4 Ajaw 8 Sip (May 19, 2019): To Know Where We Are From: The Writing of the Ancestors reaches Zinacantán

4 Ajaw 8 Sip. Drawing by Jorge Pérez de Lara

To Know Where We Are From: The Writing of the Ancestors reaches Zinacantán

Today, as the days are growing longer, we celebrate the special day 4 Ajaw, which commemorates the anniversary of the beginning of the Long Count Era on 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u in 3114 BC—and again on 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in in 2012. May the world be made anew once again. This month, we hear from Ana Guadalupe de la Torre, a first-time recipient of a MAM mini-grant from Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico. Ana originally proposed to work with fifteen young Tzotzil Maya from Zinacantán, but interest in the workshop was so great that the numbers quickly swelled to forty students! We are very inspired and encouraged by the work Ana and her colleague Susana Patricia López Díaz are doing in teaching their curriculum in Tzotzil, and we are so happy to support her and her community learn the script of their ancestors for the first time. Thank you to all of our supporters for making this work possible.

Bats’i kolavalik,

Michael Grofe, President

Introductory Workshop to the Reading and Writing of Maya Hieroglyphs in Zinacantán, Chiapas

Students deciphering the text on Stela 12 from Yaxchilán.

Zinacantán is located in the Highlands of Chiapas, and it is a town inhabited by women and men who speak the Tzotzil language. This place is called Sots’leb, which means ‘Place of Bats’. Here we still conserve ancestral traditions, respect for the sacred hills, the planting of the sacred corn, the main food for all of us, ceremonies in gratitude for water, carrying and elaborating traditional costumes on the back-strap loom. All of this cultural richness, and the knowledge that we have inherited from our Maya grandfathers and grandmothers—in every generation it is lost, weakening, losing the essence and meaning of each bit of knowledge. In this town most people speak Tzotzil, although now only the elderly speak Tzotzil with the essence and meaning of each word they communicate. Young people today speak a mixture of Tzotzil with Spanish, because of the influence of the mass media, the educational system that is completely in Spanish, and that there are no materials or subjects in the Tzotzil language. Also, because there are parents who no longer communicate with their children in Tzotzil, a higher percentage of the entire population can not write In the Tzotzil language, so the interest in speaking and writing in our language is increasingly lost.

This is worrying because our writing, language, culture, and worldview allows us to identify ourselves from other cultures, and to know where we are from.

That is why this workshop on Introduction to the Reading and Writing of Maya Hieroglyphs was held: to make known, to recover and to disseminate our Maya writing; and it was taught in the Tzotzil language.

The request I made for this workshop was for a group of 15 young people, but because it was the first time this topic was taught, it aroused the interest of more young people to learn about Maya hieroglyphs, and 25 more young people joined the group, making up a total of 40 young people. I taught this workshop with Susana Patricia López Díaz. Originally from Larrainzar, Chiapas, she also attended the International Congresos on Maya Tz’ib.

Workshop Development

For the material of the workshop, a workbook was delivered to each one of the young people which contained the following topics:

  1. Introduction to Mayan hieroglyphs.
  2. Syllabic glyphs.
  3. How to read Mayan hieroglyphs (structure and reading of words and signs), with exercises.
  4. Logograms.
  5. Mayan numeration.
  6. Introduction to the Mayan calendar.
  7. A reading of Stela 12 of Yaxchilán.

On February 26 the following topics were taught: 1. Introduction, 2. Syllabic glyphs, and 3. How to read Mayan hieroglyphics. They learned the use and to identify syllabic glyphs, and the pronunciation of each of them, and we identified that it resembles the alphabet in Tzotzil, only that over time it has changed a bit. For example: we do not use the h, nor the w, and the tz, tz’ is now ts, ts’, since several institutions have standardized the Tzotzil language.

For the structure of reading the words, the students engaged in group dynamics; the first was group work where they had to identify the syllabic glyphs that were indicated on cards and form a word, vinajel (sky) and ts’unun (hummingbird), the observation ability was impressive because they identified each syllabic glyph that was shown to them immediately and managed to read the word quickly. Secondly, they carried out drawing and placing exercises according to the reading structure, the word tok (in Spanish is cloud) consists of two syllables, and the word nichim (flower) of three syllables. In the third group, they identified glyphs of the word ts’unun (hummingbird), kits’in (younger brother) and bolom (jaguar). So the young people identified the syllables, they recognized them, they learned the reading structures, and they continued to write their names. Some did it with their name in Tzotzil.

Explaining the use of the syllabic glyphs. Each of the young people is observing and identifying the syllables in their workbook.

A student is identifying the syllables of the word vinajel (sky).

Susana P. López Díaz explaining the reading structure of words and signs.

On February 27, the following topics were followed: 4. Logograms, 5. Mayan numeration, 6. Introduction to the calendar and reading of Stela 12 of Yaxchilan. They learned to identify logograms and some emblem glyphs.

In terms of numbering, a group exercise was done, asking them their ages in Tzotzil, and only four young people could say their age in Tzotzil, while the others said it in Spanish. Notably, most of the young people did not know how to count, and when they were asked the question, “Who knows how to count in Tzotzil and how high?” some young people only managed to count up to five in Tzotzil and only two young people reached counting to number nine. Then they all learned to count from zero to nineteen and also to identify how the Maya ancestors represented the numbers. Some were interested in knowing more and asked how to say the number twenty-one and thirty in Tzotzil.

When they saw the theme of the calendar they were astonished, because they only were familiar with the Gregorian calendar and completely ignored the Haab calendar, the Tzolk’in, and the Long Count and they do not know the calendar in Tzotzil. This topic was completely new for them. One of them said: “When I get home, I’ll ask my grandmother if she knows anything.” At the end of the workshop groups read Stela 12 from Yaxchilán, and they identified the dates.

Explanation and identification of the logograms.

Learning the Maya numbers and how they are represented.


The surprising thing is that more young people from different groups were integrated, because this workshop was initially aimed at fifteen 2nd grade students, but when they were told about the workshop, many young people were interested and wanted it to be for all the students of this school—about 100 students. So, a selection of young people was carried out for each group (1st, 2nd and 3rd grade) and thus they formed the group of 40 young people. 34 speak Tzotzil and six of them speak only Spanish.

I think it is very important to understand and continue to teach Maya hieroglyphs, and to relate it to the Tzotzil language, because many people do not know how to write, how to count, or know the different calendars, which are also a great knowledge that is necessary for use in our daily life.

These workshops allow more young people to understand, see their cultural and spiritual environment and the relationship we have with nature, and want to investigate more.

Finally, for me to give this workshop was a great experience, to have a first contact with this school and with these young people motivates me to continue disseminating our Maya writing with a vision for the future to continue giving these workshops, because I’m really interested in strengthening and recovering the essence or at least a part of the ancestral wisdom that we have. I am deeply grateful to MAM (Mayas for Ancient Mayan), and to Michael J. Grofe, president of MAM, for the support they gave me for the realization of this workshop.

Bats’i kolavalik

Thank you

Ana Guadalupe de la Torre Sánchez

“When I get home, I’ll ask my grandma if she knows anything.”


One thought on “4 Ajaw 8 Sip (May 19, 2019): To Know Where We Are From: The Writing of the Ancestors reaches Zinacantán

  1. This is fantastic! Congratulations and thank you to Ana Guadalupe de la Torre and Susana Patricia López Díaz on their inspiring work.

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