Disrupting Language Hierarchies: Talking with Judith Santopietro
In Bolivia, the coqa leaf is sacred to Indigenous communities and an important crop in its economy. So when Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, came into office in 2006, he resisted pressure to decrease its production from the United States, who at that time was aggressively stepping up its “war against cocaine.” Award-winning Mexican and Indigenous poet Judith Santopietro nods towards this complicated history with her second collection of poetry Tiawanaku. Poemas de la Madre Coqa/Poems from the Mother Coqa, while also challenging the ways in which the significance of the coqa leaf has been colonized.
Superbly translated into English by Ilana Luna, the book is also an exploration of trauma, migration and state violence. In these poems the displaced speaker constantly explores the self through a landscape that is not her own, while desperately trying to heal. In one poem she writes, “Camino Chakaltaya con el soplo de quien muere / aniquilada por la veta de plata en una mina / apago este resplandor / para no mirar el gesto de mi carne abierta / esos minerales sin ayunos / esos humos creciendo como filos de metal contra el amor.” In English, Luna translates, “I walk Chakaltaya with the draft of the dying / annihilated by the silver draft of a mine / I put out this radiance / to not see the expression on my open flesh: / those minerals without fasting /those fumes growing like metal blades against love.”
Judith Santopietro is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in publications such as Anuario de Poesía Mexicana 2006 from Fondo de Cultura Económica, Rio Grande Review, La Jornada, and The Brooklyn Rail. She is the author of Palabras de Agua (Instituto Veracruzano de Cultura-Praxis) and a first Spanish version of Tiawanaku. Poemas de la Madre Coqa (Hanan Harawin Editores, 2017). She received the National Poetry Award Lázara Meldiú in 2014, and was a finalist in the International Literary Award “Aura Estrada” in 2017.
I had the pleasure of being able to interview Santopietro last week through email about this powerful new collection of poetry, published last year by Orca Libros. Santopietro’s answers to my interview questions were translated from Spanish into English by Ilana Luna.
The Rumpus: In Bolivia the coqa leaf has a contentious history. For many communities in Bolivia, the leaf is considered spiritual and sacred, but the United States in its efforts against cocaine has repeatedly pushed Bolivia to stop producing it, with disastrous consequences for the country’s economy and its farmers. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of that history and what brought you to writing about it?
Judith Santopietro: In 2010, I visited the Andes for the first time to attend an Indigenous Peoples Summit that took place in the city of Puno, on the edge of Titikaka lake by Perú’s side. On that occasion, activists and writers that belonged to Indigenous nations of Abya Yala and First Nations had the opportunity to be part of dances and rituals held by Andean people regarding the conversations about human rights and language diversity. Over the course of the meetings, we were taught by elders about the importance of coqa leaf in spiritual practices and in daily life to mitigate cold, altitude sickness, and hunger. Coqa leaf is an essential element of Andean cultures that have existed for millennia, and only recently has it been processed into cocaine for trafficking and profit, classified as a drug, and criminalized by Western cultures.
Bolivia is considered the world’s third-largest cultivator, and coqa leaf is on the CIA’s list of illicit drugs. In that regard, the consequences of these drug policies goes beyond those economic aspects that you mention; they pave the way to erase voices and Indigenous epistemologies: the diversity of wisdom, beliefs, languages, food, bodies and territories are exterminated. This brings to mind the recent case of Tata Domingo Choc Ché, a Maya-Q’eqchi’ spiritual healer tortured and murdered in Guatemala in June, 2020. In a country with more that forty-three percent Indigenous population, he was accused of practicing Mayan spirituality, and this is only one of the consequences of the demonization implanted by European colonial cultures in the Americas. So, this insistence on eradicating spiritual practices and demonizing plant-based medicines has devastating consequences not only for the economy but for the continuity of Indigenous peoples’ lives.
During that summit, we were taught by elders that “hoja de coca no es cocaína,” “coqa leaf is not cocaine,” so those words resonated in my mind over the years until I fled my home country due to the war on drugs. The violence of this war has impacted me personally and devastated the social fabric of Mexico as well. That was the reason I went to live in Bolivia, and when I settled in, some Aymara and Quechua friends invited me to join dances, ceremonies, travels to sacred mountains and cities, and to be part of their lives in some way. Then, I begun to chew—pijchar—coqa leaves to improve my bodily functions in those extreme conditions—11,942 meters above sea, the winter—and to survive the effects of PTSD after experiencing violence in Mexico. In that way, coqa leaf became part of my daily life and my spirituality as well.
