The Land of the Rains

[00:00:00] My name is Gabina Aurora. My village is Ñuu Ndeya—it is called Chalcatongo in Spanish. (Ms. Pérez is in the traditional dress of San Pablo Tijaltepec, Mixteca Alta).

My language is the “Language of the Rains”—Mixtec. The Language of the Rains is one of fifty-six indigenous languages that exist in Mexico. My village is a town in the “Land of the Rains” (the Mixteca).

The region is divided into the Mixteca of the coast, the lowland Mixteca, and the highland Mixteca. My village is in the highland Mixteca. My village is surrounded by large and tall mountains.

There are villages that make cooking pots, comales, ceramic containers, jars, and bowls. There are other villages that weave nets, make baskets (like for example this basket), make fans and woven containers, as well as other products.

The people of the Land of the Rains are principally dedicated to planting “milpas.” They work the “communal fields” seasonally first in the early months of February and March. They sow the fields when they are very moist. And then, they sow another seasonal field in the month of May when the rains begin. They sow a variety of seeds. This is the work of the people.

We worship Lord Rain, the spirit of the earth, and all the spiritual beings of the places located in the Land of the Rains. And we also worship Lord Sun, because he oversees everything we do here in the world.

The Land of the Rains was a great realm, and its history was written on sacred books of deerskin—the history of its great queens and kings who governed the various cities. They were the rulers of the Land of the Rains. They sat on mats and thrones.

The Serpent of the Rains—the Plumed Serpent, the “whirlwind,” is very important, because those who become Serpents of the Rains—like “nahuals” [co-essence]—will work to make the rains come, because they are the ones who bring the rains all over the Land of the Rains.

As it is written in the ancient, sacred book, the Serpent of the Rains summons the rains and distributes them over all of the Land of the Rains. This is the way it has happened and continues to happen up to the present. The “nahual” of my late father was the Serpent of the Rains. His “nahual” was killed. This is why he died.

After the Spanish Invasion

[03:10:00] All that was written in the ancient, sacred books we barely understand, because most everything was stripped from us the day the Spaniards invaded: they imposed a different god, a different language, a different history, and we became unfamiliar with our own history.

What little we know was taught to us by our dead grandfathers and grandmothers. Our fathers and mothers count a great deal, as before, and they orient us to the necessity of living with the truth and in peace in our communities. The Land of the Rains is very beautiful, but many trees are being cut down. There’s much erosion, and people are poor.

It’s the rich who cut the trees and impoverish the village. They became rich by exploiting the poor people. Impoverished, the rains don’t come, the communal fields don’t yield much, there’s no corn, no food, no money, no work. The people are very poor. The Land of the Rains became impoverished.

The rain gods didn’t bring forth the rains, or bless the fields or the seeds we ate. The Spanish-speakers mistreat us, discriminate against us, make fun of us. For this reason, our people emigrate—go to another country looking for work in faraway places.

There are many shameless people who invade our land and rob us with the complete complicity of the authorities. The authorities constantly cheat and exploit the people of the Land of the Rains. There aren’t good schools for the youth of today. If they are men, they’ll work as peons or emigrate to other countries (to the U.S., for example), and if they’re women, they’ll work as domestic servants.

There aren’t good schools for the upbringing of our children. They’re ashamed of speaking Mixtec. Their very own teachers teach them that it’s not good for them to speak their mother tongue, because if they do they won’t be considered “rational” people. For this reason, the young don’t want to speak the Language of the Rains.

Studying the Mixtec

[5:55:00] My name is Maarten Jansen, and I teach archaeology at the University of Leiden in the Department of Archaeology. When I think back upon the twenty-five years that I’ve dedicated myself to the study of the ñuu Dzavui, the Mixteca region, the Mixtec community, the “People of the Rains,” the first thing that comes to mind is the bitter, sad contrast between my academic, institutional occupation—which is luxurious—and the desperate needs of the community that I wish to study. It is an exploited community; they are discriminated against and cornered in their own land.

