Ich’el ta muk’: Insights from the Construction of Lekil kuxlejal. Towards a Visibilization of “Other” Knowledges from the Matrix of the Tseltal Feel-Thinking and Feel-Knowing

Murals at Oventik  Photo: Lorie Novak
Murals at Oventik Photo: Lorie Novak

Why does one write if not to conjoin our fragments? Since we enter school or the church, education tears us apart; it teaches us to divorce the soul from the body and reason from the heart.
Eduardo Galeano, 2000: 89.

Ochibal k’op

I would like to begin by noting that this essay, which stems from a multi-situated life and work experience, is a critical exercise to bring together some of my “little fragments” and share them. This threading-together starts from the need to in-think, to think from another place, to think from within, and to think from ourselves as professionals and indigenous peoples with our feeling, thinking, seeing, knowing, smelling, perceiving, and dreaming the world. In our case, it has to do with feel-thinking certain concepts we consider fundamental in the Tseltal stalel jts’umbaltik and stalel jkuxlejaltik (cultural ethos) as a possibility to rethink ourselves as social actors, members of an indigenous community and, in our case, as being Tseltal Maya from Chiapas, Mexico. In-thinking in order to enact an in-version of our world—a version from within and from our own vision and version of thingsis necessary for our political, cultural, intellectual-academic, and spiritual emancipation and decolonization.

The concepts we want to in-think and feel-think from our Tseltalness are ich’el ta muk’ and lekil kuxlejal. The first concept is translated into Spanish as “respect,” and the second as “a plentiful, just, and dignified life.” In this article, however, we will attempt to think from other places and landscapes that might allow us to propose other meanings from deep Tseltal Maya thought, nurtured by the different spaces we have wandered through. In this sense, we will begin by addressing how we have performed the act of yo’taninel, or how we have “enhearted” these concepts.

Yo’taninel ya’yel sna’el sok ya’yel snopel jp’ijiltik

In Tseltal Maya culture, reflections, thoughts, and knowledge do not exclusively arise from and pass through the mind. They also emanate from the O’tan-heart, which is at the core of our worldview and thought. So, spisil ya yich ‘o’taninel: everything is enhearted. That is why this article starts from yo’taninel snopel—enhearting thinking and thinking from the heart—as Tseltal Mayas usually say. This exercise of reflection, interpretation, and translation of some concepts that illustrate our life aspirations is situated and emanates from our stalel or stalel jkulxjeltik with our ya’yel snopel (feel-think) and ya’yel sna’el (feel-know), from our heart and deep thought. 

For almost a katún (a twenty-year period in the Mayan calendar), we have been sbentayel snopel p’ijil k’opetik, exploring concepts from our language and culture after having our “ch’ulel out of focus” and rebelling against some of our own peoples’ cultural patterns (López Intzín, 2010). At that moment, we began to enheart ourselves. On the occasion of the quincentenary of the Spanish invasion and colonization, when a number of indigenous peoples of Chiapas knocked down the statue of the invader-colonizer Diego de Mazariegos, erected in front of the ex-convent of Santo Domingo in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, we also began a process of reflection about our talel—identity and becoming. This is how we began to wander and explore in Tseltal Maya thoughts and words without knowing that we were on the path of what is called “decolonization,” even though “…we did not call it that, but we were just doing it…we were reflecting on our place in the world and thinking about the role we wanted to play, what we were doing to change our realities. Some called [this act] conscience [or] political commitment” (Méndez Torres 2011). Undoubtedly, we will continue on this path. We will enheart not only concepts, but also new meanings for life and for our world, thinking, feeling, knowing, and acting towards an “ecology of knowledges” (Santos, 2009), and:

Argue for a doctrine and practice of objectivity that privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing… [and for] politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating… Situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and agent, not as a screen or a ground or a resource, never finally as slave to the master that closes off the dialectic in his unique agency and his authorship of “objective” knowledge (Haraway, 1995: 329; 335-341).

In 1996, we finally came to the “revelation” that we did not have the vocation to “convert the heathens” and play the “double role” of spiritually liberating-colonizing our peoples. So we decided to abandon the path of religious training we were on (López Intzín, 2010: 316). Unintentionally, what seemed strange was returning us to our roots, “to the soul of the Tseltal people” (Kohler, 2011). 

Once we scha’ sujtesel o’tan—made our heart return to the world-cosmos that we were forgetting—we then started yo’taninel sbentayel snopel sp’ijil jol- o’tan [il]—enhearting and walking while reflecting on the wisdom of [the] mind-heart. This implies listening again and scrutinizing the bats’il-k’op, or true word-language—our childhood language—which keeps secrets and waits for moments and times of revelation from within.

Revelation from within, emerging from “that which is our own,” implies unlearning and relearning at the same time. It implies unlearning some knowledges imposed by schooling or religion, regardless of ideology, which have made us believe in the existence of absolute truths and universal knowledge, and which have led us to devalue and deny our own knowledges and what we are. By relearning that which is our own, we walk and wander towards our deep roots, towards the deep knowledge that allows us to re-embody our ancestral knowledges, nurtured by our current knowledges. This leads us to seek and demand a “bidirectional or two-way intercultural” dialogue, and to break the unidirectional intercultural practices that are characteristic of asymmetrical societies (Samaniego, 2005) and that reflect the monocultural and monolinguistic nature of positivist knowledge.

