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The Black Olive Tree and Other Memories

The black olive tree is gone. But it didn’t even hit me until winter when I was back in Louisville, Kentucky. In November I went to Juchitán, Oaxaca for the first time in order to see the places that Natalia Toledo writes about in her poetry. I am translating her collection of poems Olivo negro from Spanish to English with the help of an NEA grant. She wrote the originals in her native Zapotec and translated them herself into Spanish, and I hope to publish a trilingual version. Though she has written more than four books of poetry, Olivo negro is what the author describes as “a well-rounded book” since it provides a foundation for her other writing by recreating the landscape of her childhood, its sounds, sights, games, foods and customs.

I cannot believe that I hadn’t even remembered that I never got to see that central tree. She named the book for it because it was the place where children gathered to hear stories and where fishermen came to repair their nets. It was a center of communication and commerce that no longer exists.

When we visited Juchitán, it was unseasonably hot for November. I couldn’t help wondering if the lost trees contributed to the heat. That and the fact that the dirt paths the children used to follow between the houses have been converted to cement.

How strange that Natalia’s tree, her community’s tree, no longer exists. It was also the place where Don Juan Michi, the keeper of the oral tradition with his intense blue eyes, used to teach the children with his stories. Was there a ruckus when that tree was cut down? Or were people too busy playing their Gameboys and talking on their cell phones? I don’t want to rant about globalization, an easy target, but what has been lost as indigenous communities become more modern and more mobile?

Perhaps Mexican novelist Cecilia Urbina is right. Indigenous people simply hold themselves back if they refuse to modernize. They have nothing to gain by hiding in their villages and clinging to their mother tongues. But what do they forget when they forget their native languages?

Before I made that trip to Juchitán, I spent three days in Oaxaca City with a group of indigenous women writers from all over Mexico, sharing poetry, meals and stories. There must have been some reason that all of us were brought together for those three days in a Oaxacan apartment. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the apartment shares a wall with the centuries-old convent of La Virgin de la Soledad. By the end of the first day, we had agreed that she was a fitting patron saint for writers and named her ours. It was no coincidence that we met on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 2011. Nor that our gathering took place during a full moon. Each woman brought a distinct energy and combined it into something bright and strong.

There is another story I forgot until I was back home: It’s about Roselia, who is a formidable woman. I must admit that she intimidated me a little when she sat down beside me on the couch that first day in Oaxaca. But by the third day she told a story that made her vulnerable to all of us. Roselia was born to an indigenous family in Chiapas. When she arrived, the fifth girl, there was no cause for celebration. Instead, her father ordered her mother to feed Roselia to the dogs. Of course, her mother disobeyed him. And Roselia, who is a singer as well as a poet, dedicated the poem she sang to us that day to her mother. A strong fighter, 95 years old.

I will not forget that story now. But what is the point of my remembering it in English? It is convenient or even quaint to hear such a story third-hand, translated from Tojalab’al into Spanish then into English. That story gave Roselia back her power. When we heard her words they chilled us. But we felt admiration for the woman she had become. That little indigenous girl went on to study education and became a teacher and cultural promoter. She is even a member of the National Association of Writers in Indigenous Languages based in Mexico City, and has received national grants for her work.

Gradually, other women began to share their stories as well. Though we came together as individuals from different languages, cultures and countries the act of sharing our words created a new story. Celerina Patricia was sitting across the room from Roselia. I will remember her tale and share it with my students in English though it happened in a combination of Mixtec and Spanish and was told to us in Spanish.

Celerina grew up in the mountainous Mixtec region of Ñuu Savi (Nation of the Rain). When she was about seven or eight, her parents decided that it was time to move down to the Spanish-speaking pueblo so she could attend school. From the start, Celerina had a hard time fitting in. I can imagine her lumbering figure looking too old for her grade. She didn’t know any Spanish when she arrived. Since she didn’t wear shoes, the other kids stepped on her feet and called her ”stupid Indian.”

I will remember those words because they create a clear image of Celerina Patricia as a girl. In so many ways, she has left that girl behind. Celerina now has a degree in linguistics and experience as a writer. Interestingly, though, she has not published a collection of her poetry. When one of the more well-known writers of our group insisted that she should do so, she replied that she is afraid that other Mixtec writers will criticize her. She is also unsure exactly how to write for publication because there is no standardized spelling for her language.

Prompted by Luz María Lepe (the only other academic in our group) we answered questions about our beginnings as writers. Sonia Prudente, the youngest member of our group at twenty-three, told of how she had always dreamed about Natalia and Irma when she was a girl. More or less a generation ahead, they were her examples of Zapotec women writers in the community. Watching their example, Sonia began to write her own poems and stories. She didn’t show these to anyone but instead hid them under her bed in a box. One day, she came home to find that her mother had thrown them all away. I remember her story clearly. But it doesn’t sadden me like the others I’ve recounted. Probably because the event doesn’t seem to have dampened Sonia’s spirit at all. She is vibrant and enthusiastic as a writer and teacher. Interestingly, though, she is not confident in her ability to read aloud in Zapotec. When she read a published poem of hers she got very nervous.

