Nature is important to Indigenous Mayan people for the grounding, healing, and memory that can be found. In this essay, I examine symbols and imagery of nature through Indigenous perspective and memory. In What the World Used to Be Like, a short story translated by an Indigenous Ch’orti Mayan author who features the sea as home. For Indigenous Ch’orti Mayans this story is an amplified version of their brutal history during colonization, their perspective of events has been remembered by nature. While in Humberto Ak’abal’s, At the Side of the Road the symbolism of water is interpreted to represent the flow of the way things are. Nature themes are meaningful to Indigenous perspective and memory as supported in this essay.
Authors apply literary devices to help their audience understand the themes and symbols they want to share. These themes can be personal and connect the author to the reader via symbolism. In the short story, At the Side of the Road by Humber Ak’abal, a K'iche Maya author, and What the World Used to Be Like: A Ch’orti Origin Story by an anonymous author; they both symbolize water's thoughts flow and also protection or safety. Ak’abal conceptualizes water to discuss how ideas stream and move through him as an author.
In What the World Used to Be Like the representation of water is used as a shield to protect the people who come into contact with it. Ak'abal’s story is more realistic as he bases it on everyday surroundings in Guatemala, while in What the World Used to Be Like it is evident the themes of gods and magic are fictional. In both short stories, those symbols are frequently used, they allow readers to interpret how powerful and important water is to Indigenous groups in Central America. What the World Used to Be Like and At the Side of the Road both illustrate nature symbols to readers, the imagery of nature is to be analyzed through the lens of Indigenous perspective and memory.
In What the World Used to Be Like, a short story translated by an Indigenous Ch’orti Mayan author, the sea is personified as an image of home. In this story, the narrator describes various surrounding seas; the red sea as blood red, a different one as sticky like tar, and the last white sea where the sky and sea meet. According to What the World Used to Be Like, “And they say that on that sea every day as every night, there was lightning. Because they say that there lived the gods.” The story continues with animals who come on ships beyond the sea trying to metaphorically fill the sea in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.
The symbol of animals by the author are Conquistadors who were trying to inhabit Indigenous Land, coming from beyond the sea where violence and war come from. The narrator in the story says “they” frequently when referring to Ch’orti Mayans, who have retold this story, for readers to infer their story has some added elements to liven up the story. This is how Indigenous Ch’orti Maya people interpreted changes in land occupancy around them and also the outsiders who were taking over in surrounding areas or seas. For the Indigenous Ch’orti Mayans, this story is a partial depiction of their version of the violent history that occurred to them during colonization.
"For the Indigenous Ch’orti Mayans, this story is a partial depiction of their version of the violent history that occurred to them during colonization."
In At the Side of the Road by Humberto Ak’abal he recalls a memory of a sunny afternoon after a fresh rain, he was thirsty and carved out a small well for water. He described the water moving as, “The flow looked like a worm moving in the earth that had been removed. I let it alone.” (Ak’abal, 608) Ak’abal illustrates water as a symbol for flow or carving one's path in his case as a poet. Ak’abal refers to the road as his journey as a poet, when he feels blocked he steps to the side to see a different perspective. “... I discovered that the themes do not come from the outside but the inside. Seizing them produces this thing that is surely a combination of pain and happiness,” (Ak’abal, 609).
Ak’abal can visualize his words within the understanding of the environment he is surrounded by. He does not want to present poetry in a complex manner, rather he is describing scenery, smells, and the feeling of the sun to portray a vivid story. Ak’abal can describe his process as a poet into three separate parts: direct language, metaphors and imagery, and onomatopoeia. Direct language would be Maya K’iche’ in the author’s case, there are words that do not translate from this Indigenous language to English or Spanish. This is powerful for poets to be able to express in their native language because there is no other translation for specific words, their intent cannot be changed through translation. Ak’abal is consistent in expressing imagery and symbolism in his writing as a means of expression to create a personal significance in objects.
Both stories apply imagery to express the simplicity of nature and how it relates to the events of Indigenous Ch’orti and K'iche Mayan people. What the World Used to Be focuses on Indigenous Ch’orti history and how they were being displaced by the Spanish Inquisition and other colonizers in the past. The story later mentions The United States as the people who originate from the outside seas, they are described as violent and only bad experiences happen to those who choose to interact with outsiders. The author describes how fearful Indigenous people felt because of their previous maltreatment and poisoning by these outsiders.
"The author describes how fearful Indigenous people felt because of their previous maltreatment and poisoning by these outsiders."
The significance of the poison refers to the occupancy of their land or sea, it was no longer their home and as a result, their culture has suffered. Similar to Ak’abal’s At the Side of the Road where he uses the image of water from a dream and later explains how that memory of water helped awaken his inner poet. His nostalgia helps evoke creativity and simplicity within his writing. Both authors use detailed descriptions and interpretations of their environment as told through their perspectives, it helps their cultures preserve storytelling as a form of expression. Both stories use water to indicate home and the flow of thoughts, they intend to reestablish what nature means to each of them.
What the World Used to Be Like and At the Side of the Road both highlight nature symbols to their audience, the vivid image, and descriptions of nature has analyzed through the lens of Indigenous perspective and memory. These authors used their knowledge of their Indigenous culture, history, and environment to help write what they envisioned around them. Both short stories characterize an object in nature to bring their perspective to readers. Water for the author of What the World Used to Be symbolizes the sea as the home and the past home Indigenous Ch’orti people knew. The sea is referenced by them as their land and the neighboring land where outsiders come from. There is an understanding by the audience that the outsiders did not intend to be friends with the Ch’orti people, the author conveys their message about the history of Ch’orti people living in Antigua Guatemala.
Similar to At the Side of the Road water imagery is presented by Ak’abal for its fluidity, simplicity, and motivating force in writing. Ak’abal uses nature symbols throughout his writing for the audience to understand his journey and how the environment around him fuels that journey. The existence of nature is well told through these stories, the authors can preserve their culture, and language while explaining the importance of these nature symbols to their audience.
"The existence of nature is well told through these stories, the authors can preserve their culture, and language while explaining the importance of these nature symbols to their audience."
The importance of nature themes by Indigenous authors is presented across these short stories to convey nature through their perspective and memory.
Ak’abal, Humberto. “At the Side of the Road.” Modern Stories, Fables, and Poems. pp. 608-610
Unknown. “What the World Used to Be Like: A Ch’orti Origin Story.” In the Language of Kings. pp. 1-2
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