In this quest for a dialogue of knowledges, or a “bidirectional or two-way intercultural” dialogue, our feel-thinking or enhearting about ich’el ta muk’ and lekil kuxlejal is rooted in two cosmo-visual referents: the Western academic world and the Tseltal world, rooted in stalel skuxlejal stalel jts’umbaltik and in our language. We believe and think we know kaxlan-Western culture and thought by immersion, and our Tseltal Maya world by emersion, considering it necessary to continue deepening our understanding. From this coming and going between the two universes, we try to yo’taninel-enheart and reflect on the O’tan-heart from the matrix of Tseltal Maya thought, allowing us to recognize and learn new knowledges while also accounting for other knowledges “without necessarily having to forget the old ones and one’s own” (Santos 2009: 114). This essay is also an exercise of translation-interpretation and intercultural hermeneutics in understanding that we conjugate both Tseltal and Western knowledge to reveal a different conception of the “life-world.” We are constantly searching for the “dialogue of knowledges” that arises from the interlingual, translingual, and intercultural, as a process that “allows for mutual intelligibility among culturally diverse social experiences of the world, both those already available and other possible ones” (Santos 2009: 136).

Our time wandering and enhearting the stalel jkulxjeltik, that is, our Tseltalness, is about to reach one katún. This path has taken us through different moments and spaces, allowing us to in-think in order to in-surge with an in-version of our world. The spaces where we have shared enriching, enhearting events are many: from our family, our school, our community, our parties, our meetings with Zapatista comrades, our reflections at the CIDECI-UNITIERRA, to our work with children in Melel Xojobal, in the Yip Sch’ulel Ko’tantik collective, and in the Network of Artists, Community Communicators, and Anthropologists of Chiapas (RACCACH), and to the bureaucratic cultural work in the State Center of Indigenous Languages, Arts and Literature (CELALI).

Yo’taninel ich’el ta muk ‘sok lekil kuxlejal? Enhearting ich’el-ta-muk and lekilkuxlejal?

As we alluded to in the previous section, for us Tseltal Mayas, the O’tan-heart is an important center of our worldview and thought. Everything is enhearted. Thinking is enhearted – yo’taninel snopel – and doing is enhearted – yo’taninel spasel-smeltsanel. Just as thinking and knowing are enhearted, it is also said that knowing is felt by what one think-feels or feel-thinks with the heart and mind. This is why we also say yo’taninel ya’yel snopel-ya’yel sna’el. If we say and believe that feel-thinking and feel-knowing are enhearted, it is because in the stalel of our kuxlejal and ts’umbal, we use both heart and mind, love and reason, which lead us to wisdom-p’’ijilal. We feel-think to feel-know, therefore we are “feel-thinkers” (Fals Borda, 2009) and we become “feel-sapients.” Thus, the conjugation of heart and mind—love, passion, and reason—more than a dichotomy in conflict, it is a parity that complements and shapes Tseltal Maya rationality. We feel to think, and we think to feel. Thus, any creative act passes through reason, and any rationality passes through the heart and feelings.

The presence of O’tan(il)-heart as the center and matrix of Tseltal Mayan language and thought, as María Patricia Pérez Moreno, et. al. (2009) point out, is not only found in everyday speech and greetings, as we can see in some of the recurrent expressions in daily life where O’tan appears in its possessive form. For example, we have: bixi awo’tan (What does your heart say?); lekbal ay awo’tan (Is your heart well?); mame xa mel awo’tan (May your heart not be sad); ma xch’ayat ta ko’tan (I do not lose you in my heart or I do not forget you); kuxix ko’tan (My heart rested or resuscitated); tse’el ko’tan yu’un ya kilbet asit (My heart laughs because I see your eyes); k’uxat ta ko’tan (You hurt in my heart or I love you); yutsil ko’tantik (The kindness of our heart); ya jnop ta ko’tantik (We think or meditate with and in our heart); a’yantaya ta awo’tan (Discuss it in your heart); and nopa sok ajol awo’tan (Think it with your mind and heart). For example, we can also say, according to a person’s stalel, “k’un yo’tan: soft in your heart, to define a fragile, tender, passive person, who cries easily; while its opposite would be tulan yo’tan: strong heart, that does not leave, that has an indomitable character” (Pérez and Ramos, 2009). These are some expressions found in everyday Tseltal Maya speech that show us our Tseltalness—stalel jts’umbaltik.

In another context, we have a ceremonial greeting and speech called Pat O’tan. This ceremonial greeting-speech is used in Tenejapa by civil and religious authorities in certain ceremonial instances. This also happens in Bachajón, in the municipality of Chilón, Chiapas (see Pérez, 2008). Pat O’tan can last from one to four hours, as is the case with the Jtatik Marti in Tenejapa when there is a change of authorities, or during the beginning of the ritual called Xch’akel a’tel that takes place in the beginning and middle of the year.

