Mexican author Florentino Solano (Metlatónoc, 1982) won the 2021 Indigenous Literature of the Americas Prize for his chronicle La danza de las balas, written in his native tongue Tu’un sávi, a variant of Mixteco, the fifth-most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico. His text was chosen from among 33 works submitted, in a total of 27 languages from writers in Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru.
The chronicle recounts an incursion by soldiers during a fiesta day in his hometown, located in the mountains of the southern state of Guerrero, and which reads as a denunciation of the current and historical abuses suffered by the region’s indigenous population at the hands of soldiers deployed in the area, a mountainous and marginalized region in which traditional agricultural activities co-exist with the cultivation of opium poppies and cannabis, and the production and trafficking of narcotics.
The state of Guerrero has a long history of violence and rebellion and is where, in the 1970s, an armed group calling itself the Party of the Poor emerged, founded by primary school teacher Lucio Cabañas, whose aim was to launch a socialist revolution in Mexico. The Mexican army pursued Cabañas and he was killed in a shootout in 1973. More recently, in 2014, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college were disappeared and presumably murdered in a case that has still to be solved. Cabañas had studied at that same school in the 1950s.
Solano earns a living as an agricultural day laborer and currently lives in San Quintín, in Baja California state, where he migrated with his family in search of work, as many Mixteco people do, forced to seek better opportunities elsewhere, either in other regions of Mexico or across the border in the United States.
Solano is also a musician and translator, and his interest in translation stemmed from his desire to translate the lyrics of the traditional songs of his home region from Tu’un sávi into Spanish, so that the music could be appreciated in other parts of the country. He spoke to Latin American Literature Today about his work as a writer and translator, a promoter of cultural activities, and a mentor to other writers by organizing creative writing workshops, and of the responsibility implied by his winning the award, which comes with a $15,000 purse and will be awarded to Solano at the Guadalajara International Book Fair on December 3.
Adam Critchley: Tell me about your beginnings as a writer.
Florentino Solano: I started out writing poetry. In secondary school I had to learn how to read and write in Spanish. Those were the rules, in order to study all the subjects and remain in school. They didn’t want us to speak our mother tongue. In a way they wanted us to learn Spanish quickly. I don’t know if it had anything to do with discrimination, but they forced us, they forbade us from speaking our language within the perimeter of the school. They would punish us. If they heard us speaking in our language in school they would make us carry rocks from the river for building works in the school. We had to learn Spanish any way we could. And once I’d learned to read, I started going to the library to begin browsing books, and the first thing that caught my attention was poetry, because the poems were short and the words sounded beautiful, and back then I was feeling romantic and poetry began to grab my attention.
By high school I had begun to write my own stuff. And at university I started to take it more seriously, I studied at the Philosophy and Letters Faculty in [Guerrero state capital] Chilpancingo, and I immersed myself in reading. I had already read a lot of poetry and I began reading prose, the classics, contemporary works and Hispano-American literature. And that’s when I started to turn to my roots. In those days, around 2002, I was only just beginning to work with the alphabet in my language, with some linguist colleagues. I continued to write in Spanish, but also wrote in my own language out of love for my roots, because it was still very difficult to publish work in my language. Now, in 2021, it’s still difficult to publish in indigenous languages, but it was even more difficult back then. The first two books I published were in Spanish, while the first book I published in my native language was a book of poems, in 2012.
AC: You must feel very proud to publish your work in your native language.
FS: Yes. There were really only a few books published in my language back then, so publishing in my language was marvelous, as all of my work suddenly felt palpable. And little by little the publishing issue became easier. It’s been a long road, but one that has brought a lot of satisfaction.
AC: You write poetry, prose, flash fiction, chronicles. Is there a genre you prefer to work in when you sit down and write?
FS: I’ve written in almost all genres, for me literature is always an experiment. I write whatever comes. I write in the form that lends itself to the expression of the idea. I try to experiment with all forms and genres because it’s interesting to see how they project in my language. I don’t shut myself into one particular genre, but rather I like to write in all possible forms. One writes about what one lives, about the places one visits, and the situations that one goes through in life. I’m a traveler by obligation, due to questions of earning a living, and since I was a child I have migrated with my family from one place to another in search of work, and all of those travels are in my memory, and I revisit many things. I find it easy to talk about a lot of things, or of places outside of my hometown.
