A conversation with Juan Gregorio Regino, Mazatec Poet: June 25, 1998.
Regino is past president of Escritores en Lenguas Indigenas, Asociacion Civil (ELIAC), the national association of Writers in Indigenous Languages of Mexico, as well as past president of the Advisory Board to the association. For those in the United States, ELIAC is similar in some ways to the national Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Story-tellers, with branches that focus on professional development; mentoring through genre workshops; local, regional, and national literary gatherings; a national literary journal, and a publication series, to name some of its activities. This association emerged most visibly in the early 1990s, out of a community-based movement of Indigenous writers, many of them beginning as bilingual teachers and ethnolinguists, all of them dedicated to linguistic revitalization and the promotion and defense of the use of Indigenous languages in all aspects of the lives of Indigenous peoples, including the use of Native languages in the creation of contemporary literature. In April of 1999 the association submitted a "Legislative Initiative on the Recognition of the Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Communities of Mexico" to the national House of Representatives. In March 2003 this initiative became law with only minor modifications to the original proposal. One of the outcomes of this legislation has been the establishment of the Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indigenas (National Institute for Indigenous Languages). In many ways, Regino has served as the institutional memory of the association because he has authored the group's major documents.
Regino is a poet, essayist, ethnolinguist, and activist on behalf of Indigenous languages and literatures; he is author of the Mazatec alphabet and of two books of poetry, Tatsjejin nga kjabuya: No es eterna la muerte (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1992), and Ngata'ara stsee: Que siga lloviendo (Mexico City: ELIAC and UNESCO, 1999), both bilingual publications in Mazatec and Spanish. He won the 1996 Nezahualcoyotl National Prize for Literature in Indigenous Languages (Mexico), and he helped establish the Maria Sabina Prize for Mazatec Literature. Some of his work has been translated into French, English, and Catalan. He is included in In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Meso-american Literature--Pre-Columbian to the Present (ed. Miguel LeonPortilla and Earl Shorris [New York: W. W. Norton, 2001]). In July 2002 Regino participated in the Language Consultation: Our Living Languages, Our Living Culture conferences, which was convened by the University of Tulsa and took place in Oklahoma City (Uchi professor and language activist Richard Grounds was one of the organizers of this event). (1)
INES HERNANDEZ-AVILA: First, tell me a bit about yourself, about your trajectory as a writer and how you became involved in all of this.
JOAN GREGORIO REGINO: I started writing in 1987, practically right after having received a degree in linguistics. During my studies I conducted an investigation on phonology in the Mazatec language, but I also began writing poetry. It was really a way of developing something much more profound in both fields of investigation, to begin to produce, to begin to create things.
The phonological study I produced had as an objective to establish an alphabet in the Mazatec language. The previous attempts didn't manifest much knowledge of our people; the majority of the teachers were the ones, along with the children, closest to the language, but they didn't have command of it. The alphabets I knew of had many errors in them; they didn't have the technical rigor that's required. The work I did allowed the establishment of an alphabet that permitted me later to promote it, to hold workshops, and to disseminate it amongst the people. I believe it's the one being used at present to write Mazatec.
However, I also wanted to write poetry, because it wasn't enough to say, "Well, now we have the alphabet." What was important was to create things, to produce written work. In that moment I thought poetry could be an excellent form of expression, of communicating, and above all to have written material that could help teachers in the process of learning the Mazatec alphabet. That's how I began.
I really like literature, poetry, narratives. It didn't seem complicated to me because aside from the knowledge I have of poetry in Spanish, I wanted to experiment with what could happen in Mazatec. In the same way I find poems in Spanish very beautiful, very profound, and moving, I knew there would be ones in Mazatec as well. I began to investigate. I began to construct my pieces, I began to experiment, I began to create in Mazatec. The result was the book No es eterna la muerte [Death Is Not Eternal], which was the first one I wrote.
But in those times, here in Mexico, there wasn't much space for the diffusion of the literature that we were producing. I am speaking of '87, '88, of 'go. Even in 1990 there wasn't the possibility of publishing. My book wasn't published until '90 even though I finished it by '87. From '90 on I think things have changed. There is more space for Indigenous languages. I believe there are more possibilities today to make known the works being produced, in newspapers, in magazines, in books. The idea was born to create poetry and to write and promote this process, which is now not only individual, but the idea is for it to spread, to be more collective. Something that will have an impact far greater than the Mazatec language, which is the one I speak, but rather it's about trying to inspire other Indigenous groups with this idea. This is how it all began.
