A wild tiger’s excesses.
Or an ocelot.

Three poems by Macario Matus translated from Zapotec into Spanish by the author, with English translations and an introduction by Wendy Call.

MatusPhotoJuchitanIn Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca, twenty miles north of the Pacific Ocean, the city of Juchitán has produced an enormous constellation of musicians, poets, storytellers, and painters. Juchitán’s traditional language, Isthmus Zapotec, was the first New World language to be written down, more than two thousand years ago. Over the last century, many bright lights of indigenous literature have come from Juchitán. Macario Matus was one of the most prominent; he influenced an entire generation of Zapotec storytellers and poets. One of those poets, Irma Pineda, said of Matus, one year before his death in 2009, “Macario Matus is in my life like water, like daylight. He exists, has always existed. I can’t pinpoint the date that we met; no one introduced us for the first time. And yet, every day I discover him, I recognize him, because every day he invents something new, something surges forth from that imagination—abundant, terrible, tireless, ferocious.”

Born January 2, 1943 in Juchitán, Macario Matus moved to Mexico City as a young adult to study; he continued to migrate between the two cities throughout his life. Matus published his first book at age 26, eventually producing more than twenty volumes of poetry, short stories, journalism, criticism, history, and translations. He founded Juchitán’s Casa de la Cultura, the cultural center where multiple generations of juchiteco musicians, painters, and writers—like Irma Pineda—took their first art classes. 

Matus passed away on August 6, 2009, at the age of 66. Three months after his death, a center for Isthmus Zapotec culture opened in Mexico City—a project of Matus’s for the last six years of his life. “Centro Cultural Yo’o Za’a Macario Matus” offers workshops taught by writers and artists who were students in Juchitán’s Casa de la Cultura under Matus’s leadership.

Unlike Irma Pineda, I never met Macario Matus in person. But like her, his work seems to have been around me, in the air and water, since my first visit to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in 1998. I discovered the bilingual poem “Bidóo Bacáanda / Dios del Sueño” (“God of Dreams”) in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, in June 2001. I don’t remember where I first encountered “Bidóo Gubéedxe / Dios de la Lujuria” (“God of Lust”) or “Cáa Bidóo Stíi Dúu / Dioses Nuestros” (“Our Gods”). All three poems appear in Matus’s 1998 collection Binni Záa (Los Zapotecas), but I’m sure that’s not the first place I read those poems. Books are still relatively rare and precious in Juchitán. By the time I borrowed a copy of Binni Záa, long since out of print, from Juchitán’s Casa de la Cultura, those poems were already familiar to me. In Juchitán, individual poems are passed around hand to hand, ear to ear. They flow through life like water, like daylight.  

–Wendy Call

Bidóo Gubéedxe

by Macario Matus

Guennda rigúu béedxe páa cáa guennda ranna xhíi

guláaqui cáa bée láa rigúu béedxe béedxe guíixhi.

Béedxe guíixhi, láani.

Guennda ráaca díiti máani stíi binni síica máni dúuxhu.

Xhiñée quíi gáaca núu síica béedxe guíixhi

páa láa núu gúule núu ndáani dúuxhu mée yáa.

Guennda ranna xhíi rudíi láa síica béedxe zée xpiáani.

Guennda ranna xhíi ngáa láaya béedxe náazi yanni.

Guennda béedxe ngáa ranna xhíi guiráa xhíixhe láaya binni,

guíidi láadi, bixhúuga náa máani, bixhúuga náa binni, guíicha

ruáa binni, guiée lúu béedxe ndáani yóo.

Guennda ranna xhíi née cúu béedxe ngáa ráaca binni máani née

binni guíidxi layúu.

¿Xhíi guiráa guíidxi layúu née cáa xpidóo lá?

guennda ranna xhíi née guennda rigúu béedxe zuzuhuáa cáa

huaxhíini, ridxíi.

God of Lust

by Macario Matus

Love or lust

they called a wild tiger’s excesses.

Or an ocelot.

Men shiver instinctively,

like ferocious animals.

How could we not be like ocelots

if born of their spirited viscera.

Love is mad cats in heat.

Love is eyeteeth threaded into your neck

Lust is loving with all your teeth,

skin, claws, fingernails, whiskers, cat’s eyes.

To love and be lustful is to be animal, or man.

