Insuring a Cooperative's Future

Cultural Survival responds to requests for aid from grassroots groups and projects that help indigenous people cope with situations that threaten their basic human rights. Since 1972 the organization has grown with the help of thousands of supporters. Contributions of time and money have strengthened Cultural Survival, making it a significant champion of human rights.

To continue on an upward trend, future contributions are forecasted in planning projects. Assistance is always limited to the funds allocated to a given project. Cultural Survival, like all nonprofit organizations, allocates tax-deductible contributions to the various programs on its agenda. Contributions are earmarked, many times, for specific areas of interest.

What follows is an autobiography of Robert Laughlin in his personal quest to strengthen and expand a Mayan people's expression of their traditional culture.

My work with the Mayan Indians of Chiapas in southern Mexico began in 1959. I was a member of the Harvard Chiapas Project, whose goal was to document culture change in a Mayan community. There I met Romin Teratol, a Tzotzil Mayan Indian who was employed as a puppeteer at the National Indian Institute (INI). My wife and I moved briefly into his mother's second house and began learning his language.

My predecessor in the project, Lore Colby, had typed up a provisional dictionary, but it was just a start. Soon I was collecting folk tales and thereby adding vocabulary to the dictionary. Then I collected dreams. However. when I suggested the possibility of publishing those dreams, I was advised that I should be able to analyze them according to Freud, Jung, and who knows who else. So I decided it would be easier to compile a thorough dictionary.

This process took the next 14 years, and in 1975 The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantan was published.

Later, the collections of folk tales and dreams appeared: Of Cabbages and Kings: Tales from Zinacantan (1977) and Of Wonders Wild and New: Dreams from Zinacantan (1976). Selections from these have recently been published in The People of the Bat:Tales and Dreams from Zinacantan (1988), edited by Carol Karasik.

Eventually I published Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax Sundries from Zinacantan, based on the journals of Romin and his neighbor, Antzalmo Peres, who had become my collaborators. They had twice traveled to the United States to finish our opus and offer a description of life in another world. My most recent publication, The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantan (1988), is a translation and reordering of a sixteenth-century Spanish-Tzotzil dictionary that I found in my home of Princeton, New Jersey, in 1974.

A Writers's Cooperative is Born

In 1982, aided by the Mayan poet Jaime Sabines, brother to the governor of Chiapas, Mexico, a group of Tzotzil Mayan Indians who had worked with me or with anthropology colleagues over many years secured funding for a writers' cooperative and published two bilingual booklets. However, the governor's term was ending, and, lacking further support, their light was permanently extinguished. I was then approached by the late Romin's son, Xun; by Antzelmo Peres; and by Maryan Lopis Mantes of neighboring Chamula, whom I had known for many years. I had hoped, during the many years of my anthropological and linguistic research, that somehow my work might return to Zinacantán. I saw this as an opportunity - an opportunity to help bring Mayan literacy to Chiapas.

By chance, a conference that same year, "40 years of Anthropological Research in Chiapas," was scheduled to begin. I urged my Mayan friends to address the many assembled anthropologists and linguists. This they did, explaining, "You have awakened our interest in our own culture, you have published many studies, but always in other countries where we never see the results. Our young people are now literate in Spanish and think they are very smart, but they don't know a quarter of what their fathers know. We would like, at least, to put on paper our customs for the sake of our children and grandchildren."

That very year, aided by Cultural Survival, we founded Sna Jtz'ibajom, a Tzotzil-Tzeltal writers' cooperative.

Culture and Literacy

Currently, the cooperative publishes bilingual booklets in two Mayan languages; these booklets cover history, oral history, and customs. The cooperative has also established a puppet theater, a live theater, and is preparing a weekly Tzotzil-Tzeltal radio program. The puppet theater draws on folk tales, but also presents didactic skits on alcoholism, medicine, and bilingual education. The live theater has dramatized two folk tales and created a family planning play.

The cooperative also has started a Tzotzil literacy project. Initially, I contacted two religious scribes and a secretary of the school committee of Zinacantan to teach. Currently, the teachers (who, having never taught before, have not learned to scron their own culture) give two-hour classes in Tzotzil twice a week in their own homes to 10-12 of their neighbors. The interest in the project was so great that one instructor requested to teach overtime.

Those eligible to participate in the literacy program must already be minimally literate in Spanish. Initially there was some discussion as to whether women should be allowed to take classes. The idea of women and men spending time together in the evening at first made many feel uncomfortable. One prospective student thought that learning Tzotzil would enable him and his girlfriend to write secret messages to each other since his father only knew Spanish. In three years, the project has awarded 700 diplomas to men, women, and children in two communities. Presently we have two directors, 14 teachers, and 144 students enrolled each semester.

