David Shook translating Mikeas Sánchez

Death will arrive

and it will find you in your bed
amid the fungus that occupies your house
or in the memory of the black butterfly
that anticipates your absence
Then you will forget your name
and you will become a dream again
the dream of an afternoon never contemplated
or the dream of the street child that you once were
and have not ceased being

Death will arrive

the true one
            the tyrant
she will bind your hands
she will toss you into the abyss
and only then will you know
that there are deeper voids
than the solitude you keep

To forget pain

just one prayer is enough
for forgottenness
pain compresses
deeper in my bones
To erase the memory
                         of my death
that my soul become
                                 a ceiba
to forget pain
forgetting my name is enough

Those who sleep beyond day and night

beyond solitude and abandonment
dream of life
and are scared to live
who doesn’t it scare?
And those of us who are awake
we who live through absence
from the solitude of smiles
we who die each instant
and console ourselves by filling emptiness
with the joy of bodies
equally empty
we also dream of living
inhabiting sillhouetes
escaping fright

Translator Note: 

I was introduced to the poetry of Mikeas Sánchez by Isthmus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán. She was the first poet he suggested to me when the two of us began assembling an English-language anthology of indigenous Mexican poetry. As in Terán’s case, I could find no translations in English, so I took on the task myself, using the poet’s own translations into Spanish, educating myself in the basic structure of the language, listening to recordings available online, and asking plenty of questions. First introduced by email, we soon took to Facebook, which continues to facilitate the bulk of our communication.

Zoque is a branch of the Mixe-Zoquean language family with about 70,000 speakers across the Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Veracrúz. Mikeas Sánchez lives and works in Chiapas, where Zoque is divided into three dialects with about 80% mutual intelligibility. Sánchez’s dialect, Copainalá, named for the town where most of its speakers reside, has about 10,000 speakers. Like the vast majority of Mexico’s indigenous poets, Sánchez has been responsible for her own translation into Spanish, both to expand her readership and to qualify for grants and prizes. In many cases this is problematic, because indigenous Mexican writers tend to speak Spanish as a second language. Their translations, while often competent, lack the poetry of their original language creations, sounding old fashioned or clunky. Fortunately, in Sánchez’s case, this is not so, and her Spanish sings with a strikingly contemporary lyricism.

There are three basic qualities I think that are important to notice about Mikeas Sánchez’s poetry. The first is her internationalism. Sánchez earned a master’s degree in Barcelona, and many of her poems bear witness to the migratory experience of the contemporary indigenous Mexican, sometimes by relating to the experience of Spain’s illegal African immigrants. The second is her grounding in the complex world of the contemporary indigenous Mexican woman. Rather than romanticize the traditional Zoque way of life, Sánchez explores contemporary Zoque identity in poems that include airplane black boxes and department store window displays. She’s not averse to exploring the complexity of indigenous identity today, and that’s what most attracted me to her work. The third quality I should mention in this brief introduction is her active promotion of the Zoque culture and language, especially the rights and roles of contemporary indigenous women. With her day job at local radio station XECOPA in Copainalá, which broadcasts regular Zoque-language programing, Sánchez takes on a very active role as community promoter of Zoque. Her poems do the same thing, both implicitly by their being written in the Zoque language and often explicitly, too.

I’m presently at work on a book-length collection of Sánchez’s poems, and a selection from that volume will soon be included in an anthology of poetry from five indigenous Mexican languages, to be published by Phoneme Media in 2015. To those who would like to learn more about the Zoque language and are equipped to decipher the jargon of contemporary field linguistics, I recommend William L. Wonderly’s work, mostly undertaken during the 1940s and ‘50s.

Mikeas Sánchez

Mikeas Sánchez was born in Chiapas, Mexico in 1980. She writes in her native language, Zoque, spoken by about 70,000 indigenous Mexicans in the southern state of Chiapas. In addition to her work as a poet, she is a translator and director of the indigenous radio program XECOPA. She earned a master’s in education at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She has published two books of poetry, produced several bilingual albums, and contributed to many anthologies of indigenous poetry.

David Shook

David Shook is a poet, translator, and filmmaker in Los Angeles. His debut collection, Our Obsidian Tongues, was longlisted for the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize. His translations of Sánchez’ poems have appeared in Bengal Lights and The Bitter Oleander, and his translations from Isthmus Zapotec and Nahuatl have appeared widely. http://davidshook.net