IHA: It's very important that you knew how poetry, or creative expression, could help teachers who were working on the language. This should be emphasized because many people teach languages on a more practical level, but to teach it through poetry is something else.
JGR: It opens the possibility of not only being able to solely learn the language, because let's say "I have to agree." In that case the majority of Mazatec people already know Mazatec. What's important is to be able to discover the beautiful forms, the poetic forms of their language; the sublime ways of creating, ways of saying things, of explaining things, of creating images, of creating beauty within words.
IHA: Or to rediscover the beauty that is already there?
JGR: That's also important because once we are involved in writing, for example myself, I'm already writing, creating poetry, I have to continue rediscovering my roots, I have to continue rediscovering that knowledge, those thoughts that are in some way already displaced; others that are no longer known, things that have been relegated to the past and that ...
IHA: Have been scorned ...
JGR: Scorned, discriminated against, because of all that has occurred. Then I have to continue discovering all this, maybe even becoming something of an ethnologist of my own culture, because I have to continue discovering why something is, what it consists of, how it is done. This, then, permits me to continue reconstructing things. Then I'm finally able to create something that's true, that's very present because my language is very contemporary, but I'm very pleased that i was able to recover some things from the past, and place them in a new context, with a language perhaps new, but which is making an allusion to the other. Also, another thing I've been doing is recovering terms that have, at some point, been very powerful in naming things but that now have been substituted by other words or by loan words. When I find this type of word, I try to enhance it, to begin my poems with that word so that people will say, "Oh, and what does this mean?" Even the Mazatec people say, "And what does this mean?" This is where they come across new words, new terms.
IHA: Which are old ones.
JGR: Exactly. It's a way of making a lot of things functional once more, and for me it's a way of reconstructing. I reconstruct my identity, my past, I reconstruct life. And I try to situate it in a modern moment, in a present moment. That [older] way of thought doesn't have to be displaced, there's no reason for denying it, for concealing it. It's what we must recover and refine and beautify and pass on to the new generations, but also to the outsiders, to those who are not Mazatec. This is what poetry has permitted me.
IHA: My aunt who passed away used to tell me that in our Nimipu language there are words, she used to say in English, "Big words," meaning that they are like those terms, right? Ancient terms that are no longer used with frequency and that not many people know. This process that you're speaking of, that's what we're basically trying to show, because the languages, the ceremonies, the oral traditions with respect to history and everything, it's about recovering and bringing to the present.
JGR: That's so important because I firmly believe that in a way [we're talking about] the recuperation of all that, and how one begins to reconstruct and put it in the present so it will be knowledge for everyone. And to say, "I recover things," but through poetry I'm able in turn to transmit it [once again]. So how this is ultimately written is important to me. It should be registered, written, because maybe another Mazatec in some other moment aside from this will discover more things, or analyze it all through another perspective, maybe not literary but another perspective. So that to me is important, from [the] element that was saved through poetry that there be more things others will be interested in and that will be investigated. So we're once again putting forward our origin.
IHA: And living it.
JGR: Of course. And now sharing it and articulating it with dignity. And above all valuing it, valuing its significance to us. I also believe it's important that our work be infused with appropriation. (2) It's the appropriation of the past but also the appropriation of the present. By "appropriation of the present" I mean that in the present, for example, we have the possibility as literate people, with an academic degree, of appropriating for ourselves elements of other cultures, of Spanish itself, and much more from other cultures. That's the other possibility, that we're taking on for ourselves new things, bringing forward from the past [that] which is ours, and I believe the idea is that this accomplishes at some point the establishment of the bases for creating a new culture, a new Indigenous culture that will regain its pride, that will regain its knowledge, but that is also a part of modern society, on the same level as other cultures, claiming its past as well as its present. To appropriate means the appropriation of technology, the sciences, of many things Western society has advanced. Because it would also be foolish and naive to reject all these things. I believe we shouldn't. Both ways of thinking can be combined very well. This could lead to the creation of a potentially better society, with more possibilities perhaps for the development of a society hopefully more conscious of social climate(s), of life, of the environment.
