“Let me tell you what happened…”: Oral Storytelling as a Yucatec Maya Strategy of Resistance

Mariano and His Family, Mexico. Photo: Paul Worley, 2007.
Mariano and His Family, Mexico. Photo: Paul Worley, 2007.

In March 2007, after several days of recording oral literature in Santa Elena, Yucatán, Mariano Bonilla Caamal and I stopped to visit Don Rómulo—a relative of Bonilla Caamal who lives a few blocks from his house. Asked to tell us a story or tsikbal, Don Rómulo took up his guitar. A few songs in, Mariano asks him what song he will play next. “I’m going to sing, to tell you about what happens in the world.” The song itself recounts several changes that have occurred in the way people behave, all of them negative from the point of view of the song’s narrative voice. Young people think they know more than their elders. Young women do not know how to wash clothes or clean their houses; they apply so much makeup they look like they’ve eaten raw meat. “This,” according to the song, “is what’s going on in the world.” In his own words, Rómulo claims that his performance is both something “to sing” (k’ay) and “to tell” (tsikbal)—a double frame that places his song within a tradition of Yucatec Maya oral performance that includes such diverse genres as poetry, epic narratives, tongue twisters, jokes, stories, and songs. The words of Rómulo’s song assert that these performances transmit knowledge and are a way of knowing: “Listen to what I’m going to tell you / This is the end of what I’m going to tell you / About what happens in the world.” In addition to “say” and “talk,” the word a’al—translated here as “tell”—carries connotations of giving advice (Diccionario Maya 1990). In other words, the song’s audience is supposed to listen to the song and recognize that although things are a certain way now they have not always been so. The memory of another world in which young people respected their elders and young women did not apply makeup is transmitted through the song—hinting that a return to that state may be possible. 

Ba’ax ku yúuchul yóokol kab / What Goes on in the World.

Despite its machista vision of gender roles and of how things “should be” in Maya communities, this song is a succinct example of how Yucatec Maya oral performance exists in dialogue with the contemporary world and constitutes, in the words of Diana Taylor, “an episteme, a way of knowing, not simply an object of analysis” (2003, xvi). These performances are not instances of mere folklore, but rather moments in which the episteme of Yucatec Maya oral performance is used to interpret, understand, and comment upon everyday reality. Casting this episteme as a Maya-centric form of resistance, I argue that the structural formulae and ideological lessons of what many refer to as “traditional storytelling” serve as the basis for an interpretive tradition in which Yucatec Maya narrate current events as performances of old stories, in this way creating literary precedents for a generation of new stories that interpret the present in terms of the past and vice-versa. In turn, the dialectical relationship between traditional and contemporary performances situates the oral storyteller as the site of Yucatec Maya embodied knowledge and discursive agency. In analyzing Maya oral performance as a way of knowing, this essay first outlines the contours of Maya performatic tradition in Yucatán, privileging the notion of tsikbal. The essay then moves on to a comparative discussion of two stories drawing upon the trickster motif—“The Story of Juan Rabbit” and “The Waiter and the Gringo”—in order to illuminate how traditional tales inform what is and what must be considered a modern way of knowing. Indeed, given the historical realities that produced contemporary Yucatec Maya orality, Maya ethnogenesis through oral performance is not a sign of backwardness or underdevelopment, but rather evidence of a drive to sustain Maya ways of knowing under colonial conditions.

