Storyteller, Poet, Lover of Life: Gabael Otzoy
Comalapa (chi Xot in Maya Kaqchikel) in Ixim Ulew (Guatemala) is renowned for its Indigenous artists and art. With more than 95 percent of the population being Maya Kaqchikel, this place has become a mecca for weaving, sculpture, painting, music, and writing. The art can be seen from the entrance to the municipality with its colorful cemetery and exquisite murals representing Indigenous daily life, welcoming all who come to the town. Among the street art in which local artists have captured the history and culture of Comalapa is the house of Gabael Otzoy (Maya Kaqchikel), Cultural Survival’s Information Technology assistant and co-coordinator of the Indigenous Community Media Youth Fellowship. Otzoy loves to write, learn, and discover the world, decolonizing the knowledge that has been taught to him and revitalizing the ancestral knowledge of his people.
When Otzoy was a child, he enjoyed reading anything that came his way. He began to participate in school poetry contests and municipal literary contests known in Guatemala as juegos florales (floral games), where he received prizes and recognition. However, it was not until he met Indigenous writers of chi Xot that he entered the world of writing. In his early 20s, Otzoy began to present and read his writing at local art festivals and readings. Now, for personal reasons, he does not publish his books on paper, but he shares his creations on his blog, tzununkaj.wordpress.com. He is currently part of Ajtz’ib’, a Kaqchikel writers collective Storyteller, Poet, Lover of Life: Gabael Otzoy that promotes art in all its manifestations, especially literature, in Kaqchikel.
Otzoy’s identity is closely linked to his creations. Feeling Indigenous has been, and continues to be, an evolving process for him. The education system in Guatemala intentionally suppresses the appreciation and significance of Indigenous and community identity, and foreign and colonial cultures and languages are promoted and taught at the expense of Indigenous cultures. Otzoy’s sense of curiosity, love, and deep belonging to his own culture led him to write about the life, freedoms, emotions, and feelings of his people, but also about the sociopolitical and sociocultural conditions they face. Community and environment are inexhaustible sources of inspiration from which Otzoy’s beautiful and profound writings emanate.
Another source of creativity for Otzoy’s poems are the works of Indigenous poets, such as the renowned late Maya K’iche’ writer Humberto Ak’abal, and the extensive network of poets in Ixim Ulew and Abya Yala. On a local level, Otzoy uplifts the teachings of his writer friends from the Ajtz’ib’ collective, which brings together not only writers, but also people of different ages and artistic expressions, such as painters, muralists, actors, and weavers. “Being part of such a diverse group is really interesting since our events are generally spontaneous,” Otzoy says. Poetic proclamations have been made in the streets of the town inspiring young people to cultivate their love of poetry. In 2020, they organized an international virtual poetry festival where 20 Indigenous writers read poetry in their native languages, demonstrating that the love for poetry unifies, embraces, and overcomes language barriers.
Recently, Otzoy’s poems were included in the digital anthology Nab’ey Tik’on (First Sowing), which brought together the poetry of 13 Kaqchikel youth from Comalapa. “One of the challenges as a Maya Kaqchikel is to capture the ideas and experiences that are born from my being and in my native language. From spontaneous and daily conversations I have with Kaqchikel-speaking family and friends, thoughts and ideas emerge that would hardly be born in a non-Indigenous environment. The force and feeling of poetry are diluted when one thinks in Spanish and forces us to later translate those thoughts into our Indigenous language. The same thing happens when writing in Kaqchikel first and then wanting to translate those writings into Spanish,” he says.
Otzoy does not define himself as an artist; rather, he sees himself as a storyteller, an observer, a lover of life and its details. He holds a high appreciation for contemplation, reflection, and the art of listening. Since he began his work supporting the Indigenous Community Media Youth Fellowship, he has met youth from different Indigenous Nations who have become a new source of inspiration and respect. He says, “The work they do, rooted in their communities, is admirable. Together with the Cultural Survival team, we have organized virtual creative writing workshops. This has encouraged young people to share their stories and cultures and express themselves to the world.”
Read some of Gabael Otzoy’s poetry:
Estabas ahí, luciérnaga.
Te ví alumbrando mi callejoncito,
ese caminito todavía de tierra y piedras,
donde aún brotan sin permisos
el apazote, el llantén y los dientes de león.
te vi jugando con el viento y la noche,
danzando con tu alas abiertas
al son de la chirimía y la marimba.
Invitaste a tus amigas, luciérnaga,
a bailar con los ronrones y los hormigas aladas
que menospreciaron tu tibia y encantadora luz
por la iluminación y el calor artificial.
Tontos ellos, luciérnaga,
se perdieron de tu compañía
y tus delicados paseos
entre la chilca, el aguacate y el manzanal.
