9 Language...

Language and Symbolic Representation in Contemporary Mayan Poetry: A Linguistic and Literary Analysis of “Yaan a bin xook” by Briceida Cuevas Cob (2005)


Manya Wubbold
University of Denver,
Department of Languages and Literatures

Recibido: 18 de mayo de 2015.
Aceptado: 19 de agosto de 2015.

Mayan symbology is universally recognized for its intricate conceptualization and representation of this complex way of envisioning the world whether it is transmitted through pictorial, oral or written language reflects culturally specific modes of cognition and communication that have evolved over millennia. Like all contemporary languages, Mayan languages interpret and express their speaker’s experience in the modern world. But, because no language exists apart from culture and Mayan languages are the living legacy of ancient cultures, they link the past to the present and communicate a unique world view by conveying historic and contemporary information about belief, practice, and symbolic representation.

This study is based on the dual analysis (linguistic and literary) of the poem “Yaan a bin xook” / “Irás a la escuela” / “You Will Go to School” written in Peninsular Maya and translated into Spanish by Briceida Cuevas Cob (2005). Because this is an investigation on how cultural belief, practice, and symbolic representation are communicated through language and poetic discourse, the focus of the analysis is the Mayan version of the poem. The primary question driving this study is: What role does language play in the transmission and preservation of Mayan cultural belief and symbolic representation?

Our analysis has been accomplished and presented in the following manner. First, the Mayan version of the poem was transcribed section by section.1 For non-readers of Maya, each section’s transcription has been accompanied with the poet’s Spanish translation and Donald Frischmann’s English translation2 (Montemayor & Frischmann, 2005). Next, working closely with Mayan scholar Rolando Ek Naal, key terms from the poem were selected and emphasized in bold type. Following the dual analysis methodology, the key terms were then researched and analyzed (within the context of the poem) and their multiple and interconnected meanings have been discussed in detail. The literary facet of this analysis has been shaped by the comments and insights of the poet herself as the result of an interview granted in September 8, 2012.3 And as stated above, the linguistic dimension of the analysis was accomplished under the tutelage of Mr. Rolando Ek Naal, whose profound knowledge of Mayan language and culture has served as both a point of departure and guide for this investigation.4 At the end of this study, the poet’s mayan and spanish versions of the poem have been transcribed in their entirety alongside Mr. Frischmann’s translation so that readers have the opportunity to read the text in full without commentary.

Briceida Cuevas Cob was born in 1969 in the community of Tepakán, municipality of Calkiní, Campeche, Mexico. She is an internationally acclaimed poet with two books of poetry in print. Her poems, which have been included in several anthologies, have also been published in numerous literary journals and newspapers throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico City. Rolando Humberto Ek Naal was born in 1961 in Ex-hacienda Santa Cruz, Calkiní, Campeche México. He is a well respected musicologist, translator (Maya/Spanish), pedagogue, and researcher of Mexican cultures, specializing in Mayan culture and language.

When interviewed and asked specifically about the origins of this poem and her motivation and/or reason for writing it, Cuevas Cob responded with the following commentary:

These girls today that are going to school are getting a “light” education (as you say in English), in the sense that they aren’t very interested in the language. They are passive learners that don’t speak the language. They understand some expressions, but don’t want to practice them. This also has to do with the politics of education as well as the lack of will and effort of the bilingual teachers that don’t continue their own education and don’t have a convincing or real plan or any methodology in order to do their work. Consequently, it is our concern or my concern that in the community now only people my age and older are speaking the language while the young people and children are being alienated from their own land and their own language. Precisely for this reason I was motivated to write this text so that yes… you will go to school and you will not be an empty headed child. But, you also know that you must return because here is your place, your natural environment. Here are your roots and you can go wherever you want or are able to go, but you have a tie or connection that invites you… obliges you to return (Cuevas Cob, personal communication).

Although the translations of the title of this poem in both Spanish and English use the term “school” —bringing to mind “formal or state run education”— an examination of the Maya word xook (see table 1) reveals its polysemous nature, which in turn gives us insight on the overall message of this poem.

Table 1. Semantic analysis of the term Xook. Adapted from Ek Naal, personal communication; Gómez, 2009: 187.

Table 1 demonstrates that the term xook —although translated as school—refers more to the various ways of obtaining knowledge, such as through numbers, stories, people, the passage of days or time, agricultural conditions, and embroidery. This more ample perspective on schooling or education clarifies how the term xook in the title of this poem combined with yaan a bin ‘one must go’ is literally a mandate for young women to not be limited by ignorance. Moreover, that they obtain knowledge (an education) from both their own culture and others (Cuevas Cob, personal communication; Ek Naal, personal communication).

When Cuevas Cob (personal communication) speaks about the epigraph of her poem she states that it comes from both oral tradition and “una realidad popular” still seen in various Mexican communities that situates people in specific roles and environments according to their sex and gender. In Mayan communities by saying that síiniko’ob ‘ants’ laugh when a boy is born but cry when the baby is a girl, places men in the fields and women in the kitchen. That the ants rejoice the birth of a boy refers to how when men are working out in the fields, they feed them bits of corn meal (to lead them away from the crops), which makes them very happy (id.). But when ants are in the kitchen, women jóoychokoja’atiko’ob ‘throw boiling water on them’ to get rid of them, which makes them cry. As ants are ubiquitous in tropical ecosystems it is not surprising that they are frequent protagonists in Mayan mythology and are therefore featured in this “folk” expression.

In Mayan cosmologies ants are primarily noted for discovering the first grains of corn embedded in stone. Because of their small size, strength and determination, they were able to get into the tight crevices of the stone and to carry the kernels out on their backs (León Portilla, 1984; Šprajc, 1996). In some Mayan communities ants are also thought to be participants in eclipses because in times of astronomical disorder or unbalance they are believed to try to eat the moon. When this happens, it provokes the moon’s anger, which in turn makes her bite and obscure the sun, causing a solar eclipse (Nájera, 1995). Since the moon is considered to be the “goddess of rains, tides, germination, the regeneration of life, and the symbol of the feminine biological cycle and the representative of births”, because ants attack her and try to consume her, they are considered symbolically to be antagonistic towards a very important female deity (Montolíu, 1984: 67). In these two symbolic representations, ants are associated with corn seed —the origin of Mayan life— and with the relationship between the sun and the moon. This lunar/solar relationship is representative of cosmic order —when all is aligned and chaos when it is not— and illustrates the interaction and balance between what is male and female evident in all flora and fauna reproductive cycles (Bassie-Sweet, 2000).

On a more earthly level, given that ants are important indicators of rain, it explains why in the fields —a traditionally male space— men would welcome them. Nevertheless, although they signal the coming rain (which is needed for the crops) the fact that they do this by seeking refuge on higher and dryer ground, which is often in the yáalanaj ‘kitchen’ —a traditionally female space— where they can be quite destructive to foodstuffs. Therefore, making it understandable why they are not welcomed by women, who are traditionally responsible for the preparation of meals for their families (Mariaca, 2003).

