Future is written in the indigenous tongues


The United Nations declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. PEN International will celebrate it in a very active way: the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC) will meet in May in Chiapas, together with indigenous writers from all around America; and PEN Philippines has chosen "Talking in tongues: Literary freedom and indigenous languages" as the theme for the International Congress in Manila. The meeting in Chiapas is entitled" Writing the future in indigenous languages".

Last year, I traveled to San Cristóbal de las Casas with Alicia Quiñones - PEN International’s coordinator of the TLRC meeting in Chiapas and member of PEN México. We were received by Enriqueta Lúnez Pérez - director of the House of Culture of San Juan Chamula - where we met with twenty-five writers from Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol and Zoque languages; who we invited to participate in our committee meeting, as a first step to become part of PEN International. Together, we talked about the main challenges faced by indigenous writers when trying to get published, translated, recognized, or when trying to teach their own languages in the schools of Chiapas. In a month time, we will all be there again, writers from Chiapas and from the whole world, celebrating poetry in San Juan Chamula.

Some of the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Zoque’s writers, as well as from other languages of Chiapas, who participated in the meeting. Enriqueta Lúnez Pérez to my right.

PEN has been preparing for years for indigenous writers to be an integral part of our organization. In 1996 we adopted the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, together with the World Congress of Indigenous Peoples, the Aymara Language Academy, the Maori Language Council, the Kadazan-Dusun Foundation and many other organizations. In 2003, during the PEN International Congress in Mexico, thirty indigenous writers (15 from Canada and 15 from Mexico) held a seminar on best ways for PEN to include them in. In there, I read poetry with Enriqueta Lúnez Pérez, together for the first time. In recent years, the presence of indigenous writers has continued growing in PEN. They were the protagonists of the literary acts on the Quebec Congress of 2015, and on the TLRC meeting last year, in the Swiss city of Biel / Bienne, where the president of PEN Bolivia delighted us all with his hilarious presentation on the use of onomatopoeias in Quechua literature. PEN Argentina founded its own Committee of Writers in Indigenous Languages of Argentina last July, and its committee coordinator - Nina Jaramillo – will also take part on the Chiapas meeting.

Launching of the Committee of Indigenous Writers during the Congress of Latin American PEN Centers in Buenos Aires, July 2018.

We are co-organizing the Chiapas meeting together with UNESCO, the National Institute of Indigenous Languages of Mexico and with the support of many other institutions. Last December, I also signed an agreement to co-organize the meeting with the rector from the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas (UNICACH) - Dr. José Rodolfo Calvo Fonseca; followed by a preparatory meeting with several university researchers and professors, called by our host in San Cristóbal, the teacher Cicero Aguilar.

Con el maestro Cicerón Aguilar, escritores chiapanecos e investigadores y representantes de distintos departamentos de la UNICAH.

The title of our meeting is categorical, ˝Writing the Future in Indigenous Languages˝ and it can be read in two ways; as a question or as an affirmation. How will the future of indigenous literatures be written? How will its writers shape it? And at the same time, rest assured that there is no future without indigenous languages or literatures.


The chair of the committee, the Slovenian-Catalan Simona Škrabec, has defined the aim of the meeting like:


La presidenta del comité, la esloveno-catalana Simona Škrabec, ha definido así la intención del encuentro:


«Writing is a tool to preserve historical memory, document the present and define the future. Indigenous languages have survived centuries of exclusion living in the shadows, forced to invisibility. Their cultural legacy passed from voice to voice. However, the absolute proximity required by orality has been their ally. With the daily use of shared language, bonds of community were preserved despite all the pressures, despite the "urgency" of assimilation. For all those communities, the present was undeniable. However, without writing, the past becomes blurred. A tradition so hidden leaves no visible record. The future is too distant a goal, because any change can put at risk the very existence of a community. The balances have been too fragile.


Indigenous people today no longer accept living in invisibility. For decades, in the most remote places of the planet signs of a firm resolution are perceived: to restore pride and recover shared memory. Rebuilding identities and healing wounds are essential to progress. With this meeting in Chiapas, the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee of PEN International reaffirms the conviction that many worlds fit in this world. With the participants of five continents, we will open a dialogue on how to unite writing and freedom of thought. We will try to turn pain into wisdom and apparent weakness into the strength of those who do not fear the challenges of the future, however difficult they are».


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