AC: Do you feel that there is now more interest in Mexico’s indigenous languages than before, with more publishing houses putting out books in those languages, and more fairs and events that promote them?
FC: Yes, since 2010 there have been many festivals and events, and the Internet has also facilitated the organization of such events and the projection of work by authors in indigenous languages. There were some communities that already published in their native languages, the Nahuas, the Mayans and the Zapotecs, who already had a long tradition of writing, but other peoples didn’t, and we were like pioneers. In my language, for example, we have Kalu Tatyisavi, an author who was one of the first to write literary works in our language, and now there are more writers, men and women, who are writing interesting things and who have published their works in our language.
AC: How difficult was it to obtain reading material when you were younger? Was there a library you could you go to, for example?
FS: There was no public library in my town, and there still isn’t, but the school had a small library. Our Spanish teacher sent us all to the library to choose a book. One book caught my attention, of medium thickness, and I borrowed it and began to read it and I realized I didn’t understand anything. It was El siglo de las luces [translated into English by John Sturrock as Explosion in a Cathedral] by Alejo Carpentier. I read a few phrases and I had to go and swap it for a book of poems. When I was studying in Chilpancingo I was lucky enough to meet someone who was a great promoter of reading and he would lend me books, and that helped me a lot.
AC: There are also few bookstores in Mexico, especially in rural areas.
FS: And neither was there anything in my pocket with which to buy books. It was a question of eating well for a week or buying a book, so reading meant sacrificing something.
AC: And as you read, was there any particular author that influenced you?
FS: I have a special appreciation for some. In poetry, Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, the latter a romantic but also a combatant. In prose, the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, for that great imagination he had, like Edgar Allan Poe. And from Mexico, José Revueltas, Carlos Fuentes, Juan José Arreola, Rosario Castellanos, Elena Poniatowska. But I am very interested in and pay special attention to books written in indigenous languages, I’m very interested in how my colleagues think in other languages and cultures, because although we are like brothers, each ethnic group has its own worldview, its own language, and I pay special attention to that. If I could buy ten books, I would buy eight books in indigenous languages and two in Spanish.
The thing is, the great diversity that exists among cultures, not only here in Mexico but all over the world, enriches us as individuals. And not only as cultural groups, but within each group, there are so many variants. For example, there are about twenty-five variants of my language, Tu’un sávi, and each one of those variants represents a people, or a group of peoples. I am very much in favor of respecting each of those variants, respecting their different tones or sounds. By trying to unify a language we could kill off one variant, and that would be like killing off several peoples. When I hold literary workshops I tell my colleagues that I respect their variant of the language, because if not, when a new generation comes along and they read you, they will not associate your text with your original vision, with your original message. We have to be very careful with a lot of things and not fall into the historical state policy that has always tried to nationalize us and put us all into one group, and make us all speak Spanish.
AC: And that is no doubt part of your aim, as a cultural promoter and organizer of literary workshops, to help others who write in their native languages.
FS: I started to write my own works and then I began sharing it with others, and we began those activities, creative writing workshops. Before the pandemic we would meet in person, but now we hold the workshops online. They are free of charge, and a lot of people sign up, but we work with a maximum of ten writers at a time.
AC: In addition to writing in your native language, La danza de las balas is also an indictment, by portraying the reality of your town and people, and not simply by relating the facts like a sensationalist story, but by putting it in context, so that readers know it was not just an isolated incident.
FS: It excites me because we are shining a light on historical events, events that are burned into the memory of the people, events that marked our community, and for me this prize brings mixed feelings. On the one hand I am excited because my words start to be acknowledged, and on the other there is this constant reminder of the violence that has battered our region, our villages, our people. We have to keep working to show those problems and that violence to society.
The mountains of Guerrero have been besieged on an infinite number of occasions, by violence, by revolutionaries, by the military, and right now by drug traffickers. We have always suffered violence, since the persecution of Genaro Vázquez, Lucio Cabañas, since the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. And the people also formed armies here. All this has been the result of a failed state policy, of tensions. There are many, many incidents in the memory of the people and I feel a social commitment to write about them and shine a light on them. And not just as journalism but as literature: so the words sound beautiful, but are also combative.
AC: Mexico has become a dangerous country in which to be a journalist—reporters and writers put themselves at risk by raising their voices. Is that danger present in your mind when you sit down and write about these incidents?
