Image credit: Frida Maureen Hultberg

View Artwork Credits
View full size



There, in the forest of quetzales, voices murmur,

the ancestors’ song is whispered in thunder,

and fire’s tongue coats the world.


As the sun dies, our Sacred Mother is born,

the grandmothers beg for quiet.

Gathering for the dance of the forest,

they are guardians of ritual.


Our grandmothers are calling, making requests

for those who have been silenced—

the invisible, dead, raped and burnt in secret.


The women fill the air with incense.

Trees bow, a stream surges,

and all their powers unite.














Let me dive into your murky green,

water slapping your rocks.

Let me enter with slow steps, numb,

mouth mute, as I sink into your depth.


Let me lose myself among the puyil,

my throat wet with breath.

Fill my fragile body with wind,

and I will drift through filth.




Ichtyeja’ - a river in Tumbalá, Mexico

puyil -  a type of snail found in Chiapas




Freshwater Spring


In the evening, I tear at silence

with a steady voice. I shout—

I am a woman!

Freshwater spring, source of my existence.




I Refuse


No longer ornament for your silence,

my smile will not get you off.

I will not be silent

in the violence of your mornings.

I hide myself and will not help you

to hurt my body.

I will be the moon’s path,

where the wind reveals the day.






This air deepens, drumming the soul of unseen things.

My days call out like the cricket’s song.






You will not be able to hide what’s left—

promises drowned by rivers,

the untold kept underground.

Their music remains in the mountains,

in the wäy disguised as Jaguar, Gray Fox, Snake.

You will not forget,                                      

but remembering will suffocate you.






Dreaming Undocumented   


You are learning to walk on time’s path

while swallows watch from the caves.

Secretly, you enter the mouth of another land,

fog blanketing a naked earth.



Ya’ tyi ch’ujulbä we’tye’ icha’añ ñukbä matye’el icha’añ k’uk’wits

käñlaw ity’añob yik’oty wälwälñayob mi yälob jiñi ch’ujul k’ay tyi ty’añ mamäl,

iyak’ k’ajk mi iletsel tyi pañumil che’ bajche’ uts’atybä k’ay.


Che’ mi ichämel jiñi k’iñ, che’ mi yilañ pañumil jiñ lakch’ujuña’,

jiñi chuchu’bälob mi ik’ajtyiñob ñäch’tyälel,

jiñjach ijäjäk’ayob mi ikomob ibäj isoñil matye’el

yik’oty iyumob cha’añ oño’ch’ujutyesayaj.


Jiñi chuchu’bälob muk’ob tyi pay, woliyob tyi wokol ty’añ, mi imelob k’ajtyiyaj,

icha’añ jiñi machbä muk’ik iyäjk’elob tyi ty’añ,

icha’añob machbä tsikilobik tsäñsäbilobä tyik’läbilobä yik’oty mukul pulemobä.


Woli iletsañob jiñi pom, woli ibuts’iñob ch’ujulbä ajñibäl

jiñi ik’ woli iñumel, jiñi ja’ yolyolña woli iñumel,

che’ jiñi pejtyelel p’ätyälel mi ikomob ibäj tyi jump’ej ch’ujlel.












ak’eñon ktyop’ jiñi yäxty’ulañbä awa’lel,

jiñi tyuñuja’ ty’uñlawbä ya’ tyi awa’al,

ak’ä tyi ochel k’uñtye’bä kok, tsäñäwujulbä kwuty,

yik’oty ili ktyi’ x-uma’bä cha’añ mi isul ibäj tyi añäk’.


Ak’äyoñ tyi sajtylel tyi apuyil,

ak’ä kbik’ cha’añ mi isul ibäj tyi ajap ik’,

ak’ä ili k’uñlikañbä kbäk’tyal mi ibujty’el tyi awik’il

cha’añ che’ jiñi kmejlel tyi xämbal tyi tsuklel.








Yäxty’ulañbä iya’lel kajñibal


Tyi tsuwañbä ik’ajel, mi ityuk’ iñäch’tyälel,

Jiñäch k’uñtye’ mi ksub:


woli ktyaj yäxty’ulañbä iya’lel kajñibal tyi pañumil.






