Good things come in small packages

A colourful display of books at Taller Leñateros (from Wikimedia Commons)

This post is about two small, beautiful publications that come packed with great significance. These are two books by the publishing collective Taller Leñateros (translated as ‘Firewood Collectors/Peddlers Worskhop’) in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Taller Leñateros publishes the first books produced, written, illustrated, printed and bound entirely by Mayan people in 400 years1, and was founded in 1975 by Mexican poet Ambar Past.

Chiapas, as the perifery of the perifery, is known to the world because of the EZLN (the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation) who democratically control a substantial part of this Southern Mexican territory in the name of local indigenous rights. The geographical position of Taller Leñateros in this rural area is of high importance in this context2, considering as well that most of the publishing industry of the country is located in Mexico City, where literary production is mandated by big national publishers, some of them linked to mainstream publishing multinationals. 

Leñateros produce their own paper recycling old books and using natural fibres that they collect from the area or from their own workshop garden: madrone-wood, banana leaves, reeds, grass, papyrus, rattan, mahagua, corn husks and more, even old clothes.  Quoting from their website: “[…] Among [Taller Leñateros’] multiple objectives we’ll mention the documentation, praise and dissemination of Amerindian and popular cultural values: song, literature and plastic arts; the rescue of old and endangered techniques such as the extraction of dyes from wild plants; and generating worthwhile and decently paid employment for women and men who have no studies, no career, no future.” The collective creates their images based on ancient pre-Hispanic sources, on motifs from Mayan embroidery and ceramics and on natural world patterns, such as shells or leaves. They print them using different techniques such as xylography and flower petal printing. Often, they bind their books using cardboard, and in this sense, it can be argued that Leñateros are some sort of proto-cartonera publisher and therefore fittingly complement the Library’s cartonera collection (see earlier posts here). 

Hechizo para matar al hombre infiel (F200.e.18.1 ) measures 12x7cm and its title translates as ‘Spell to kill the unfaithful man’. It contains charms in Tzotzil language translated into Spanish, which originally formed part of the publication Conjuros y ebriedades, cantos de mujeres mayas (1998, ‘Spells and inebriations, songs by Mayan women’), and is a compilation of songs by living Mayan women.  From the colophon we learn that the production and edition of this publication involved the work of many hands: five women contributed to illustrations and prints, five to the edition and design, four to the production of paper, five to the bounding and six men (five of whom belonging to the same family) to the final printing. Since its beginnings in 1975, Taller Leñateros has employed around 200 Mayan families. Here is one brief incantation in Tzotzil language, with parallel Spanish and English translation: 

Oxlajuneb Me’ Riapo,

Oxlajuneb Me’ Pukuj

Talel

Ta xtup’ sbie,

Ta xtup’ ti yalele

Que trece Diablos Mujer

Que trece Diosas

de la Muerte

Borren

Su Nombre

May thirteen Devil-Women

Thirteen Goddesses

of Death

Wipe out

His Name

Sueño conjuros desde el vientre de mi madre, (2018.8.2969, roughly translated as ‘I dream spells since I was I my mother’s womb’) is a captivating publication. The book comes in a custom cardboard box with a pixelated portrait printed on the front. When we open the box, we find a most unusual book cover: a relief sculpture of a mask, with a cut-out opening at the mouth, made from cardboard and corn silk. From the prologue to Conjuros y ebriedades, cantos de mujeres mayas, written by acclaimed Mexican author Elena Poniatowska, we learn that the sculpture was inspired by a wooden mask found amongst Mayan shamans in Guatemala and it is said to represent Goddess Kaxali, Mother of the Earth, and was converted into the book cover by artist Gitte Daehlin, in collaboration with Taller Leñateros. The publication contains new as well as old songs or recitations from the Mayan oral tradition, which cannot be traced back to an author or a date. Recordings of these songs, made between 1975 and 2010, feature in a CD included in the publication.

Publications by Taller Leñateros feature in many libraries and museums around the world and they have been awarded many prizes. However, distribution of publications by independent publishers in Mexico, as in many other parts of the world, is a most difficult landscape to navigate3. Leñateros have resorted to printing notebooks, diaries and other paper products to diversify their production, but the pandemic and the greatly reduced influx of tourism to the area would have surely had a huge impact on them. Nonetheless, we hope that these women will continue to keep their oral traditions alive and that there is a spell for difficult times.

Clara Panozzo

[1] From http://tallerlenateros.com/

[2] Nuala Finnegan, and Jane E. Lavery. The Boom Femenino in Mexico: Reading Contemporary Women’s Writing (p.168). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

[3] See https://globalpressjournal.com/americas/mexico/independent-publishing-houses-in-mexico-promote-democratization-of-books-at-annual-fair/



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