Zapotec Poetry

Markus Martinez Burman presents Bishé, Zapotec poetry that’s a legacy of a people and their pre-Columbian Mesoamerica empire. Colonized and subjugated, only touristic legacies of the Zapotec remain, the land exploited for neoliberal resource extraction: a forgotten land surrounded by Bishé, “a soul that is being taken by the devil.”

Museum of the Anthropocene: Zapotec Poetry

Showing a poem in a mix of Zapotec and Spanish by Juan Martinez Lopez (Dr. Fan), titled Nasáca Zédu, translated as 'to welcome'. Pictured right is Dr. Fan with his family in Juchitán.
Bishé (1989), is one of the books of poetry (and short stories) written in a mix of Zapotec and Spanish by Juan Martinez Lopez (Dr. Fan). Pictured left is a poem titled Nasáca Zédu, translated as ‘to welcome’, which invites the scholar to create an academy from which the “beautiful Zapotec language can grow”. This image is part of my photo essay ‘Bishé: a reimagination of Juchitan and its flora’. Pictured right is Dr. Fan with his family in Juchitán.
¡Ay!, diidxazá, diidxazá,
diidxa’ hrusibani na’,
na’ nanna zanitilu’,
dxi initi gubidxaca’.
Diidxazá, Gabriel Lopez Chiñas.
¡Oh!, zapotec, zapotec,
language that gives me life,
I know you will not die,
Until the sun´s demise.
Zapotec, Gabriel Lopez Chiñas

Bishé (1989) is not an object that can be followed around the world or that will remain in the fossil records like a chicken bone or a piece of plastic. No, its fragile papers will disintegrate when modern civilization collapses. By contrast, it is the manifestation and a product of the onset effects of the Anthropocene. Bishé and other poetry and short story books by Juan Martinez Lopez (Dr.Fan) — Bishé II, Bacuzaguí (2000), and Guíri (2007) — form part of the written legacy of the Tehuantepec Isthmus. They add to the small Zapotec library of authors like Gabriel Lopez Chiñas (quoted above). Zapotec artists are determined to not let Diidxazá (Zapotec) — the “language from the clouds” — and the indigenous ways of living from the Binizza — the “people who came from the clouds” — be forgotten.

The Zapotec empire was the oldest (records dating 600 BC) of the four major empires (Aztecs, Mayans, Mixtec and Zapotec) that inhabited pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Zapotec from the Tehuantepec Isthmus were colonized by the Spanish crown in 1523. The flat and lowland geographical areas they inhabited were seen by colonizers as a ‘natural interoceanic bridge’, thus characterizing the Zapotec lands as an opportunity for political and economic communication. Subjugation of the indigenous communities of the Isthmus followed through slavery and the Inquisition. Only touristic legacies from the Zapotec empire remain, in the shape of Monte Alban and Mitla which stand out from 4,000 archaeological zones spread around the state of Oaxaca. Little is known about Zapotec pre-Columbian ways of living, but hope remains in its richly musical language that has challenged globalization and persevered through generations.

The resilience of the Zapotec people means their language and traditions remain alive in a diaspora of a few thousand spread from Oaxaca to Mexico City and even the United States. The spread is due to a process of indigenous rupture that only accelerated after Mexican independence, as liberal Eurocentric thinking saw indigenous people as ‘inferior’ in the eyes of progress and destined communities to political and social alienation. The Tehuantepec Isthmus remained an area of geopolitical importance, a target for neoliberal economic policies for oil extraction and now for its winds. Meanwhile, society disregarded indigenous language and aimed to homogenize it to Spanish through ‘Indigenous’ education. These policies transformed the environment within and around communities at the expense of nature, language and culture. The result of Indigenous resistance struggles to keep their land, language and traditional ways of living has been systematic racial oppression and violence by authoritarian governments and society.

Dr. Fan is one among thousands who migrated North after no longer seeing a future in his city, Juchitan. His poetry and writing expose us to a forgotten land surrounded by Bishé, “a soul that is being taken by the devil”. A changing society from the Zapotec way of living, with no education, work or food security, that falls into the hands of the ‘drugs’ of the Anthropocene: alcoholism, a high-sugar diet and television. From his and other indigenous worlds we can listen and learn from those whose voices were taken at the hands of Bishé.


Zapotec Poetry was contributed by Markus Martinez Burman, a National Geographic Explorer and visual storyteller based between Mexico and Sweden. As a storyteller, Martinez is interested in documenting social and environmental justice issues and exploring visual methodologies to continue his reconnection with his past and his community in Juchitan, Oaxaca. Projects have focused on participatory storytelling to support the reconnection of youth with their territory and nature; as part of INDIS he led research and workshops in the Monkoxi indigenous nation of Lomerio in Bolivia, mentoring youth in the co-production of socio-environmental stories, and their own. Martinez co-produced Photovoice: Monkoxi Reconnection, an in-print photo book compiling the stories and testimonies of youth and the community on protecting their territory and autonomy. 

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