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Linguistic rights
12 min read

Being Jts’ibajom te jbats’I k’optik

What is it to be Jts’ibajom te jbats’I k’optik – meaning, what is it to be a writer writing in one’s indigenous language? Does it entail a certain responsibility? Resistance? Defense? Taking a stand? Ruperta Bautista, writer, translator, and anthropologist, tells us what it means for her to write in her mother tongue Tsotsil.

Credits Text: Ruperta Bautista Translation from Spanish: William Gregory Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson October 18 2019

Jts’ibajom te jbats’I k’optik. A small number of people – those who have known the pain of making the anguished decision of choosing to carve out a space in an unfamiliar setting, uncharted thanks to racism and the exclusion of indigenous peoples – will understand the meaning of this phrase as I do.

Those people – the ones who blazed a new trail – realised that from a young age they carried within them a restless desire to write, based on their own thoughts and feelings. They realised, too, that doing this would require great effort, and the scaling of great walls, because this wish to write in their own language meant entering a maze of mockery, rejection and humiliation. And how could it not, when literature is or was the preserve of those privileged enough not to be members of an indigenous people? It is at this moment that a young member of a indigenous people begins their struggle. Despite poverty, inequality, deprivation and being forgotten, they rise up with the only tool they have – the word – to demonstrate that they are equally capable of artistic expression by writing from within their own selves – their selves accompanied by all the other selves of their ancestors, denied and erased by the obstruction of history.

Jts’ibajom te jbats’I k’optik, meaning Tzotzil writer in indigenous languages, is more than just posting a profile pic and getting eighty thousand likes on social media. It is much more than that. Being Jts’ibajom te jbats’I k’optik is an expression of responsibility, of commitment and respect for words, for our words, for the words of our peoples. To make our words an instrument of resilience, to be spoken out loud against the atrocities of an unequal society; spoken out loud to make fair demands for the well-being of our peoples, so we can be firm in knowing and being ourselves; spoken out loud to demand respect for our peoples without the need for pretending or for mimicking the ways of the other, of the kaxlan (someone who does not belong to the community, an outsider).

It is the act of resisting, of insisting that we exist as ourselves and not by copying the thoughts, deeds, acts, words or feelings of others; resisting the integrationist politics of our education systems filled with symbols that come from outside and that our children are forced subtly to venerate; resisting political systems stuffed with strategies to deprive us of our peoples and our territories, and even of our words.

For indigenous peoples, resisting through words has been so urgent and vital at various moments of our history, because our territories have been occupied and encroached upon for centuries and continue to be so today under different circumstances. It arises from a relationship with an other that has cultural, social, economic and political advantages.

Being Jts’ibajom te jbats’I k’optik means writing the Poetry born in the heart of our history, resisting and cleansing our people’s souls and spirits in the face of a materialistic society that imposes death.

Being Jts’ibajom te jbats’i k’optik means writing in the language of our grandparents, where the suffering of the indigenous people is made manifest; to forget is death; language as resistance allows us a ray of hope.

Being Jts’ibajom te jbats’I k’optik means taking a position that stems from the centre of our thoughts and feelings about literature. So I believe writers have a duty to demonstrate against oppression. To raise our voices from the birthplace of silence.

Being Jts’ibajom te jbats’I k’optik means acknowledging this and other excluded languages. It is in of itself an act of resistance against the imposition of the dominant tongue. When it reaches the eyes of other people, writing in indigenous languages allows us to demonstrate that in Mexico the people who were here before the colonialists are still resisting, and to demonstrate that there is not one single language, but several languages, all alive despite marginalisation, exclusion and the imposition of one single tongue.

In response to the many faces of colonialism that others have imposed upon us up until today, I want to share a text with you that I wrote a few years ago.

Initial Letter to the Guardian

A few years ago, when your heartbeat was still close to mine, I sent you my letter. But one of your daughters, trained to cheat and lie, ambushed the words and messages of that missive. And you did not receive the letter I wrote for you.

Now I am here again, writing the Initial Letter to you, Sacred Guardian of time, mother of protection, advisor to the wise, sower of peace and harmony. I write to you in the hope that this time it will reach your eyes. The ink that I write with today revolves around the constant battle of your first-born daughters and sons, who have suffered from the violence of the younger children who were born on the wrong date. They came here to these lands five hundred and twenty-five years ago. They are the ones who rule now based on an error. They are the ones who feel and have the needless urge to compete among themselves. They are the ones who want to feel they are unique and the most important. The ones who spread themselves now through war, hatred and destruction in every place where your oldest children still live: those first-born children who protect your body, your face, your skin and your life-blood.