I have to say that Tiawanaku. Poems from the Mother Coqa was not planned as a poetry book from the very beginning, but it was merely a journey entangled with other circumstances such as the war on drugs, the cultural resistance and the struggle of Indigenous peoples against racism and discrimination, the role that women play in politics, and principally, it was a listening process. I wove all these topics together years later in this book using what I had documented in diaries, photos, letters, emails, chats, videos, and even prescriptions and hospital bills. I paid special attention to the representation of Indigenous peoples, being aware that representation matters and defines us as subjects with agency. The journey itself provided me with the body of artifacts, information, documents, and stories necessary to write and publish this book.
Rumpus: What were some of the opportunities and challenges of writing these poems combining concepts and terms in Quechua with the Spanish?
Santopietro: Since 2005, I have worked in literatures written in Native languages in Mexico and other regions in Latin America, and in recent years I have focused my work as a writer and activist on oral tradition and oral history by Indigenous migrants in New York City. I would say that this culturally active research has been crucial for transforming my poetics into a multilingual production where no one language—especially Indigenous tongues—is beneath another. In some ways, this exercise changes the notion in some readers indigenous languages are unwritten, or that indigenous people do not produce literature, which is a racist notion since those are living languages, living but endangered due to state policies that reinforce Spanish-language pedagogy instead of Indigenous epistemologies.
When I lived in Bolivia I was immersed in a context where Quechua and Aymara were the most commonly spoken languages—among thirty-three others—and the very first moment I began documenting this journey with the sole purpose of having memories of my own, I used concepts and terms in those languages. Afterwards, when I decided to write Tiawanaku, I researched more extensively about the accurate use of languages, and also my Bolivian friends and I started a dialogue through emails and messaging to clarify aspects of philosophy, history, and spirituality of their cultures. And the whole purpose was to let the sounds and rhythms from Andean languages seep into Spanish as had been the case for every colonial language imposed: it is permeated by Native tongues forever.
Definitely, deconstructing myself as a researcher was a challenge because it was necessary to question the archeological apparatus that mostly romanticizes and diminishes Indigenous knowledge, that misunderstands concepts, since many researchers do not get involved in the communities and take for granted what early “explorers” interpreted about Native peoples. That acts to petrify us and put us in museum showcases, to distort our cosmogonies, and to reinforce the stereotype of the noble savage. In that sense, I believe that language is crucial to deeply understand different world views, so my goal was to insert words in Quechua and Aymara so as to disrupt those practices, and to use the concepts as the people themselves do, by asking them directly. For that matter, I went back to the conversation with my Bolivian friends—Tacana anthropologist Clarivel Loayza and Aymaran anthropologist Clemente Mamani Colque—over and over in order to respectfully approach the topics. Although, I would say that my interest in avoiding language hierarchies was one that evolved along with the process of learning Nahuatl, my grandmother’s tongue.
Rumpus: I loved Ilana Luna’s introduction to the book. Can you talk a little bit more about the challenges and opportunities of translating this collection into English?
Santopietro: This project was pretty unique in that we worked very closely together during the final stages of the translation. The opportunity to translate this book was a wonderful one, thanks to Lina X. Aguirre’s initiative, and her creation of Orca Libros as a space to construct sorority across borders, and to bring to the fore very contemporary women’s writing from Latin America and Latina women living in the diaspora. Prior to this publication, I didn’t know Ilana Luna; she was contacted through mutual friends by Lina, and she was excited to translate the book. The challenge, of course, was having the time to do so, as she is a full-time academic, researcher and writer, film curator, and mother. That said, because she was living in Mexico while on sabbatical, we decided to meet—the three of us together—to finish the book in one week in Oaxaca. We spent four nights together in a cabin in the Sierra de Juarez where Ilana would translate and translate, with only her laptop dictionary, as there was no cell reception up in the mountains. Then we would read the work out loud, together, in both languages, discuss different concepts and words and ideas, and listen to the rhythms. In some cases when she would ask for clarifications, or offer suggestions, like the Aymara woman taking a selfie, the translation actually made me go back to the original text and change it. It was a truly organic process, broken up by long walks in the forest, sudden bursts of hail, mezcal sipped in front of the glowing hearth, sharing our stories with one another, laughter and tears and more laughter.
By the end of the process, Ilana truly understood the journey that I had put into poetry, and was able to accompany it, with her words in English, and Lina provided valuable insight as the brilliant editor that she is. It was Lina’s idea, for example, that we create a glossary of Aymara and Quechua terms and concepts, rather than disrupt the layout of each page with extensive explanation. Thus, Ilana and I got to flesh out the glossary by deepening our understanding of Andean cosmogonies through linguistic approximation. Since then, Ilana and I have been on a tour through the Southwest, and when the pandemic hit, we were mid-tour, so we continued giving bilingual readings and Q&As together, since we decided to stay together, with her family in Arizona. One of the questions that we have been asked often was, was it hard? Did we ever disagree? And each time we would look at one another and laugh, because if it was challenging, the sisterhood that was built in the process made it feel easy; our mutual process of listening made even the most complicated parts fall into place seamlessly.
