The Creators of INCANTATIONS

I live a couple of professional lives. I'm a poet and a publisher. It's a peculiar and very interesting dilemma. Lee (she's a novelist and short-story writer) and i got into the publishing life so we could try to make a living at something we loved--putting language on the page. Our company Cinco Puntos Press doesn't publish much poetry. Why? Because very few people buy poetry books. But sometimes we go out on a limb and publish a book that crosses the terrain. In this instance, it's INCANTATIONS: SONGS, SPELLS AND IMAGES BY MAYAN WOMEN. This magical book (I use the term "magical" in the literal sense) was edited and curated by poet Ambar Past. More about Ambar later. But for now I'm pasting below a blognote that appeared on our Cinco Puntos Press blogspot. Because a different crowd of readers come to this blog, I thought it would be good to put this here too. This is one of those times when I get the chance to wear my poet hat and my publisher hat stacked atop one another.

OVER A HUNDRED AND FIFTY PEOPLE COLLABORATED to write, illustrate, and create this book, among them singers, seers, witchwives, washer women, sugar beer brewers, conjurers, native bearers, prayer makers, soothsayers, sorceresses, dyers, diviners, hired mourners, spinners, shepherdesses, babysitters, millers, maids, bookbinders, spellbinders, cornharvesters, great-grandmothers, sharecroppers, necromancers, exorcists, coffee pickers, potters, crazy women, midwives, planters, woodlanders, bonesetters, troublemakers, spiritualists, mothers-in-law, peddlers, gravediggers, fireworks makers, drinkers, hags, beggars, bakers, basket weavers, shamanesses, liars, computers, comagres, sculptresses, muses, and even men. We have made this book “as we make our children,” in the words of Petú Xantis, “with the strength of our flesh and the birds of our heart.”

In the land of Som Chi, the Eloquent Conjurer,
In the land of Som Chi, Spinner of Incantations.

—Ritual de los Bacabes
So Ambar Past begins her essay "Notes on the Creators" in the anthology INCANTATIONS: SONGS, SPELLS AND IMAGES BY MAYAN WOMEN. Below, in this video, Ambar and Maruch Méndes Péres celebrate the book, making offering to the Gods, with candles, poetry and a reading.

[NOTES: Ambar's daughter, the videographer Tila Rodriguez Past filmed, edited and produced this video. It was originally published on the web on Blip TV here. By the way, if you're on facebook reading this, you might not be able to watch the video in the blognote. It will, however, be posted on facebook in videos and on the wall separately.]

Maruch is a shepherdess and poet. This is what she chants to the Gods:


The Tzotzil Maya of the Chiapas Highlands say that the Gods need to have poetry in order to survive and so they created humans to make that poetry, that feast. Thus, Maruch and Ambar are celebrating the publication of our U.S. edition of INCANTATIONS. Maruch chants poetry and lights the candles for the altar and later in the video Ambar reads a poem. This magical book--edited and curated by Ambar--was originally created by el Taller Leñateros (Woodlanders Workshop), a self-governing collective of mostly Mayan women. A member of the taller, Maruch was one of the book’s creators.

In her essay "Notes on the Creators,"Ambar tells this story about Maruch--

Shepherdess Maruch Méndes Péres is the author of Songs of the Drunken Woman. Maruch is not much of a drinker, however, and claims she never married because she can’t stand drunks. She lives in Catixtik, Chamula with two little girls she adopted, Xvel and Marta Méndes. Now it seems that Maruch has also adopted Xvel and Marta’s three siblings and also their birth mother, Dominga. All of them have changed their last names to Méndes. The Leñateros were trying to get in touch with Maruch last year to pay her royalties from the sales of the Spanish version of this book, but were told that she had died, and would be buried that very day. All of us from the Workshop piled into a hired van packed full of flowers and we headed off sadly to Maruch’s hamlet. There were hundreds of people in mourning outside of her house, including Maruch herself, who was so overjoyed to witness our arrival at the funeral that she forgot for a moment her sadness over the death of her elder sister—also named Maruch Méndes.

Here, then, is a couple of Maruch's incantations:


Saint Mother,
Godmother, I am drunk.

I caught the drops that fall from your roof
I drank your shadow.

