The Tale of One Tiny Songbird Is Amplifying an Ancient Mayan Language

How a children's book about the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler became part of a movement to embrace Indigenous languages in Mexico.

Maria de los Angeles Azuara couldn’t hold back tears when she heard two dozen children singing at a small school in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Guided by their music teacher, the elementary students performed a song they’d adapted about a new friend, a young Golden-cheeked Warbler named Chipilo who lived in the same mountains they did. He connected them, they sang, with “the only world that can cover us both / the world in which we all live.”

The children sang in Spanish—the second language of their Indigenous Tsotsil Mayan community. It was 2015, and only a couple of months had passed since Azuara and colleagues had started working with 28 teachers from several Indigenous schools in Chiapas. As the environmental education program director at the non-profit Pronatura Sur, her job was to convince teachers to include a children’s book called The Tale of Chipilo Crisopario (La Historia de Chipilo Crisopario in Spanish) as part of their classes.

Pronatura is working to conserve the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler’s overwintering habitat, the pine-oak forests that grow across Chiapas’ mountains and extend south through Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador and NicaraguaWhen Azuara heard the song inspired by the book, she was thrilled. “I’ve always believed a children’s book is an extremely powerful tool to create change,” she says. “And Chipilo has proved it to me.”

Chipilo has become a cornerstone of Pronatura’s environmental education, a fun tool for helping to instill a conservation ethic in children, with the hopes that they will care about and protect the natural world throughout their lives. The book has reached more than 3,000 children, mostly in Chiapas, many of whom are Tsotsil. In 2018 Pronatura had the book and accompanying lessons translated into Tsotsil. The Golden-cheeked Warbler doesn’t have ancient cultural significance for the community, but there are parallels: Just as the endangered songbird’s plight has long been neglected, so has their language. Translating Chipilo into Tsotsil is just one small part of a growing effort to dignify the country’s more than 68 Indigenous language groups, which are in turn divided into 364 language variations.

In Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, European languages are “power languages”—they inhabit streets, courthouses, hospitals, and schools, says linguistic anthropologist Margarita Martínez Perez, a native Tsotsil speaker. Indigenous languages have long been deemed inferior and relegated to private spaces. But in recent years, they’ve started to seep into public spaces. In the past decade, Tsotsil has begun to appear on street signs and social media and in rock music, comics, poems, and novels. “This is just the beginning,” Martínez says. “Chipilo’s book is just a little sprout of what’s to come.”


he story of Chipilo starts in 2003, the same year native languages were officially recognized in Mexico thanks to the decades-long efforts of Indigenous communities like Chiapas’ Zapatistas Movement. That year, Pronatura hired two young biologists, José Arturo García Domínguez and José Raúl Vázquez, to monitor the arrival of Golden-cheeked Warblers travelling from central Texas to the pine-oak forests in the Chiapas Highlands that support more than 300 bird species, of which 55 are migratory.


Back then, the warbler’s winter range distribution was still being mapped out, explains Claudia Macías Caballero, Pronatura’s deputy director of conservation. Observations of the bird were spotty, and no one really knew their wintering behavior that well. García and Vázquez were tasked with searching for the bird throughout 10 municipalities and following the mixed flocks in which the warblers traveled. For five months the duo woke up at 4 a.m. and set out before the firsts sun rays bathed the treetops. “It was so cold that you didn’t want to take your hands out of your jacket to hold the binoculars,” recalls Vázquez.

They started in central Chiapas and struggled to find their tiny targets. The scarcity was easily explained: The dense forests that the warblers require for foraging and roosting had been transformed into sparse stands, heavily logged for commercial lumber and for cooking and construction by the impoverished Indigenous communities. Across the species’ range, habitat degradation due to unregulated fires, logging and clearing land for agricultural development has fueled the bird’s decline. At the current deforestation rate, the remaining forests could disappear in 45 years.

Their luck changed when they headed north. As they neared a small town called Coapilla, they noticed the thick expanse of deep green covering the surrounding hills. Speaking with locals, a mix of mestizo and Zoque peoples, they learned that the community prioritized managing the forest sustainably, and restricted agriculture to the ejido—community-owned land managed according to Indigenous people. As a result, the landscape supported abundant wildlife. In just one week they made 10 of the approximately 40 sightings they recorded in all, García recalls. 

Near Coapilla the forest was filled with birdsong, and García saw his first mythical quetzal. He found the healthy state of the landscape remarkable, and one afternoon, after following songbirds all morning, he started writing the migration story of a Golden-cheeked Warbler. He called the bird Chipilo Crisopario, a nod to the species’ common name in Spanish (chipe) and scientific name (Setophaga chrysoparia), and asked Vázquez, who liked drawing and carving birds out of wood, to illustrate the book. The tale follows the young bird as he journeys south and encounters a human-started fire, is saved by an old Turkey Vulture, and eventually arrives in Coapilla’s forests, where he reconnects with old friends and makes new ones, including a Resplendent Quetzal.