Tsikbal and Maya Performance

Any discussion of Yucatec Maya orality and performance must begin by recognizing that pre-Columbian Maya textuality entailed unique relationships between reader, text, and audience—ones that are quite different than those found in various European traditions. Stephen Houston argues that in the ancient world in general “scripts were often ancillary to recitation and performance” (1994, 39), with the Maya case in particular being one in which “pictorial features of writing were maintained…by the need to preserve superficial reading ability among a larger group of people” (40). In other words, one can think of the written text as a support or basis for oral performances of the information conveyed therein, a thesis supported by colonial-era texts such as the K’iche’ Maya Popol Vuh (c. 1700) and the Yucatec Maya books of the Chilam Balam or “Jaguar Prophet” (c. 1800s). For example, Dennis Tedlock notes that the text we have of the Popol Vuh is not the work itself but a transcription of a particular performance of it (1996, 30). In a moment that highlights this, the narrative voices propose that we “drink to the telling and accounting of the begetting of Hunahpu and Xbalanque,” the famous Hero Twins who eventually defeat the Lords of Xibalbá (91). This situates us as “members of a live audience rather than mere readers” (30). The authors of the Chilam Balam books make a similar gesture by consciously referring to the existence of a glyphic text that they are transcribing: “Esto es lo que muestra la pintura” [This is what the painting shows] (Barrera Vásquez and Rendón 1948, 135).

When reading these texts today, one is in the presence of narrative voices whose spoken words are often the interpretation or reading of another text that was perhaps unreadable or inaccessible to the original audience. These texts are not verbatim readings of glyphic texts but, as Tedlock suggests, transcriptions of performances that include elements like the aforementioned toast to the Hero Twins. As a way of accessing knowledge through a system of writing, these texts emphasize collective (as opposed to individual) experience, the hierarchical position of those charged with interpreting (i.e. reading) or producing such texts, as well as the system of ritual performance in which such knowledge is presented. As I have argued elsewhere, these and other Maya texts are not mere transcriptions of orality, but attempts to represent the episteme of Maya oral performance in and through Roman script. Within this context, orality and literacy are complementary aspects of a unified system of performance. As a result, the relationship between writing, orality, and performance in colonial Maya texts does not necessarily produce the rigid binary orality/literacy that one usually associates with European theories of the letter. 

While recognizing successful attempts at using the Roman alphabet in support of a Maya way of knowing—the Popol Vuh and the books of the Chilam Balam—one must also note that it was the brutal suppression of Maya glyphic writing that produced the need for such an adaptation. In the case of Yucatán, for example, the Spanish friar Diego de Landa (1524-1579) instituted an auto-dá-fe in the town of Maní in 1562, proudly proclaiming that he and his men burned all the Maya texts they could find (1994, 185). Conveniently, Landa omits the tortures he and his men committed in the pursuit of this “success” (Clendinnen 1987, 77-82). Given the threat to material manifestations of Maya cultural production, it should come as no surprise that the Maya—like many indigenous groups in Mesoamerica—increasingly relied on orality and other forms of embodied knowledge as a means of ethnogenesis. In the words of Enrique Florescano, these peoples “cultivated the obsession of narrating their own history and exalting the values that forged their identity” (1990, 322).  This shift in emphasis reflects conscious, outright resistance to oppressive colonial regimes. In this respect, I agree with Micaela Morales López’s characterization of this privileging of the oral over the written as “a positive act that contributed to the preservation of pre-hispanic stories, myths, and customs” (2004, 20). In short, contemporary Maya orality is not a sign of underdevelopment that must ultimately give way to Western literacy. But rather, in conjunction with texts written in Roman letters, Maya orality has sustained the episteme of Maya performance under colonial conditions for over 500 years. Moreover, Yucatec Maya intellectuals such as the anthropologist and author Ana Patricia Martínez Huchím (1996, 121) and the anthropologist Hilaria Máas Collí affirm oral literature’s ongoing pedagogical function in contemporary Yucatec communities (1990, 19). 