Some people use Pat O’tan to ask for a bride’s hand in marriage. Jtatik Carmelino Encinos (2011) from the Emiliano Zapata community, in the municipality of Yajalón, Chiapas, said:

On one occasion, a boy’s father came to my house to ask me to go request a wife for his son. He had already gone with other men, but they had not been received. They had been received by the girl’s father, but with a shotgun, so nobody could enter to convince the man’s heart. So, if that was the case, then why should I go? But the boy’s father convinced me. When we arrived at the girl’s father’s house, I did the same thing as when I asked for my son’s wives… I recited Pat O’tan. After a short while, the girl’s father told me that it was enough… I only recited Pat O’tan and let’s say I opened the door so that the boy would have his wife. The girl’s father liked what I said because I touched his heart – jtabe yo’tan.    

As we can see, the ceremonial practices and rituals of Pat O’tan are made to touch and stir the heart. It is an act of speech that envelops and intoxicates the O’tan, and those who possess the wisdom and skill of Pat O’tan embrace the heart of the other in order to meet individual or collective goals. The charm and magic of the enhearted and felt-thought word takes effect in the other O’tan because they are words directed from one O’tan to another. They are first frontally directed and then embrace and wrap from the back of the O’tan with flowery chants and words – nichimal k’op. This is one of the fundamental characteristics of Pat O’tan. Thus, it is a speech that stirs, touches, sensitizes, and makes the heart return, ending in an embrace between hearts.

O’tan is a fundamental aspect of our Tseltalness – stalel jts’umbaltik sok jkuxlejaltik. We also believe that not only human beings and animals, but also everything that exists, have O’tan, ch’ulel-soul-spirit-consciousness and me’-mother-matrix. These are other elements that complement the notion of ich’el ta muk’.

In various communities in Tenejapa, for example, 15 days before the celebration of K’in Ch’ulelal (Feast of the Spirits or Day of the Dead), members of the community come together to kill livestock. People say that the animals begin to cry when they are taken from their place. They say, “Chikan te ay sch’ulele jajchix ta ok’el, ya sna’ ya’i te ya jmiltike: You can tell they have ch’ulel, they started to cry, they feel-know we’re going to kill them.” Another case is what Jtatik Carmelino (2011) told us when he played a game of machetes on the road with a j-ak ‘chamel (giver of illness) and damaged his machete during the game:

When I got home, I told my father what had happened. My father scolded me and burned my machete because he said that its heart and spirit had already been changed. And then we had [another], ah! but how it cut. Then my father threw it into the fire. Its heart and ch’ulel were tamed, and it stopped cutting.    

This would be inconceivable in a Western worldview based on scientific rationality in which humans are the only beings capable of feeling-knowing-thinking. Although this same notion exists elsewhere, worldviews shared by the Tseltal Maya are invalidated by scientific rationality, since the aim of positivist science is to disprove beliefs and create new ones grounded in its own science. For positivist Western rationality, our beliefs are “magic,” “esotericism,” “customs,” “traditions,” “folk crafts,” “beliefs,” “witchcraft,” “traditional medicine,” “shamanism,” “exoticism,” etc. By pointing this out, we do not seek to discredit scientific knowledge or accredit the “non-scientific,” as Santos says (2009: 115). Rather, we agree that we must use the tools of this rationality and counteract its prevailing hegemony. We must make visible the knowledges hidden or negated by the hegemonic rationality of scientific, objective, and patriarchal truth, and give space and recognition to other heartalities and rationalities—the epistemologies of Maya peoples, in this case.

Sujtesel o’tan sok sjultesel ch’ulel (Making the Heart Return and Awakening the Ch’ulel)

In the Tseltal Maya world, everything has heart and ch’ulel-soul-spirit-consciousness. Human beings, plants, animals, minerals, hills, rivers, and everything that exists in the universe, have ch’ulel. Therefore, everything has its own language. From the Tseltal Maya perspective, everything speaks, feels, and cries, and its heart thinks.

A first meaning of ch’ulel is the part that refers to a person’s mood or state of mind, considering that everything has something that moves them, such as energy, soul, or spirit, and may be understood as will and reason. It makes us autonomous. “Pasa te binti ya sk’an sok ya yal awo’tane…Do what your heart wants and says. I cannot intervene, that’s what your ch’ulel is for,” they tell us. But this ch’ulel refers to processes of knowing (learning) that lead to action, not so much to states of mind.

Regarding the existence of ch’ulel in everything, Jtatik Alonso López (2010) comments: “Ah, everything has ch’ulel. Do not think that you do not feel your heart. Even if you have two hearts, or your heart is divided, or you have a lot of hysteria, anger or envy, you still feel it. It is necessary to be in harmony with oneself, to be at peace with everything in order to seek and achieve lekil kuxlejal-a plentiful, just, and dignified life.”

As one of the elements in our peoples’ thought and beliefs, ch’ulel is fundamental to understanding the existence of everything else necessary to practice ich’el ta muk’. Ch’ulel allows us to perceive and communicate among humans and other beings. Yet, one has to be in harmony with oneself before one can be at peace with others and achieve lekil kuxlejal, or a plentiful, just, and dignified life.

