SEK'EMTIC ZINACANTAN, MEXICO — Two Indian peasants cower before the wicked plantation foreman as he slaps the earth with a razor-sharp machete. The humble coffee pickers recoil in fright.
So do hundreds of Indian spectators watching the performance of "Let's Go to Paradise," a play staged for and by Indians in this muddy marketplace in southeastern Mexico.
Their lines delivered in the Tzotzil Indian language, the traveling troupe Sna'Jtzibajom tell a story of hardship in the fields that dates back generations.
Across the Americas, native Indian cultures are reviving. Their languages once seemingly doomed, Indian writers from Alaska to Argentina are bidding to rescue their arts and letters.
Donald Frischmann, a Spanish and Latin American studies professor at Texas Christian University, says new Indian literature is preserving oral histories and reinterpreting histories written by conquerors. "The performance seeks to entertain, but it also ... provides food for thought and action," he says.
In Mexico, millions of Indians forgot their languages when urbanization and Spanish-language education gained ground. At the start of the decade, just 7.5 percent of Mexicans age 5 and older - about 5.3 million people - spoke an indigenous language.
Western civilization has long told Indians "what they are, what they think ... and what they believe in," historian and linguist Carlos Montemayor says.
"Now, indigenous authors are speaking in their own languages.... It is the first opportunity we have had in 500 years to listen to the Indian."