Vito Apüshana: from Woumain to Wallmapu and from there to Rockies

Wayuu poet Vito Apüshana.

Wayuu literature, letter by letter, has formed a long tradition since Los dolores de una raza [The pains of a race] by Antonio López (1957), Mitos, leyendas y cuentos guajiros [Myths, legends, and stories of the Guajira] by Ramón Paz Ipuana (1972), and Relatos [Tales] by Miguel Ángel Jusayú (1975). Beyond the letter, nonetheless, the word (pütchi) has been the epicenter of Wayuu culture for thousands of years. Gabriel Ferrer and Yolanda Rodríguez (1998) have pointed out that there are three fundamental figures in the orality of Woumain (our land, Wayuu territory): the pütchipü (palabrero in Spanish, or “lawyer”), the outsü (piache in Spanish, or “traditional doctor”), and the jayechimajachi (cantor in Spanish, or “poet-musician”). While Apüshana drinks from the voice of the alaüla (elders), his poetry is of multiple migrations (literary, physical, spiritual). As hospitable as the Wayuu in their rancherías, in Contrabandeando sueños con aríjunas cercanos1 [Smuggling dreams with nearby outsiders] (1992, 2000), Apüshana receives the outsider (aríjuna) and guides him patiently through the Wayuu ways of being in the world. We read in “Woumain / Nuestra tierra” [Our land]:

Cuando vengas a nuestra tierra,
descansarás bajo la sombra de nuestro respeto.
Cuando vengas a nuestra tierra,
escucharás nuestra voz, también,
en los sonidos del anciano monte.
Si llegas a nuestra tierra con tu vida desnuda
seremos un poco más felices...
y buscaremos agua
para esta sed de vida, interminable.

[When you come to our land,
you will rest under the shadow of our respect.
When you come to our land,
you will hear our voice, too,
in the sounds of the ancient hills.
If you come to our land with your life naked
we will be a little happier…
and we will look for water
for that endless thirst of life.]

A territory of light and thirst, Woumain issues a welcome with its own laws. Here, the poem is an instruction to begin the exchange, the smuggling. In a conversational tone, Apüshana creates a bridge toward the reader; in a descriptive tone, he invents a sort of poetic self-ethnography. In verses about dreams, stones, the spring, his grandparents, the poet paints a picture of his culture for those who do not know the desert of Colombia and Venezuela on the Caribbean coast. He says in “Rhuma”:

Esta tarde estuve
en el cerro de Rhuma:
y vi pasar al anciano Ankei del clan Jusayú...
y vi pasar a la familia
de mi amigo “el caminante” Gouriyú...
y vi la sobrevivencia del lagarto...
y vi nidos ocultos de paraulata...
y vi a Pulowi vestida de espacio (...)
y vi el rojo del último sol del día...
y, ya a punto de irme, vi a un grupo de aríjuna
venidos de lejos,
como si estuvieran en un museo vivo.

[This afternoon I was
on the hill of Rhuma:
and I saw old man Ankei from the Jusayú clan pass by…
and I saw the family
of my friend “the walker” Gouriyú pass by…
and I saw the survival of the lizard…
and I saw hidden nests of thrushes…
and I saw Pulowi dressed in space (...)
and I saw the red of the last sun of the day…
and, about to leave, I saw a group of outsiders
coming from far away,
as if they were in a living museum.]

From the hill, the poet achieves a singular vision of his own culture: distant from the ranchería, but not enough to lose contact with his ancestors. From the hill, he attains this peripheral vision, this ubiquitous lens between objectivity and irony. Each verse is an accurate image with which Apüshana creates a Wayuu snapshot, an etching capable of revealing the meeting of diverse experiences: the alaüla (old man), the family, the palabrero, the pulowi (spirit, protector of nature), and the aríjuna confused by his misunderstandings of “the indigenous,” perpetuated by his education in big cities and by the idealizations that confine ancestral ways of being in the world to a remote past.

