Juan López Inztín: Epistemologies of the Heart

Mural: The Zapatistas Photo: Lorie Novak
Mural: The Zapatistas Photo: Lorie Novak
Photo: Diana Taylor

In the texts by Juan López Intzín included in this volume, the Tseltal Mayan-speaking scholar—known to many by his Indigenous name Xuno—tells the story of how he embarked on his journey to develop an epistemic system grounded in a non-Western perspective, starting from his own Mayan language and cosmovision. Now a major decolonial scholar who works closely with the Zapatista movement, Xuno was inevitably schooled in a colonial system and given the colonial name Juan López. He (like many other Indigenous scholars) turned to his native Tseltal as a starting point to think other, decolonial ways of being in the world. Sp’ijilal O’tan, or “epistemologies of the heart,” he writes, “began when we started to think and rethink our place in the cosmos. In this process, we realized that we had forgotten a cosmos and that our heart was displaced and misplaced, and that we had to ‘make our heart return’ to this forgotten cosmos”(López Inztín 2019a). The process of re-membering the cosmos and returning the heart to its rightful place in the ancestral centre of communal, political, and cosmic life is called xcha’ sujtesel o’tan (López Intzín 2019b).

López Intzín looks for ancestral knowledge systems, handed down through cultural practices and languages, in various places: “Only then was I able to rediscover constellations of ancestral Tseltal Maya thought that have always been there, in everyday communal life, in our own language, in our ceremonial moments, and in the legends, myths, and rituals we practice” (López Intzín 2019b). Language, words, and expressions, in this view, are themselves a resistant practice. From Tseltal, Xuno draws his wisdom, strength, and will, not only to resist but also to flourish.

Sacred texts such as the Popol Vuh serve as invaluable sources for alternative cosmologies from which he develops his theory of “epistemologies of the heart” (López Intzín 2019a). The creation story recounted in the Popol Vuh begins with discussions among various creators, rather than a singular god. Involved were the Framer, Shaper, She Who Has Borne Children, He Who Has Begotten Sons, Hunahpu Possum and Hunahpu Coyote, Great White Peccary and Coati, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, Heart of Lake and Heart of Sea, Creator of the Green Earth, and Creator of the Blue Sky (Popol Vuh, 73).

The multiplicity of gods reflecting cosmic, animal, and personified dimensions of existence avoids the concentration of power in a singular, patriarchal God the Father. The Mesoamerican cosmos exists in a constant state of movement, complementarity, and transformation. At the same time, however, the multiple shifting forces create the deep underlying instability and precarity of the Mesoamerican experience of the cosmos as always on the verge of extinction. The Framers had experimented with earlier worlds, other forms of life (animals, the mud people, the wooden effigies, and finally, successfully, the people of corn) that they hoped would invoke their names and sing their praises. As the first three creations failed to name and worship them, the Framers destroyed (or limited) their world and their universes. The unforgiving gods condemned the animals to being food for humans. The people of mud and the wooden effigies were destroyed. Four ‘suns’ had already perished amid environmental devastation (flood, fire, hurricane). Mesoamericans expected the fifth to meet a similar catastrophic end.

López Inztín turns to the Popol Vuh as a source for Mayan ways of knowing, relating, and being in the world. For example, his deep understanding of ch’ulel, the life force that animates everything from humans, to animals, to corn, to mountains, to lakes, and ich’el ta muk’, the recognition of the dignity of all creation, builds on one particular section of the ancient text in which the people or effigies made of wood were found wanting and destroyed:

The small and the great animals came in upon them. Their faces [of the effigies] were crushed by the trees and the stones. They were spoken to by all their maize grinders stones. However many things they had, all of them crushed their faces.
Their dogs and their turkeys said to them:
‘Pain you have caused us. You ate us. Therefore it will be you that we will eat now’ (Popol Vuh, 73).

The destruction of these wooden people resulted from their lack of ch’ulel, which asLópez Intzín defines it, combines co-essence and power (López Intzín 2015a). Ch’ulel, the “primary essence of existence” (López Inztin 2019a) recognizes that everything has a life—humans, animals, plants, mountains, and so forth—and thereby allows for inter-subjectivity: “Ch’ulel turns everything in existence into a subject and allows us to interact with one another, subject to subject” (López Intzín 2012). Ch’ulel has other connotations as well, among them a collective historical awareness: “Ch’ulel is a historical construct, part of our collective memory, knowledge that is transmitted and recreated from generation to generation,” including the memory of injustice. Going further, as we shall see, the “insurgent ch’ulel” fights back, much like the Zapatistas did, affirming community values and dignity in the face of oppression (López Intzín 2012).