For example, I refer to the teachings we received about caring for what exists and relying only on what is necessary. “Do not cut down trees, especially small ones, unless you need them. If you cut them down without any reason, their hearts and ch’ulel cry, and they complain to their guardian, and he can punish you. The same thing applies to animals. Do not scratch the face of mother earth, because it cries. Ya sk’an kich’tik ta muk ‘, melel spisil kuxul (You need to recognize its greatness because everything has life).”

This inspired the non-aggression pact among the ch’ulel that ensured harmony and peace. At what moment was that pact broken? Much has to do with the aggression and monel jolenel that our peoples suffered 518 years ago, after which, little-by-little, other rationalities that are now believed to be ours took root in our hearts. We have appropriated much of the stalel of another ts’umbalil (the way of being of another culture), and that has blindly led us to be part of the army of “capitalist modernity… that has declared war on every ecosystem of the planet…[and where] there is a coloniality of nature in modernity that needs to be unveiled” (Escobar 2010: 26).

Our task does not begin with unveiling the other half of the image. Instead, it begins by returning our hearts to the cosmos we have forgotten, by valuing our knowledges, and by recognizing “the ecological practices of difference based-in-place.” In other words, it starts with the particular life practices of our peoples and of other human groups, so that everything that exists has ich’el ta muk’. And that, as Georgina Méndez (2011) says, is everyone’s job:

Saving the planet, achieving ich’el ta muk ‘and lekil kuxlejal, is not only the responsibility of [indigenous] peoples, although they can give us answers to many questions. It is everybody’s job. To think that only [our] peoples will save the planet with our practices means taking responsibility for a death that we have not caused. If the task of the mestizo-ladinos is to save us, where we save the planet and they save us, then who saves them?

Undoubtedly, it is necessary for all groups of humans to perform the act of xcha ‘sujtesel o’tan, to return the heart back to the cosmos-world we have forgotten and recognize the greatness of each mechanism that makes up the ecosystem. Human beings, animals, and things must be seen in their “just” dimension. Here, ich’el ta muk’ is exercised through the act of re-knowing, since all the components of the ecosystem and the cosmos have ch’ulel and O’tan. This notion of the presence of the ch’ulel in all that exists would be the beginning of ich’el-ta-muk’ in the process towards lekil-kuxlejal.

Field-Space and the Loom

We will compare the field with the loom—the field understood as the community, the people, and the society in which sociocultural, political, economic, ideological, and religious relationships, as well as relationships between knowledges, are interwoven. Many times, it is also the place where we are drawn into the force of power. This power stems from the asymmetry and hegemony of being-acting-knowing-saying-having, resulting from the artificial constitution of citizens (Samaniego 2005: 13).

The field as the loom is a place where memory and history are joined with ancestral and contemporary knowledge and with other knowledges and understandings. Some of them are still valid, although they have been disrupted, while others have been forgotten because of “normative, legal, and ideological imposition” (Samaniego 2005: 13). Yet, it is in everyday language—the semantic field where original words entwine with their “forgotten humanism”—where values ​​and wisdom are present. It is in this language where primordial meanings are woven: ich’el ta muk’ (great respect, or to recognize and take the greatness of the other); bats’ilk’op (the true word that transforms, and the word of those from below who question); sk’op jol-o’tan[il] (the word of the mind and heart, or feel-thinking); sjultesel ch’ulel (to bring conscience, to return memory, to revive the spirit); yip sch’ulel o’tan [il] (strength of spirit of the heart); utsilal-lekilal (goodness in abundance); lekil kuxlejal (a good life, sheer good, a plentiful, just, and dignified life); or lekil skuxintayel kuxinel (living well, adequately, and in harmony with life). These concepts as values ​​are also the result of a process of collective construction of knowledge, and of knowing how to be and to live with one’s own own heartality and rationality.

Between lekil-kuxlejal and monel-k’ajtesel, jelonel, and kolelal: Becoming Accustomed, Domestication, Training, Change, and Liberation

Monel-k’ajtesel has several meanings, as do many other words. These range from distracting someone’s attention, making the heart forget – ch’ay o’tan – and making one lose consciousness – baen sch’ulel. For example, when we say, chayem yo’tan sok baen sch’ulel ta monel-k’ajtesel alal ta nop jun (The child’s heart is lost; his focus is on entertainment and he cannot become accustomed or instructed to learn how to read), we refer to a concrete action of the child being “instructed” and focused on learning. As we know, the action of training or education implies a gradual process of transformation or change in the person.

For example, Jtatik Antonio Intzín (2009), Ts’unojel-sower of life and ritual guide of Tenejapa, says to young students:

We are in agony. We are seeing how the hearts of the growing children are changing. They do not take their greatness into account. They no longer know how to receive others with greatness because they say that they already have rights. It seems as if they no longer have spirit-ch’ulel. Their heart has turned to stone. It’s okay if they leave; it will open their minds, but they cannot see what’s ours. We are transforming ourselves. Do not believe that this is improving our lives, because what they are sterilely learning is very different.

In this quote, Jtatik Antonio Intzín comments on the change of heart and spirit that he observes in the attitudes and behavior of young people. He is not against them leaving their communities and studying elsewhere, because he assumes that knowing other worlds will open their minds. But what they learn and are taught is sterile because it does not produce or reproduce stalel jkuxlejaltik of our ts’umbal, or in other words, the habits or customs, thoughts, philosophies of life, and the heart of Tseltal Mayas of Tenejapa—our “Tseltalness,” as he sees it. And he ends saying: “They talk about their rights and do almost everything except ich’el ta muk’.”