Although Tzotzil is not the government or official language, that has not discouraged the Mayans' enrollment in the evening language classes. Students are encouraged to record personal and family histories as well as to produce creative writing. Stories are reviewed and edited by Sna Jtz'ibajom. The federal publisher has agreed to print 3,000 copies of each work submitted by the cooperative. Students give the following reasons for learning Tzotzil: to improve their Spanish by working with translations, to learn, to become smarter, and to appreciate their own tradition.

Besides the personal enrichment the students receive from learning to read and write their native language, the Mayan society also benefits through the national and international recognition the cooperative is receiving. The cooperative's success has been due in part to the talent of its members as writers, actors, artists, and/or teachers, and also to the great pride that the people have in their culture and their new desire to be literate in their mother tongue, to "become smart."

We have already come a long way since our beginning eight years ago. We next would like to see culture centers established in each community, linked to a Mayan Academy of Letters based in San Cristobal, where teachers could be trained to spread our activities throughout the Mayan areas of the state.

Seeking Self-Sufficiency

My first responsibility to the cooperative as an anthropological linguist has been to train its members in how to write their language correctly. They can learn spelling quickly, but the decision as to where words begin and end is a problem even for linguists. For example, should the particles to and ox. When they occur together, be kept separate or merged?

Second, the economic crisis in Mexico severely restricting government funding, combined with the lace of a tradition of charitable giving in Mexico, forces the cooperative to look outside for support. Very few foundations grant internationally, and of those a very small number support cultural projects. Even then, support is limited to two to three years, so it is difficult to plan for the future. I have been able thus far to steer the cooperative to appropriate foundations. For a weaving cooperative, self-sufficiency may be possible - but for writers?

As a member of Sna Jtz'ibajom, I see the project as significant because it strengthens the Mayan culture for the Mayans themselves and offers an alternative to the non-Mayan media barrage. Just as important, the cooperative is awakening an interest among non-India Mexicans in their Indian heritage and informing the outside world that Mayan culture is alive and flourishing.


Karasik, C., ed.

1988 The People of the Bat: Tales and Dreams from Zinacantan. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Laughlin, R.M.

1975 The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantan Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Out of print.

1976 Of Wonders Wild and New: Dreams from Zinacantan Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Out of print.

1977 Of Cabbages and Kings: Tales from Zinacantan. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Out of print.

1980 Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax: Sundries from Zinacantan. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Out of print.

1988 The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantan Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

How You Can Help

Programs such as this should be devised to last longer than their creators. Robert and Miriam Laughlin enjoy their role in life helping the Mayan people. They realize they won't be here forever. It takes the right people at the right time to make things happen. It also takes money. Robert Laughlin has parlayed a portion of his annual gift into a life insurance endowment payable to Cultural Survival, Inc. This method of giving multiplies an annual gift by 30 to 40 times at death. It helps the organization build and fund programs in existence, along with maintaining continuity and growth.

The program, titled "Chancellor," is underwritten by Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company. It enables CS to retain operating capital while the premium is being paid. Premiums are generally payable for five years then they vanish and 100 percent of the annual gift reverts to working capital. Along the way, Provident Mutual pays 20 percent of the premium each year (first five years) back to the organization. Most insurance policy expenses are in the generous commissions; the Chancellor pays only a token commission to the agent, allowing the true contribution to go to work.

There are at least 20 different ways to give property to charitable causes using trusts and life insurance. Grant Wenger, of Delaware Valley Financial Group, uses them every day with his clients and has found none as simple to manage as the Chancellor. The sense of fulfillment along with the ease of managing the program lead to success for an organization such as Cultural Survival. The only cost in setting up a philanthropic program of this type is the premium. A program can be established for as little as $250 a year. Of course, there are individual cases with substantially greater costs. This program allows donors to get recognition of a much larger gift using their annual deductible contribution.

Most donors give their capital, which is greatly needed; however, that capital stops at death. This type of program perpetuates your gift for the benefit of your favorite program in the Cultural Survival agenda. Recognition of the endowment in your name of the benefit of the organization will be acknowledged in Cultural Survival Quarterly.

For further information on this program please contact:

David Maybury-Lewis

Cultural Survival, Inc.

(617) 496-8786


Grant Wenger

Delaware Valley Financial Group

(215) 568-0535.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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