Taller Leñateros: The Story of a Mayan Printing Machine and the Tree That Grew Where No One Expected

Taller Leñateros: The Story of a Mayan Printing Machine and the Tree That Grew Where No One Expected

Behind the wooden door is an unexpected garden. An avocado tree grew where it didn’t stand a chance, in the cold country at 2,200 meters. The American poet Ámbar Past planted them almost 50 years ago when she founded this space with others, a collective of Mayan women and men that produces literature in the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Cachiquel or Zapotec languages ​​from San Cristóbal de las Casas common in southern Mexico. The sign at the entrance has started to wear away where rain and wind hit it, but the name is still etched into the wood: Taller Leñateros. The banging of the guillotine in the morning warns that the publisher is on the way.

Carmen Sánchez turns the press on the play she is preparing. With each turn it becomes more difficult to apply pressure and eventually the water runs off. The 21-year-old woman, the youngest of the workers at the workshop, releases the force until the machine rotates slightly and a heart-shaped face with an open mouth made of recycled cardboard appears under the heavy iron. Sánchez places it on the rectangular sheets of the same material that he has spread out on the next table. When the sun dries them, they will be the covers of another edition of Charms and Drunkenness, the first book the workshop developed. They are already in the third edition, which will include a prologue written by Senator Jesusa Rodríguez.

Spells and Drunken is an anthology of songs by Mayan women. The first edition, published in the 1990s, took 17 years to come out because it had to be compiled, translated and eventually screen printed. More than 150 women took part; They made 2,000 copies in Tzotzil, Spanish and English. As this publication progressed, other, less complex titles, also printed on recycled stock, began to be added to the publisher’s printer’s catalogue. They were all made in the same house.

Carmen Sanchéz prepares the covers for Carmen Sanchéz prepares the covers for “Magic and Drunkenness”. ISABEL MATEOS

Javier Balderas, who was 20 when Taller Leñateros was founded in 1976, recalls: “It was above all the idea of ​​Ámbar [Past]. She was concerned with making visible the expression of the women of the original Tzotzil people.” “An expression,” he summarizes, “and a small economic reward.” For example, some of the first women to join the group came from field work or domestic work. That was the first of the goals. The second, the man continues, is that the environmental impact of its manufacture is as small as possible.

“47 years ago, climate change wasn’t talked about that much in Mexico,” says Balderas, “but we couldn’t work with fallen trees, we had to pick them up and breathe new life into them.” In the workshop, donations are collected from old exercise books, books or magazines. Everything is recycled. There are also corners covered with twigs, pieces of wood, palm leaves or dried bulk flowers sent by the local priest. They are also used to make paper. To grind these fibers, they invented a machine that worked without electricity, with a pedal, and which became the symbol of the workshop. “The Maya on the bike,” says Balderas.

Javier Balderas operates the machine that grinds the fibers into paper.Javier Balderas operates the machine that grinds the fibers into paper. ISABEL MATEOS

Under the open sky in the backyard of the workshop, the 65-year-old remembers how cold it was there in the early years. Although these intense temperatures are no longer felt – today the minimum is 12 degrees – a tradition started then continues: At 10 a.m. the printing press stops for a cup of coffee that warms the stomach. Those were the years when almost 200 people came together to debate, agree and create.

Petra Hernández, who is now 50, was one of these first women even as a girl. The woman covers notebook covers with recycled paper. Apply glue and heat with an iron. “It’s very cute,” he says. At 18 he wrote a poem that was included in the work Spells and Drunkenness. This song later became a little black and gold book called Love Spells. The Spanish translation begins like this: “May the man / with flowers / arrive in his heart. / Let him arrive / With all my heart. / Let him speak / with my flesh. / May his blood / ache for me”.