A few months later, in March 2004, the biologists presented the first draft of the text and 12 acrylic-paint illustrations to Pronatura’s Macías. Two years later, after securing financial support from The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the State of Chiapas, Pronatura printed 5,000 copies of Chipilo. Most ended up in school libraries and at environmental education nonprofits in the five countries where the Golden-cheeked Warbler winters.

The book was out there, but there was no guarantee that kids would pick it up. Chipilo had been translated into English in 2011, and Texan teachers were using that version in their classrooms. Inspired by their approach, in 2012 and 2013 the Pronatura team created lessons to accompany the book, including Nature and Living Beings, Birds’ Homes, and Birds and Climate. Then they trained eight teachers from three Mexican states (Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero) to include the book in their curriculum. A year later, Pronatura trained 28 more teachers. By 2017, they had trained 66 teachers from 40 schools, half of which were located in Chiapas’ Indigenous communities. 

Bringing Chipilo into the classroom has sometimes been challenging, says teacher Mario Alberto Pérez Ruiz, native Tsotsil speaker. Chiapas remains one the poorest states in Mexico—76 percent of its population lives in poverty—and some of his colleagues worked in schools that lacked basic supplies like paper, scissors, and colored pencils. Pérez has worked hard to incorporate the lessons into his curriculum at a school near San Cristóbal de las Casas. He first started teaching about Chipilo in 2015, when he was one of two teachers in Pueblo de Israel, a Tsotsil village of 200 people. There his fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students built a nest and learned geography following the bird’s migration path. In other schools, students created radio programs recounting the dangers that birds like Chipilo face, wrote and performed plays and songs like the one that made Azuara cry, and installed native-plant gardens on their school grounds. 

Despite their success, Macías and her colleagues at Pronatura felt they could do more. The book was mostly being taught at bicultural and bilingual schools, but it was written in Spanish. These schools exist to strengthen Indigenous languages, but they fall short on that promise. “They are a big joke,” says Martínez, the linguistic anthropologist. When the Secretary of Education assigns teachers to schools, there’s seemingly no effort to place them in areas where they speak the native language, she explains. While the hundreds of Indigenous languages and variations spoken in Mexico all come from ancient Mayan, they’re as different from each other as Spanish is from Italian or French. So a teacher who speaks Tsotsil, for example, can end up in a school where children speak Tojolabal. As a result, in the classroom they default to their common language: Spanish.

So they contacted writer Juan Benito de la Torre López, a native Tsotsil speaker. De la Torre and his daughter Ana Guadalupe de la Torre Sánchez translated the children’s book to Tsotsil over four months. Some of the work was straightforward—the Tsotsil already have a name for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, for instance: K’anal ton sat Chipe. But in many instances they were starting from scratch. “It was very fun, but also very hard,” he says. “We had to come up with new terms quite often.” The Tsotsil people, for example, have only two seasons: vo’tik, the time of rain (April to October), and korixmatik, the time of lent (October to March). So they had to create names for the four seasons mentioned in the book: spring is Chk’ exp’uj yanal te’, the time when all the hills start to turn green; summer is Ch-och vo’tik, when the rainy season arrives; fall is Chlok’ vo’tik, end of the rainy season; and winter is Yora siktik, the coldest of times.

Once the translation,Slo’il xch’iel Chipilo Crisopario, was finished, in 2018, it immediately hit a hurdle. “Teachers didn’t want to read the book in front of the children,” Azuara says. “They were ashamed they would make a mistake.” This insecurity is directly related to the racist policies that relegated Tsotsil and other Mayan languages to non-public places. The more than 500,000 Tsotsil speakers have kept the language alive by speaking it with family and friends, but there is no written tradition, says Martínez. It was only in the late 1990s when Tsotsil-speaking professionals and writers first established the writing rules for Tsotsil using the Latin alphabet. Today even if people can speak it, many don’t know how to read it or read it confidently. Bilingual education specialists suggested recording the text as an audiobook. “That way, teachers wouldn’t feel insecure in the classroom,” Azuara says. 

She convinced Floriana de la Torre, the translator’s oldest daughter, to record herself reading the Tsotsil version. De la Torre recorded herself over and over again from May to August. Now the recording is ready, but COVID-19 has stalled its dispersal: Schools are closed, and for most students attending virtual classrooms isn’t an option. Only 61 percent of Tzotzil localities have internet access, and of those only 22 percent have access to a 4G network (the technology needed to have effective group calls or video meetings, for example), according to government data. 

Azuara and Macías are exploring other routes to deliver Chipilo to Indigenous students in Chiapas—and beyond. They’re considering distributing the audiobook to teachers via USBs, and have shared the recording on social media. They’ve discussed having a Tsotsil radio station broadcast the audiobook. One day, they would potentially translate the text into other Mayan languages spoken by communities throughout the rest of the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s range. In the coming years the story of one tiny warbler could spread across its 10,319-square-mile forest habitat, teaching children about the importance of saving its habitat while simultaneously helping to lift up their native languages. “This little bird is incredible,” says Azuara. “It has made us fly.”