IHA: The other interesting point is that in the north there are a few Indigenous intellectuals who are looking at the scientific disciplines. For example, a man by the name of Vine Deloria Jr., whose area is political science, the law, and theology--he trained in many fields--he's doing an intense critique of Western scientific assertions with respect to, for example, the myth of the Bering Strait. He's demonstrated that it's a myth that the Western world has wanted to promote but which has no scientific base. He has a book Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. It would be great to translate it into Spanish. In the same way there are many things written here that should be translated so they can be taken there. But what influences were there in your own family that lead you in this direction? You say you began in '87, but what was it that motivated you when you were younger to study language?
JGR: In a way, when I began to work, let's say professionally, at the age of 18, it was as a bilingual promoter. It was an educational job, teaching children. What I learned was to be an agent of acculturation, an agent of change, an agent who would take Spanish to the community, who would take the knowledge of the non-Indigenous society [to them] and who would displace everything Indigenous. The politics of those times were purely integrationist. What the government wanted at that time was to homogenize the Mexican people, and we were molded that way. We were supposed to end this difference, no more Indigenous language, in effect. Nothing about cultures, we were to go as agents of change. We were to change the communities.
It was very difficult because after being trained with this conception, logically what one tries to do going to the communities is to carry out our work, and if my work consisted of these things, [then presumably I] would try to do it as best as possible. [In this scenario,] one shouldn't speak to the children in their language, [rather] purely Spanish, one should "Castilianize" them. If there are customs in the community, well that's of no importance, that becomes a nonpriority, it isn't rescued. But then, after having studied with this focus, I pursued a degree in ethnolinguistics. Then I became aware, through the plan of study, through the work of anthropologists, ethnographers, sociologists, historians, in short, that there was a lot of contradiction between the way I was trained and the reality of the politics that the government was pushing, and there was also a lot of contradiction in history as well.
I began to question the official history that I was teaching the children, the history that was in the books. That's when I began to realize how that history was manipulated. And I began to realize how we were seen in that history. This was an awakening, a discovery. [Especially regarding] the subordination of my language. Why was my language in such a situation? Why was Spanish being imposed? Because the politics were very clear, to displace Indigenous languages and impose Spanish. I didn't understand. Why? But little by little through [the study of] anthropology, through history, through linguistics, I began to discover all the contradictions as well as all the theoretical currents that existed.
A person tries to assimilate who he is based on what he has lived and what his culture is. In other words, he says, "this is what's going to serve me," and so he goes along appropriating things. For me, ethnolinguistics was extremely important. Completing my degree ... allowed me to really see my culture critically, but also the culture of the other. That's when I began to see all the contradictions. I began to understand colonialism and the struggle not only of Mexico but also all the colonized nations and how the process unfolds. I began to see that there was a colonizer and a colonized. In a way what I had done in school was a reflection of this. The government with its politics of integration, of acculturation, was a part of that domination, was a part of a colonialism, perhaps internal, but we continue to be colonized. So that's what made me wake up and in a way stop feeling ashamed of my own [background] but instead [I felt] more anger or impotence about all that had occurred while we'd been doing nothing, that even we ourselves were agents of the government [helping] to erase our peoples; so this is where the panorama changed completely. From an agent of acculturation, one becomes a promoter, an agent who promotes, who revalues, who tries to save the culture.
This is when I broke with my training, because from that time to now I'm another person. Now I write in my language, I think in my language, I instill in the children and my people our identity, our culture, our language. In spite of the fact that I don't live there [in Oaxaca] and that I'm not with Indigenous people [in Mexico City], I try, from here, to show that an Indigenous person is also capable of being in front of a computer. An Indigenous person is capable of directing a national office, an institution, of writing a newspaper, of creating a book. That to me is important, that those who are not Indigenous realize what Indigenous people are capable of and that they not continue reproducing the idea that the Indigenous person is ignorant, illiterate, one who is always in a marginalized situation.
Now we, as the new generation of intellectuals, have the challenge of slowly erasing the myth that was created. Including the one about our languages, that they're dialects, that they're not written, it's not true. We're now demonstrating that they can be written and that they are as rich as any other language. So it's an entire struggle, a movement of revindication. Because it's not only literature; many other things must be integrated so that a struggle more deeply rooted can be established. I think literature helps, but by itself, it can't do everything, we must also integrate ourselves into what the agricultural [farm]workers are proposing, what's being proposed by the artisans, the women, all the Indigenous groups who are organized and who are establishing their demands, (3) and above all, I believe the most important thing is that we have a national project, we, the Mazatec nation. We need to have our own project as a Mazatec nation.