If the intercultural dialogue in Contrabandeando… is between the aríjuna and the Wayuu, the dialogue in Encuentros en los senderos de Abya-Yala [Encounters on the paths of Abya-Yala] (2004) is between the poet and other narrative voices of the Americas (Abya-Yala is the land in its full maturity). With the presence of the aríjuna reader at the margin, this trans-indigenous project connects Woumain with Wallmapu (Mapuche territory), with the Rocky Mountains of the north, and with the Amazon and the Andes. Although this second book is written in Spanish and offers at the end of each of its paths a brief glossary of the expressions used in native languages, Encuentros… appears as a hermetic work as its poetic subject (migrant, traveler, nomad) passes through the sacred sites of various Amerindian geographies, brimming over with languages, borders, identities, nation-states, and notions of writing.

The first encounter is with Leonel Lienlaf (Mapuche poet), with whom Apüshana/Malohe travels to The Border (Wallmapu) searching for kallfv (“blue” in Mapudungun) and the wisdom of the machi (traditional doctors). The second encounter (always in contact with his ranchería) is with his own family cemetery, Satuaira Pushaina, in the Alta Guajira, where his ancestors return to meet with their nieces and nephews. The third encounter is in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where we hear enlightened words through the roasted coca leaf (hayo) from the voice of the mamos, the spiritual authorities of the Kogi, Wiwa, and Ika nations. The fourth encounter takes place in the regions of Canaima (Venezuela) and Vaupés (Colombia), where Apüshana/Malohe glimpses the mystery of the Yuruparí. The fifth encounter is with Ariruma Kowii, Quechua poet and activist from the Imbabura region of Ecuador, who reveals lakes, waterfalls, and the guardian mountains of the Andes (the volcanoes of Imbabura and Cotacachi, along with the lake of Cuicocha and the waterfall of Peguche) to the traveler. Finally, the sixth encounter crosses time and incarnates the voices of Nezahualcoyotl and Tecayehuatzin beside the great lake of the Valley of Mexico during the dialogues of flower and song in the kingdom of Texcoco (fifteenth century). Without a doubt, Encuentros… carries intercultural/trans-indigenous dialogue and travel writing to their limits:


Nací en los senderos del sur de Abya-Yala: la serpiente y el jaguar me recibieron del misterio suficiente para guiarme hacia el misterio insuficiente. Ayunado entre raíces de ayahuasca y hojas de Ayapana. Destinado para la recolección de los guijarros desde los Andes hasta las Rocosas.

He vivido del agua fresca de mi tía cerca del Cotopaxi.

Mi familia se extiende aun en los verdes del Vaupés, donde me ungüentan para los sonidos del corazón y, también, en los lares del Oayapok los cuales camino entre espantos y mujeres señoritas.

Tengo una guarida en los altos de Canaima... y siempre me esperan en las esquinas breves del Cuzco o bajo la sombra de un árbol en el Gran Chaco.

Mi espíritu tiene lugar en la “Gran Casa de los Hombres” de los Bororo del     Amazonas.

Una mujer negra, de lengua Tule, del Baudó me sigue amamantando.

La coca y el maíz continúan floreciendo.


I was born in the paths of the south of Abya-Yala: the serpent and the jaguar received me from the mystery that was enough to guide me toward the mystery that was not enough. Fasted among roots of ayahuasca and leaves of ayapana. Fated to collect pebbles from the Andes to the Rockies.

I have lived on the fresh water of my aunt near Cotopaxi.

My family extends even to the green land of Vapués, where they anoint me for the sounds of the heart, and also to the lairs of Oayapok where I walk among frights and noble young women.

I have a den in the heights of Canaima… and they always await me on the sharp corners of Cuzco or under the shade of a tree in the Gran Chaco.

My spirit has a place in the “Great Men’s House” of the Bororo of the Amazon.

A black woman, who speaks Tule, from Baudó keeps nursing me.

The coca and the corn blossom still.]

