Mayan Tales from Chiapas, Mexico

Feb 21st, 2016 | By | Category: 27-3: The Trials of Teacher Education, Media Reviews

Mayan Tales from Chiapas, Mexico By Robert M. LaughlinBy Robert M. Laughlin
University of New Mexico Press (2014)
288 pages

Review by Silvia Soto

The 42 Tzotzil tales presented in this book reveal that everyday occurrences, once placed in a story, bring life and meaning to the Tzotzil worldview. The animal, spiritual, natural, and human worlds are at the heart of these tales, demonstrating the interconnectedness of the communities with all that inhabits the cosmos. The trilingual publication (Tzotzil, Spanish, English) is a valuable contribution to Mesoamerican studies, specifically of Mayan peoples of Chiapas.

The sporadic repetitions, slight digressions, and ongoing questioning in the narrative give the feel of the oral tradition and add dimension to the presence of the storyteller Francisca Hernández (Doña Pancha). In the tales, life and death walk next to each other, such as in “The Man Who Went to Hell” where the death wife convinces the husband to remain alive to watch after their child. In “When Smallpox Came,” peoples’ strong connection to and understanding of their environment becomes a weapon of survival— people with knowledge of wild plants ate them to survive, those who were unable to distinguish the poisonous ones died. Historical and geographical references, such as in “When The Soldiers Came,” bridges gaps and re-inserts Tzotzil peoples in the history of Chiapas.

Spiritual practices are presented as points of contention in a world where old traditions are having difficulty surviving. In “The Christ Child’s Majordomo” and “Leaf Flower Well,” the narrator describes the decline in rituals and its impact on the wellbeing of the community. People and animals speak the same language, as in the “Two Jaguars” where the man shares his meal with the jaguar and the jaguar in turn provides protection to the man. The strong presence of shape-shifters in the tales speaks of the complex Indigenous belief system that, despite the ongoing encroachment of Catholicism and Protestantism, continues to be part of community life. These tales reveal the resilience and adaptability to the ever-changing environment and the ways Tzotzil peoples strategically negotiate their relation with the world to survive.

The book is a great contribution to the inter/cross-disciplinary field of Mayan studies. The voices of the members of these communities as narrated by Doña Pancha and recorded by Laughlin are loud and strong. The tales reveal the Tzotzil worldview and most importantly re-insert community histories into the larger history of Chiapas. Laughlin presents a wealthy resource for those in the field.

Silvia Soto is a Ph.D. candidate in Native American studies at the University of California, Davis where she is researching the re-emergence of a Mayan worldview in the literary production of Indigenous writers of Chiapas.

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