In 21st century Yucatán, the stories that are told and retold as a result of this practice are most commonly referred to as tsikbal or cuentoso’ob. While cuentoso’ob is obviously a Mayan-ized version of the Spanish word for story—“cuento,” the term “tsikbal” can tell us a lot about how Yucatec Maya speakers understand these texts. Among other things, the Diccionario Maya (1990) defines the noun form of as “conversación,” “plática,” “cuento,” and the verb form as “estar en conversación” [to be in a conversation] and “decir cuentos o gracias” [to tell stories or jokes] (860-1). In his seminal work on the subject, Allan F. Burns suggests that Yucatec Maya conceive of these narrative forms “as a type of conversation,” noting that “tsikbal or ‘conversation’ included several ways of speaking, all characterized by dialogue” (1983, 19). Tsikbal are by their nature dialogic, implying the participation of both storyteller/author and listener/reader in the performatic act. While Western-literature might be understood as no less performatic in both its production and reception, as a hegemonic norm these performatic aspects often go unrecognized. In comparison, the term “tsikbal” highlights their status as dialogic performances whose artistry depends on all participating parties having mastered the rules of Yucatec performance traditions. Whether denoting oral or written literature, the term thus resists reduction to Western notions of “story,” differentiating itself as a different kind of literature. Moreover, the evolution of tsikbal under colonial conditions helps us understand stories and storytelling as conscious acts of resistance aimed at sustaining Maya ways of knowing.

Twice Told Tales: “The Story of Juan Rabbit”

U tsikbalil Juan T’u’ul (The Story of Juan Rabbit).

I want to now turn to a comparative analysis of how tsikbal indirectly influence each other over time and serve as a basis for Maya interpretations of the contemporary world. “The Story of Juan Rabbit” offers an apt segue into Yucatec Maya oral performance. Within Yucatec Maya communities, it is one of the more canonical tales in circulation—an assertion underscored by its availability in numerous collections of Maya folklore and literature. Broadly speaking, it is also one of the most famous works of oral literature in the Americas, claimed by both Afro-American and indigenous traditions. With its cross-cultural legacy, the story is a telling example “of how dominant histories have distorted or erased Indian, African, and Black Indian syncretic practices and their cultural products, and to what end” (Baringer 2003, 115). Given its historic appeal and distribution, “The Story of Juan Rabbit” thus makes for a perfect case study of how contemporary storytellers construct Yucatec Maya oral performances as well as the kinds of Pro-Maya ideological positions these tales assume. Bonilla Caamal and I made this particular recording outside of his house in the town of Santa Elena in 2007. Since we conceived of our oral literature project Tsikbal ich maya as a joint collaboration, I appear in most recordings of stories he tells. This highlights my own role as a participant, as well as the role of any listener in storytellers’ articulations of tales.

With regard to structure, when I ask Bonilla Caamal to tell me the story he complies with the generic opening, “Ma’alob, nikaje tsikbatech u tsikbalil Juan T’u’ul yéetel XMa’ Chiich” [“OK, I’ll tell you the story of Juan Rabbit and Ma’ Chiich”]. This formula brackets the words of the story from those of everyday speech, constituting a locutionary act akin to “I’ll tell you the story…,” which begins the telling of a story itself.  Similarly, Bonilla Caamal closes the tale by saying, “Ti’ik letune’ ta ts’oko’ij le ma’ Chiich yéetel Juano’” [“That’s the end of things for Ma’ Chiich and Juan”]. As with the opening formula, this phrase marks the end of the story proper, again separating the literary speech of the performance from that of the everyday world. The body of the story draws upon a series of stories associated with the rabbit in the Maya area—stories which draw from nine recombinable episodes, as recounted by Fernando Peñalosa (1996, 39). These episodes are best understood as the raw literary material with which storytellers construct particular performances. It is worth noting however that Bonilla Caamal’s version includes an episode not found in Peñalosa’s work—that of the expanding and contracting tree—and differs from the general order in which Peñalosa places these episodes. 