FS: Yes, of course, but we are not going to shut up when we see all that is happening. On the contrary, we are the people, and it’s been said that people have enormous power but that we don’t get to exercise it as we should. So yes, one thinks about that, but somebody has to say it, somebody has to tell the story of what is happening, and I’m going to do that. I have a lot of friends who also write, for example Hubert Martínez Calleja, who also won this prize a few years ago, and who has a combative voice—he writes very powerful poetry, and he is one of the people whom I admire. We have to describe reality so that society realizes what is going on and understands that something has to change, for all of these communities, all of these families.
AC: When you translate your work into Spanish, what difficulties and challenges do you face?
FS: I translate all of my works because only that way can I transfer the original message into another language, conserving everything that is essential. However, there are many things that we say in my native tongue that I think “how can I say that?” when translating into Spanish. It’s a tiring process, tedious. But the hardest is poetry, which is images, concepts, and that’s where you come up against thicker walls. With prose it’s a little easier, it lends itself more to configuring the meaning of a phrase or a sentence. But when translating my mother tongue there are many examples of difficulties, such as the phrase “I love you,” which is something that can’t be translated as such into my language, in which its meaning is something like “my insides embrace you, my interior possesses you,” so we can say something similar, but it will never be exactly the same. There are also concepts that are very new for our culture, and which are difficult to project; for example, how to describe an animal that people in my community have never seen, and we have to describe it exactly as it is so that the image we create in the reader’s head is close to the reality. And, for example, it’s very difficult to translate haiku into my language because it’s difficult to use so few syllables.
I was talking recently with some colleagues during an online workshop about some of the flavors that we identify immediately, that we can almost taste when pronouncing a word. For example, “ya tuy” refers to the very particular flavor of some yellow cacti flowers that grow in the desert, and “isun” refers to something that has no flavor, like certain weeds that provoke that taste in the mouth, and I’d say those words are almost untranslatable. And there are many other words that are difficult to translate into a Spanish context. For example, in the rituals of the townsfolk, there are many concepts that cannot be translated because they would lose their meaning. I sometimes set many texts to one side because I feel that if I forcibly translate them they will lose a lot. It’s very difficult to publish something that is only in my language, publishers always ask for a Spanish translation as a prerequisite, so many texts remain unpublished because we can’t finish the translation. It’s indispensable that all texts can be transmitted in another language, but it can sometimes be a headache translating them.
AC: How has winning this prize changed your life?
FS: I feel a huge responsibility because it obligates me to focus more on my texts, on the events in my community that I write about, and I take on a deeper commitment, but I do it with fondness. I have to focus more, and that’s why I travel back to my town, to talk to the elderly folk, to try to understand the culture more, the people, our origins. It’s exciting too because I can help open doors for new publications.
AC: And continue to help other writers in indigenous languages publish their works?
FS: Yes, we can promote the works of my colleagues from the creative writing workshop. People have asked me if I know other writers in order to get their works known, and so it’s a big door that’s opening to continue promoting the works of young people who want to publish. And the work of women, for example, which is a pending issue in indigenous communities, the issue of women’s rights, of their free determination, decision-making about their own lives, and so there are many things that we have to pay attention to. We have to always keep writing and make writing a discipline. We are creating a big community of readers, and that is very motivating.
Interview translated from the Spanish by Adam Critchley
Adam Critchley is an English journalist and translator resident in Mexico for a number of years. He has published articles on the publishing industry in Latin America and has translated more than a dozen books, including a collection of trilingual children’s titles (in English, Spanish and Mexican indigenous languages) published by Editorial Resistencia. He has also published short stories, in English and Spanish, in magazines in the U.S., England, and Mexico.
Six Poems by Florentino Solano
Translated via the Spanish by Vivian O’Shaughnessy
vaxi tá’ví ñuú nu yo
chi tákú ndie’e kuu ndatava ñá xtan yú ndiví.
“Ñuú ké nixikoo ndi’i ña”, káche xtan yú
“ñuú ña nixikuña
ra saá kú nú kaku na ndii
ra na ndii —ná kukoo ñu’u—
xa’a ná kaku se’e na
ra saá ké kaku yó” —káche xtan yú.
Suví sé’e ndiayá kú yó
Se’e ña ñaa xí’ín se’e ndii va kú yó.
Ñuu ña ké
té kua’an ñá xtan yú
tá kánda tiáñú’ú:
in tíndia ña kua’n ña.
