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Ancient Maya Arts Still Thrive in Chiapas

In 1975, the Taller Leñateros Workshop designed a print of a Maya man riding a bicycle. Shown in profile, his feathery headdress flows out behind him as he crouches low on the bike. This fusion of worlds and time periods has become an icon of this indigenous-run print shop based in San Cristobal de Las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

Upon entering their nondescript shop on a side street of the small colonial city, I am greeted by piles of old books and cardboard waiting to be made into new artesanal paper. Squares of deep orange, bright green, and sunny yellow paper hang on the walls. They display some wood-block prints: a jaguar from the Maya codices, two men playing marimba, a snail in a field of flowers.

Maya on Bicycle print by Taller Leñateros. Photo by Anika Rice.
“Mayan on Bicycle” print by Taller Leñateros. Photo by Anika Rice

Independent Indigenous Publishing

The publishing collective has created the first books to be written, illustrated, printed, and bound (in paper of their own making) by Maya people in over 400 years. After 30 years of collaboration with 150 Maya women, they published a book of poetry and illustrations titled Incantations by Mayan Women. Their literary journal La Jícara (The Gourd) has been published for years as a rustic codex of translations from Native languages, testimonies, foreigners’ journals, xylography (woodcuts), and petroglyphs (rock carvings).

As an independent business, the workshop employs indigenous women from San Cristobal and surrounding villages, many of whom do not have formal education and who struggle to find other gainful employment. The collective sustains itself through the sale of books, prints, paper, shirts, and cards, without subsidies or external funding.

Photo by Anika Rice.
Photo by Anika Rice

Folk-Wisdom as an Artistic Method

“We are the woodlanders who walk in the hills gathering dry branches and deadwood from fallen trees, collecting firewood without chopping down the forest.” Their poetic mission statement describes them as Woodlanders (Leñateros). “We come down from the mountains, carrying bundles of wood, of pitch pine and split encino, for the hearths of the Royal City of San Cristobal de Las Casas.”

The collective of contemporary artists is committed to the documentation, praise, and dissemination of Amerindian cultural values: song, literature, paper arts, and the ancient Mesoamerican tradition of painted books. Founded in 1975 by the poet Ámbar Past, the workshop began in a small adobe house in San Cristobal. “We foment artistic creation among the most marginalized communities,” reads part of their vision. “We invent, teach, and exercise the arts of hand-made paper, binding, solar silkscreen, woodcuts, and natural dyes.”

Over wood fires, the Woodlanders boil corn-husks, gladiola stems, heart of maguey (agave), palm leaves, recycled women’s cotton huipil blouses, banana trunks, and other raw materials for paper-making. “We beat the fibers in a mill which spins by bicycle power. We spread the paper in the sun, and while it dries, we print poems on oak leaves and pansy petals.”

“We each design motifs, and then we decide together which ones to produce, which ones to leave for another day,” says Miguel, a shopkeeper and collective member. “The graphics are carved on wood, then screen printed.”

Besides printed images, the shop creates accordion-style art books, playful pop-up cards, non-traditional calendars, and 3-D notebook covers molded with paper pulp.

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Selected prints at the workshop. Photo by Anika Rice
Photo by Anika Rice.
Woman cutting paper in the workshop. Photo by Anika Rice

Continuing a Legacy

“The only resource we have had, and the most valuable, has been ourselves and the ideas of the collective, our rural-indigenous folk-wisdom,” members of the group say. This wisdom has not gone unrecognized. Taller Leñateros has received numerous awards over the years, from the Mexican Secretary of Public Education, the Witter Banner Foundation for Poetry, UNICEF, and the Premio México Unido, to name a few. In the spirit of the Maya man on the modern bicycle, the workshop is globally connected while staying committed to the continual development of local cultures.

In the shop I find a poster with twelve horizontal strips of colorful designs, each one representing a distinct weaving pattern from a Maya village in Chiapas. The shelves are stocked with hand-bound notebooks. Some of the earth-colored paper is flecked with flower petals; other sheets have a strong bumpy texture as I run my fingers across them. After buying several beautiful postcards I sit down to lunch in a restaurant downtown. About to indulge in a warm tortilla soup, I look up and there’s the “Mayan on Bicycle” peering at me from the frame above.

Anika Rice is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee, conducting research with women coffee producers in Guatemala and Nicaragua. She is documenting crop diversification and out-migration patterns in communities where people’s livelihoods are being affected by crop disease and climate change.