While the storyteller’s deployment of phrases and use of physical gesture highlight the agency that one exercises through the performance of a tale, the ordering and articulation of episodes are equally important. Let us briefly compare the episodes that set the action into motion in Peñalosa’s and Bonilla Caamal’s versions. Peñalosa labels this the “Watermelon Episode,” and its corollary in Bonilla Caamal’s story is the episode with Juan, the beans, and the wax man made by Ma’ Chiich. According to Peñalosa this episode “Begins with the rabbit eating some watermelons until they are hollow, filling them with his excrement, and resealing them. The owner of the watermelon patch gives a watermelon to a priest or a friend. The latter gets mad, and the owner puts a wax doll in the path to catch the thief” (1996, 38). In other words, the rabbit is eating the watermelons and his prank of refilling them with his own excrement sets the stage. The owner of the watermelon patch then builds a wax man in response to his feeling humiliated. In comparison, when surveying her ravaged bean patch Ma’ Chiich says the beans “in tia’al in kuxtal” [“are for my sustenance”]. It is thus a need to sustain herself that drives her decision to build a wax man and catch the rabbit. In a similar vein, when confronted by the wax man, Juan rabbit exclaims, “Tséel a bah in bey, tumen tene tin kaxtik in kuxtal” [“Get out of my way, I’ve come to make my living”]. Whereas the situation in Peñalosa’s formulation roughly corresponds to Western notions of crime and punishment, Bonilla Caamal’s version any question of the rabbit’s original crime. Like Ma’ Chiich, Juan simply eats the beans to sustain himself. 

In this performance, we are thus confronted by a non-Western sense of morality: a concept of right and wrong tied to biological life processes rather than to constructed hierarchies of moral authority. Ma’ Chiich and Juan Rabbit both have a right to eat, a right to life. Similarly, when articulating his presence in the bean patch to the wax man, Juan says “Weya’ mul in tae’, weya’ mul in wixe’” [“This is where I take a dump, this is where I take a leak”]. Through his physical relationship with the land, the rabbit claims a kind of indigeneity that the unfamiliar wax man lacks and can never have. Keeping in mind that the rabbit does not yet know that the wax man cannot respond, take a dump, or take a leak because he is not “real,” the rabbit’s assertion of his belonging to the land and the wax man’s foreignness allegorizes a particular relationship in neocolonial Yucatán. Given that the region is littered with many more unexcavated Maya archeological sites than those available to the global tourist trade and that many Maya continue farming the traditional corn plot or milpa, they would seem to possess and maintain closer ties to Yucatán’s soil than their mestizo counterparts. Indeed, some scholars, such as Luis Ramírez Carrillo, have argued that the relationship between the milpa and Maya identity “is direct,” such that while “many farmers can grow corn, only a Maya can make milpa in Yucatán” (2002, 66). Historically and biologically, Juan’s assertion of indigeneity is in relation to the other parallels the Maya’s relation to non-Maya in Yucatán.

The story focuses on Juan Rabbit’s ability to outwit those in positions of power over him, namely Ma’ Chiich and the puma. Unlike his unfortunate escapade with the wax man, Juan takes advantage of the ambiguous and performatic aspects of language in order to escape his pursuers. For instance, he asks Ma’ Chiich for “one last chance to dance,” which is actually an opportunity for him to escape. Similarly, the “games” that Juan shows the puma are actually an opportunity for him to run away from his (now) distracted pursuer. Juan thus holds off fate throughout most of the story. The double-voiced quality of Juan’s speech—his “dance” that is more than a dance, and the “games” that are more than games—destabilize the field of power in which Ma’ Chiich and the puma seek to fix him. The equivocality of his language claims a space for him to exercise agency. As in the formulation of the well-worn adage, Juan obeys but does not comply. In this, he offers a model of resistance and subversion that others can use in similar “real world” situations.

Telling You Twice: Hot Coffee, The Waiter, and the Gringo

El mesero y el gringo / The Waiter and the Gringo.

The agency articulated in “The Story of Juan Rabbit” becomes all the more apparent when one compares this text to trickster tales of more recent production. This section examines a contemporary story provisionally entitled “The Waiter and the Gringo.” As a story dealing with Maya life in 21st-century Yucatán, “The Waiter and the Gringo” does not appear in the broader Maya repertoire of embodied oral literature and has not been included in collections of regional folklore. In addition, it exhibits a two-fold agency that frequently operates within story telling. First, as a story that gives textual form to the daily lives of Yucatec Maya participating in the global tourist trade, the text of “The Waiter and the Gringo” demonstrates how the structural techniques and ideological lessons of trickster tales like “The Story of Juan Rabbit” can be used to interpret contemporary realities. Second, in the moment of a given performance, the storyteller embodies a narrative and interpretive agency within the Yucatec community, as he or she actively uses older tales to structure the apprehension of current events and offer counsel on the future.