Rumpus: Though these are poems, I felt that they were telling me a story about the speaker and the landscape, as she moves throughout space. How did you decide on their arrangement?
Santopietro: Certainly, Tiawanaku is a book composed of poetic snapshots of a contemporary Bolivia, a landscape entangled with political events from recent history, narrated by a woman who is living under the presidency of Evo Morales—the first Indigenous president of Bolivia, and a cocalero activist. It is a journey through peaks and sacred cities. The first part of the collection turned more ritualistic since the poetic voice is immersed in the season of offerings dedicated to the Pacha Mama, the divinity of Mother Earth in the Andes. In that section, poems are arranged as if the reader were ascending and descending a peak into an ancient city, navigating high-elevation and snowy plains through the pages; then the blanks articulate a rough geography with an effect of isolation and uncertainty during the winter. Unlike these poems that were a first glimpse when I lived in La Paz, in the second part of the book, the poetic voice approaches daily life across the border, the impact of dictatorships and disappeared people in that country from twentieth century up until now, the political role of chola women—as they call themselves to vindicate their indigeneity and to radically shift a racist category used by criollos (people of European descent). So, in this second part, the reader navigates through pages in chaos and tension produced by the sociopolitical environment, by a woman crossing borders, by the effects of trauma and solitude. In essence, our purpose—and here I have to mention the brilliant work of Lina X. Aguirre, Orca Libros’s director and editor of this book—was to create a journey from the Andes up to New York City where characters and notions of identity were de-romanticized.
Rumpus: Were there any challenging parts of writing this collection? If so, did they teach you something new about yourself as a writer?
Santopietro: Writing Tiawanaku was a challenge for me since the process brought up several questions regarding what my role as a poet is within a community, who am I writing for, and what codes I use to depict my reality. It also made me think about what the implications of writing during a war on drugs in Mexico were for me. More profoundly, the decision to center the voices and histories of Indigenous women in the poems brought up deep reflections on the ways in which Western writers depict us in literature. In this way, I wanted to shift away from colonial narratives that reproduce a romanticized vision of Indigenous peoples: that is, narratives in which we Indigenous women and their descendants don’t have a real voice but are rather an imagined projection of our feelings and experiences through the voices of privileged Euro-descendant writers. So, in that sense, Tiawanaku is both an archive of memories and objects, a sort of documentary poetry book, and a crucial exercise for a critical revision of those cultural and linguistic codes and the implications concerning our roles as characters in literature.
Either way, my purpose was to find the colonial traces on my own work and turn them upside down, re-signify and disrupt colonial narratives with the political voices and agency of Indigenous women who have had a key participation defending cultural and language heritage, spirituality, and the ancestral territories with their bodies on the front lines.
Rumpus: For my final question, I’m curious who and what have shaped you into the poet you are today?
Santopietro: It occurred to me that every time I begin a new creative project, oral tradition and oral history appear as essential components that take important part in my poetry. Listening is a process I learned from my childhood when my aunties or my grandmother and I spent hours together sharing stories about creatures that inhabit the Mountains, animals shapeshifting into humans and flying and stealing corn to make tamales, and many other stories from the Mesoamerican world that I inherited from them. In that sense, oral and written poetry has been part of my life and early readings from my childhood: García Lorca and Alfonsina Storni, poetry in Indigenous languages of the Americas such as the contemporary poets Nantzin Paula López (Nahuat Pipil), Mikeas Sánchez (Zoque), Joy Harjo (Mvskoke Nation), Humberto Ak’abal (Maya’ K’iche’). But in the last few years, I feel closer to the New Journalism in Latin America: Marcela Turati, Gabriela Wiener, and Daniela Rea among others that narrate Latin America from an un-idealized conception. Definitely the anthology En esa roja nacíon de sangre, Poesia indígena estadounidense del siglo XX, in which I read ten years ago the Spanish translations by Katherine M. Hedeen and Victor Rodriguez Núnez and of course the Mexican writer José Revueltas. I have to confess that I always carry those two examples of books in my bag, and always return to those sources when I want to illuminate my own writing.
I would say I’m the sort of poet that considers lived experience, the ties forged with the community, and the listening process which I not only learned from my family but in many workshops among migrant women in New York City, as the most important aspect of my work. While that is what has most shaped me as a poet, my writing is informed by many disciplines, voices, genres, and languages, and definitely by the wounds that colonialism has left us with.
Photograph of Judith Santopietro by Elena Lehmann.