In Maya there are two common expressions for kitchen, k’óoben, which is a direct reference to the traditional three stones of the hearth and yáalanaj (Ek Naal, personal communication; Gómez, 2009). Besides the musicality of its pronunciation (which is important to the poet), it is also possible that the word yáalanaj linguistically conveys information about the kitchen being a gendered environment. The compound term yáalanaj combines yáal ‘part of’ or ‘layer’ with naj5 ‘house’ (Bricker, Po’ot Yah & Dzul de Po’ot, 1998; Ek Naal, personal communication). It is interesting to note that the term naj ‘house’ shares the root morpheme “na” with expressions such as na’ ‘mother,’ nak ‘womb,’ and chuun u nak’ ‘stem or origin of the womb’ (Ek Naal, personal communication; Gómez, 2009). Rolando Ek Naal (personal communication) explains that in Mayan traditional culture —and in the context of Cuevas Cob’s poem— the concept and term yáalanaj ‘kitchen’ poetically creates the image of the kitchen as being a part of (or the womb of) the mother house: a feminine and protected environment where the hearth and heart of the family reside (see figure 1).

By using this folk expression as the epilogue of this poem, Cuevas Cob is critiquing the traditional notion of a woman’s sphere and work from her own perspective of living both in and outside of her community of origin. She explains that this type of traditional division of labor within the family locates women in the home and not in school (personal communication). But at the same time, she laments that young women (young people in general) are distancing themselves from the home and more specifically the kitchen and are now eating pizza instead of tortillas (id.). She emphatically affirms that young people can and should study and go on to the university, but “you have to return to your roots and reevaluate your identity so that you don’t lose where you come from or where you are going” (id.). She also explains that in her own life, along with all that she has learned from living outside of the community, the sacrifices she has made for her professional and artistic development, there is also a process of learning how to return to the community because “many do it in a conscious way and others without being conscious” (id.).

Figure 1. Images of the naj ‘house’ and yáalanaj ‘kitchen’. (a) Traditional Yucatec Mayan Naj ‘House’. (b) Naj Floor Plan.
Image (a) photographed by Huchim Herrera, was retrieved June 26, 2014, from <http://maya.nmai.si.edu/gallery/santa-elena-and-san-simon> and has been reprinted with permission. Image (b) has been adapted from Moya, 1984: 79.

For this reason, the epigraph is used by the poet intentionally to place women in the home. And, because it is a sphere associated with explicit responsibilities and production, as Cuevas Cob makes clear, in many respects it designates a place and a role that are privileged and respected because they are based on time honored knowledge, ability, and values. To better understand what these values, abilities, and knowledge are and how they take place in the traditional home and correspond to the notion of femininity in Mayan culture, it is important to explain that in agricultural (more specifically, corn growing) Mayan communities it is customary that a family’s various systems of production and socialization take place in two gender specific yet complementary spheres; one located within the house and its immediate surrounding area (patio, etc.) and the other located —outside of the house and patio— in the milpa ‘corn fields,’ farming/grazing areas, and beyond (Ayllon & Nuño, 2008; Rosado, 2003). Although women traditionally work in the home and men work in the fields, as the system is based on cooperation, there are circumstances where women participate in field work and men in the home (id.).

María Teresa Ayllón Trujillo and María Rosa Nuño Gutiérrez (2008) describe the home ideally as the place where all members of the family find affection, understanding and security. It is (as they explain) where family members learn “all of the signs of identity that permit them to socialize on the outside without losing the roots that will give meaning to their lives and reasoning to their ethics and particular aesthetic” (ibid., 282). Moreover, according to these authors the home is the locus and foundation of the Mayan conception or construction of femininity:

The familial territory within —what is really considered the home— with its kitchen garden, corral or backyard economy, is the foundation of the construction of femininity. The house with all of its activities: intensive agriculture, intensive animal husbandry, artisan industry, commercial activities, etc., are the symbolic and material responsibility of the women of the family from the moment that they are born until the day that they are gone. In the house is where human reproduction, health care, the infrastructure for the transformation of foodstuffs into nutrition is all carried out. (Ayllón & Nuño, 2008: 282).

By describing the distinct activities performed in the home and its immediate surroundings (the patio), it becomes clear that the home in a traditional Maya community is considered the family’s spiritual, social, and economic base. The home is where these systems (or ways) of being culturally, spiritually, and economically active are organized, implemented and passed on to future generations. Although the home is a place for the entire family, it is (as stated above) a traditionally female sphere where women take care of children, tell stories, prepare food and health products, tend animals, kitchen gardens, fruit trees, and participate in various types of commercial activities such as embroidery, ceramics, etc. In this community setting, women are responsible for the social, cultural, linguistic education of their children and are the primary caregivers of their families (Ayllón & Nuño, 2008; Guzmán, 2007). Consequently, women and the home and kitchen they manage, represent a societal role and locus that are essential for cultural continuity (id.).

In the first verse of the poem the poet by using the imperative, commands that the subject (or subjects) of her message—young Mayan women—will/must go to xook” ‘do lessons, read, count, study, take into account,’ in other words, they need to get an education and think. By getting an education and using their mind, these young women will not be p’áatakech ‘left behind’ like a polwech. Polwech although translated as ‘cabeza hueca/empty headed’ in Spanish and English, in Maya it is a composite term that combines pol ‘head’ with wech ‘armadillo’ and signifies the head of an armadillo. When asked why she utilized the expression polwech, Cuevas Cob (personal communication) explained that:

It is an expression that is used often in my community. I work a lot with common expressions because they make a lot of sense and involve a great deal of philosophy and information. This expression polwech means armadillo head and is always used by people from the communities. My dad, the neighbors, all of the people from the community use it to refer to a person who is a brute. It makes a comparison with an armadillo (which I don’t believe is anything like a brute) and its especially hard covering or shield. And because of the tough protection that it has, they compare it with a person’s head. Their head is very hard and because of this the lessons don’t penetrate their thick skull, and what they explain in class and knowledge in general doesn’t either. That’s why the expression means that someone doesn’t understand or that they have difficulties learning something.

After insisting that young women get an education so that they do not get left behind as a “armadillo head,” she exhorts them to táats’máansik ‘cross, go through’ the páakabil ‘threshold, limits’ of the najil ‘this house’ tuukul ‘to think / of thought, intelligence, wisdom’ in order to wokoj ‘enter’ wotoch ‘their home’ without k’opik ‘knocking’ on the joolnaj ‘door’ (Bolles, 2001; Ek Naal, personal communication; Gómez, 2009). The term páakabil, although it is translated by the poet as ‘umbral’ in Spanish and ‘threshold’ in the English translation, is a complex term with no direct translation found in any of the various dictionaries consulted. Nevertheless, the terms páak, paak and páak’al, paakal did have lengthy lists of meanings. In table 2 is a sampling of definitions that are the most recurrent in the dictionaries perused, as well as being the terms that appear to be the most applicable to the context and message of the poem.

Table 2. Semantic Analysis of the Term Páak (paak, páak’al, and paakal). Adapted from Bolles, 2001; V. Bricker, E. Po’ot & O. Dzul, 1998: 206; Gómez, 2009: 161.