Mi kmuk


Mi kmuk kbäj, cha’añ mach komix ichäñ ch’äliboñ añäch’tyälel,

cha’añ mach komix ichäñ tse’ekñäyeloñ atyikwälel,

mach komix chäñ ñäch’äl cha’añ joñtyolbäl asäk’ajel,

mi kmuk kbäj cha’añ mach komix kchäñ koltyañety cha’añ mi ayäx-esañ kbäk’tyal,

kom wäle cha’añ ibijleloñ ak’lel ya’ baki jiñi ik’ mi iñumel tyi päsibal k’iñ






Jiñi ik’ jiñäch mi ityam-esañ ityip’tyip’ñäyel ich’ujlel lotyolbä,

ik’ay jiñi sajk’ jiñäch ty’äñty’äñäyel ili tyambä jk’iñil.






Ma’añik mi ikajel imejlel alaj muk pejtyelel iyejtyal oño’ xämbal,

p’ujp’ubil jiñi ty’añ ya’ tyi pa’tyak,

mukbil jiñi lotybilbä ty’añ tyi lum,

käylem ikäñlawlel k’ay ya’ tyi ichañlel matye’el

ya’ baki mosol ich’ujlel oño’ wäyob,

ma’añik mi ikajel iñajäyel acha’añ iwelwelñäyel ak’ajtyesaj,

jiñi ak’ajtyesaj mi ikajel imil awik’.






Ik’pukambä ñajal    


Joñoñ juñtyikil machbä añik ijuñ wolibä iñop iñusañ yajñib tyamlel,

xwilistyak mi ik’eloñ tyi majlel kome yujil cha’añ

muk’jach ikajel kmuku ñumel ya’ tyi ityi’ yambä lum che’bä bajche’

ik’pukambä ñajal muk’bä imuk kälel jiñi pits’ilbä lum.


Translator's Note

Juana Peñate Montejo’s poetry evokes what it means to be deeply connected with the natural world, the elements and one’s ancestors. Her most recent book of poetry, Isoñil Ja’al/Danza de la Lluvia, won the 2020 Premio de Literaturas Indígenas de América and will be published this year by the University of Guadalajara. Peñate Montejo has been writing poetry since she was in elementary school, first in Spanish and then in Ch’ol, her native language. Ch’ol is a Mayan language—one of approximately 30 distinct Mayan languages—and is spoken by a quarter of a million people in southern Mexico and diaspora communities in North America. Encouraged by her mother to reach beyond the traditional roles of women in the culture, Peñate Montejo left her hometown of Tumbalá, Chiapas to study law and to teach in other Ch’ol communities. Years later, she returned home and has lived there ever since.


During the pandemic, Carol Rose, a linguist and Charlotte, a poet, found themselves near-neighbors in Princeton, New Jersey and began taking walks together, quickly discovering a shared interest in the way language works, its complexity and beauty. When Carol Rose told Charlotte about the Ch’ol poet Juana Peñate Montejo and her wish to have her poems translated into English, they decided to try translating a few, together.  What began as an experiment quickly became a shared passion.


To hear the Ch’ol language for the first time is both intriguing and enchanting—the soft sounds of m and ñ punctuated by the sharp k’, ch’ and ts’. These consonant sounds (indicated by an apostrophe and known in linguistics as ejectives) are produced in the throat, in a glottal constriction, instead of the lungs, as in English. This is one of many audible differences between Ch’ol and English, that render it impossible to echo the sounds of Peñate Montejo’s poetry in English. Syntactic dissimilarities between the two languages make meaning often slippery and challenge desires to replicate the length and number of lines in a poem. And yet, they felt that the meanings, various moods and invocatory effect of her words were within their reach. Carol Rose’s word-for-word translation of the Ch’ol provided the starting point and then hours and hours at one of their dining room tables or camped in a cafe in town, were spent debating meanings, experimenting with word choices, listening to rhythms, returning to the Ch’ol, then discussing more. Some poems came relatively easily, others—surprisingly often the shorter ones—created unexpected challenges. 


Translation is never a matter of simple word replacement, but what happens when there isn’t even a similar conceptual framework to be found? In Ch’ol, a word may be composed of many small parts or morphemes, each of which can convey qualities such as a certain emphasis or epistemic information. For example, x’ixikoñäch in the poem “Freshwater Spring.” X’ixik means “woman,” is the first person subject and äch, an affirmative marker. X’ixikoñäch translated simply would be “I am a woman.” However, through prosody and punctuation, they were able to capture the strength of the assertion: I am a woman!


Juana Peñate Montejo is a poet whose palpable imagery welcomes and whose awareness awakens. Her poems often directly address the earth, women, an abuser, migrants, even poetry itself. This relational voice resonated with Carol Rose and Charlotte as women, linguist and poet, respectively. In Peñate Montejo’s assertions, they heard echoes of themselves in the world.

Carol Rose Little
Charlotte Milholland Friedman


In the Classroom