From ‘Bom’ to ‘Alquimia’, from Chiapas to Yale

Ámbar Past left San Cristóbal de las Casas for India about a decade ago, but the workshop continued to function. There are currently 16 people working: 12 women and four men. Eight are employed full-time. Only one of them has to pay social security. In addition to magic and drunkenness, the publisher and printer has produced titles such as Bom, a finite-page recipe book for extracting natural dyes. Or Bolom Chon, a children’s book inspired by a popular song, featuring a retractable jaguar that unfolds as the pages open.

A 1989 copy of the first was acquired by Yale University and is in the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library. The second was awarded at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, the most important in Spanish. The collective has also edited eight issues of a magazine, Jícara, which unfolds like a pre-Hispanic codex to justify the ancient Mayans’ “way of making books.” And he just published Alchemy, an ironic text that suggests formulas to turn iron into gold, for example.

Due to his career, the publishing house’s work has just been awarded the National Prize for Arts and Literature in the category of Folk Arts and Traditions, awarded by the Ministry of Culture. The members of the group believe that literature in mother tongues has gained space since the workshop was founded. “But it’s still very marginal and the big publishers are closed to our peoples,” says Balderas. However, other spaces of expression have emerged. For example, near the Taller Leñateros headquarters is the Muy Gallery, which exhibits works by contemporary Mayan and Zoque artists.

Flowers by Dona Paulina

At the top of Cerro Huitepec, half an hour from the print shop, Paulina Gómez grows flowers called pansies with purple and yellow petals forming velvet faces. The woman removes the clump of old leaves and shows the plants growing on the small lot behind her house. The day before he harvested the flowers to take them to the workshop and now there are only the small ones left that will continue to grow and he will cut them in eight days.

Detail of a sheet of paper with pansies.Detail of a sheet of paper with pansies. ISABEL MATTHEW

In the workshop, they use the flowers to obtain natural dyes and print using a technique called petalography: the weight applied causes the flower to cling to the recycled paper. It’s one of the techniques they use the most and that’s why Doña Paulina brings them fresh bouquets of flowers every Tuesday. In the countryside, the woman also grows lettuce, cayote, celery and apples, which she sells at the market. The pansies offer it there too, they ask for it to make salads. When she was a girl more than 40 years ago, she met Ámbar Past at the market: “We wanted to sell with my mother and she asked for the flower.”

Since 1976, the collective has had better times – after the 1994 Zapatista uprising, when the world turned its eyes to the state of Chiapas and the masked men demanding rights for peasants and indigenous people – and worse – during the Covid-19 pandemic., which curbed tourism and forced some members of the workshop to emigrate to the United States. In July there was another of those good moments when the Ministry of Culture recognized his career. But shortly before that, they had received an eviction notice from the house they had bought in 1982 for the equivalent of two million current pesos (almost $100,000).

The group will keep a signed contract with the previous owner and a receipt of payment but no public deed. After the death of the man, the grandchildren of the previous owner, who died in 2016, began to assert property claims and sued the publisher. The garage received two positive rulings, but in April a judge said there was an oral lease between the parties. “It’s wrong, Taller Leñatero have been the legal owners for more than 40 years,” defended Georgina Alcázar, the lawyer representing them, on the phone. The lawyer has produced an amparo that will give them a few months of peace.

Javier Balderas shows some of the material they recycle.Javier Balderas shows some of the material they recycle.ISABEL MATEOS

Before closing the day, Balderas brings a heavy book from behind, wrapped in a cloth backpack. On the back appears the face of the Mayan ruler Pakal made of yellow cardboard. It’s the latest book they’re working on, Mama Luna, nene Sol, by the poet Maruch Méndez. The prize money helps them finance the first edition. “It gives us great encouragement to know that more people in Mexico and around the world can get to know our work,” says Balderas, sitting in front of the impassable garden at the entrance. Petra Hérnandez, at his side, continues to put together covers. Place the glue and apply heat to the recycled paper. The bang of the guillotine sets the rhythm and Balderas intervenes to say that “the workshop has a great future”: “Its roots are very solid down here”. The avocado tree grows so much that nowadays they have to prune it.

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