The researcher comes from outside, and the first thing of interest is the past—the glory of the past, the ruins, the classical culture in which we see the development of the State (or in the case of the Mixtec, of the city-states). We don’t know much, really, of this period, but we find ruins on top of the mountains (still barely explored) that we think were for a long time under the influence of great centers outside the region—principally Monte Alban in the valley of Oaxaca. This is the Classic period, which lasted more or less until the ninth century A.D. [C.E.]. And then came the Postclassic period, which is the epoch of the pictorial manuscripts, of work in gold, of turquoise mosaics, of the lives of the elite that governed these different city-states that they had founded—which together formed this region, the Land of the Rains.

Internal Colonialism

[08:09:00] This is the reality which surrounds the researcher, who, at the same time, moves within a daily reality of malnutrition, alcoholism, violence, domestic violence, child abuse, mistreatment—of the abuse of girls, especially, who often have no recourse other than to leave the region to work in the cities as servants in a new form of slavery. It is a situation of physical and cultural erosion, which characterizes the region and causes the people to have to emigrate in search of work, in search of survival.

The cause of the processes that affect the region, and affect the relationship between the researcher and the community under study, invokes the period of colonialism—the invasion of the Spanish, the colonial period—and the subsequent republican government with an internal colonialism that aligns itself with the neocolonialism of outside. All of these processes of colonialism (grouped under one name) affect and determine today’s reality. These processes have made of the Ñuu Dzavui a people without history—a people that have had their role as protagonist (their agency) in history negated, and that likewise, continue to have their contemporary reality and presence negated. [The processes of colonialism have tried to remove the indigenous peoples from everything, including themselves].

The sources of ancient cultural knowledge are closed to the Mixtec youth in the same way that obstacles are placed in front of teaching their mother tongue and the history of their own culture. This creates a difficult situation with regard to their own identity, which remains obscured. It is this phenomenon of a community without history that we confront in the research and that confronts the community itself when they speak, for example, of the ancient “Legend of the golden bell.” There once was a golden bell in the community [of the Ñuu Dzavui], which was stolen, or possibly misplaced. For a community the bell is an easy symbol to understand because it is much like a church bell which gives identity to a town—calls people to work, to church, and to the town’s spiritual center. It is the symbol of the community. This golden bell was, at a time in the past, a precious, golden symbol, which is no longer part of their history. It has been excluded from them [because it has disappeared].

From Within and Afar

[11:57:00] The strange part is that this problematic—that is, the contrast between the world of the researcher and the world of the researched—is rarely dealt with in the design of the research. Rarely is this seen as something that, from the beginning, we must overcome and that we must examine deeply in order to make something useful.

In my case, I began to study the history of the Ñuu Dzavui in Europe. Initially, I was fascinated by the codices—the pictorial manuscripts of ancient Mexico in general—which I came to know in European museums and in the libraries there, and whose circumstances are very typical. These are dispersed documents, outside of their place of origin, outside of the places where they were painted, expropriated from the people who created them. They are now dispersed, dispossessed from and inaccessible to the inheritors of the culture that produced them. And they are known under names foreign to the culture that produced them—the Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus 1, the Codex Nuttall and the Codex Selden. Who would suspect what reality—what history—hides behind these names, so alien from the reality of the Ñuu Dzavui people? The codices have been dispersed, dispossessed, and, for the most part, studied by foreigners.

While I was [carrying out research] in Mexico, I met my wife, Aurora. She speaks Mixtec and knows the cultural tradition of the region where she comes from, and this motivated the two of us to begin to study these documents in depth, to compare their content with current reality, and to try to read these documents in the context of the Ñuu Dzavui culture that produced them. In this trajectory, which has been an emotional experience for both of us, we have encountered marvelous people—old people, healers [and others]—who have taught us the traditional knowledge, such as the ceremonies and rituals—the cleansing ritual to remove shock or illness from someone, the search for contact with the spirits of the earth (the Ñuhu Ndehy), and the “House of the Rains” where the “nahuals” (the animal-companions) go to help bring forth the rain, to summon the rainy season. At the same time, we have encountered some motivated teachers, Mixtecs and others, who are trying to raise the welfare of their people, to combat social injustice, to promote knowledge of antiquity and of the present. And this has inspired us much in the understanding of and search for meaning in historical documents.

