Languages professor Paul Worley promotes living oral languages, histories in Latin America
In a small town 10 miles from the 1000 year-old ruins of the Maya city of Uxmal, far from cruise ships and resorts, Paul Worley chats with his friend Mariano Bonilla Caamal, a respected local leader and raconteur.
They are talking in Spanish and Yucatec Maya, linking hands, so to speak, across 500 years of cultural history.
The animated conversation ranges broadly over oral traditions, storytelling and the Internet. It's friendly, informal but still part of ongoing research that Worley, an assistant professor in the University of North Dakota Department of Modern & Classical Languages & Literatures, started as a graduate student not all that long ago.
This conversation and others in that Yucatec Maya community helped Worley, who teaches Spanish, write a cool story himself in the newly published book, "Telling and Being Told: Storytelling and cultural control in contemporary Mexican and Yucatek Maya Texts."
"Talk is text," Worley declares in a recent coffee shop interview, referring to a form of cultural transmission that largely by passes Western-style concepts of how knowledge and wisdom are stored and passed on.
"Through performance and the spoken word, Yucatec Maya storytellers have maintained the vitality of their literary traditions for half a millennium," said Worley, who started his work among the Yucatec Maya during his PhD studies.
Peer academics who reviewed Worley's book, published by the University of Arizona Press in October, say it's a "significant contribution" to the research literature about Meso-American indigenous peoples and cultures.
"I learned a lot about the modern Maya culture from Mariano, who also tells me many traditional Yucatec Maya stories," says Worley, "Most of what he tells me doesn't show up in any anthologies, mostly because oral traditions like his have not been considered part of 'literature.'"
Mariano's stories reflect a radically different perspective on life and living, Worley notes.
"They're mostly about how the Yucatec Maya look at the world," he says. "In America, we're so used to thinking that our literate culture began with Ann Bradstreet and John Winthrop (she was a 17th Century poet in, and he was a founding leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) that we paper over several prior literatures, including Native American oral and written traditions and all the writings of Spanish colonialists."
In his book, Worley presents the figure of the storyteller as a symbol of indigenous cultural control in contemporary Yucatec Maya literatures, and by extension, in other non-Western traditionally oral cultures. Analyzing the storyteller as the embodiment of indigenous knowledge, Worley highlights how Yucatec Maya literatures play a vital role in imaginings of Maya culture and its relationships with Mexican and global cultures.
Worley argues that many academics ignore an important component of Latin America's history of conquest and colonization: Europeans consciously set out to destroy indigenous writing systems, re-emphasizing the importance of oral tradition as a key means of indigenous resistance and cultural continuity.
"The oral tradition, such as what Mariano taught me, shows that we must include it in our literary perspective ― indigenous oral texts are a key component of contemporary indigenous literatures, and storytellers and storytelling remain vibrant cultural forces in both Yucatec communities and contemporary Yucatec writing," he said.
Describing how he related to his friend and cultural collaborator Mariano, Worley resorts to a story.
"After three days of recording oral stories, my collaborator Mariano Bonilla Caamal and his family prepared a large meal in his house and invited many of the people who had participated in the oral literature project.
"Wanting to make myself useful, on hearing the radishes had run out, I volunteered to go buy some from a nearby store. Being gracious hosts, Mariano and his wife Fina insisted that I not go alone and sent a young boy, the son of one of the participants, Manuel Uc Can, to go with me.
"After wrangling over who would drive the 'tri-ciclo' to the store, a debate that I won given that I was heaviest, the two of us set out. Once we were a good distance from the house the young man turned around and said, 'You know the man who told you the story of the dwarf of Uxmal? He told it wrong. My friends and I know the real story.' He then proceeded to relate his version as we drove to the store, pausing to go in for radishes and making sure we took the long way back so he would have time to finish."
Worley notes that in terms of how literature departments constitute their object of study and in terms of how these departments are housed within academic institutions, literary studies tend to focus on written texts that are printed in national languages.
"Therefore, for many academics, literary criticism still entails the explication of what are traditionally construed as literary texts, these being texts written in national languages," Worley said. "The fact is, indigenous literatures are the oldest literatures in the Americas."
Worley, with a colleague in the languages department, recently took that knowledge into a capstone course ― Languages 480 ― an innovative two-semester series focusing on human rights and the post-colonial era in a global context.
He said such classes aren't designed to mystify, for example, the Yucatec Maya with whom he studies.
"The Maya themselves will tell you what's going on. It's a living culture; it's not some archaeological artifact," says Worley, who also is part of the UND Working Group on Digital and New Media, which operates a high-tech media lab on campus.
Juan Miguel Pedraza
University & Public Affairs writer