Now I am getting drunk.
Anyway, my Saint Mother,
anyway, my Godmother,

look after me
so I won’t trip over something.

I am drunk; I have drunk,
my Saint Mother, my Godmother,
Saint Maruch, Niña Maruch.

I want all your pretty ones to overwhelm me.
I want to sing,

Virgin Maruch,
Niña Maruch.

I am a drinker of drink.
I drank your wine.

It has gone to my head.
My heart is spinning

I know how to drink.
I know how to drink everything.

—Maruch Méndes Péres


I step and walk
on your flowering face,

Holy Mother, Holy Wildwood,
Sacred Earth, Sacred Ground.

Show me the way, Mother,
put me on the right track.

Rise up, Holy Rock!
Rise up, Holy Tree!

Come with me on the way up.
Be with me on the way down.

Sacred Mother,
Holy Breast,

Holy Kaxail,
Sacred Earth,

Holy Ground,
Holy Soil,

Sacred Ahau,
Holy Snake,

Holy Thunderbolt:
Protect me with your shadow.

—Maruch Méndes Péres


The Death of Dr. Manuel Arroyo Galvan

“Truth is the first casualty in a war.”

Aeschylus (525 BC - 456 BC), that old Greek bastard who wrote plays, said something like that 2500 years ago. Nothing has changed much since then. Especially in Ciudad Juárez a few minutes across the river from where I live . The Juarez Cartel is battling the Sinaloa Cartel for the right to use that city as its place of business. Since January 2008 more that 2200 people have been assassinated mob-style in La Ciudad Juárez. Felipe Calderon, the president of Mexico, has sent 10,000 federal troops to the city. His rationale was that the city police are dirty. They’re at the trough slopping up the mordida. For a while, the murders abated, but now they have returned with heart-numbing regularity. All the rich people, the powerful people, have fled the city. They live in El Paso or elsewhere. Even the mayor lives on this side of the river. The poor, the working class and the lower middle-class are bearing the brunt of the carnage. On the streets the people don’t trust the troops. They don’t trust the police. They worry that the authorities, whatever badge they are wearing, are working for either Juárez Cartel (the city police) or the Sinaloa Cartel (the army). These are the rumors. And rumors are as good as place as any for news. The newspapers aren’t trusted either. Juárez is not a safe place to write real news, hard news. Nosey journalists are killed with impunity. And now it seems the cartels and their collaborators are stepping into the academic and intellectual communities.

Listen here.

It’s May 29th, just a few weeks ago. A 44-year-old man is driving back to work on a hot afternoon. He lives in a desert city on the U.S./Mexico border, so he has the AC humming away at full blast and his window is open. Why? Because he likes the AC and he likes the smell of the air in his city, even if it is dirty. This man loves his car. It’s a 1992 Chrysler New Yorker, a huge boat of a car, una ranfla grande, with deep leather seats and lots of bells and whistles. A big roomy space good for all sorts of things—talk and laughter and kids and love-making. It’s the kind of car he dreamed about when he was kid. His parents were migrants from the state of Durango. They worked in the maquilas. They never crossed over to the United States, aka Gringolandia, so he grew up south of that little bit of a river that separates us from them. Back then his mother was an advocate of the Catholic Church’s Theology of Liberation, so at an early age he sat in living rooms listening to workers talking about organizing and creating better lives for their families and their people. He had listened to the anger, he had listened to the sorrow, he had seen how the poverty can grind into a family’s heart and he had hoped that something could be done. He too had gone to work in a maquiladora. $30 to $35 a week was probably the high end of his wage scale. But somehow—through a combination of happy karma and good luck, his and his city’s—he had entered the university and studied and worked himself up the ladder from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s and finally a PhD. He became a professor of social studies and education. So this man, this driver of the Chrysler New Yorker, is an academic, a well-respected leader in the local intellectual community. He is not afraid to butt heads with the jefes at the university, and he is working on a book about social movements in his city and the problems they confronted. He didn’t make much money, but that was not what his life was about. His life reflected who he was.

What I want to say is this: if I lived in this man’s city, then I would know him. He would be an acquaintance, a guy I'd talk to at parties or at a coffee shop, maybe at a poetry reading or an art gallery. He’s the kind of guy who I cross paths with all the time. He has the same intellectual, civic and emotional interests that I have. His world is like my world, his life is not unlike my life.