When juxtaposing this text with a more traditional story like “The Story of Juan Rabbit,” one immediately notices that Bonilla Caamal’s performance uses opening and closing formulae to draw attention to the fact that his words are literary, as opposed to being instances of everyday speech. After my request for the story he says, “I want to tell you what happened in our workplace,” giving us the story’s geographical and social background. He tells us that the story he’s about to tell comes out of the stories exchanged by the workers at the Hotel Hacienda Uxmal after work. “I want to tell you…” serves the same purpose as “nikaje tsikbatech” in the previous story. It should also be noted that this story is an example of a storyteller drawing upon the real world in the same way that one draws upon the episodes of a traditional tale in rendering a performance. Experience becomes raw material that acquires meaning in and through performance. For interlocutors and the community at large, the storyteller embodies a performatic tradition and the knowledge it transmits: “Perhaps others know these stories and songs, but only he knows how to sing and tell them… The concept of storytelling—and singing—is closer to the idea of re-creating rather than repeating or creating” (Ligorred Perramón 1990, 21). The distinction between knowing stories and the capacity to perform them is important insofar as it underlines the storyteller’s unique position within Yucatec Maya communities. However, in addition to recreating well-known stories, like “The Waiter and the Gringo,” storytellers use the formulae of oral storytelling to create new ones. 

Bonilla Caamal’s outlining of the milieu in which the waiters and other hotel employees exchange stories is another formal aspect of Yucatec Maya tales in which the storyteller “explicitly acknowledges that the story was transmitted to him directly and orally” (Ligorred Perramón 1990, 133). In describing this device, Ligorred notes that not all texts make such explicit statements, and that storytellers usually articulate this transmission as having occurred between themselves and “their ancestors” (133). As shown here, this device can be used to describe the oral transmission of a story between contemporaries. Bonilla Caamal situates this performance as a re-performance of the waiter’s prior telling, beginning the story by having the waiter say: “Well, I am going to explain it to you, tell you what happened yesterday here at work.” The waiter is the “me” to whom the events occurred “ayer” (yesterday) in the world of the story. The story and the original performance thus belong to the waiter, not to Bonilla Caamal, and the video is a recording of the performance of a prior performance. 

In addition to these traditional structural elements, this story intersects in other ways with a canonical tale like “The Story of Juan Rabbit,” insofar as both use the figure of the trickster to outline possible responses to power. Despite the fact that jobs in the international tourist trade seldom pay more than the Mexican minimum wage [around $4.50 per day (Harrup 2012)], these jobs nonetheless provide men and women in towns like Santa Elena with income that supplements other activities like corn growing and animal husbandry. The availability of labor tends to keep wages low and—as expressed by the waiter in the story—means that any complaint from an unsatisfied tourist places one’s job in jeopardy. In short, the situation that confronts the waiter and the stress it causes him are very real. How then can one achieve the twin goals of satisfying tourists’ outrageous demands and keeping one’s job? The gringo in the story repeatedly demands “hot coffee,” and Bonilla Caamal parodies this request through his performance. We know, for instance, that the second cup of coffee that the waiter serves the gringo is twice as hot as it should be, so there is no doubt as to the increasing absurdity of the request. Moreover, Bonilla Caamal’s gestures and facial expressions when reporting the gringo’s speech underscore the fact that the storyteller is laughing at the request and inviting us to, as well. As with the “return” or “games” of Juan Rabbit, the waiter finally brings the gringo a “hot” cup of coffee. The slippage between signifier and signified enacted through the waiter’s actions thus represents the possibility of agency in such situations insofar as the waiter, like Juan, most certainly obeys but does not comply. 