Like in “The Musician of Saint-Merry” by Apollinaire, Malohe/Apüshana transposes all times and places in the poem’s simultaneity, he disorders colonial cartography, he stands up as a counter-traveler and traces his own itinerary, confronting the stereotypes that constrain the native in a single place. In the seconds it takes to read this “confession,” all the faces of Abya-Yala are superimposed on a single face, on a single body of many births. The images the poet chooses reveal a particular relationship with plants and animals, as well as a brotherhood between all Amerindian nations. Malohe’s project recalls a similar project, conceived by the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal in 1969: the Homenaje a los Indios Americanos [Homage to the American Indians], expanded in 1992 with Ovnis de Oro [Golden UFOs]. In all three of these works, the poetic subject assumes the knowledge and the magical-religious imaginaries of each of the cultures he visits, and in his poetic breath he incarnates voices beyond his own time and geography. Like the chaski (messenger of Tawantinsuyu), the multiple voice of Apüshana/Malohe/López passes over the continent, appropriating other languages, prayers, and knowledges, and constructs through this collage the idea of the One, the great book dreamt of by so many poets in the history of literature (Mallarmé, Pound, Gonzalo Rojas).

Ya naciste…
y naciste hijo de gente, de los fundadores de cerros de trochas del cerro de Epitsü.
Y puedes irte y puedes no volver,
pero siempre estará ahí… junto al árbol Mokooshira
que circunda tu cementerio;
ahí pertenece tu sombra y tu descanso.
Ya naciste
y tal vez puedes irte y no volver,
pero siempre estarás aquí,
siempre serás nombrado en la música del sawawa…

[You were born…
and you were born a child of people, of the founders of hills of paths of the hill of Epitsü.
And you can go and you can not come back,
but it will always be here… beside the Mokooshira tree
that encircles your cemetery;
there your shadow and your rest remain.
You were born
and maybe you can go and not come back,
but you will always be here,
you will always be named in the music of the sawawa…]

In En las hondonadas…, Apüshana picks up the registers of Contrabandeando… and, once again, we hear the voices of Wayuu elders in the style of oraliture and conversational poetry. This is his push for traditional knowledge, the Wayuu wakuwa’ipa, as Adriana Campos Umbarila points out in her introduction to the verse collection: “The Remote-origin (li) refers to the starting point of Wayuu culture. The origin of everything, from which the elements emerge: Light, Wind, Earth, Rain, Darkness, Cold… to form Life [...] The Hidden-invisible (Pulasü): is the dimension of the intangible, the invisible, what is there on the other side of everyday life, sustaining it, nursing it, regulating it [...] The Natural-visible (Akuwa’ipa): this is the daily world, the quotidian Wayuu reality, the mortality of the body….” The origin, the hidden, and the visible, like the three banks of a river that flows here and now. So says Apüshana in “Miedo alijuna” [Outsider fear]:

Mañana llegarán nuevamente los alijuna
y traerán más preguntas acerca de nosotros,
y nada sabrán si no escuchan el silencio de nuestros muertos
en cada sonido de nuestras vidas…
y nada se llevarán si no cuelgan sus miedos en el interior de las
mochilas familiares
y reciban, de nuestro temblor, el asombro de la madrugada…
junto al temor de los espantos. 

[Tomorrow the outsiders will come again
and they will bring more questions about us,
and nobody will know if they don’t listen to the silence of our dead
and each sound of our lives…
and nothing will be taken if they don’t hang up their fears inside
the family bags
and receive, from our trembling, the wonder of the dawn…
along with the fear of the terrors.]

At the convergence of the horizons of the wakuwa’ipa paradigm, the poem is a warning and a challenge for dialogue between distinct forms of being in the world: one one hand, the desire to know, and on the other, the silent presence of the pulasü world; on one hand, the deaf eyes of the aríjuna, and on the other, the sound of the dead, the terrors, and the dawn. A crossroads-poem because… how to cross the bridge and listen? After centuries of idealizing writing, blinded by bureaucracy, the “lettered city,” judicial apparatuses, and misunderstandings of “civilization” and “progress,” how to read this poetry? What does it mean “to read”? What do we read, for example, in the word tejido (“cloth”)? Is the tejido writing or vice versa? How far does the chain of associations from a noun like chinchorro (“hammock”) go? In a poem like “Calma II” [Calm II], the cloth (kanasü) is much more than a chinchorro (hammock), bag (katowii), or blanket:

La tranquilidad es un tejido largo y colorido...
la embellecemos con diseños de cielo,
pinturas de tierra y dibujos de mar.
Los mayores nos envuelven en ella
en cada palabra de mañanita,
en cada silencio de anochecer.
Así nos hacemos latidos de los montes. 