This section of the Popol Vuh reflects the insurgent ch’ulel based on the centrality of ich’el ta muk’. The effigies refused to honor everything around them. Everything under their power––the animals, trees, stones, and their cooking utensils—complained, prompting the uprising against them. “Then the grinding stones said this to them: ‘We were ground upon by you. Every day, every day, in the evening and at dawn, you always did holi, holi, huki, huki on our faces. This was our service for you who were the first people. But this day you shall feel our strength. We shall grind you like maize. We shall grind up your flesh’” (Popol Vuh,74). As Allen Christenson, the editor and translator of this version of the Popol Vuh, notes, “it is poetic justice that each of the household possessions of the wooden effigies chose to punish their owners with the same torments that they had suffered previously at their hands” (Christenson in Popol Vuh, 74n141). They are thus destroyed by those whom they abused. This is one of the many examples that López Inztín draws from the Popol Vuh in order to argue for the current vitality among contemporary Mayans of an epistemic system reflected in their ancient texts.

Even for López Intzín, using ancient texts to sustain his inquiry is a daunting undertaking. The conquest, he says, colonized and domesticated all of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas (López Intzín 2016a). How, five hundred years later, can he de-domesticate himself and others? He begins by in-thinking (in-pensar) and feel-thinking (sentipensar) what “respect” and “a plentiful, just, and dignified life” (vida digna) might mean from an Indigenous epistemic system. This system assumes the heart––not the head––as the starting point for reflection, knowledge, and understanding. The heart, o’tan, as the Popol Vuh shows, played a vital role in the creation, embodied in at least two of the creators, Heart of Lake and Heart of Sea. Heart, for the Maya, is not just the “organ,” the o’tan. It is also an image, a space, a being or entity that feels and thinks. López Intzín differentiates between the two by capitalizing O’tan when referencing the latter. Many Tseltal expressions include O’tan-heart. Actions like thinking (yo’taninel snopel) and doing (yo’taninel spasel-smeltsanel) are “‘enhearted.’ We do not separate the heart from the mind” (López Inztín 2019a). It is both a noun and a verb—much like the popular logo: x hearts y. O’tan is a specific thing and a practice, a way of doing and being in the world. The process of decolonization entails “yo’taninel sbentayel snopel sp’ijil jolo’tanil,” the walking and enhearting reflection towards knowledge of the mind-heart (López Intzín 2015b). López Inztín calls this “stalel, ways of being-here, feel-thinking, acting, and knowing the world” (López Inztín 2015a). He credits his bilinguality, as does Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, for allowing him to study and build on meanings and gestures to explore other epistemic potentialities.

The Tseltal Maya concept of stalel suggests a broader understanding of the constellation “being-here, feel-thinking, acting, and knowing the world,” which make knowing/acting/being/feeling/inseparable. But even for López Inztín, these Tseltal Mayan words only approximate the ‘original’ words found in the Popol Vuh in the language of the Maya k’iche. No one, clearly, is exempt from the burden of learning and trying to work things through. So, instead of a search for origins, López Inztín seeks approximations, insights, and pathways into alternative ways of being in the world.

Two key elements of the “epistemology of the heart,” according to López Inztín, are the Tseltal notions of ch’ulel and ich’el ta muk’. Ich’el ta muk’ is the recognition of the value, grandeur, and dignity of all that exists, including humans, animals, and the ecosystem (López Intzín 2015b). That concept interpolates “all that exists” as a subject. Underlying both ch’ulel and ich’el ta muk’ rests the notion of mutual recognition, valorization, and respect among a far greater number of animate beings or “subjects.” Being itself requires this act of mutual recognition, this talking, walking, and enhearting with others. The combination of the two elements opens several world re-making possibilities—anti-colonial, communal, and ecologically sustainable. “It is necessary,” López Inztín believes, “for us to deconstruct the vision of the world, the mentality, and the subjectivity that have been imposed upon us since the conquest, and instead look at the world from that situated heart that is at the center of our communities and collective processes. This is what we call epistemologies of the heart. The heart is a key element in our Indigenous thought” (López Intzín 2016b). Knowledge qualifies as organic, a product not just of our brains but of our entire body in relation to other living beings and all of creation. As opposed to the thingification of people, animals, and all else under rapacious capitalism, López Inztín’s situated heart (he credits Donna Haraway’s ‘situated knowledges’) enables the “humanization” of the supposed ‘things’ that animate our world (López Intzín 2015a). Sharing this epistemology would require a radical unlearning of much that Westerners know, including the notion of the self-defining, differentiated ‘I’ of the Cartesian cogito, ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.”

The epistemic system that one can glean in these words and practices might allow us to envision a more capacious ethical and political practice grounded in inter-subjective generosity and mutual recognition. This epistemology of the heart has revolutionary potential in the political as well as decolonial theoretical arenas. López Intzín develops the notion of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal, a term that: “refers to the acts of dreaming life in a conscious state, dreaming the world, and imagining becoming” (López Intzín 2019b). The situated heart, nurtured in an expanded environment of recognition (that includes trees, rivers, and mountains, which others might consider inanimate objects), cannot tolerate domination, exploitation, and domestication. It becomes el corazón rebelde, the rebellious heart of the Zapatista movement, which envisioned “a world that can hold many worlds” (“un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos”). Zapatismo is a sustained decolonial practice in forging another way of being and knowing to create another kind of world.