Collaborating with the Other

[15:58:00] We live in a very interesting time for the possibilities of collaboration between different peoples—researchers proceeding from different realities towards the ends of bettering a forgotten people, trampled upon by history. When we look for a common ground—when we look for a convergence of paradigms—we are able to make a lot of progress in the understanding of these sources.

But those who seek nothing more than an object of study for their own academic ambition, their own prestige, who seek to study the Mixtec solely as “Objects”—without voice, without vote, always as the “others” or the “foreigners,” as people who believe in myths, as peoples who are in effect considered inferior (never equal to the white researcher)—will never progress with such an attitude. With that attitude, they will never arrive at true understanding. What one does get with a vision so dispossessing of the community—study without engagement—is a certain sterility of pre-conceived notions. In such a case, an intellectual game of high-sounding theorizing substitutes for genuine understanding, and it doesn’t help.

Then, we must escape from paternalistic anthropology of the old style, which is the result of colonial relationships, and we must also escape from its counterpart, which is the romantic idealization of a distant community as something superior, like the “noble savage”—as a people who are in complete harmony with nature and are, therefore, happier than we are. Both visions—the paternalistic and the idealistic—restrict our access to reality. [18:42:00]

The Codices and Formal Language

[18:41:00] It is in the context of collaboration that we have been able to advance the most in the understanding of the codices. And here I’d like to mention three points.

The first refers to the nature of these texts. The codices can be understood in the context of current oral literature as written forms of what, today, is called parangon (shahu in Mixtec), which is florid, formal discourse constructed on the basis of diphrasis—expressions of two elements that are combined to form a new abstract phrase and which give a poetic character to the Mixtec language. This shahu is used, for example, on ritual occasions, such as when the ancient godfather at a wedding speaks to the betrothed couple or by authorities when there is a change of power at the beginning of the year. This is the style of the codices—it is a literary style—and we find multiple examples of this. For example, if we look at the Codex Vindobonensis, at the beginning it speaks of the dawn of time [and records the following]: when day and night were created; when the earth spirits, the sun, the divine forces, the vital forces of plants, and human beings were shown where they would rise; where the earth spirits would descend; where death would be situated; how religious observation would be inaugurated; how the ways of the rivers would be laid out; and how the mountains would rise. All of these are examples of diphrasis and correspond to certain fundamental concepts in the thoughts of the Ñuu Dzavui.

Secondly, the codices must be understood in a linguistic context. The protagonists, for example, aren’t just anyone. They are “iha,” or in ancient parlance, iya —lords of a divine nature, of a very high status, who garner much respect. The fact that these are the protagonists of the codices completely transforms this history into sacred history—an extraordinary history of profound significance.

Dramatic Structure

[21:29:00] The third point is that in some parts, in certain chapters of this sacred history, we find a particular dramatic structure—a structure clearly proceeding from an oral tradition of declamation, of people who related the history, a literary effort which the others listened to and enjoyed. We can see this structure, for example, in the story of Lord 8 Deer (8 Deer Jaguar Claw) who is one of the most important personages in the history of the Ñuu Dzavui. His name in the Language of the Ñuu Dzavui is Iya Nacuaa Teyusi Nana, Lord 8 Jaguar Claw. The story tells that one day, when he was young, he took it into his head to enter a cave. But he didn’t go alone; he went in the company of a princess—a princess named Lady 6 Monkey Serpent Quechquemitl. Her Mixtec name was probably Iyadzehe Nunuu Dzico Coo Yodzo. Serpent Quechquemitl is a symbol that in Mixtec is understood in multiple ways: it is understood as a pictorial reference, [and as] a word that can also signify virtue, fame, goodness, and beauty—a whole array of meanings. Therefore, we are able to understand her name, Serpent Quechquemitl or Feathered Serpent, as [also indicating] “virtue of the Feathered Serpent.”