Jtatik Antonio Intzín brings attention to the fact that what is learned in other spaces is transmitted from one point of view, from “one-sidedness… characteristic of asymmetrical societies,” where the oppressed reproduce the referents or sociocultural codes of their oppressor when they do not need to reproduce them (Samaniego 2005: 5).

Jtatik Jts’unojel’s expression “their heart has turned to stone” – tonoben yo’tanik – refers to the fact that apparently, young people today do not care about anything, are not hurt by anything, and walk like automatons. Jme’tik Rosa López (2010) made a similar comment when we asked her what her heart thought about the fact that her son had stopped studying. She answered:

We do not know what’s wrong with my son. When he left his other school, he said he wanted to go up there [to a Zapatsita autonomous school], but he only lasted fifteen days. He left, he didn’t care about learning to think and about cultivating his ch’ulel-conscience. And I said,“Why don’t you want to have your ch’ulel come, don’t you see that we are living in painful times?” And he replied, “Why do I not feel that pain?”

From what both Jtatik Antonio and Jme’tik Rosa say, we may infer that young people are not only reproducing their oppressors’ frameworks, cultural referents, or hegemonic stalel, but that they also have internalized a kind of domination that they may have arrogantly rationalized, and that they “imagine themselves to be unconditionally free” (Santos 2009: 101). Meanwhile, the mother resists by clinging to her identity in the face of forced coexistence (op. cit., 2005). Before this comment about her son, Jme’tik Rosa told us that she was experiencing pain and agony that few young people understand. Very few people are not blinded by the bad things that come from outside. The challenge would be to combat that which comes from outside and transform that which must be changed from within:

This is why in our struggle, in our organization, we have to transform things. If our way of life or custom is bad, we have to make it good. Change is necessary because all of us—women, men, children, and everything that exists—have ch’ulel. If we know that, we can live correctly and will find a just and dignified life – lekil kuxlejal (Rosa López, 2010).

Faced with the prevailing “indolence of reason” that has permeated ch’ulel, Jme’tik Rosa also says that we must become unaccustomed to that which we are accustomed to do, live, and say – ya sk’an ya jel jk’aemaltik. “The task is to transform ourselves; That is our destiny,” she says.

Making Ch’ulel Arrive or Awaken from Komon a’tel-Community Work

While enhearting and feel-thinking with Jme’tik Rosa, who was once a catechist and a community health promoter, she continued to talk about k’ajtesel-jelonel, about becoming accustomed to things and about domestication and change:

What they have made us become accustomed to over many years, and that change that we have suffered as women and men, has pierced our bones. It has penetrated deeply, down to our marrow. Even our ch’ulel is crouching. We were birthed that way by our mothers-fathers, but all of this has a lot to do with the arrival of the kaxlanetik-Spanish. They transformed us. That is why we believe that change is necessary, and this is done through struggle. Struggle is everywhere, we have to engage with it outside and inside the home, beginning with our children. If the boy says, “Mom, I want pozol,”and we as mothers say, “Son, there is the dough, you have your hands and eyes, prepare it,” then we are changing the world little by little. The external struggle is that we have to tell the bad government and the rich that they too have to change, that there has to be justice-respect-ich’el ta muk’. For those who do not listen or do not want to change, the people know how. It takes work, but you can do it (Rosa López, 2010).

Jme’tik Rosa continues:

We must respect ourselves – ya sk’an kich ‘bajtik ta muk’, take the greatness of each one of us into account – ich’el ta muk’ ta stulutul, end oppression, discrimination, and contempt, and make sure they do not test our heart to see how much patience and resistance we have. But all of this must begin at home and with our neighbors who live in front of us, behind us, and next door. And as it reaches the bad government’s ears and heart, and as they begin to understand and truly respect us – yich’otik ta muk’ – and take us into account and appreciate our greatness, only then will we be walking towards the construction of a dignified and just life, or lekil kuxlejal (Rosa López 2010).

The lack of respect and recognition of the Other’s greatness in society, in the space of family, and in community, as well as the goodwill and the actions of those who govern, all obstruct the path towards lekil kuxlejal. As Jtatik Alonso López says, it is necessary to awaken the other ch’ulel of women and men for their emancipation: “… it is very important to awaken our ch’ulel because, in truth, life is hard. If we fail to realize there is deception and we become accustomed to it, living will not be good – ma’yuk lekil kuxinel.”

On the other hand, Jme’tik María Intzín (2010) talks about the need to work together in the process of awakening ch’ulel among women and men in order to construct lekil kuxlejal:

We must respect each other – yakuk jech ich ‘bajtik ta muk’, show compassion and pierce our heart – k’uxuk ya ka’ibajtik ta ko’tantik. If the woman’s ch’ulel has not yet reached her, a man is required to wake his wife’s ch’ulel. If the man’s ch’ulel has not yet come, let his wife do it. The work that is needed to make our life good – slekubtesel jkuxlejaltik – among our people is not individual work; it is done in pairs, and only then is our way of life – jkuxlejaltik – complete. There is strength in walking [together], because working towards lekil kuxlejal, or a plentiful, just, and dignified life, by oneself is a handicap. 