So he is driving his car and daydreaming. Like any of us on a sunny afternoon he’s distracted by this or that. Who knows what he is thinking about? He has both hands on the steering wheel, he has his seat belt on, he’s approaching an intersection, the light is turning yellow and a white panel van pulls up next to him on the driver’s side. The van comes too close, so much so the man looks over to see who it is. He’s pissed. Why doesn’t that vato look out where he’s going? The window of the van rolls down and a man he does not know points a gun at him. This unknown man shoots six times and the Chrysler New Yorker swerves into a telephone pole.

The driver is dead.

The dead man was Dr. Manuel Arroyo Galvan, a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez just 10 or 15 minutes across the river from where I live. He was 44 years old, an intellectual who cared about the community from which he came. He was a sociology and education professor and researcher for the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ). He was a social activist, a divorced father of a son whom he loved and cared for. His murder will not be solved, and even if it is “solved,” no one will believe what the authorities say. There are lots of theories-—he was the victim of a revenge attack for a legal complaint he reportedly filed over a stolen truck, the victim’s stumbling across sensitive information in the course of his research, maybe it was a simple case of mistaken identity, or maybe Manny was dirty. That’s the first idea that pops up into people’s minds when someone is killed--what was he doing wrong? A good friend of mine, a juarense, told me that in Juárez, everybody is an expert. It’s like being at a soccer game. One opinion is as valid as the next. We are, he said, scared for our own lives but at the same time we must explain what is happening. We don’t trust the news, we don’t trust the cops so we must explain it ourselves.

The day after I heard about Manuel Arroyo’s death I got the email below from my friend. Excuse the awkward translation. It is mine. Also, I want to say I will no longer give the names of any of my friends in Juarez. The shadow crosses the river. I have inserted the video inside his email which documents the march—


The death of Manuel Arroyo is lamentable, not only for the insidious way he was assassinated, but also because he was a generous man and a active participant in our community, besides being a controversial and brave academic who on various occasions had to assume the political costs of his beliefs.

This past Friday, soon after we learned of his death, that congregated at la Megabandera [a park near the university over which is hoisted a giant flag of Mexico] and spontaneously marched to the Prosecutor General’s Office where we vigorously protested. It wasn't for nothing. Every one of us that joined this procession had shared with Manuel, in some moment or another, practices, spaces, discussions, arguments, desires and words, many words. Above all, we shared with him the determinations to transform the city.

With his death we have died a little, but this is the moment when we must walk into the street. We cannot stay in our homes waiting to see who will be the next victim nor can we permit that our first suspicion about the assassination rest with the victim.

It seems that the university has finally taken a position that is clear, definitive and articulate about the assassinations of Manuel, of professor Gerardo González and student Alejandro Irigoyen Flores y the disappearances of students Lidia Ramos Mancha and Mónica Janeth Alanís. This is an encouraging signal that things can change. We will gather today at six in the after at the Megabandera and march together.

In this way we can send a clear message that prevails in our city and in our country is untenable and that we demand a secure city, with respect to the human rights and individual guaranties for all. This is something very basic and elemental--that condition these rights prevail.

This is a critical moment and an extraordinary opportunity. We must make the effort and we must take to the streets.

A few days after that first spontaneous march, friends and comrades from the university held a larger, with speeches and reminiscences, sharing the life of Manuel Arroyo Galvan and his intellectual legacy in the city. It was a larger and more organized event, and it was covered in media in Juárez and El Paso. The two photos above, and also the photograph of the soldier in the Humvee at the top, were taken by border photographer Bruce Berman. Bruce, who has a daily blog documenting the border cities of El Paso and Juárez, attended the second march, his camera in his hand. At the event they organizers played the classic Mexican rock song by El Tri, “Rolling Stones,”—“Las Piedras rodantes.” Below is a video from youtube of Alex Lora of El Tri singing that song. Listen to it and learn the lyrics, which you can google and translate. It's a simple little way to mourn for Manuel Arroyo Galvan, to weep for him and to stand in solidarity with him and the citizens of La Ciudad Juarez.

Even if you are like me: You never knew him.