From the above definitions, it is possible to interpret this term (like that of a threshold) as an intermediate space or moment before a transition or change. The term páakabil in the context of this poem appears to refer to a mental transition, such as the shift in consciousness between dreams or between dreaming and waking or metaphorically as the transition between an uncultivated plot (or area) to a cultivated one. In other words, the transition or shift from an armadillo head into a thinking or conscious person.

This section of the poem (an example of parallelism6) builds on a series of couplets or corresponding elements that focus on and develop the notion of head or consciousness in reference to the home or house where a child (more specifically a girl) is indoctrinated in and learns her own culture (cultural knowledge/wisdom) and identity. Table 3 demonstrates how the five verses of this section work off of each other to construct this conception.

Table 3. Couplets or Corresponding Elements that Focus on and Develop the Notion of Head or Consciousness. Adapted from Bolles, 2001; V. Bricker, E. Po’ot & O. Dzul, 1998; R. Ek Naal, personal communication; Gómez, 2009.

The final term joolnaj ‘door’ is an effective conclusion to the couplets of this section in that although it clearly refers to door of a house, it also appears to be symbolically related to the notion of head. It is interesting to note that in ancient Mayan pictorial writing the notion of ‘house’ was depicted as a human head (see figure 2) and its ‘door’ was expressed as its mouth (Martel & López, 2006). This section of the poem corresponds with the general conceptualization of the house as a head by creating a concept within a concept effect in which the protagonist is returning home to her own head or house of thought.

Figure 2. Glyph for Naj (Nah). Adapted from Stuart, 1998: 377.

In the context of Cuevas Cob’s poem, the house, like a head is a protected place of memory and imagination where cultural knowledge is generated and preserved. The young woman on returning home does not have to knock on the door because it is her own cultural identity and wisdom she is coming back to. The door in this sense is the portal to her own way of thinking that has been formed by the cultural knowledge and identity passed down from generations of women.

On returning home the young woman will paktabaj ‘see herself’ in the yich ‘eyes/face’ of her láak’ ‘siblings, others or those who accompany her’. The term yich also spelled ich in the dictionaries used for this study, signifies not only eye (or eyes in the context of this poem), but also face and fruit (Ek Naal, personal communication; Bolles, 2001; Bricker, Po’ot & Dzul, 1998; Gómez, 2009). Gabriel Bourdin (2008: 60) in his study on the human body in Peninsular Maya vocabulary affirms that: “when a term is polysemous [such as yich], in each one of its distinct contexts of utilization, the term expresses different yet interrelated meanings. Rolando Ek Naal (personal communication) explains that a person’s eyes are representative of their entire face and in the same vein as a synecdoche, are the ­synopsis of a person’s entire body and on an even larger scale, a reflection of their humanity. In this sense, like fruit being conceptualized as the product of a tree, the eyes (or face) of a person are the visible results or the products of that person’s life and efforts (id.). In consequence of returning to her home consciously, the young woman recognizes herself reflected in the yich‘eyes/face’of her láak’ ‘siblings, others or those who accompany her’ and sees the product or fruit of her cultural heritage both in them and herself.

In the next section of the poem the poet states that once home, the young woman will see from her box ‘black, darkly colored’ maatsab ‘eyelashes’ that are like jul ‘a ray, beam or streak of light or lightening’ ch’iikil ‘that pierces’ the puksi’ik’al‘physical heart’ of the lu’um ‘earth, land or soil’ the yéemel ‘decent’ of her juntats’óol ‘sincerity, humility, sincere or pure heart or spirit’ and the náakal ‘ascent, rise’ of her nojil ‘great’ ch’í’ibal ‘race, noble ancestry, lineage, blood origin’ (Bolles, 2001; Bricker, Po’ot & Dzul, 1998; Ek Naal, personal communication; Gómez, 2009). The image of the young woman’s black eyelashes as streaks of light or lightening piercing the physical heart of the earth refer to the act of humility or sincerity of lowering her gaze. In other words, because of her juntats’óol ‘sincerity, humility, sincere or pure heart or spirit’ she lowers her eyes and her straight box maatsab ‘black eyelashes’ penetrate the earth like arrows (Montemayor & Frischmann, 2005). When interviewed, Cuevas Cob spoke in length about how pressures from the dominant society have made many young women turn away from or undervalue the more culturally traditional conceptions of beauty for Mayan women. For this reason she uses the image of the young woman’s lowered or humble gaze accentuated by her naturally straight (uncurled) eyelashes to describe how with the descent of her juntats’óol ‘sincerity, humility, and sincere, pure heart,’ she is able to see ‘recognize and appreciate’ the na’akal ‘ascent’ of her nojil ‘great’ ch’íibal ‘race, noble ancestry, lineage, blood origin’. Within the context of the poem, the terms nojil ‘great’ and ch’í’ibal ‘race, noble ancestry, lineage, blood origin’ refer directly to older generations of women such as the young woman’s mother, aunts, and grandmothers as members of the community worthy of admiration and profound respect.

The third section of the poem reiterates the command that the young woman goes to school, but this time the poet couples the term najil ‘house of’ with the term xook ‘school’. As the verse continues we understand that najil xook although meaning school house or formal education, in this case also (and more emphatically) refers to the home as the house of learning. In this house of learning and/or thought the poet explains that in the lóoch’ ‘hollow or scoop’ of the young woman’s k’ab ‘hand’ her na’at ‘understanding, good sense or judgment, reasoning, intelligence, wisdom’ will chuk ‘apprehend, capture, reach’ the póojol ‘what has flowed or drained’ from the chun‘root’ of the nak’ ‘womb’ of the ko’olelil‘women’ of her ch’i’ibal ‘race, noble ancestry, lineage, blood origin’ (Bolles, 2001; Bricker, Po’ot & Dzul, 1998; Ek Naal, personal communication; Gómez, 2009).

The term na’at ‘good sense or judgment, reasoning, intelligence, wisdom’ is described by María Dolores Cervera (2007: 6) as the development or unfolding of a child’s understanding that is “[a] gradual process, progressive and natural that depends on internal and innate forces”. She further explains that in Mayan society when a child acquires na’at he/she becomes aware of “the consequences of his/her behavior and becomes responsible for the work that corresponds to his/her gender” (id.). By describing that the young woman is able to feel/experience the vital fluids of the women of her noble ancestry through the cupped hands of her na’at, the poet is demonstrating that because the young woman has returned consciously she will be able to understand, appreciate, and physically feel the life-fluid / experience / knowledge of the women who have come before her. In this section Cuevas Cob is describing two processes of human development and knowledge acquisition: 1) na’at, the socially taught awareness and cultural intelligence that also depends on the individual characteristics of the child; and 2) the more visceral experience of the transference of vital fluids from the chuun u nak’ ‘stem or origin of the womb’ to the child.7 Both of these processes of human / intellectual development are directly related to the knowledge passed down from one generation of women to another, either in the form of cultural indoctrination (what a mother teaches her child in the home including language and stories) and the more physical and fundamental elements passed on to the child through the womb’. For the young woman whom this poem addresses, even though her life plays out in a complicated dance between cultures (Maya and non Maya), because she will return home consciously and not be a polwech, she will be able to recognize and honor (and appreciate in herself) the strength, wisdom, and beauty of the ko’olelil‘women’ of her own blood origin and ancestry.