It is also important to note that the story is more than a humorous take on Maya life in the tourist trade. As he closes the story, Bonilla Caamal turns to a critique of the situation. He claims that, having burned off his lips as a consequence of the repeated demands for hot coffee, the gringo acknowledges his error through his silence. As the symbol of global progress, the gringo is revealed as lacking the proper courtesies abroad––a shortcoming his silence would seemingly admit. Drawing on the story as an illustration of how not to treat people, Bonilla Caamal says “un día de esos nos puede pasar también a nosotros.” That is, the performance of the story becomes a site for the reversal of the roles played by the waiter and the gringo—imagining that you (the reader or audience of the video), me, him, other Maya could all one day find ourselves in the gringo’s position. We can learn a lesson through his performance—specifically to not be so demanding of others. Otherwise, our demands might double back on us in ways that are both unexpected and inevitable. By directing this lesson toward an expansive “we” he deftly asserts storytelling’s status as a site for the production of knowledge applicable to both Maya and non-Maya. For storytelling is a way of knowing, and understanding it as such increases our grasp of the world that we—Maya and non-Maya, waiters and gringos—all share.

Conclusion: Storytelling as Resistance

Collections of folklore tend to only include a given cultural group’s most canonical tales—predominantly myths, legends, and stories in which anthropomorphic animals offer lessons about human behavior. These stories are understood as ancient tales passed down from prior generations—glimpses of a prior time that is quickly disappearing. Orality is in the process of giving way to literacy, and these tales will soon be forgotten. But these stories are usually reproduced without any sense of their oral context. (Martínez Huchím 1996, 2). The collections thus generally fail to reflect the fact that oral performance is more than just the story itself, but is an episteme. Moreover, these collections overlook the historical processes through which certain cultures have come to privilege oral performance as a culturally vital way of knowing. The reasoning behind the practice described by Florescano cannot be separated from the material actions of men like Landa, as orality became a mode of resisting colonial oppression in the aftermath of attempts to eradicate indigenous cultures and epistemologies. As embodied knowledge, orality and oral performance offer a unique safeguard insofar as one must destroy the repository (the body) in order to eradicate the knowledge it possesses.

The preservation of Yucatec Maya oral performance or storytelling in the 21st century suggests that they continue to serve as a viable way of knowing within these communities. As I have argued elsewhere, many Yucatec authors even craft their written stories as oral performances—an aesthetic choice that seeks to reproduce this episteme in print and asserts that their work is irreducible to Western literary genres (Worley 2013). With regard to Yucatec Maya communities, the oral performances presented here are representative examples of how stories are told, continue to be told, and mutually influence each other. Whereas (the more traditional) “The Story of Juan Rabbit” uses animals to transmit its message, “The Waiter and the Gringo” speaks directly to the asymmetries of power that Yucatec Maya laboring in the peninsula’s tourist trade confront on an everyday basis. Despite these differences, the protagonists of both stories are tricksters who exploit language’s equivocality to resist their oppressors, insisting that the audience can also have discursive agency in similar situations. Furthermore, as demonstrated through Bonilla Caamal’s performance of “The Waiter and the Gringo,” telling stories can open up avenues for reinterpreting Maya relationships with non-Maya, in this way asserting the Maya’s value in a globalized world. Drawing on this performatic tradition, Maya have recounted and (re)created, these tsikbal for over 500 years, both as a bulwark of pro-Maya resistance against the imposition of outside cultures and as a means of reproducing Maya cultures. These stories and their performances offer lessons to and produce knowledge for Maya and non-Maya alike. We non-Maya would do well to understand this and listen.

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Worley, Paul. 2013. Telling and Being Told: Storytelling and Cultural Control in Yucatec Maya Literatures. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Parts of this essay were originally printed in Telling and Being Told: The Storyteller and Cultural Control in Contemporary Yucatec Maya Literatures by Paul M. Worley. © 2013 The Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.