To lust and to kiss is to be woman with sugared bile.

When the earth and its gods meet their end,

love and lust will preside over night, over day.

translated from Zapotec by Wendy Call

Dios de la Lujuria

by Macario Matus

La lujuria o el amor

lo llamaron excesos del tigre silvestre.

Ocelote, pues.

Estremecimientos instintivos

de los hombres como animales fieros.

Cómo no íbamos a ser como ocelotes

si nacimos de sus entrañas briosas.

El amor es entrega de felinos a lo loco.

El amor es colmillos ensartados al cuello.

Lujuria es amar con todos los dientes,

pieles, garras, uñas, bigotes, ojos de gato.

Amar y ser lujurioso es ser animal u hombre.

Lujuriar y besar es ser mujer con hiel azucarada.

Cuando se acabe la tierra y sus dioses,

el amor y la lujuria presidirán la noche, el día.

translated from Zapotec by Macario Matus into Spanish

Cáa Bidóo Stíi Dúu

by Macario Matus

Ndáani cáa guiée nabáani tíi bidóo stíi dúu,

ndáani tíi yáaga nabáani tíi bidóo stíi dúu,

xháa xcúu nabáani xpidóo dúu,

ndáani níisa dóo née níisa guíigu

nabáani cáa bidóo bizibáani láa dúu.

Níiza guiée xhúuba, béedxe, béeñe

náaca cáa xpidóo dúu, bixhóoze née bíichi cáa dúu.

Guidúubi guíidxi layúu ngáa jñáa dúu.

Our Gods

by Macario Matus

In every stone lives one of our gods,

in every tree dwells one of our gods,

our god lives under the roots,

within the water of river and sea,

dwell the gods who gave us life.

Rain, corn, jaguar, and lizard

are gods, fathers, brothers and sisters. 

All of nature is our mother.

translated from Zapotec by Wendy Call

Dioses Nuestros

by Macario Matus

En cada piedra vive un dios nuestro,

en cada árbol mora un dios nuestro,

bajo las raíces vive nuestro dios,

entre las aguas del mar y del río,

moran los dioses que nos dieron vida.

La lluvia, el maíz, el tigre, el lagarto

son dioses, padres y hermanos.

La naturaleza toda es nuestra madre.


translated from Zapotec by Macario Matus into Spanish

Bidóo Bacáanda

by Macario Matus

 Guúzi Góope síica Moctezuma guníi xcáanda

cáadxi binni quíichi née ruáa ráaxhi

zéeda yéete cáa lúu níisa dóo tíi quíiñe ntáa láa.

Née huandi, lúu cáa baláaga quée, déeche cáa máani quée veda

ndáa cáa binni guníi xcáanda xaíique quée.

Núu ndáani layúu stíi xaíique quée záa quée bíini núu xipiáani

riníi xcáanda cáa.

Rúuya cáa síica ráaca ridxíi níi chíi guizáaca lúu.

Cáa bacáanda quée, guníi zéeda quée, náaca cáa níi huandíi

néexhe náa.

Nguée rúuni quíi nucáa lúu cáa bée, bidíi cáa bée guíiba gúuchi,

layúu, née lúuna rizáaca.

Cáa bacáanda ngáa díidxa huandíi. Tíi gúuca huandíi guennda

ruziguíi stíi cáa binni quíichi.

Yanna láaga xhuxháale lúu núu riníi xcáanda núu huandíi ngáa


God of Dreams

by Macario Matus

Gúuzi Góope, like Moctezuma, dreamed

that some bearded white men

would come from the sea to dethrone him.

And yes, they arrived on huge ships, riding horses,

those men who the king had dreamed.

In the Zapotec kingdom there were wise men who dreamed.

They saw, clear as day, what soon would happen.

The dreams, they foretold, are waking realities.

And so they surrendered, handing over gold, land, and kingdom.

Dreams are real. The white men’s lie was real.

Now that we have awakened, we dream that truth is real. 

translated from Zapotec by Wendy Call

Dios del Sueño

by Macario Matus

Gúuzi Góope, como Moctezuma, soñó

que unos hombres blancos y barbados

bajarían de los mares para destronarlo.

Y sí, sobre unas barcazas, sobre unos caballos,

llegaron aquellos hombres que había soñado el rey.