So, Lord 8 Deer and Lady 6 Monkey go into the cave where they are going to solicit the help of the forces of the underworld. They are going to solicit help from a goddess of death. It is a bold and daring move. The goddess is going to give her help and show them a way to success. However, they must pay with their lives, and it will end in tragedy: 8 Deer will kill 6 Monkey, and the son of 6 Monkey will kill 8 Deer.

It’s an interesting history because it gives us the perspective of the protagonist neither as cheap, political propaganda, nor as mere history—not merely a series of written events, but rather the perspective of a tragic figure, comparable to those of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, or better said, like the famous theatrical piece, Faust, by Goethe. It’s a vision of power as ambition and the negative defects of ambition. With this story—this history—the Mixtec have given to posterity and to humanity in general, a magnificent example of the profound understanding of their own reality, which continues to be relevant to all of us today.

A Codex Reading

[25:23:00] Maarten Jansen: We’re going to discuss briefly a segment of the Codex Nuttall as an example of why it’s necessary to read these codices in the context of contemporary Mixtec language and culture. It’s a segment of page fifteen where we encounter two protagonists: Lord 5 Flower and Lady 3 Flint Shell Quechquemitl, which probably signifies something like Dzico Tiyee—virtue and masculine power, virtue and valor. The two arrive at a place where there are temples and altars. Basically, the first scene is very interesting because we see a river where Lady 3 Flint now appears, not in human form, but in the form of a serpent.

Aurora Pérez: She turns into the Plumed Serpent and goes into the river carrying the copal incense burner and a handful of reeds, which we would call flowers but that are really leaves—reeds with leaves. She goes to visit Lady 1 Eagle who is the Nana Ñuu. Lady 3 Flint transforms into Koo Sau, and she goes to venerate the Grandmother, the Nana Ñuu, in the river to solicit a son or a daughter. One time, as she makes her offerings to the Grandmother in the river—to Lady 1 Eagle—Lady 1 Eagle answers her petition (her prayer) in the form of a jewel. And this jewel turns into the daughter who will be Lady 3 Flint Jeweled Quechquemitl.

Maarten Jansen: She is born later. And so, we see the figure of the Grandmother, Nana Ñuu, who is very well known today as the goddess of the temezcal [the purifying sweatbath]. The interesting thing is that Lady 3 Flint approaches this goddess/grandmother not in human form, but rather in the form of her nahual, that can be called Ninduuya Koo Sau, she turns into a Serpent of the Rain, a Plumed Serpent.

Aurora Pérez: In Mixtec we say: “ninduuya Koo Sau, te nijahanya ini yucha, nijandeheya Nanañuu, nijachiñuhuya jiin susiakutu, jiin ita, te Nanañuu nijiniya tuhun iha Uni Yuchi te ninakuahaya tahu ja nijikaya nuu Nanañuu, n s+k luu, s+k+ vaha, te uan ninduu +n sehe s+h+ya ja ninihinya.”*

Maarten Jansen: Which is to say she turns into her nahual. She goes to speak to the goddess, to the Grandmother, as she is called, who grants her wish and gives her a piece of jade, a symbol of this granted wish, which portends the birth of a child. In truth, if we follow the history—after other offerings made by he who will become the father and she who will become the mother—we see that the sweatbath is lit, which is also an indication that tells us a child is to be born, because the temezcal, the sweatbath, the nihun, is what is lit when a child is born. And then we see, in effect, the mother brings forth the daughter, later, the mother in turn…

Aurora Pérez: …she turns into the Plumed Serpent and goes into a cave where, apparently, there is a river, and there she stays.

Maarten Jansen: She stays as a goddess or protectress or caretaker of the space.

Aurora Pérez: And this is the form that, up to the present, we continue practicing. The people go one after another into a cave where there is a Christ-figure (I don’t know, but anthropologists call this “syncretism”). They make dolls in the form of a baby. Women who can’t have children leave them there in hope that a child will be granted to families or couples who can’t have children. And this is how it is represented in the codices, just as it always was.

  • Please note that the i in written Mixtec represents a specific vowel sound—however, coding this online produces extra spaces before and after the letter.