As Jme’tik María points out, it is the responsibility of both women and men to make their ch’ulel awaken and come. It is not enough that ch’ulel, the psychic part that energizes and even governs the life of all that exists and is part of the sacred, is present. Memory-ch’ulel-conscience, the social construct where each individual is awakened and emancipated every day through his senses and interactions with the world around him, must also be present. This is the other dimension of ch’ulel—a process of awakening and acting by which collective subjects can change history.

After a lecture on their understanding of ich’el ta muk’ and the collective work needed to awaken ch’ulel, both Jme’tik Rosa and Jme’tik María told us about the invasion and extermination suffered by the first nations, that is, our peoples. We know that with the new order and expansion of Europe, particularly Spain, Portugal, France, Great Britain, and Holland, they conquered and invaded First Nations as a way out of the crisis in Europe. Territorial, economic, political, and religious expansion characterized the military invasions suffered by our peoples, where the old world could be rejuvenated by extracting the riches of the peoples it conquered: “The Americas allowed Europe to live in extreme luxury” (Wolf 2005: 140).

The invasion and colonization suffered by our peoples on this continent disrupted and subjugated previously existing systems of governance, religious practices, and modes of exchange that operated under other logics. It also brought the domestication-colonization of peoples’ minds, hearts, and ch’ulel from different spheres including politics, organizational systems, education, and religion, among others. Yet in spite of this, the values and knowledges encrypted in our everyday language and life practices remain, awaiting rediscovery.

The subjugation we have experienced, the incorporationist and assimilationist policies that have been imposed on our peoples, have undoubtedly changed our thinking. We have assimilated Western nations’ ways of life, prioritizing, for example, the individual over the collective. In spite of everything, the colonized and domesticated ch’ulel is usually the mountain where the heart of fire resides, which, at certain moments in history, makes itself known and felt with the lava of its strength. This active resistance, accumulated over 519 years in the case of Mexico, was again felt, seen, learned, and thought in 1994 with the armed uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). They demanded ich’el ta muk’ for lekil kuxlejal through true recognition and respect of peoples, establishing a new social pact and relationship between peoples and the State.

Ich’el ta muk’ as a Collective Act of Decolonial Feeling-knowing and Feel-thinking

We begin this section by referring to the need to breathe new life into academic practices in order to do things a different way. Often, this is not a pleasant learning experience, especially if it comes from the need to transform colonizing-colonized practices of one of the parties involved. Both the academics who conduct research as well as the “researched” community have established ways of asking themselves questions and resolving them according to their own needs. These practices undoubtedly generate tension, although symbiosis is possible later on as part of komon a’tel (shared work) and komon sna’el snopel (collective knowing-thinking).

Anthropology and other disciplines, as well as their practitioners, have perfected their methodologies to gain entry into their subjects’ reality and also into their heart and ch’ulel through active participation. In other words, our peoples now collectively participate in research. But what about ich’el ta muk’, the recognition of subjects’ greatness? Can it be liberating rather than a tool used to perpetuate colonization? In this regard, we may say that while carrying out field work in a community in Yajalón, Chiapas during July 2011, a member of the community commented something that perplexed me:

It seems they take us into account. It would seem that there is ich’el ta muk’. Yet, that ich’el ta muk’ which takes our word into account actually turns against us. We are handing over valuable information without realizing it. So, as a community, we participate in what they—those who ask a lot of questions—come here to do, who seem to be very interested in sharing our food, our house, and who are committed to working with us in the fields, which is where they get a lot of information, because we start to tell them everything. So, I think this might be part of the war; they study us without our realizing it and then they kill us. They use our compas and brothers to get information. What they learn from the community is like gossip. It travels from mouth-to-mouth, from hand-to-hand, reaches where it has to go and then returns disguised in programs that divide us. Or they come straight out with weapons to kill us (Personal communication with Compa, July 2011).

The words of Compa, as he preferred to be called, reminded me of the following quote from Vogel in anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s El crisantemo y la espada:

I remember that some of those informants explained to me how they felt after talking to her day after day at lunchtime. They admired the thoroughness of her questions, but they were frightened by Benedict’s marked efforts to deepen all aspects related to their feelings and experiences. They had the impression that she wanted to hear, over and over again, even the smallest detail they could remember. They remembered the exhaustion and relief they felt when they were allowed to leave at the end of the meal (Vogel in Benedict 2003: 8).

These two passages led us to question who to write for, who to research for, and how the knowledge of stalel and ich’el ta muk’ can be used as either a tool for nefarious purposes or as a way to strengthen thinking and knowledge. The double role played by anthropology will continue. On the one hand, we believe that it will continue to serve imperialism. On the other hand, it can impact communities, or those from below, with an “academic political activism” and an epistemic “enough already!” (Leyva, 2011). These last two contribute to the emancipation of subjects and to (linguistic) decolonization, breathing new life into languages, generating new concepts, or recuperating those that have fallen into disuse.