Había en el reino zapoteca los sabios que soñaban.

Veían como si fuera de día lo que pronto sucedería.

Los sueños, predijeron, son realidades despiertas.

Por eso se entregaron, dieron el oro, su tierra, reino.

Los sueños son verdad. Fue verdad la mentira de los blancos.

Ahora que estamos despiertos, soñamos que la verdad es verdad. 

translated from Zapotec by Macario Matus into Spanish


Photo of the author courtesy of Irma Pineda.

three barricades three barricades
and one dark night

Five Poems by Julia Ferrer with an introduction and translations by Brandon Holmquest

Julia Ferrer

In 2009, tired of hearing me complain about my translation projects constantly being derailed by various copyright issues, my friend Renato Gómez (poet and psych-rock musician from Peru, currently a resident of Barcelona) gave me a small pile of books he’d been involved in publishing back in Perú. He said something like, “Here, shut up and translate these. All the writers are dead, their heirs are chill and they just want the work out there.”

The first thing that caught my eye was a tiny little book, bright blue cover, called Gesto, by Julia Ferrer. It caught my attention because of the color, yes, and also (I sheepishly confess) because the photographs of her revealed one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. The quality of the poems, however, soon put such things far out of mind.

I know almost nothing about Julia Ferrer. She was born in Lima in 1925, and died in 1995. She taught theater in universities and had a very hard time publishing, seeing only two books printed in her lifetime, in 1958 and 1966. Gesto, which contains excerpts from both books as well as material drawn from magazines and unpublished manuscripts, came out in 2004, in an edition of 309 copies. In a way, she barely existed as a poet, lacking the kind of official status granted by a growing shelf of publications, regular public readings, invitations to conferences and so on. Presumably also lacking the odd way such things have of convincing the people in one’s life that the habit of writing is a legitimate pursuit, as opposed to a waste of time better spent on other things. On first read, this seemed rather sad to me, this liminal status, but after two or three trips through the book it became something I found perfectly suited her poetry.

There is a quietness in Ferrer’s work which I hoped to make my translation reflect. I used a lowercase “i” instead of the usual capital vowel meaning “self,” and consistently chose the shortest, simplest English word from among the acceptable options. Ferrer had a way of using repetition to produce rhythm through the length of a poem, and a reliance on an idiosyncratic kind of romanticism in her images.

The question of why Ferrer lived such a marginal life as a writer is an open one. It may well have been by choice. She may have simply not known the right people in the Perú of her era. It almost certainly had something to do with the fact that she was a woman, but I suspect that the nature of her work had a lot to do with it, too. She’s not exactly avant-garde, but also sort of is, in addition to being a bit of a Romantic, with a touch of surrealism. It remains as difficult to pin Julia Ferrer down as a poet as it is to get one’s head around any one of her poems, which remain, somehow, slightly inexplicable. A reader or a translator can literally disassemble her work looking for that which makes it function as it does, and find nothing, no single technique, nothing in the language itself that adds up to the effect of the whole. Her poems are nearly always significantly greater than the sum of their parts. In the end, it is most likely this which is her great strength as a poet.

—Brandon Homquest

[24 pasos en el mismo sitio]

by Julia Ferrer

24 pasos en el mismo sitio

24 suspiros en el día

24 llantos 24 besos


24 pasos en el mismo sitio

24 colores en el día

24 blancos 24 negros


24 pasos en el mismo sitio

24 angustias en el día

24 niños 24 muertos


24 pasos en el mismo sitio

24 bostezos en el día

24 caras 24 espejos


24 pasos en el mismo sitio

24 intentos en el día

24 malos 24 buenos


24 pasos en el mismo sitio

24 trayectos en el día

24 cielos 24 infiernos


24 pasos en el mismo sitio

[24 steps in the same place]

by Julia Ferrer

24  steps in the same place

24  sighs in a day

24  sobs  24  kisses


24  steps in the same place

24  colors in a day

24  whites  24  blacks


24  steps in the same place

24  agonies in a day

24  children  24  dead men


24  steps in the same place

24  yawns in a day

24  faces  24  mirrors


24  steps in the same place

24  attempts in a day

24  evils  24  goods


24  steps in the same place

24  journeys in a day

24  heavens  24  hells


24  steps in the same place


translated from Spanish by Brandon Holmquest

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