The ones who were born on the wrong date impose misery in all the different ways they have invented. One of their inventions is their regime, this regime that has various weapons, which they call economic, political, social, military, environmental and many others, and which extend their claws to destroy the balance of the coexistence between people, animals and plants. Those born on the wrong date treat plants and animals as their property. They do not know that they still have understood nothing of existence. Those who were born on the wrong date impose their dominion and steal lands, water and trees from your children who protect them and live with you. They have forgotten the teachings that you revealed to us at the beginning of time: the respect at the centre of our essence. The respect that extends to all our brothers and sisters of other colours, of other sizes, of other ways of thinking, of other feelings, of other words and other deeds. Those who were born on the wrong date, with their minds imprisoned in their hatred, their system, their disorganisation, their chaos and their evil, are wont to destroy themselves, to destroy us and destroy you; they are suggestive in themselves.

Those who were born on the wrong date steal all of your clothing, which nourishes and feeds your eldest children and the beings that live within you. They are the prepubescents who do not yet know their Ch’ulel[1]; in their desire for hatred they are guided to cause destruction in all your territory, your liberty, your autonomy and your sovereignty, and in that of all the different peoples who inhabit your face. Those born on the dubious date plot and draw times of war, destruction and theft. With their systems of government and their insolent power based on money. They impose falseness and destroy the community organisation that you taught us since the earliest times. Those who were born on the uncertain date do not know that money does not sow life, money does not rehabilitate the earth, money does not shape the flow of water, money does not germinate corn, money does not raise and shape the air. Those who were born on the date of confusion are ruled by and fixed within this regime, and this method of clumsy, falsified imagery leads them to destroy themselves. And as they do, they devastate the others who coexist in your territory-body and live with you.

Sacred Guardian. We are your children who have come down to walk in your feet, your beginning and your roots, roots in which the knowledge and flow of the universe were forged and took root, where the grandparents of our grandparents rose up and were born. We have realised that the established order governed by individualism, monetary capital and political power is merely a way of taking control of all of your territory and resources without any respect for life. Those who were born on the incorrect date are those who believe themselves to be superior to plants, animals and everything that coexists in nature. They are the ones who do not realise their own ignorance, backwardness, short-sightedness, barbarism and imposition; they drown in their seeming ‘civilisation’. They are the ones who shed blood in many places and kill in order to steal territories. They bear the mark of death on their bodies, in their minds and in their hearts. They design genocidal techniques to steal the water that crosses the mountains of ancestral peoples. They deny respect to the lives of women, men, children, the old, animals, plants and other living beings on the planet.

Sacred guardian of time, mother of protection, advisor to the wise, sower of peace and harmony. The long, five hundred and twenty-five-year struggle of the indigenous peoples, of Syol jch’ulmetik[2]and Abya Yala[3], has been and is a long road. The cause of this long struggle: the imposition of the ignorance accumulated in the minds of the ‘civilised’. Those who were born on the wrong day. Those who are generous to themselves and immerse themselves in their ‘civilisation’, guided by the path of destruction. They advance constantly in their catastrophe, democratising themselves in the architecture of unstoppable wars against peoples and nations. They are rich in their thoughtlessness and salivate storms of extermination. Powerful capitalists (and the not so powerful: their workers) who bestow and scatter death in the faces and bodies of the humblest of their young. The powerful, who dream of their coins soaked in the blood of entire peoples. The affluent, who spread themselves to protect their flows of systematic violation, with no respect for persons, peoples, nations and every one of us as members of the indigenous peoples. Powerful millionaires who hide behind their violent form of exploitation. Millionaires who sniff at their brutal empire. In their phobia they reply with bombs, murders and genocides against the peoples who have inhabited territories since ancestral times. The rich in their river of vulgarity and selfishness that centres on responding to their own personal, egotistical needs. Their imagination is strengthened by and concerns itself with opportunities to steal lands, sovereignty and equality from the brothers and sisters who have cared for the survival of community lands. The powerful in their cowardice who violate and impoverish the Peoples who were born before the arrival of those who imposed themselves upon us. The exploiters who direct their hatred and set out a plan to oppress, persecute, imprison and kidnap those who protect knowledge and wisdom. They snatch away those who know of the urgent need to protect you and your children from the outrageous techniques of extermination at the hands of the plunderers.

Sacred guardian of time, mother of protection, advisor to the wise, sower of peace and harmony. My heart rushes to alter the path so we may meeting again and to change our course before it destroys you.

From this small territory called Chiapas, I will visualise your answers in the clouds, I will hear your voice in the whistle of the wind, I will listen to you in the birdsong.

I am deeply grateful to you for listening. Humbly I write to you, the grown-up little one of your children.

[1]In Tzotzil, the ch’ulelis the inner soul and the counterpart to the wayhel, the animal-spirit companion.

[2]Tzotzil, literally nucleus of the moon, the moon being the mother of all people.

[3]Originally from the Guna word, the term Abya Yala is now used by many indigenous peoples to refer to the continent of America.

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