that which flies, flaps, beats

Four poems by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez, translated by Wendy Call.


JAEM2011 (1)I first discovered the work of indigenous Zapotec poet José Alfredo Escobar Martínez in a Mexico City literary journal. I had lived for several years in the region he calls home, southern Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but had not encountered his poetry. In a special 2004 issue of Generación featuring more than a dozen Isthmus Zapotec writers, I found a single poem by Escobar Martínez. That poem flew off the page and followed me; it became the first poem I translated.

The Zapotecs have long been some of Mexico’s most celebrated writers, perhaps because their language was the first in the Americas to be written down. (The Maya probably got the idea of carving glyphs on stones from the Zapotecs.) Some anthropologists argue that the Zapotecs invented a complex iconography, not a complete writing system. Whatever it was, it arose about 2,500 years ago and endured until 800 CE. Linguists and archeologists are still trying to rediscover the mysteries of those glyphs, but Zapotec literary culture lives on, rendered in a transliterated Latinate script.

Four years after Escobar Martínez’s single poem in Generación entranced me, I finally made contact with the poet via ewendy callmail. Three years after that, we met in person for the first time, in his hometown of Espinal. Before that meeting, José Alfredo sent me a new cycle of poems, called Ripapa. Escobar Martínez writes in Spanish, including Zapotec words in his work. He explains the Zapotec title, Ripapa, as “que vuela, se agita, late.” In Mexican Spanish, as spoken on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, latir does not just mean “to beat” – as a heart or a pair of wings does, but also to have a hunch or a feeling about something. A sort of truth pulsing through one’s veins.

Translation is all about having hunches. Feelings about things. Just as I’d had about Escobar Martínez’s poetry from that first poem I saw on the pages of Generación.

His hometown, Espinal, is not a coastal village, but the image of the sea recurs in his poems. Only 120 miles separate the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans at the Mexican isthmus. This quirk of geography has impacted the region’s history and culture since long before the conquest. As with many Zapotec writers and artists, the relationship between the natural environment and the human psyche is paramount in Escobar Martínez’s work. In Zapotec cosmology, there is strong distinctions between the spheres of wild and tame. Human beings exist between the spheres of wild and tame, constantly feeling the tension between them

—Wendy Call



by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


En el aire flota una sustancia

Que en el Istmo

Conocemos como ripapa

Da sustento a los pájaros

Y el que lo aspira le brotan alas.

A su solo nombre

Las muchachas casaderas se persignan

Ya que hace el corazon




*En zapoteco del Istmo: que vuela, se agita, late.


by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


A substance floats in the air

That in the isthmus

We know as ripapa.

It sustains birds

And whoever inhales it sprouts wings.

Its mere name makes

Single young women cross themselves

Since it even migrates

To the heart.





*In Isthmus Zapotec : that which flies, flaps, beats.

translated from Spanish by Wendy Call

Palabras Hechas de Arena  

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


En la soledad de las dunas

No es tanto lo que la palabra dice

Sino lo que calla.

Cuando digo mar

Callo las clorofilas del azul

Y la sombra del pez que me guarece.

En esta soledad de arena que es el mar Muerto,

Me da miedo nombrar la palabra,

No sea que me espine la lengua. 

Words Made of Sand

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


In the solitude of dunes

It is not so much what a word says

But what it silences.

When I say ocean

I silence the chorophylls of blue depths

And the fishy shadow that shelters me.

In this sandy solitude that is the Dead Sea,

I fear naming the word,

For my tongue might sting me. 

translated from Spanish by Wendy Call

La Mar en Su Plenitud

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


La mar se desborda en sí misma.

Agobiada de su inmensidad

Procura desatar sus orillas

Y burlar el acecho de las olas

Y perderse,

Como aquel barco,

En el horizonte. 

The Sea at Its Apogee

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


The sea overflows its own shore.

Overwhelmed by its vastness

It strives to break past its shoreline

And mock threats of waves

And lose itself,

Like that ship,

On the horizon. 

translated from Spanish by Wendy Call

Enhorabuena la Luz

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez



Dentro del ojo sucede la luz:

En esta hora del alba

Bucea en le agua salada del iris

Para arrojar al ahogado

En las orillas del día

Que se aproxima.

En las profundidades de su mirada

Penetra la aurora de los párpados

Asoman los anuncios

Que le dan vida a los sentidos

Y nos invitan

¿A qué?

A vivir.

Congratulating the Light

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


It’s true.

Light happens inside the eye:

At this dawning hour

It dives into iris brine

Casts out the drowned

Onto the fringes of day

Drawing near.

In the depths of its gaze

It penetrates the eyelids’ halo

Signs appear

Giving life to senses

And invites us

To what?

To live.

translated from Spanish by Wendy Call