Te veo, luciérnaga,
seguir alumbrando mi callejoncito,
donde los grillos te cortejan
por lo chula que brillas,
como patoja bonita
en su corte de morga y güipil rojo amarillo de Patzún.
eres la estrella danzante
que la lluvia viene a anunciar.
You were there, firefly
I saw you illuminating my little alley,
That little path still of soil and stones,
Where epazote, plantain, and dandelions
I saw you playing with the wind and night,
Dancing to the chirimía and marimba
with your open wings.
You invited your friends, firefly,
To dance with ronrones and winged ants
That disparaged your warm and charming light
For the artificial light and warmth.
Foolish of them, firefly,
They lost your company
And your delicate wanders
Between the chilca, the avocado, and the apple trees.
I see you, firefly
Continuously lighting up my little alley,
Where the crickets court you
For your pretty sparks
Like a beautiful girl
In her corte of morga and red and yellos güipil of Patzún.
I sigh, firefly,
You’re a dancing star
That the rain comes to announce.
Pigmento café es nuestra piel,
como el color del caldo de maíz rojo,
que adorna y perfecciona
el atol blanco servido en escudillas de barro
en una tarde cualquiera en el parque de Chi Xot.
Pigmento café nos recubre,
como el tono de los techos
de las casas en nuestros pueblos,
que testigos mudos
de nuestras historias y estaciones,
nos resguardan como cálidas madrigueras:
color teja somos, color lámina oxidada.
Pigmento café nuestro pellejo,
como la tierra misma de donde venimos,
como la tierra ansiosa que espera el regreso,
como los pezones de nuestras madres
de donde nos hemos nutrido,
como los tatuajes que el comal dibuja
en las tortillas con las que subsistimos.
Pigmento café es el frágil revestimiento
de los templos pasajeros que habitamos,
cuya tonalidad colorea el astro rey
en la travesía fugaz de nuestros días inciertos,
a veces afortunados, a veces sombríos;
unos esculpidos en las zafras,
en los cafetales,
en las minas a cielo abierto,
en las obras privadas,
o en los monocultivos voraces;
otros, con poco más de suerte,
en la libertad de la milpa propia,
en el bosque húmedo rajando leña,
o en las tupidas y sobreexplotadas parcelas
donde cultivamos el sustento.
Pigmento café nuestra elástica
y compleja cáscara geométrica,
que protege los hilos y ramas internas
por donde viaja la savia roja de nuestros ancestros
que nos subsiste,
que nos enerva,
que nos hierve,
que nos brota,
Pigmento café como la corteza de pino,
como las aguas de lluvia sedimentadas,
como la tierra labrada tras la tapisca,
como la barba reseca de la mazorca,
como los cabos de hacha y de azadón
de nuestros abuelos y padres,
como las ollas, los jarros y el comal de barro
de nuestras abuelas y madres,
como el café hervido preferido,
como el güipil, cuerpo-historia-resistencia,
que nuestras hermanas aún tejen,
como la piel curtida de los campesinos,
como el suelo que los niños desnutridos pisan descalzos.
Pigmento café que nos habita,
pigmento café que nos inunda.
Brown pigments are our skin,
Like the color of the corn red maize soup,
That embellish and makes perfect
The white atole served in clay bowls
In any evening in the Chi Xot park
Brown pigments cover us up,
Like the tone of the ceilings
Of the houses in our towns,
That mute witnesses
Of our stories and seasons,
shelter us like warm burrows:
like the color of the tiles, we are, rusty sheet color.
Brown pigment our skin,
Like the very land where we come from,
like the anxious land that awaits the return,
like the nipples of our mothers
where we have nourished ourselves,
like the tattoos that the comal draws
in the tortillas we subsist on.
Brown pigment is the fragile coating
Of the transient temples we dwell,
Which tone colors the king star
In the fleeting journey of our uncertain days,
Sometimes lucky, sometimes somber, some sculpted in the harvests,
In the coffee crops,
In the open pit mines
In the private buildings,
Or in the voracious monoculture;
Others, a little luckier,
In the freedom of their own corn field,
In the humid forest chopping wood,
Or in the thick and over exploited pieces of ground
Where we grow the livelihood.
Brown pigment, our elastic
And complex geometric shell,
That protects internal threads and branches
Where our ancestors’ red sap travels
that subsists us,
that unnerves us,
that boils us,
that spring us,
Brown pigment like pine cortex,
Like the sedimentary waters of rain,
Like the land carved after the corn harvest,
Like the dry beard of the cobs
Like the ends of an axe and hoe of our grandparents and parents,
Like the pots, the jugs and the comal of clay
From our grandmothers and mothers,
Like the favorite coffee that’s boiled,
Like the güipil, body-history-resistance,
That our sisters still wave,
Like the tanned skin of the country people,
Like the soil that that malnourished children step barefoot.
Brown pigment that lives on us,
Brown pigment that floods us.
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