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Updated: September 4, 2010 15:35 IST

Mountain of a man

HARI NAIR
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Carlos Montemayor
P. Manivannan Carlos Montemayor

Remembering Mexican author and journalist Carlos Montemayor, as the country celebrates the bicentenary of its independence.

The day after Carlos Montemayor died (February 28, 2010) in Mexico City, La Jornada, a national daily, carried a full page photo of his formidable visage and penetrating gaze on the front page. The caption, in Nahuatl, read: “Aneh, tlahtocuicani” (Adios, poet!”).

Montemayor was more than a poet. He was a tenor, a professor of literature, a serious student of Greek and Latin, investigative journalist and essayist, novelist and translator, father and husband. He was truly a mountain of a man, who left behind a distinctive body of written work marked by precision and concision.

Carlos Montemayor was born on June 13, 1947, in the mining town of Parral, Chihuahua. After training in law, he moved to Mexico City, where he studied Ibero-American literature at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and showed interest in Oriental Studies at El Colegio de México. From 1980, he worked with others like Donald Frischmann and Natalio Hernández towards reviving living indigenous languages from the depths of historical silence; most notably Zapoteco, Nahuatl and the Mayan languages among others. This altered the literary landscape of Mexico. Since then, contemporary Mexican literature has not been confined to Spanish.

Unique social committment

This led him to analyse the relationship between the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the various State structures in this geo-cultural zone from the time of European ‘invention' of America to date. Out of these literary labours and political studies, Montemayor developed a unique social commitment not only towards indigenous peoples but also an empathetic attitude towards guerrillas like the Ejército Popular Revolucionario. ever more forcefully since the 1994 uprising of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN).

As Mexico commemorates the bicentenary of its independence and the centenary of the Mexican Revolution in 2010, it is time to take lessons from the many theses of Montemayor. He questioned the tendency to consider the languages of hegemonic peoples as more developed, while relegating the languages of those less fortunate as mere dialects. He insisted that Nahuatl has a linguistic system as complete as German, and that Purépecha was comparable to Greek. In the various indigenous anthologies that Montemayor helped compile, children come to the fore as narrators engaged in dialogue with their grandparents.

A military solution will never redress the fundamental causes of indigenous insurrections. This was Montemayor's conclusion after his study of armed uprisings in Mexico. The struggle for control of economic resources is often the cause of such acts of violence, and too often one assumes that the State rightfully owns all natural resources. We conveniently ignore the rights and the claims of the inhabitants of those zones. If we are part of an ethnocratic State, where the dominant ethnic community keeps for itself a large share of powers and privileges at the cost of other communities, it is we who must change. This is perhaps the ethical leitmotif of Montemayor's works.

Master of verse

But, his politics must not keep us far too long from his poems. In “Parral”, Carlos writes: I climb the hill of my village/to the zenith of the mount/above my memories,/above my life/The world and the evening encompass me/and it seems like the home of my infancy, when there were parties./There is light, gardens and grass/miners emerging out of mines/quiet woods/cattle returning after grazing,/ripe walnuts amongst Álamos and sauce boats on the bank of the river./Everything seems possible from here.

On January 22, 2010, his friend and poet Tito Maniacco died. Carlos paid obeisance , five weeks before he himself would bid adieu. “...We cannot forever remain with the woman whom we have loved, in the embrace of the sun, in those lands that have also been our family. We cannot forever say ‘cheers' with friends and deserters, who sing and argue till dawn. […] I am told that my friend has left on a long journey. […] I raise my hand to bid him good bye, but I know that he travels among us.”

Hari Nair acknowledges inputs from Swaha Das, Ciro Aparicio, Daniel Inclán, Ana Nahmad, R.Narayanan and Priti Singh.

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