And another thing we must struggle for is that within the larger society, within Mexican society, we be considered there too, that we be included there, that we be integrated there the same way as the other nations in Mexico. This must be the challenge. For ourselves, but also for the national society, which must protect us and include us like it said it would, equally. Equal in rights, equal in opportunities as the rest of the nations, whether it's the mixtecs, zapotecs, mestizos, afro-mestizos, we must all be included in the national project. Unfortunately this is not the case because our national project continues to be homogeneous and very conservative. This is the problem.
IHA: That's why in the development of the area of Indigenous studies in the United States, that's been one of the objectives, to fortify and value [Indigenous cultures]. To claim a place in the university where all these ideas may be developed, just as any other discipline, like history, anthropology. We are being born as a discipline. The field of Indigenous studies is like the others, we have the same rights. Our objective is to foreground Indigenous intelligence, Indigenous traditions, but studying the intelligence and science [of Native peoples] because in the north with this business of the New Age with all its romanticism and all the stereotypes of the Indian, many people think the Indian has either disappeared or is a noble savage, and if they [Indigenous people] do know something they believe it's very mysterious and they don't understand that it's the belief systems and the ways and wisdom within the Indigenous communities that have scientific bases and a logic. And that logic is in the languages, this is why the languages are so important, because by studying them a solution is begun.
JGR: I think there's a lot to be done, but the important thing is to be clear on where we're going. Now more than ever the idea is present for Indigenous peoples to continue living as peoples, to continue maintaining their identity, their nationality, their language, their culture. This is formidable and it's very good. And that is why I insist that this also signifies challenges; we must work from within our peoples to guarantee this. So that we can say, "Here we are with the capability of doing this," and demonstrating and proposing things. Things that will not only benefit our peoples but all the peoples around the world. That's to say, a bit of what our ancestors did, how much knowledge did they bring to the world? Why can't we contemporary Indians do the same? We must work in order to continue contributing important things to the world. This should be the challenge.
IHA: Yes, and there is much richness. And now to the last part of the interview: How and when did the association decide to extend itself to the Americas?
JGR: Due to the same force that it's taking on here in Mexico, we thought we should be thinking of the unification of Indigenous America. In 1997 we established the "Song of America" Continental [hemispheric] Prize for literature written in Indigenous languages. That was the way of beginning to establish some concrete actions that will permit us in the future to identify [other Indigenous writers], to know where they are, what they're doing in Central America, South America, and North America. Then we can begin to think about a stronger organization [based] in this unity I speak of. I believe right now we don't have much information about the rest of America, that what we do have is minimal. That's why it's important for everyone to begin to work from within their own nations. That they begin to look for the others. This is it; we must look for each other. That's the step I believe has to be taken in order for us to have a more complete team, organizing ourselves as Indigenous writers. That motivates our struggle greatly and we share more of what we're doing. That's beautiful.
This interview, conducted in Spanish, is part of a larger ongoing project on the history of ELIAC. I am grateful to UC MEXUS (University of California, Riverside) and the UC Davis Humanities Institute, the Committee on Research, and the Office of Research for supporting my work on this project. I also want to thank my then undergraduate student research assistant, Marcos Guerrero, for doing the initial draft translation into English of the full interview. I am fully responsible for the final translation and editing; the interview has been significantly shortened for this issue of AIQ. For more information on ELIAC, see Ines Hernandez-Avila, "The Power of Native Language(s) and the Performance of Indigenous Autonomy: The Case of Mexico," in Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance, ed. Richard A. Grounds, George E. Tinker, and David E. Wilkins (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 35-74; and, Ines Hernandez-Avila,
"The Flowering Word," American Language Review 4, no. 3 (May/June 2000): 57-59.
(1.) This interview took place at the national office of ELIAC, the Casa de los Escritores en Lenguas Indigenas, in Mexico City in June 1998. I phoned Regino to review the interview before sending it in to the American Indian Quarterly, and he was content to leave it as it stands.
(2.) It is important to note that the term "appropriation" as Regino uses it is meant more in the sense of Indigenous peoples "making things our own"--being open to influences from other traditions, other perspectives, while still retaining the base of which he speaks.
(3.) ELIAC has made sure to reiterate and incorporate into their own work the demands, for example, of the Zapatistas, particularly those outlined in the San Andres accords.
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|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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