As stated above, in traditional Mayan society women and men have specific spheres, roles, and principles that influence or guide the development of their identities (Ayllón and Nuño, 2008; Güémez, 2000; Guzmán, 2007). According to Rolando Ek Naal (personal communication), the term ko’ olel ‘woman’8 (ko’olelil‘women’) because it used to define the Ko’olel Kaab (Apis Mellifica and Melipona SSP, stingless honeybee) reveals cultural evidence related to the term ko’olel (woman, lady) that is indicative of the importance of women’s role in traditional Mayan society. He explains (id.) that the Ko’olel Kaab ‘lady/woman bee’ (the stingless honeybee) are producers of some of the “best honey in the world” and like respected women in Mayan society, are appreciated for qualities such as their physical strength and capacity for “intensive work,” their “social organization,” as well as their ability to collaborate, and their resourcefulness, knowledge, and skill in using what nature has to offer (Chemas & Rico-Gray, 1991: 16). It is interesting to note that the Ko’olel Kaab or “lady/woman bee” (also referred to as “goddess bee”) has been revered in Mayan society for over a thousand years, as is evident in the multiple references to her and her highly valued production in the Madrid Codex (see figure 3), one of the three existing pre-Columbian texts (Vit, Pedro & Roublik, 2013: 222).

Figure 3. Ko’olel Kaab ‘Lady Bee.’ Images adapted from the Madrid Codex p. 105. Retrieved from <http://diccionariodesimbolos.com/abejasyhormigas.htm>,July 19, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

In section four, the poet writes that from her tuunkuy ‘heels’ the young woman will na’ana’ajo’ot ‘decipher, read with her intelligence’ the wo’oj ‘letter, symbol, glyph’ ts’íib (or dzíib) ‘writing’ in the mamaiki lu’um‘dust,’ síis ‘cold’ and k’iin‘sun, day, time’. And, with her yich ‘eyes’ nukuch ‘great, large’ with cha’an óolal ‘admiration, astonishment’ she bin ‘will go’ on to cha’ant ‘admire’ the saatal u yóol ‘weakened’ yiim ‘breasts’ that have spilled kuxtal ‘life’ over the yóok’ol kab the ‘earth’. When asked about this passage, and particularly about the symbolism of the woman’s hieroglyphic footprints in the dust, Cuevas Cob (personal communication) responded with the following communication:

It is a little about accepting this way of seeing us as people from the community, and it is also a little the rejection, but not total rejection. It is this way of appreciating beauty. Many women today don’t want children because they do not want to lose their figure. Or if they do have children, they have one or two, while for the woman from the community they don’t care if their stomachs get extended as a result of pregnancy, which many women in the community have because, at least until some years ago, they had as many as ten or eleven children. My mom had eleven children [. . .]. Well, this is the way it is, the girls today watch their figure and there is also a little… the word disregard is a bit strong in this sense, but it is more like a feeling of looking down on —whether it be— the mom or the neighbor whose heels are like this because they use sandals and have contact with the climate, by washing, by always having contact with water, with dust, with this environment, and because they use shoes that don’t have any support. The poem is a description of all of this. It is also a description utilizing a metaphor whose objective is to speak about how this part of the woman’s foot suffers because of the nature of being from the community. In this text at least I try to make it so that it is seen in another way, that this part of the body that is affected by the dust, the humidity, is part of our history as a community. It is the metaphoric description of Mayan woman. It is a characteristic that we have. It happens to me too, when I spend a lot of time in the community and use sandals. It is simply the contact with the elements of the environment. My work is a description of this.

From our semantic analysis we understand that the term na’ana’ajo’ot ‘decipher, read with intelligence’ is a compound construction that reduplicates the term na’at ‘understanding, judgment reason, intelligence’ (na’ana’a) and then combines it with jo’ot ‘scratch, etch, sculpt’ (Gómez, 2009; Bolles, 2001). Rolando Ek Naal (personal communication) explains me that the reiteration of this term not only emphasizes its meaning to decipher, but also describes the process of using one’s intelligence to read and reflect profoundly to get an even deeper understanding of what has been written or etched. In the case of this poem, what is being deciphered is the wo’oj ‘letter, symbol, glyph’ ts’íib ‘written, inscribed’ in the dust by the woman’s weathered heel.

It is clear from her communication above that Cuevas Cob is speaking about the present, yet she does so by using imagery and terminology that evoke an ancient past. By utilizing terms also used in the discussion of pre-Columbian writing systems, she is referring to the lives and experience of Mayan women (particularly of older generations such as mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, etc.) with the wonder and awe that is generally used to describe Mayan hieroglyphics. She does this to show respect for the tremendous contribution these women’s lives, knowledge and work have made through the centuries without glossing over the hardship of their experience of having multiple children and doing manual labor in the humidity and heat of the tropics without the benefit of more protective shoes. Furthermore, that these glyphs are in the dust (and not in stone) presses the point that although what these women have accomplished is not visible to all, their legacy is evident in all that survives of Mayan culture that has been painstakingly nurtured and passed down from mother to daughter for centuries.

In the final verses of this section, the younger woman looks upon the older woman with her yich ‘eyes’ nukuch ‘great, large’ with cha’an óolal ‘admiration, astonishment’. The term cha’an óolal is a compound expression combining the notion cha’an ‘astonishment, admiration’ with óol ‘breath, spirit, energy, force’. Together these two terms refer to the profound astonishment and respect coming from the very spirit or soul of the young woman when she cha’ant ‘admires’ the saatal u yóol ‘weakened’ yiim ‘breasts’ that have spilled kuxtal ‘life’ over the yóok’ol kab ‘earth’. The term saatal u yóol translated as ‘weakened’ is also a compound construction that combines the notion of yóol or óol ‘breath, spirit, energy, force,’ but in this instance with the term saatal ‘to lose,’ signifying spent energy or life force. This expression is used in reference to the older woman’s breasts after having wekik ‘spilled, sprinkled’ kuxtal ‘life’ (mother’s milk) over theyóok’ol kaab ‘the earth’.

Miguel Güémez (2000) states that in Yucatec Mayan communities there exists a traditional perspective on female beauty that is quite distinct from urban Occidental expectations for women’s physical aesthetics. As important aspects of this perspective, being beautiful for a woman includes that she: “[e]njoys good health, has a healthy and full (not skinny) body, is capable of having healthy children, is able to breast feed, and has strength for work” (Güémez, ibid.: 313). Although this description does not sit well with many precepts of occidental feminism, it does correspond to the context of this poem. If we go back to Cuevas Cob’s remarks to when she discusses a shift in attitude in many young Mayan women, who in the process of adopting Occidental standards of beauty, are rejecting (to a certain extent) traditional aesthetics concerning women. We can see that in this text, by demonstrating admiration for a woman, who has clearly birthed several children and nourished them with her own body, the poet is critiquing this trend. At the same time that this work honors this woman’s experience as a Mayan mother and her ultimate contribution to cultural continuity, it also advocates for young Mayan women to be conscious and educated both in and out of the home (and home community). Consequently by coming home consciously, the young woman is able to reclaim her own cultural identity through her respect and ­appreciation for this older woman’s knowledge and contribution.