[Tranquility is a long and colored cloth...
we beautify it with designs of sky
paintings of earth and drawings of sea.
The elders wrap us up in it
in each word of morning,
in each silence of twilight.
And so we make ourselves the heartbeat of the hills.]

How would our reading of this poem change if we had heard from the mouth of an alaüla of Manaure that the mother’s womb is like a hammock, and that when a Wayuu dies he is buried in his chinchorro? Perhaps the “cloth” would take on new dimensions until it covered all of existence. In “Walatshi,” another poem from En las hondonadas…, Wayuu law, the staff of the palabrero writing on the sand, and the relief of pain are enough to resolve a blood feud. How to take in, then, the fact that in the law of the pütchipü/palabrero there are no documents, no writing, no prisons; only the word, the payment, the pardon? In “Jierü-mma,” the poet says of Süchimma (Riohacha):

Mi hermana Mariietsa ha salido del encierro.
Ya es mujer;
pronto albergará el mundo en sus adentros.
Ya sabe cómo la tierra acoge a las aguas de Aquel que Llueve.

[My sister Mariietsa has left her confinement.
Now she is a woman;
soon she will house the world within her.
We will smile:
Now she knows how the earth takes in the waters of That which Rains.]

The questions grow more simple and more serious. What is water? What does the poet mean by “rain”? Not only due to the conditions of the desert, but also due to the relationship of Juyaa (“uncle rain”) with the Remote-origin, with fertility, with the confinement of young women (majayuut) and this sort of cosmic sexuality between Mma (the earth) and That which Rains, the reader, if they like, might find themself suddenly before the wakuwa’ipa. Without a doubt, the reader of Vito Apüshana’s work, like the reader of many contemporary writers of Abya-Yala, discovers the coordinates of a journey (literary, physical, spiritual). In the midst of paths that the summer erases with sand and the winter floods with rain, the voice of Apüshana is the voice of one who knows that the ancestral names of the rivers, hills, trees, and ceremonial sites are sounds watched over by memory, in spite of mankind and in spite of its forgetfulness. From Popocatepetl to Makuira, and following the mountain range from Epitsü, passing over Imbabura, Cotopaxi, and beyond to Ruka Pillán, Apüshana reminds us that, to visit the ancestors, we must travel clean and clear.

Juan G. Sánchez Martínez
University of North Carolina - Asheville

Translated by Arthur Dixon

(1) For decades, researchers and the Wayuu themselves have translated the term aríjuna or alijuna as “outsider” or “non-Wayuu person.” Rafael Mercado Epieyú, a poet and linguist of that nation, proposes its etymology: “The Wayuu were treated violently by the Spanish: those who fled whenever they saw them coming warned the others in this way: “jalia iseichi junai,” “watch out, here comes the shooter.” They shouted this warning to alert the others, so they would know of the presence of those would would come to shoot at the Wayuu Indian. What was a warning cry for indigenous people became, in time, a noun; it became the name of the Spaniard; the [j], the [a], the [iseichi], and the vowel [i] were dropped, and it the exclamatory warning was synthesized into alijuna, which is now the name for any white person who comes to the Guajira” (228).

Apüshana’s spelling is respected in his text. In Wayuunaiki, nonetheless, the written [l] is read as [r], so the term can also be seen written as alijuna, as in Shiinalu’uiria shiirua ataa / En las hondonadas maternas de la piel [In the motherly hollows of the skin] (2010).


LALT No. 7
Number 7

The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note


Featured Author: Eugenio Montejo

Dossier: Wayuu Literature


Latin American Science Fiction

Indigenous Literature

Brazilian Literature




Nota Bene