The PALABRA Indigenous Voices Project is a subset of the PALABRA Archive focused on poetry and literature written and spoken in Indigenous languages. All of the recordings in this section are part of the archive at large and can be found in the main "authors" and regional lists of this research guide, but are also highlighted separately in this presentation. PALABRA Indigenous Voices seeks to highlight contemporary authors from Indigenous communities around Latin America who are writing today in their native languages and who are working to preserve their heritage, worldviews, and cultural identities through their craft.
Mayan literature has a rich and complex history, spanning from pre-Columbian glyphs to modern standard orthographies. The earliest evidence for Mayan writing is dated to 400 B.C.E., and there remains today many diverse populations of Mayan-speaking peoples, totaling approximately seven million speakers living throughout Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Ethnolinguistic groups like the Maya peoples are typically unified by a common ethnicity and language. However, the Yucatec word "Maya" is used to encompass nearly 30 distinct indigenous languages, each spoken by populations with hundreds of years of unique culture, history, and tradition. Many of the first Mayan texts originated as oral literature before being written down, such as the K'iche' Mayan Popol Wuj creation story, which predates 1550 and is considered one of the most prominent pieces of Indigenous literature in the Americas.
Tsotsil, also called "bats'i k'op," meaning "true word" in the language, has more than 400,000 native speakers in the central Chiapas highlands in Mexico. Closely related in linguistics and with as many speakers is Tseltal, whose people call themselves the "winik atel" or "true men," which is spoken throughout Chiapas. The Tsotsil and Tseltal people arrived in Chiapas from Guatemala approximately 2,000 years ago, and it was not until the Mayan Postclassic Era that their languages branched into distinct tongues. These peoples have strong agricultural traditions and settlement patterns. Their communities are mostly centered around commercial and transportation focal points, such as in the municipalities of Ocosingo and San Cristóbal. Although the region has been strongly influenced by Catholicism, the Tseltalan polytheistic tradition is woven into Christian practice in many Maya communities. The Tojolab'al people --"the tojolwinik'otik'" or "true people" --compose approximately five percent of the indigenous population in Chiapas. Although Tojolab'al Mayan is geographically close to the Tseltalan languages, the oral tradition traces its linguistic roots to the Chui region of Western Guatemala.Its agricultural communities and lifestiles are similar to other Chiapan indigenous groups.
Nahuatl is a language or group of languages of the Uto-Aztecan language family. It has been spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century CE by the Aztec/Mexica people who occupied what is now central Mexico during the Late Postclassic period of Mesoamerican history. Although the Spanish conquest displaced Nahuatl as the dominant language in the region, it also allowed Nahua texts to be written, published, and preserved using the Latin alphabet.
Today, Nahuatl is spoken by roughly 1.7 million people, most of which reside in the Mexican states of Puebla, Veracruz, and Hidalgo. It is the second most widely spoken language in Mexico and it has also had an impact in the Spanish language. Words like "aguacate" (avocado) and "coyote" (coyote) come from the Nahuatl.
Quechua is an indigenous language family spoken in the Andean area of South America. Of the pre-Columbian languages, it is the most widely spoken, with 8-10 million speakers worldwide. Quechua has a strong presence primarily in Peru, where it is the second most-spoken language, but also in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador. In Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, it is legally recognized as an official language, and has recently been promoted through intercultural bilingual education programs. In the pre-Columbian period, Quechua had already been in use throughout the Andes before the Inca Empire established it as its official language. The Spanish colonizers recognized Quechua until the late 18th century; its use subsequently declined, but it still remains the most-spoken indigenous language today. Quechua has impacted English, Spanish, and French vocabularies with words such as “condor” and “quinoa.”
Nearly 50 Indigenous Mesoamerican languages constitute the Zapotec language group, spoken today mostly in the Oaxaca state of Mexico. While some Zapotec languages are very dialectically similar, others would not be comprehensible by speakers of other Zapotec dialects. As a whole, the Zapotec language group belongs to the larger Otomanguean language family. There are currently around 425,000 Zapotec speakers. During the colonial era, Dominican friars catalogued a number of written works in collaboration with Zapotec speakers, who had already been writing for two-thousand years before the introduction of the Latin alphabet. Before colonial contact, the Zapotec civilization flourished from circa 700 B.C.E to 1521 C.E., with the ancient city of Monte Albán being one of the first major cities in Mesoamerica. "Zapotec" translates roughly in several dialects to "the people."