“Books don’t matter to us. What matters is that our children don’t get enough to eat and get sick and die.”
I don’t remember exactly when Flor de Margarita Pérez Pérez said this to me, but I remember how it made me feel: that, as an anthropologist and writer, I had little to offer her and her community.
I arrived at Margarita’s house in Chenalhó, Chiapas, Mexico, in February 1987. Though I love to read, I had only brought a few books with me. While studying Tsotsil, my host family’s language, I would look up from my dictionary to the corn crib in the room and compare it to my bookshelf at home. Like my books, corn cobs were neatly stacked in rows from floor to ceiling. They had been harvested by Antonio, Margarita’s husband. They were the fruit of his labor in the corn and bean fields. Margarita’s job was to take the dried ears of corn and transform them into tortillas, corn gruel, and, for special occasions, tamales.
Corn cobs also embodied a form of ancestral knowledge about how to plant, care for, and harvest corn, knowledge Antonio had learned from his father. In that way they were like my bookshelf, a source of wisdom handed down from previous generations.
At Margarita’s, I became accustomed to eating mostly corn, beans, squash, and an occasional piece of fruit. Well before the end of the year, what little corn remained was riddled with bugs. The bananas the couple grew went to market, as did most of the eggs their hens produced, to earn the cash to buy corn and beans. I heard stories of different kinds of hunger. Margarita told me that Black Hunger was the worst — when the corn crop failed and people had to grind up the roots of plants to make tortillas and fill them with greens, the food of animals, not of humans.
After 13 months in Chiapas, I returned to the U.S. to write my dissertation. Before my departure, an anthropologist friend, Graciela Freyermuth Enciso, cautioned me: “You better not be like those American anthropologists who come to Mexico and do their investigations and then go back home and never return their writing to us in Spanish.”
It became clear to me that writing was my cargo, my service to this community.
Graciela’s words stayed with me and encouraged me to make my academic work available in Spanish. Although I gave these books to my compadres, I had finally accepted that writing about their lives was not a way they saw me helping them and their community in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Then, in 1994, the Zapatista uprising occurred and things changed on many fronts. When representatives of the movement came to their community, Antonio and Margarita recognized the struggle as their own. After decades of protests and demonstrations, it was finally time to stand up to the Mexican government and hold it accountable for its centuries of neglect of the original peoples of Mexico. For example, at the time of the uprising, 55% of the nation’s hydroelectric power came from Chiapas, while only one-third of homes in Chiapas had electricity.
I began to write from my compadres’ and their friends’ perspectives about the dramatic changes that joining the Zapatista movement entailed. I brought my writings back to them and explained that with these I was telling people in my country and elsewhere about what they were trying to accomplish. They seemed to understand that this writing was helpful.
But all along they gave me much more than I gave them. They taught me how to live and work in a collective way. In their community each person depended upon others in profound ways. Reciprocity and borrowing formed the basis of social life. Houses went up with kinsfolk and neighbors helping each other. After the Zapatista uprising, cooperatives became an important way to construct an alternative to the government’s top-down economic development policies.
Before coming to highland Chiapas, I had only read about cargos
, services that people take on for their community, usually for life and often without remuneration. Healers, midwives, and leaders of prayers in sacred places took on such cargos for life. More recently, representatives in artisan cooperatives and in the Zapatista movement assume them for shorter periods.
It became clear to me that writing was my cargo, my service to this community. Eventually, I received another cargo from Margarita in which I could help her people more concretely — assisting weavers in her community to sell their work through fair trade in the U.S. Over the years that work extended to working with two other artisan cooperatives in highland Chiapas and using my writing to educate people about the significance of their textile traditions.
I hadn’t been to visit my compadres for two years when I arrived in Chiapas in August 2019. On the first day of my visit, we got our book business out of the way: I paid Margarita for two years of royalties she had earned on the sales of her life story, about $133. Not much in the U.S., but quite a bit to her. In 2001, I had convinced Margarita to embark on a 10-year journey with me to tell her story. That book has three versions: an English one, a Spanish one, and one just for her family with the real names of everyone and their photos. When we prepared the public versions, we decided not to use her real name or photos of her or her family for fear of reprisals from her involvement in the Zapatista movement. After receiving copies of her personal book to give to her children, Margarita said that she is glad she told her life story so that her children can understand what her life has meant.
I also had news for Margarita about another book: my first novel. That book owed a lot to the work we did together on her life story. The abundance of material we generated didn’t all make it into her book. I sat on that material for several years until I realized that I could use some of it as a springboard to tell a story about a friendship between two Tsotsil women from Chenalhó. And so When a Woman Rises
came into being.
Before I went to Chiapas, I hatched a wild plan to raise money to give away 2,000 copies of When a Woman Rises
in Spanish to pueblos originarios
(original peoples, what Mayas and other “indigenous” people prefer to be called) in Chiapas. I didn’t want to wait for a Mexican publisher to buy the translation rights to my book some day in the distant future, plus I knew that few pueblos originarios would have the money to buy the book if it were available in Spanish. Although some of them have read my other books in Spanish, when my novel came out I realized that I had finally written something that the people who made the book happen could enjoy reading, and in doing so be reminded of the creative spark they carry within themselves.
When I was in Chiapas, I talked about my idea to make free copies of my novel in Spanish available with about a dozen organizations. A few are run by pueblos originarios who have been writing poems, stories, and novels in Spanish and in Mayan languages and could have resented me for seeking support for my writing instead of theirs. But instead, I received their gratitude and encouragement. One told me they plan to use multiple copies of my novel in reading circles. Another suggested that literate women and men can read the book out loud to their parents and grandparents who don’t read.
Books still do not matter to Margarita as much as the struggle to sustain her family and community. But I think she sees the bridge that books can build between her people and the world. I hope that my novel will inspire pueblos originarios to write their own novels and be a mirror reflecting their valuable collective knowledge and practices.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of nonfiction works, including Women and Alcohol in a Highland Maya Town: Water of Hope, Water of Sorrow
and The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman: Pass Well Over the Earth
, which she coauthored with Flor de Margarita Pérez Pérez. Her novel, When a Woman Rises
, was published by Cinco Puntos Press in 2018. It received the Silver Medal in Multicultural Fiction in the Independent Publishers Book Awards and Silver Medal for the Most Inspiring Book of Fiction in the 2019 International Latino Book Awards. Recently the book was translated into Spanish. Christine has launched a Go Fund Me campaign to fund the printing of Cuando una mujer se levanta
in order to give away 2,000 copies to pueblos originarios in Chiapas. Click here
to donate to this project. For more information about Christine’s other projects, visit christineeber.com
or email her at [email protected]
. For more information about the weavers in Chiapas, visit Weaving for Justice