As a final comment on this section, it is interesting to note that the compound expression yóok’ol kaab ‘earth’ combines the term yóok’ol ‘above, over, up’ with the term kaab ‘honey.’ While in the poem it is translated into Spanish and English as ‘on this earth,’ in Maya it is an allusion to the earth being an agreeable (sweet) and productive place (Bricker, Po’ot & Dzul, 1998; Ek Naal, personal communication; Gómez, 2009). Although Cuevas Cob’s poem does not romanticize the notion of home as paradisiacal, linguistically speaking this is a particularly lovely description of the earth, especially if we take into consideration the correlation between the term ko’olel ‘woman’ and bees.

In the fifth section of the poem, Cuevas Cob reaffirms that the young woman will [t]eeche’‘you with the final “e”, which emphasizes the you (in this case, that young woman specifically)’ yaan a bin‘will go’ to najil xook ‘house of learning, school’, but will suut ‘return’ to your (her) taanaj‘house’, to your (her) yaalanaj‘kitchen’. The next six verses, as an example of anaphora, all begin with the term ka‘in order to, in order that’. The poet uses this rhetorical technique to emphatically describe what the young woman will do or what will happen once she is in her kitchen:

  1. ka ‘in order to’ bon ‘paint’ with k’uxubachiote, annatto, the chun ‘root’ of the nak’‘womb’ of theka’metate, flat stone for grinding’.
  2. ka ‘in order that’ the sabak‘soot’ with its yaak’‘tongue’ may leets‘lick’ your sakwhite’ piik‘petticoat, underskirt’.
  3. ka ‘in order to’ p’ul‘inflate’ with the yik’‘breath’ from your sak óol ‘lungs’ the p’ulu’us-k’áak’ ‘globe-flame’.
  4. ka ‘in order that’ the k’ak’al ‘hard, tough’ yaal u k’ab‘fingers’ of the buuts’‘smoke’ ch’op‘pokes, probes’ your wich‘eyes,’
  5. ka ‘in order to’ xook ti’read there’ on the paach ‘back, reverse’ of the xáamachcomal, flat pan for making tortillas, the p’ilis‘sparks’ of the k’áak’‘flame, fire’.
  6. ka ‘in order to’ xook ti’read there’ the tóoch’ ‘rising, lifting’ waak’ ‘burst’ of k’áak’‘flame, fire’.

All of the key elements of this section are essential in the description of a woman’s experience in the kitchen of a traditional Mayan home (see figure 4):

  1. The spice and colorant k’uxubachiote, annatto’.
  2. The ka’metate, flat stone for grinding (mostly corn).
  3. The xáamachcomal, flat pan primarily used for making (toasting) tortillas’
    All of the aspects of cooking over an open hearth, k’áak’‘flame, fire,’ p’ulu’usk’áak’globe-flame, p’ilis ‘sparks,’ buuts’‘smoke,’ sabak‘soot’.
  4. The sakwhite’ piik‘petticoat, underskirt’ of the traditional women’s dress in the Yucatan.

Beginning with the first verse, ka ‘in order to’ bon ‘paint’ with k’uxub‘annatto’, the chun‘root’ of the nak’‘womb’ of the ka’ metate’, Cuevas Cob describes two elements that have tremendous history and relevance in Mayan culture. K’uxubannatto’ and ka’ metate or flat grinding stone’. Annatto (Bixa Orellana) is a small tree native to the tropics of Central and South American that has been extremely important to the Maya (as a spice, medicine, and colorant) for home consumption, ritual, and trade for millennia (Caso & Aliphat, 2006; Vásquez, Batista, & Yusá, 2010). Cultivated both in home gardens and large orchards or plantations, annatto is noted for its distinctive red color and taste. Although the paste (actually made from the seeds or k’uxub) has been (and is) utilized for various purposes, in ancient times—as a symbol for human blood offering—one of its uses was in the preparation of chocolate to give it its reddish hue, as well as to add flavor (Freidel, Schele & Parker, 1993). For the ancient Maya, chocolate was considered “a precious fluid” due to its symbolic representation as blood and was drunk solely by nobles and the elite (Caso & Fernández, 2006: 36). Today, k’uxub ‘annatto’ maintains its cultural importance in that it is used in regional medicines, dyes, and delicacies such as cochinita pibil (pork in annatto paste traditionally roasted in underground ovens) (Anderson, 2010).

The ka’metate, flat stone for grinding mostly corn, but also spices such as annatto, is an essential item for Mayan households that has also been in use for millennia. When Cuevas Cob writes that the young woman will return to her home, to her kitchen in order to’ bon ‘paint’ with k’uxub‘annatto,’ the chun‘root’ of the nak’‘womb’ of the ka’metate,’ she is not only referring to the grinding of annatto on the metate, but also to how this essential tool is culturally conceptualized. As corresponds to Cuevas Cob’s description of the young woman painting its chun‘root’ of the nak’‘womb’ with annatto, in Mayan culture the metate is thought of both physically and symbolically in conjunction with a woman’s body and besides having a womb, is described as having a back, feet, breasts, and even teeth (López, 2002). Metates are generally made out of hard but porous stone, such as volcanic rock and are rectangular or oblong with a concave center that fits exactly the dimensions of the smooth hand held grinding stone called a k’ab’ ‘mano or hand’. Lisa Lucero (2010: 144) states that the metate “represent[s] the never-ending importance of maize in daily life.” She goes on to illustrate the historic importance of the ka’metate’ by explaining that it is common among the ancient sacred artifacts found interred under houses by archeologists. Janet Long (2008) affirms that the metate is one of the most important implements used in pre-Hispanic kitchens and its value and utilization continue to this day. The connection between the metate and the traditional role of the women in the kitchen is further emphasized by the ritual practice maintained to this day in various Mayan communities of burying a baby girl’s umbilical under the grinding stone or close to the hearth, so that she will feel rooted in her home and kitchen (Freidel, Schele & Parker, 1993; Güémez, 2000; Long, 2008). That the young woman will ‘paint’ with k’uxub‘annato,’ the chun‘root’ of the nak’‘womb’ of theka’metate’ not only refers to the passing from generation to generation cultural knowledge through traditional methods of food preparation, it is also a multisensory conceptualization of a woman’s work in the kitchen that evokes smells, tastes, colors, textures, images, sounds, etc.