Regarding the liberation and process of breathing new life into our own languages as a reflection of our “emancipated” mind and heart, I mention, for example, the translation of the San Andrés Accords (hereinafter “Accords”) into ten indigenous languages of Chiapas. Enrique Pérez López, then and current Director of the State Center for Indigenous Languages, Arts and Literature (CELALI), considered the translation to be:

“An explosion of indigenous thought” which breathes new life into our languages. The perpetuation of “dominated languages” is halted with translations of the San Andrés Accords. But it is only one breath. We need to breathe all the time. We have already savored this work and pressured anthropologists who wanted to correct us. But this time we have not given in to them (Enrique Pérez López quoted by Bellinghausen 2003).

This statement was made once the first version [of the translation] was rejected, because it not only came from the translator’s desk and was done in solitude, but also because of the very words and concepts laid out in the Accords. The translation of concepts like “self-determination” and “autonomy,” “new social contract,” “democracy,” “rights,” “indigenous cultures,” etc., was less than perfect. In addition, the document that was translated into Mayan and Zoque languages was inadequate because it continued to reflect colonial domination. The term “government,” for example, was translated into Tseltal as ajwalil (“great father,” “owner,” “lord,” “master,” and “god”). The same had happened in other languages, reflecting a centuries-old condition of cultural and linguistic domination and “alienation.” As Aubry pointed out, there were certainly challenges that needed to be overcome:

One of the colonial circumstances our languages suffered, frozen for 500 years because of social rejection, fortunately without having become extinct. Unlike in Spanish, in [our peoples’] rugged survival, they could not forge the neologisms to name emerging new social, economic, political, legal, federal, democratic, realities, etc. (There are no indigenous language equivalents for words in italics) (Aubry 2003).

Andres Aubry’s acute perception allowed him to realize that “federal government” had been translated into all languages as “supreme master,” or muk’ul ajwalil in Tseltal. As a result, we embarked on a different process of translation that would yield different results:

The path they chose was to present what the learned call the circumstances of production of the text in translation. The videos and audios made us relive nights and days of San Andrés: we listened to the press conferences given in Tzotzil by Comandante David, the protests of Comandante Trini, Comandante Tacho’s analysis. We watched on the screen the fatigue and the resistance of peasants of the peace belt, the faces of national and international celebrities of civil society under the rain or the cold of frost; later, the text itself spoke on its own (Aubry 2003).

The ach’ sbehelal stalel a’tel, or new way of working, was komon a’tel and komon spasel-snopel—common work and collective thinking. It consisted of workshop sessions aimed at bringing into dialogue different knowledges regarding important concepts in the Accords. Video projections on the war and the process of negotiation of the Accords, as well as a working session with Dr. Raymundo Sánchez Barraza of the CIDECI-UNITIERRA, were fundamental for understanding the document in question, and for later going out into the cornfields.

Sharing and Harvesting Words

As Andrés Aubry said, the cornfield and the academy are not the same, and academics carrying out fieldwork with peasants should have greater humility and know the fields where corn is planted because this is where words and concepts are harvested. (Personal interview with Andrés Aubry). So, you had to go to the field:

In light of this experience, we all understood that when you don’t know how to translate a word, you don’t just look for it in the dictionary. A text that was fought over, discussed, agreed upon, did not become legible from a desk, but instead from the place where it came to life. A political text […] demands that the translator become politicized. Where and how? —In collective life situations in which political vocabulary is forged, for example, in the deliberations of a community assembly. So, translators had to leave their desks, return to the communities with a notebook and pencil to take note of, detect, pick, retrieve, or harvest the vocabulary they needed. That is how the second draft of our translations was born (Aubry 2003).

You had to go to the people directly in order to hear the word of their heart about their work, to see if they agreed with and understood the translation. In many cases, it passed the test, and in others, [the translators] were reproached and corrected, as a tatik-elder told us about the word ajwalil, meaning despotic and colonial practices. So, the government had to be called “servant of the people” in the Accords, and not the “great master.” Other concepts, to mention just a few, were “rights” and “justice.” We decided there was no need to invent new words for these two terms, and that ich’el ta muk’ was the ideal concept.

Going back and forth, being outside the communities translating the Accords and at the same time thinking from within, from our languages, reminded us of many experiences shared with community, and brought us back to our cultural roots. It was a process of making the heart return and carrying out real acts of decolonization.

To decolonize oneself in that process, it was necessary to struggle, as Mam translator Jorge Pérez Hernández says:

[We have] begun to fight through words. We learned new ways of bringing awareness to our peoples. Our people are dominated. They are blindfolded. Through this method [going to the community, harvesting words as an act of ich’el ta muk’], the San Andrés Accords are awakening the people (quoted in Bellinghausen, 2003, La Jornada online).

Aubry’s “work of dialoguing,” “critical thinking,” and “going against the grain,” which always defined him (see Leyva and Mora, 2011), made our heart return – xcha’ sujtesel o’tanto – to a practice that we normally forget when we deterritorialize. We leave our homeland, we wander in other lands or fields (politics, bureaucracy, academia, etc.), and we rarely stop to reflect on the possibility of doing things differently, even thinking differently.