When Mikeas Sánchez talked about her experiences as a writer and radio host in the Zoque language, what I remember is that her own family doesn’t know she is a writer. I think all of us were surprised by that admission. Mikeas is the only woman writing today in the Zoque language. She has been invited to many places around the world to read her poetry. Granted that now she spends most of her time running a radio station (where she doesn’t broadcast her own works) and raising her daughter. Nevertheless, it seems almost unbelievable to me that her own mother doesn’t know she is a writer. Especially given the fact that most of the Zoque stories she knows come from her mother’s oral tradition. She claims that her mother wouldn’t understand what it means to be a writer or why she wants to write. It almost seems that by daring to be writers these women are threatening to dismantle the cultural system that they’re trying to preserve.

Another writer who is faced with her family’s disapproval is Enriqueta Lunez, one of the most impressive young women I have ever met. Her presence exhuded both a gravity and a joy that I had never seen in someone with a girl’s face. She told us how she talks to her animals and recites her poetry to them. She keeps rabbits and chickens to help with expenses and to distract herself from her intellectual pursuits. After meeting her in person, I was surprised to realize that I had already heard a story about her. That she was one of the reasons we organized the workshop in the first place. She has travelled around the world reading her poetry and attending conferences. Last year, another poet ran into her in Mexico City at a conference and she was accompanied by her father. That other poet assumed her father must be along on business. But Enriqueta admitted that her new husband’s family wouldn’t allow her to travel without a male chaperone. Like her peers, Enriqueta must challenge her traditions at the same time she fights to keep her culture alive.

I am trying to think about how failing to remember words might erase something from a culture’s memory. A lot of words in Natalia’s book Olivo negro describe games, foods and customs that are rapidly fading. For example, she has a whole section on traditional children’s games. One, called “guendarapa xiiñi’” (“having children”), involved trying to accrue the fewest number of rocks (your “children”) in your hole. From what Natalia’s friend Víctor (also a writer in Zapotec) told me, not many kids play such games anymore.

Natalia’s poetry is also sprinkled with the names of foods from her region. “Tlayudas” and “garnachas” and black coco plums – foods not necessarily known even in other parts of Mexico. Though there seems to be a fierce pride around local dishes, they will probably not be served in twenty years. (There is now a WalMart in Juchitán.)

Our three days together in Oaxaca was a small step. But at least we have heard some of each other’s stories and now we can spread the word. This is the first time (to our knowledge) that a group of indigenous women gathered to talk of common concerns. We touched on themes common to writers of any gender or language. For example, solitude. As our patron saint, La Virgen de la Soledad, we need to make a sacred space to write. Sandra Cisneros complained that she would rather sell flowers or knick-knacks than be a writer. It’s hard and lonely work. But she makes that sacrifice because she has been given a gift.

Another theme that arose was guilt. It was at once traditional and modern. Some of us surmised that it came from our Catholic upbringing. We must be good and take care of those around us. Writing takes us out of the world for a while and into our own space. But, strangely enough, this dilemma has not been cured by advances in technology or equality. There seems to be even more to do and less time to do it. I think of Mikeas Sánchez, the Zoque writer who arises at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning to write. With the demands of radio station manager and mother, it’s the only time she has to herself.

The women I shared those days with do not have time to waste lamenting their situations. Instead, they do their best to create a valid and vibrant place for indigenous women writers in the midst of a complicated world. Enriqueta mentioned specifically that she wants to teach people that indigenous women are not just meek or abused or downtrodden as stereotypes might suggest. In spite of all the experiences they recounted—and maybe because of them—they are strong, and their voices are meant to be heard and remembered. When Roselia recorded the song she sang for us, she brought the male sound engineer to tears. He remembered how his mother-in-law sang his infant son to sleep in those syllables of Tojalab’al.

The black olive tree is gone but Natalia’s poems remain. The women I met are custodians of culture and of memory. In their poetry, as in their stories, they combine nurturing and insight with fierceness and fire. We cannot stop our cultures from meeting and changing but we can hope to use our languages to preserve dignity for all.

P.S. The gathering in Oaxaca City was organized by Wendy Call, writer and translator from Seattle, and Irma Pineda, Zapotec poet and teacher. It was made possible by a grant from the Macondo Foundation. In addition to women writers from Chiapas and Oaxaca, we were joined by author Sandra Cisneros and Professor Luz María Lepe Lira.

Clare Sullivan translated Argentine Alicia Kozameh’s 259 Leaps, the Last Immortal and A Tuesday Like Today by Mexican novelist Cecilia Urbina. Both were published by Wings Press. She received an NEA Translation Fellowship in 2010 to work with the poetry of Zapotec writer Natalia Toledo. An Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Louisville she directs their new Graduate Certificate in Translation.

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