The second verse evokes the experience of cooking over an open hearth and dealing with the realities of sabak‘soot’ while wearing the sakwhite’ piik ‘petticoat, underskirt’ of traditional Yucatec clothing. According to Rosalía Hernández (2012), clothing (and more specifically women’s clothing) for indigenous peoples in Mexico is both an important aspect of daily life and a form of resistance. She further explains that as well as being a way to visibly express cultural identity and to distinguish distinct communities, it is also a source of income, especially for women (id.). In the Yucatan as in other Mayan communities, the designs incorporated in the style and adornment or embroidery of the clothing (especially the huipil, see figure 4) relate to Mayan cosmology and draw from an ample and ancient symbology (Hernández, op. cit.). As seen above in table 1, the term xookbil chuuy ‘embroidery’ (similar to cross stitch, but with designs relating to Mayan cosmology) contains the term xook ‘to read, to count, to study and lesson’. Thus, as it is with the use of the metate and annatto, the use and production of traditional clothing are a tangible manifestation of women’s participation in cultural continuity and an important aspect of the young woman’s education.

The third verse continues to describe the young woman’s experience in the kitchen by focusing on the most important of its aspects, its hearth and fire. In Mayan cosmology the three sacred stones of the hearth —which are still in use in many Mayan homes— are a symbolic reference to the locus of Creation (Freidel, Schele & Parker, 1993). Because of their profound significance, the three-stone hearth and the daily tending of the fire are reminders of the act of Creation, the maintenance of cosmic order, and the intergenerational passing of cultural knowledge (id). That the young woman inflates with the yik’‘breath’ from her sak óol ‘lungs’ the p’ulu’usk’áak’globe-flame, we know that she too by tending the fire plays an important role in the preservation and transmission of culture.

Both the terms yik’ ‘breath’and sak óol ‘lungs’ are essential elements in the significance of this verse. Yik’(iik’, ik) as a noun is glossed as ‘air, wind, breath, life, and spirit,’ and as a verb, as ‘to puff or blow air’ (Bolles, 2001; Gómez, 2009; Martínez, 2006). Martínez (2007: 156) states that the concept of breath is not only associated with the function of breathing, but also with “vitality, effort, virtue, and power” of the person. It is interesting to note that the glyph for na ‘mother’ is the depiction of a woman’s head9 with the ik sign prominently displayed on her cheek (see figure 5). This perhaps has to do with her sacred role of preserving the vital fire by relighting it every morning with her own breath, symbolically helping “the sun be reborn, to regenerate itself every day after its journey through the darkness” (Guzmán, 2007: 107).

Figure 4. Images of essential Mayan kitchen elements. (a) k’uxub ‘achiote, annatto’, (b) ka’ ‘metate or flat grinding stone’,
(c) xáamach ‘comal, flat pan for making tortillas’. and (d) píik ‘petticoat, underskirt’of the traditional women’s dress in the Yucatan.
Note: Although the jubón, hipil, and fustán in (d) is obviously an elegant and expensive outfit used for festivities (not in the kitchen), it does give an idea of women’s traditional clothing and the tremendous skill required for its creation.Adapted from: (a) <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annatto>, (b) <http://p2.la-img.com/1103/37241/15932169 1_l.jpg>, (c) <http://alonzonovelo.com/canciones-ninos/el-comal-y-la-olla/>, and (d) <http://tusamigosenmexico.tumblr.com/post/40368982997/trajes-tipicos-de-yucatan>. Permission was received to reprint both (b) and (c) and the photographs (a) and (d) come from digital open sources.

Figure 5. Glyph for Na, ‘Mother’. The graphic in her cheek is the ik sign for ‘wind/breath/life/spirit’. Adapted from Montgomery, 2002: 178.

Sak óol glossed as ‘lungs’ is a compound expression combining the term sak ‘white’ with óol ‘breath, spirit, energy, force.’ Roland Ek Naal (personal communication) explains that life begins with breath and the reason that lungs are referred to as sak ‘white’ with óol ‘breath, spirit, energy, force’ is because this expression describes where in “the geography of the human body” the breath originates. In Mayan cosmology each cardinal direction has its specific color, and sak ‘white’ relates to the cardinal direction north. Ek Naal (id.) further states that the term sak indicates a part of the body that is tranquil and clarifies that generally speaking, winds coming from the north are peaceful and beneficial. Sanja Savkic (2010) affirms that the expression sak ik’ signifies a fresh wind that is soft and delicate, which corresponds well to Cuevas Cob’s description of a woman’s task of breathing on the hearth to start the morning fire. In Paul Worley’s (2013: 155) discussion of this section of the poem, he writes that when the young woman returns to her ancestral home and kitchen “[a]s much as [she] keeps the kitchen’s flame alive, so too is she produced by it, her subjectivity as a Maya woman formed through this creative act of tending the flame that connects her with previous generations of women”. For this reason, it is her yik’breath, life, and spirit’ and “vitality, effort, virtue, and power” that will maintain the p’ulu’us k’áak’globe-flame’ the heart of her home and source of identity and cultural legacy.

As with the description of the soot licking at the young woman’s sak piik ‘white petticoat’, Cuevas Cob does not gloss over the realities or hardships of cooking over an open flame. When she states that the k’ak’al ‘hard, tough’ yaal u k’ab‘fingers’ of the buuts’‘smoke’ ch’op ‘pokes, probes’ your wich‘eyes’ she is clearly referring to the health issues (most specifically eye irritation) experienced by women due to their daily exposure to smoke in poorly ventilated kitchens. However, in addition to this physicalized description of the smoke’s hard fingers probing the young woman’s eyes, the primary images presented in this verse also have a symbolic connotation that corresponds with the overall message of the poem.

For ancient and contemporary Maya, smoke symbolizes breath as well as a means of transmitting information to and from ancestors and supernatural beings (Freidel, Schele & Parker, 1993; Houston & Taube, 2000). Building off of this concept that smoke represents a form of communication between the living and the beyond, Karl Taube (1998: 446) states that “incense burners are the kitchen hearths of the gods and ancestors”. Smoke in this sense is the obvious link between incense burners and the Mayan three-stone kitchen hearth. As incense burners give off smoke —as a form of communication between the living and beyond— the hearth does the same. In the context of this poem, smoke is a form of communication between the generations of women (past, present, future) whose task it was, is, and will be to tend the fire (Hoppan & Jacquemot, 2010). Furthermore, since eyes in Mayan cosmology symbolize human mirrors and two way communication between the living and their ancestors, the image of the young woman getting smoke in her eyes reinforces this conceptualization (Rivera, 1999).

In the fifth verse of this section, Cuevas Cob reiterates that the young woman will come back to her home and kitchen in order to xook ti’read there’ on the paach ‘back, reverse’ of the xáamachcomal, flat pan for making tortillas, the p’ilis‘sparks’ of the k’áak’‘flame, fire’. To appreciate the significance of this verse it is necessary to understand what a comal is, does, and symbolically represents. The comal is a flat circular pan —traditionally made of clay— that is predominantly used to cook corn tortillas (see figure 4), but is also used for toasting coffee beans and other foodstuffs. Corn, as the ideological and physical “basis of life” provides between 50-75% of the calories consumed in Mayan communities (Anderson, 2010: 460). Because corn tortillas are a staple food for many Maya, with grown men eating from 30 to 50 a day, for the women who still boil the corn and grind it into “masa” on their metates, shape the tortillas by hand, and cook them on a comal on the hearth, their preparation translates into a significant amount of time and labor (id.). Nevertheless, this entire process is so important to Mayan culture that Julián López (2002: 112) states that without the metate or comal “there is no house, there is no home”.