Ndi saá ñuú ra tuva ká’ndi va.
the night comes to burst in the gaze:
of the dead
and of stories that my Grandmother drew with stars in heaven.
“Everything came out of the night” Grandma says
“it was all night
and loneliness gave birth to the dead
and the dead —let there be light—
they began to give birth
and then we came ourselves” says Grandmother.
We are not sons of the raped woman…
but of darkness and death.
My Grandmother left
a dark night
like the sea
Every night is a bang.
In ña káña
mí té sakan
in ra yuvi
xá kue’e ra
Va’a ní chi
ña káña’á ra ra sándasié ndii.
with the needles
of its voice
his voice distracts the dead.
Xikun ndíxi ñá yásí’í yu ra
nduvi ní ña
íyo tikuva nu ñá
íyo tu ita va.
Té kuáa ra
ndáchí ndi’i tikuva
ndísu ita ra
tá in tá in
kóyo ña nu íxto yu.
My wife wears a huipil
full of butterflies
but the flowers
fall on my bed
one by one.
Yási’i yu ra té ñuú ndú ñá ita
ra xá’nu ñá
xa lo’o kú ñá lolo
sava tu ku ñá ndia’yu
sava tu kú ñá tiakuí
Nduvi ní nuu ña
tá ín tiviñu’u
tá ín ñu’u xani
ndiakua kua’an ma’ná yu
ra xá’á ndóñú’ú ini yu.
nu kuándaa yokú káá ñá
tá’n ñá kuva’a tiatin xí’n ñuú.
Yásí’í yu ra té ñuú ndúú ñá ita
tá káá ñu’u sakan kánata
in ka yuví
nuu sákan ndákuxa
nuú yaá’a kii.
My wife blooms at night
and her body grows
about the night
her body is foam
Her gaze is sweet
of crisp waves of thought.
it is a wall of rainforests
made of sweat and fire.
My wife blooms at night
with the rising sun
somewhere in the world
where everything is spring
and where time is stopped.
ndutiá ndutiá kánda ñu’ú ichi
ra xáku ndia yo úxa
in chítu ña ndá ka nini
chin tikaka yoó
ra kísie ña ndakava ña xín yo
ndia kua síso ña xín ka’ní
in ichí túvi ndí’í
in ndiví túvi ndí’í
in sákanda yo xa’a kama ní
kaka na’a kunu ndakun diéún
xa ka’un ké
ndii nindoñu’u tíxi yutí
in tachi ñá sá kutuvi xa’a
chin ña ndiátu ini
the desert stirs
and his July sun smiles
monotony is full of memories
and crows of the moon
the dismantled night
falls in fear of the moon
a hundred degrees of heat
an infinite path
an infinite sky
an infinite and fast movement of the legs
walk come run follow
the wind steam
the clock at five
dead lost in the sand
a voice interrupts the space
and the hope
ita kuñu yu
ká’án na chi ra nda’ví kuvi kú yu
ra ki’ví lo ke ninu kú yu
ra ko ñá’a
xá’án yakua yu chi
xá’án ta’tán tinana yú ia tin
xá’án ñu’ú vixin
kutie’e yú íyó tiku yú xín tia’ví
íyo yaa xini yú
xí’í yu ndixi kua’á xí’ín kua’á ndutiá
ndá’yu yí yu nu ná
koo ichí tiákú yu koo ichí va’a yu
ra ki’ví va kú yu chi
chin kua’a ní ka na’a
ndisu tá kaa
in ita xá’nu sa’ta yú
ra yakua ki’ví vílo kití kú
kua’an xá’nu ña baja kalifórnia
the flower of my body
they say i am a poor devil
they say I smell like dirt
a tomato sprayed sweat from the field
they say I have calluses nits
dandruff in hair
they say I drink tecate and other dirty drinks
I lie death
I live without philosophy or civility
they say i am an idiot
and an infinite etcetera
but every hour
a flower grows on my body
dirty Indian brute beast
Baja California progress
Poems translated via the Spanish by Vivian O’Shaughnessy
Vivian O’Shaughnessy, a native Texan, is an American visual artist, poet, and translator. She was educated at the University of Texas at Austin and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. Her literary and visual artwork has appeared in a variety of publications and exhibitions in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Learn more at her official website and find her on Instagram at @vivianoshaughnessy.