken by these indigenous women. She hoped she could one day publish a modern-day Mayan book of poetry. Not only did she want to document a part of history, but she also wanted to educate others on the language—hoping it would provide a new perspective of the Mayan civilization.

Working for 20 years

Past knew this wasn’t an easy task. She set up a workshop in San Cristobal, where she transcribed and translated the recordings of 150 women reciting their poetry. Once she was finished, the women contributed to the project by producing a book using ancient Mayan bookbinding techniques. It was a collaboration between both parties, but over the course of 20 years, the women became close friends.

After 20 years, the women finished their book, Incantations: Songs, Spells, and Images by Mayan Women. For the first time in over 400 years, people had a book entirely written, produced, and published by indigenous women. The book includes 295 handmade pages and silkscreen illustrations of Tzotzil women’s stories of love, death, birth, marriage, sex, and survival.

“We may have changed and adapted to modern times, but our language, traditions, and way of life essentially remain the same,” said Petra, one of the project’s volunteers. “Recording our Tzotzil language, and bookbinding itself, is the only way we know how to protect that heritage.”

Reviving a lost literary tradition

Honoring their heritage and traditions has been the primary goal for the indigenous women involved in the project. They wanted to revive a lost literary tradition—a piece of history that has been long forgotten until today. Petra adds, “We want to encourage our people to reconnect with their own culture, and to be proud of it.”

The women continue to make more books, donating some copies to indigenous communities. They want people to be proud of their heritage and to teach their children to also be proud of their culture. Petra says, “Because it is they who now have the responsibility of keeping it alive.”

Today, Past and her team of 150 Tzotzil women hope their bookbinding workshop will be appealing to anyone who walks past it. Many of the women in their culture are fighting legal battles and searching for ways to strive against long odds. If they want to share their poetry or music with others, they never had the opportunity. Thanks to Past and others, the women can keep the Mayan culture alive—all through the written word.