Although the comal and metate as tools in the kitchen are complementary, what they symbolically represent is quite distinct (López, op. cit.). The comal being made of clay, breaks relatively easily and needs to be replaced on a regular basis. The metate on the other hand, is made of stone and is passed down for generations from mother to daughter (id.). The comal, because of its round shape and red color when it is hot is identified with the sun and more specifically, the sun at noon (id.). The more ephemeral nature of the comal —because it breaks and is replaced regularly, and like the sun goes through cycles of being hot (day) and cold when it is not being used (night)— is representative of the day to day (id.). While the metate —made of stone and passed down through the generations— represents perpetuity (id.).

On returning to her kitchen the young woman will xook ti’read there’ on the paach ‘back, reverse’ of the xáamach comal’ the p’ilis‘sparks’ of the k’áak’‘flame, fire’. By sitting by the fire and participating in the process of making tortillas, she undoubtedly will gaze into the fire and watch the sparks of the fire as they come into contact with the comal. It is possible that this part of the verse is a reference to the skill it takes to cook on a comal on an open flame. In that it is necessary to work with the fire —understanding it and reading it— in the effort to maintain a steady temperature and not break the comal, burn the tortillas, or waste wood.

The final verse of this section reiterates that she will xook ti’read there’ the tóoch’ ‘rising, lifting’ waak’ ‘burst’ of k’áak’‘flame, fire.’ In closing this section with the image of the young woman reading the rising or lifting flame or fire it is as if Cuevas Cob —as a call to arms— is imploring the young woman to remember all that she has been taught, in the kitchen, in the home, from her mother, grandmothers, etc. and more than just remember, keep the flame alive by active participation. If we go back to our analysis of the term xook, which as a noun is glossed as ‘lesson’, but as a verb as ‘to read, to count, to study, to keep in mind or take into account,’ it is clear that reading the fire is not a passive distraction. Reading the flame or fire in this sense is understanding its cultural symbolic significance as creation and continuity and the tremendous responsibility and effort of keeping it alive.

Finally, it is important to point out that in this section of the poem there is a definite reference to color, and more specifically the four colors that correspond to the Mayan conception of the cardinal directions or sectors of the universe:

  • Red/east− k’uxubachiote, annatto’.
  • White/north− sakwhite’ piik‘petticoat, underskirt’.
  • Black/west− sabak‘soot’.
  • yellow/south−K’an ixi’im‘yellow corn’.

Although there is no specific mention of corn (and there are various colors of corn), corn and specifically yellow corn is implied in conjunction with the metate and the comal in that the metate grinds corn and the comal toasts corn tortillas. Moreover, in traditional stories on the origin of corn, symbolically it is yellow corn that has gotten its color because it has been toasted for consumption (Huff, 2006). It is also very interesting to note that in Mayan cosmology the universe is conceived as a quincunx (a cross with the fifth point at its center) (Freidel, Schele & Parker, 1993). In this conception of the universe, each direction or sector of the universe with their corresponding colors mark the extremities of the quincunx, while the center point where the lines intersect (designated as ya’ax ‘green’) is considered the heart or hearth of the universe (Guzmán, 2007; Savkic, 2010; Taube, 1998). On the macro level this is where the First Mother/Father “set up the first three stones of Creation to establish the cosmic center” (Freidel, Schele & Parker, 1993: 130). On the human or micro level, this center is replicated in the home with the traditional three-stone hearth. It is the hearth where “the vital fire is preserved” and creation and regeneration are made possible on a daily basis (Guzmán, 2007: 107). It is the hearth where women light and tend the fire and prepare the food (corn in the form of tortillas) that sustains their families.

The final section reiterates that the young woman will suut ‘return’ to her yaalanaj‘kitchen, daughter house’ because her k’anche’il ‘bench’ where she pak’ach‘makes, pats out’ waajtortillas’ pa’atech‘awaits’ her. Lauren Wynne (2013: 33) states that for the Maya in the Yucatán “tortilla making is required female knowledge, understood as crucial to the complementary gender roles that have organized household production for centuries”. In our discussion about this last section of Cuevas Cob’s poem, Roland Ek Naal explains me that the term pak’achspecifically refers to the preparation of tortillas, in that it literally recreates the sound of the patting out by hand the corn dough or masa. In her description of the process of learning how to make tortillas, Wynne (op. cit.) states that because it takes a significant amount of time and practice to become an adept tortilla maker, girls start learning the entire procedure when they are little. She also explains that in their training period girls are rarely in charge of the fire, but “tend to play a supporting role, patting out tortillas while an older female relative judges the ‘cooked-ness’ on the xamach [‘comal’].”

The last four verses of this section are presented in the form of parallelism, with the first two verses or couplets beginning with the term tumen ‘because,’ and the third and fourth verses or couplets beginning with junp’el neen ‘one/a mirror.’

  1. tumen wa’ala’an u pa’atech u k’anche’il tu’ux ka pak’ach waaj ,
    ‘because your bench awaits you where you make tortillas’.
  2. tumen k’óoben u ta’akmaj jump’éel neen tu chuun u nak’ .
    ‘because the three-stone hearth guards or keeps in its womb or depths a mirror’.
  3. Jump’éel neen tu’ux ts’aalal a pixan.
    ‘A mirror on which your soul has been imprinted’.
  4. Jump’éel neen ku yawat páaytikech yéetel u juum u t’aan u léets’ jul.

‘A mirror whose shout or call attracts or invites you with the sound of the word of the flame or streak of light’.

From our analysis of the first verse of the first couplet, we know that the young woman will return to her kitchen because her bench for making tortillas awaits her by the hearth. The second verse explains that guarded or kept in the nak’ ‘womb, depths’ of the k’óoben‘kitchen, cooking hearth, three stones of the fire’ there is a neen ‘mirror’ (Bolles, 2001; Gómez, 2009). In Maya the term neen besides signifying the noun ‘mirror’ also refers to the verbs ‘imagine, contemplate, think, meditate and consider’ (Bolles, 2001; Rivera, 1999). Brian Stross (1986: 296) affirms that in ancient Mayan writing mirrors relate directly to a person’s “spirit, soul, or inner self” and are a powerful tool used in divination and curing. Miguel Rivera (id., 92-94) explains that in ancient Mayan symbology mirrors were conceived as “the vehicle of a privileged communication with the spiritual powers residing in the otherworld” and/or centers through which it was possible to establish “communication with other cosmic dimensions”. Moreover, in David Bolles’ (2001) dictionary of the Yucatecan Mayan language there are multiple entries that utilize the term neen as a two way mirror for seeing and being seen by powerful entities and the divine.