With the apparent ach’ sbehelal stalel a’tel that was implemented in the translation and consultation process, we recovered a way of working that we had forgotten. As Aubry said in another space of reflection, and in his characteristic tone, “No no no no, they have forgotten their collective way of working and thinking. We must recover that spirit. Remember that nobody saves anyone else, but that together we can do it and save ourselves, free ourselves. We must free the heart, the mind, so that the ch’ulel reawakens.” At least during the translation process, the spirit of komon spasel-smeltsanel a’tel and of kokon snopel-sna’el was renewed, that is, collective doing-constructing work and communal thinking-knowing as a return of the heart – O’tan – to ich’el ta muk’ and the construction of lekil kuxlejal.

Final Comments

In-thinking in order to generate an in-version of our world-cosmos beginning with life experiences grounded in the very concepts of our languages, in this case Tseltal Maya, is a path to the decolonization of our hearts, minds, attitudes, and ch’ulel.  It also means breaking with the “hegemony” of positivist Western knowledge and the linguistic subjugation of our peoples. For indigenous peoples who still speak our/their ancestral languages, it is a challenge to visualize life concepts and new paradigms. Although they have always been present, we have not taken them into account because we have been dazzled by the mirage of Western concepts from which we purport to understand our worlds.

Basing our thinking on our own concepts in order to make visible a system of thought that is different from positivist Western rationality gives us the possibility to dialogue with other academic knowledges. For indigenous peoples, this space can serve as our own field of our struggle. In academia, the other face of hegemonic power has not only obscured ancestral knowledge, but has also used it to perpetuate domination and the domestication of our ch’ulel in both subtle and “savage” ways through the modern capitalist system.

On this path of enhearting concepts—part of a long history of struggle of our peoples in political, economic, and religious arenas, and more recently in the fields of literature, photography, painting, radio, music, video, and film led by a Mayan and Zoque cultural movement—there are also other modes of contention. In the face of the hegemonic neocolonialism of thought, we put forth our ecosystem of indigenous knowledges that are sustained by our own paradigms.

This is how we have shared our reflections and enhearting from our own Tseltalness regarding ich’el ta muk’, which we consider central in the path towards lekil kuxlejal (a plentiful, just, and dignified life) in the great arc of social, humanitarian, and planetary life. This dyad of philosophical life concepts would not be possible to understand within and outside the rationality and heart from which it emerges if we did not remove the scaffolding of the rationality of indolent knowledge that has enveloped us with its charm.

On the other hand, if we do not take into account the main elements of the “arc” of our feel-thinking and feel-knowing, of our being in the cosmos as the presence of the ch’ulel and O’tan of everything that exists, and are not aware of the processes of monel k’ajtesel (which, bit-by-bit, have taken root in our O’tan and ch’ulel), then we will feed the “angel of death” who has long been drinking the blood of our peoples.

Here, it is essential to consider the importance of scha’ sujtesol ko’tantik for the forgotten cosmos where the power of ich’el ta muk’ and lekil kuxlejal exists for this humanity in crisis. In this way, the challenge of “indolent reason” (Boaventura 2009) becomes our own challenge, our own confrontation, because it has enveloped us. The current crisis invites us to look for new meanings for life and for our own humanity—an enhearted rationality, or rather, a reasoned and feel-thought enhearting. The re-insurgent thought and words of our peoples are one of many possibilities, but they can, in turn, invite us into different constellations to emerge with the real, true word, or the bats’il k’op of all rationalities that will transform this world.

Undoubtedly, some Western knowledges are useful, and others will need to be questioned in the new field-loom and network. [These knowledges] have been there all along, but have only recently emerged from the voice of the “voiceless” in their philosophy and ethics of life, in their memory, and in their history. They have generated their own emancipation from other logics, from the being-feeling-acting-knowing-saying-having-power and strength of those from below.

To the extent that other rationalities are seen as valid, and that “indolent rationality” is open to dialoguing with them from the position of “inter-knowledge” and the double path of interculturality, as Samaniego (2005) argues, only then will ich’el ta muk’ move forward as a way of enacting “cognitive justice” and social, cultural, linguistic, ecological, and planetary justice.

We must continue enhearting, feel-thinking. We must continue wandering in the stalel jkuxlejaltik of our Tseltal ts’umbal from the in-version of our in-thought world. 

We propose sbentayel yo’taninel snopel sna’el sp’ijol jol-o’taniletike (walking and enhearting the wisdom of minds and hearts), grounded in komon spasel-smeltsanel sok komon sbelaltesel sna’el-snopel (our communal doing, building, and directing our collective knowing-thinking), in order to build sp’ijil o’tan (wisdom of the heart) in this time of diasporic Tseltalness. This is necessary for us to go above and beyond, to use this as a theoretical-methodological proposal that allows for the recognition and dialogue of different knowledges on the possibility of restoring the lost earthly paradise, and of recovering and sharing the well-being-living of the peoples of Abya-Yala, ich’el ta muk’ and lekil kuxlejal. This supposes a true and real decolonization of our hearts, of our feel-thinking, feel-knowing, and enhearting. It supposes a refounding of the bases of humanity and of hegemonic knowledge, which is in crisis as a result of its hegemonic mono-rationality.


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