López Intzín’s “epistemologies of the heart” offer us ways of imagining other more ethical practices, other more egalitarian worlds. While his theorization draws from his ancestral language, philosophy, and communal practices, it invites us to enter into a broader conversation about un-learning and in-thinking (in-pensar) colonial epistemic systems and feel-thinking (sentipensar) in a more holistic manner. We do not need to learn Tseltal to have this conversation, any more than we need to join the Zapatistas to build a more capacious world. The Zapatistas have insisted that we do not have to be Zapatistas or live like them in order to join the struggle for social justice. In fact, they don’t want us to: “Fight with your weapons; don’t worry about ours. We know how to resist to the end. We know how to wait” (Subcomandante Marcos 2001, 48). But López Intzín, like the Zapatistas, wants to talk to us about urgent issues of sustainability—ranging from living creatures, to the human, to the environment, to the planetary—that affect us all. More and more scholars, artists, and activists are fighting with their own weapons to build better worlds. We might all end up talking to each other in what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney (2013) call the undercommons. “We owe each other everything,” (20) they acknowledge. This reminds me of the Zapatistas’ saying, “Para todos, todo. Para nosotros, nada.” (“Everything for everybody. For us, nothing.”) It’s not about ‘us’ in a narrowly defined way anymore than the non-Cartesian ‘I’ is about me. Bruno Latour’s recent work expresses his conviction that Western epistemic tools are not up to the task of generative world-making: “To put it as starkly as possible, I would claim that those who intend to survive the coming cataclysms of climate on hope and faith, or who square off against it armed only with the results of externalized and universal knowledge are doomed” (Latour 2013, 9). It is, as Jack Halberstam (2013) acknowledges in the preface to The Undercommons, another way of being together, a realization that “we must change things or die. […] if there is an undercommons, then we must all find our way to it” (10).

Juan López Intzín’s epistemology reminds us:





Acknowledge that it’s hard to unlearn.

Like learning, it takes practice, and constant repetition.

Time to slow down. Before it’s too late.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Jack. 2013. “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons.” In The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, 2 – 13. New York: Minor Compositions.

Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.

López Intzín, Juan. 2012. “La primera jornada Carlos Lenkersdorf. De lenguas, prácticas y otros mundos: la interpelación tojolabal a la modernidad.” Paper delivered at the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos de la Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales-UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Mexico, May 9, 2012. https://vimeo.com/73880382.

–––. 2015a. “El Ch’ulel multiverso e intersubjetividad en el stalel maya tseltal.” Lengua, Cosmovisión, Intersubjetividad: Acercamientos a la obra de Carlos Lenkersdorf. Mexico: UNAM.

–––. 2015b. “Ich’el ta muk’: la trama en la construcción del Lekil kuxlejal. Hacia una visibilización de saberes “otros” desde la matricialidad del sentipensar-sentisaber tseltal.” In Prácticas Otras de Conocimiento(s). Entre crisis, entre guerras, Tomo I. San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico: Cooperativa editorial Retos.

–––. 2016a. Interview with Diana Taylor, Hemispheric Institute, April 29, 2016. https://vimeo.com/164782063

–––. 2016b. “Rediscovering the Sacred and the End of Hydra Capitalism.” Lecture delivered at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, New York City, April 14, 2016.

–––. 2019a. “Sp’ijilal O’tan: Knowledges and Epistemologies of the Heart,” translated by Marlène Ramírez-Cancio and Margaret Olavarria. In Resistant Strategies, edited by Marcos Steuernagel and Diana Taylor. Duke University Press and HemiPress.

–––. 2019b. “Zapatismo y filosofía tseltal: ‘Ch’ulel y el sueño de un otro devenir.’” El salto (blog), June 28, 2019. https://www.elsaltodiario.com/el-rumor-de-las-multitudes

Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People. 2007. Translated and Commentary by Allen J. Christenson. Mesoweb. https://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf

Subcomandante Marcos. 2001. Our Word is Our Weapon. Edited by Juana Ponce de León. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia. 2012. “Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization.” South Atlantic Quarterly 111 (1).

–––. 2014. “The Potosí Principle: Another View of Totality.” emisférica 11 (1). https://hemisphericinstitute.org/en/emisferica-11-1-decolonial-gesture/11-1-essays/the-potosi-principle-another-view-of-totality.html

Latour, Bruno. 2013. “Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature.” Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, Edinburgh, 18 – 28 February, 2013. http://www.earthboundpeople.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Bruno-Latour-Gifford-Lectures-Facing-Gaia-in-the-Anthropocene-2013.pdf


    Works Cited