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In San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, about 87 miles from the border of Guatemala, there is a small papermaking and print shop called Taller Leñateros (Woodlanders Workshop) made up of mostly women. The publishing collective was founded in 1975 by a women named Ambar Past, an American from North Carolina who is now a naturalized Mexican citizen.

When Past came to the small Southern Mexico town in 1973 at the age of twenty-three, she encountered the very poor Mayas who lived there, their rich culture and their untapped resources. The collective was inspired by her desire to document and spread Amerindian cultural values, such as singing, literature and art, rescuing old and endangered techniques, such as the extraction of dyes from wild plants, as well as generating sustainable employment for uneducated, impoverished men and women.

“Although we are not all from one same culture and we speak different languages, we are putting together a common project. We were once servants, washer-women, wandering vendors and unemployed, and now we own our own business, ” they say on the Leñateros’ website.

Once Past began teaching herself Tzotzil, the Mayan dialect spoken in San Cristobal, she realized that the women often spoke in poetic couplets and metaphors. Forty years later, the collective has published the world’s first book of Maya women’s poetry with English translations, titled Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women, which can be purchased here.

The Maya printed paper and books long before the Europeans conquered the Western Hemisphere, but the Spanish destroyed most of their codices. Today, the Leñateros handcraft their paper from recycled scrap cardboard and organic materials including banana, tillandsia, yucca, cocoa hulls, and palm. They’ve even acquired some industrial machinery to process the leaves and bark. Their artisan paper is either sold by the sheet or bound into sketchbooks and the rest is used for their own printing.

These are some samples of their handmade paper. You can read more about their papermaking and printing techniques here.

Note: In modern usage, “Maya” is typically the preferred adjective referring to the indigenous people and “Mayan” is used to describe their language. Tzotzil is one of the Maya languages spoken in the highlands of Chiapas.

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Category: Printing