The third verse of the second couplet continues with the image of the mirror and emphasizes that it is jump’éel neen ‘a mirror’ on which your pixan ‘soul’ has been ts’aalal ‘imprinted.’ Although the term and notion of pixan is normally glossed as ‘soul’, because it is a complex and culturally (and even regionally) specific concept, it is helpful to reiterate some of the most salient characteristics of its Peninsular Maya definition. As this is a particularly complicated concept and a more in-depth examination is not in the scope of this study, we will only give a brief explanation to support our poetic analysis.

According to Gabriel Bourdin (2008), in the Peninsular Maya vocabulary there are numerous terms corresponding to the culturally conceived physical and non-physical attributes of the human being. Among the list of non-physical attributes, ik, óol, and pixan are some of the most fundamental elements used for describing emotional and spiritual states of the human experience that are usually associated with what is described as a soul and/or spirit in English and Spanish. Ik glossed as ‘spirit, and vital breath’ is normally referred to as breath, wind, spirit, energy, exuberance, power, and effort. Ool (óol) glossed as ‘“formal” heart, will, and desire’ is used in reference to the spirit, energy, force, vitality, and movement that is the very essence of a person. In contrast to ool as the “formal” or energetic heart, the term puczical is used in reference to the physical heart organ. Finally, pixan ‘soul’ is the term used when referring to what is left of a person, who has died and no longer has ool. In other words, that aspect of a person that remains close to family and loved ones even after he or she has died (Bourdin, 2008; Cervera, 2007; Martínez, 2006; Tuz, 2009).

When Cuevas Cob describes the mirror as bearing the imprint of the young woman’s pixan ‘soul’, the understanding that the soul is that element of a human being that remains with family and loved ones after death alludes to a core aspect or piece of the young woman that has never left home. Carlos Montemayor (2005: 192) maintains that this is an allusion to the Mayan custom of burying a baby’s umbilical cord “where she will work when she grows up,” which in the case of a female child means beneath or close to the hearth and cooking fire. Rolando Ek Naal (personal communication) explains that even though people might leave their homes, the fact that Mayan children have their umbilical cords buried in a specific place (girls under or close to the hearth and boys generally in la milpa or el monte ‘the corn fields or the woods’) designates where they must return in order to not lose their identity. In other words, it is the place where they come back to their own way of thinking and to themselves (id.). Cuevas Cob completes the couplet and the entire poem with the verse [j]ump’éel neen ‘a mirror’ whose yawat ‘call, shout’ páaytikechattracts or invites’ you with the juum‘sound’ of its léets’ jul ‘flame or streak of light’ (radiant)t’aan‘word’. Once again she refers to the mirror that has been imprinted with the young woman’s pixan, and emphatically states that it will attract/invite her with the radiant sound of its t’aan ‘word’. T’aanminimally glossed as ‘word’, is a most appropriate term to conclude this work, taking into consideration Cueva’s Cob’s passion and commitment for cultural and linguistic continuity.

T’aan as a noun, signifies ‘word, speech, and voice’ and as a verb, ‘to speak or to express oneself’.10 Hilario Chi (2012) in his article on how language is taught in the home by Mayan mothers explains that the process these women use (which he calls u j’ook’ol t’aan)11 focuses on how cultural knowledge is embodied in every word. Cuevas Cob begins this poem by stating that the young woman will go to school, that she will be educated (both at home and out in the world), but that she will also come home conscious, able to appreciate her cultural heritage and the women who have come before. She will understand that the knowledge that she has inherited —embodied in the very language she speaks— has been passed down to her through generations of women, the same grandmothers and mothers who have lit and tended the hearth’s fire for millennia and whose umbilical cords are also buried in the kitchen. It is their hearth, her hearth, the ancient symbol of Creation and regeneration and the heart and center of Mayan cultural identity.

As is evident in the Spanish translation of this poem, Cuevas Cob communicates a unique world view that conveys not only information about Mayan belief and practice, but also her personal beliefs on how important it is for younger generations to consciously understand and value their cultural heritage. Although this is essential information about the meaning and message of the poem, it is only in the Mayan version of the poem where the poet articulates a much more complex perspective in which culturally specific symbolic representation and meaning becomes more explicit and accessible.

This distinctive form of interpretation and expression of the world reveals modes of conceptualization that are unique (that is to say conventionalized) to Mayan culture (Lucy, 2005; Wierzbicka, 1992). For this reason, on returning to the initial question that has served as the basis of this investigation—“what role does language play in the transmission and preservation of Mayan cultural belief and symbolic representation?” —we understand that language does indeed play an integral role. In fact, as is demonstrated throughout the analysis of this poem, aspects of Mayan symbology are woven into the very morphological fabric of the language. Moreover, as this symbolic representation is not just articulated through poetic (or ritual discourse), but also through daily speech, we know that one fundamental reason that so many aspects of ancient Mayan perspective, expression, and practice have survived is because they have been encoded and transmitted linguistically. Thus, emphasizing the depth of Cuevas Cob’s


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Notas al pie

1 Although we have divided this text into sections and or verses using the poet’s punctuation, we acknowledge that these divisions have not been implemented by the poet, but are based on our own interpretation of the poem and have been utilized to assist in our process of analysis.

2 All other translations into English have been rendered by the author of this article.

3 This is the date for all interview citations for Ms. Cuevas Cob.

4 To obtain the information for this article, Mr. Ek Naal was interviewed seven times: May 6, June 6, August 20, September 30, October 10, November 3, 2013, and January 14, 2014.

5 Although there are alternative spellings for naj and other terms, we have based this study on the poet’s choices in spelling.

6 The Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature (1995: 856), defines parallelism as the following: “In rhetoric, a component of literary style in both prose and poetry, in which coordinate ideas are arranged in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that balance one element with another of equal importance and similar wording. The repetition of sounds, meanings, and structures serves to order, emphasize and point out relations.” It is important to note that parallelism is one of the most emblematic poetic elements in Mesoamerican literature that in some cases has hardly changed since ancient times (Bricker, 2007; Craveri & Valencia, 2012; Monod-Becquelin & Becquey, 2008).

7 It is important to note that this image of the transference of vital fluids and manner of communicating knowledge echoes how in Mayan cosmology sacred information (vital energy/intelligence) is believed to have been transmitted through a snake symbolizing the cosmic umbilical cord or Milky Way that connected the sky (the divine) to the earth (Freidel, Schele & Parker, 1993).

8 There are two terms that signify ‘woman’ in Peninsular Maya ko’olel and x ba’al, our focus is exclusively on ko’olel because it is the expression Cuevas Cob utilizes in this poem.

9 Note similarity to the glyph for naj ‘house’ in figure 2 of this study.

10 T’aan is also used in the expressions lik’t’aan ‘poem’, which literally means lik’ ‘to lift or elevate’ the t’aan ‘word, voice, etc’ and iik’t’aan ‘poet’, which is a compound word that combines the term ik ‘spirit, and vital breath’ with t’aan. Ek Naal affirms that an iik’t’aan ‘poet’ is known by this name because they have the ability to “hablar con el espíritu adentro / they speak using the spirit within them”.

11 U j’ook’ol t’aan glossed as “la salida del habla” ‘the door of speech’ by Chi (2012: 221).

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