Storytelling in Mayan: The Little Deer and the Tiny Star


Zoom interview, December 9, 2020



When Sáasil Uj was five years old, she was asked to craft a short story for a writing contest in school. Her uncle had just hunted a deer, something that in the Maya tradition of the Yucatan peninsula can be done whenever this revered animal crosses one’s path in the cornfields right before daybreak, with the first rays of the sun.

Sáasil was staying at her grandmother’s, where she recalls climbing some huge boulders in order to get a better view of the farm. The crickets were singing loudly, and the stars were still shining bright.

Sáasil didn’t know how to write at the time, so she told the story to María, her mother, in a combination of Mayan and Spanish, and then both of her parents helped her transcribe it.

Sáasil’s grandparents communicated in Mayan, but her mother only learned this language at the age of 30, after she met Sáasil’s father. Hilario is a researcher and professor of the Yucatecan Mayan language. He is convinced that a language dies when it is not spoken,* but also that it can be brought back to life within two generations. What he calls Linguistic Revitalization or Language Revival is actually the subject of his PhD thesis; and more importantly still, it is both a lifestyle and a passion that begins in their own household.

Language in this context is of course more than words. Along with the language, it is the Maya world that comes back to life. The Maya words, understandings and meanings for love—in yaakunech, a yaakumen—are closer to “I hurt you, you hurt me,” implying that to love is to live in one’s own and the other’s pain. As a matter of fact, in order to fall in love, you have to sacrifice a hummingbird.

You can feel the parents’ pride when they describe how Sáasil Uj reads stories to her little siblings. Because there aren’t enough books printed in Mayan, she performs an empirical act of interpretation, reading in Spanish and storytelling in Mayan. In her spare time, she also teaches Mayan to one of her cousins, and the Maya names of the deer in the story are actually inspired by the names of her dogs.

At the time of the interview, the family was still undecided about their new puppy’s name. Hilario insists they call her ha (“water” in Mayan), but Sáasil Uj wants to name her Chiquitita (“Tiny”) after the dog’s late grandmother.


Zoom interview, December 9, 2020


The Little Deer and the Tiny Star

By Sáasil Uj Chi Xool, María Reneyda Xool Yam, and Hilario Chi Canul
Translated by Maya Khankhoje

Once upon a time there was a deer called Chan Kéej (Little Deer). He was very dear to all his siblings. He was very curious and very naughty. He liked to poke his nose around in different places and find out new things.

Every day when Yuum K’iin (Father Sun) spread out his hands to kiss the earth and let his round face peek out over the tree tops, he would see Chan Kéej playing hide-and-seek with his siblings: Sak Xikin (White Ear), Sa’anjo’ol (Grizzly Head) and Chak Mo’ol (Red Claw).

Chan Kéej used to wake up very early to say hello to his friend Yuum K’iin. As soon as he slid off his hammock, he would run out the door and jump up and down. He’d then start walking along the sak bej (white road) that goes all the way to the spot where Yuum K’iin appears. He’d keep on walking towards the place where the tractor had dumped the biggest rocks. He would climb on the stones until he reached the reddish flint stone, his favourite rock. There he would sit down to stare at the lak’in (east). He’d gently kiss the horizon without breathing in the cool morning air, till the Sun spread out its first rays.[i]

After bowing his chan pool (little head) to salute Yuum K’iin, and stretching his little legs to bow down, he would ask:

—Yuum K’iin, may I breathe in the dawn air?

His friend, with his bright and warm rays, said yes.

—Yes, you may breathe in the dawn air.

Chan Kéej would take a long deep breath and then head back home, covered with the light and warmth of the Sun’s body.

In the meantime, his siblings were playing hide-and-seek in their courtyard.

One day, Chan Kéej went to greet his friend Yuum K’iin as usual. But just as he was filling his lungs of steel with cool morning air, he opened his eyes and saw a ball of fire falling from the sky. He was frightened and wondered what that falling flash of light was. Maybe his friend Yuum K’iin had fallen off his hammock?

Without a second thought, he began to run towards the spot where the fire landed. But even though he ran day and night till sunrise the next day, he did not find a ball of fire that had fallen from the sky.

Disappointed and sad, Chan Kéej went back home. At nightfall he went to sleep and dreamt about the light that came from the sky. All of a sudden, he woke up and stood by the window with his eyes set on the lak’in (east). There, inside the ya’ax che’ (kapok) trees that surrounded his favourite hill, he could see a very bright light, as if the kapoks formed a strong wall around a golden city.

Chan Kéej didn’t stop to think. He quickly left his house, covered by the cold mantle of a night full of stars. And to the rhythm of the maaya paax (Maya music) played by the crickets, he ran to see what lights were being protected by the kapok trees that night.

As he ran, he stumbled on a stone and hurt his right leg, but that didn’t stop him. He forged ahead toward the source of light. Just before reaching his favourite hill, he came upon a very hungry wolf. Even though his leg hurt, Chan Kéej was very scared and started running again until he lost sight of the wolf. Running so hard, he fell off a cliff and rolled all the way down into a cave, where he remained unconscious for several hours.

When Chan Kéej opened his eyes, he realized what had happened. He started exploring the cave until he glimpsed a light that made him think there might be a way out.

He started kicking around the wall of the cave when all of a sudden a door opened, leading to the heart of a village. There, a female friend who had come from afar received him with a big hug. She was a lovely star visiting the earth—the flash of fire he’d seen falling that morning from his favourite hill, captivating his heart and inspiring him to start on the extraordinary journey through the forests of the south.

Chan Kéej was dazzled by the light of the star that came down to visit the earth. All of a sudden he heard the wind singing and telling him:

—Hello, Chan Kéej, I am Chan Éek’ (Little Star). Yuum bo’otik, thank you very much for coming to my rescue. If you touch me, I will return to the sky, and there in the sky I will see you every night.

Chan Kéej then touched Chan Éek’ and they both returned home.

If from the sky to the earth there are no borders between cosmic beings and animals, why on earth should there be borders between human beings?


“The Little Deer and the Tiny Star” © Sáasil Uj Chi Xool


El pequeño venado y la estrellita

Hubo una vez un venado llamado Chan Kéej (Venadito), muy querido por todos sus hermanos. Era muy curioso y travieso. Le gustaba explorar los lugares y conocer cosas nuevas.

Todos los días, cuando Yuum K’iin (el Padre Sol) extendía sus manos para besar la Tierra y asomaba su redonda cara sobre los árboles, encontraba a Chan Kéej jugando a las escondidas con sus hermanos: Sak Xikin (Oreja Blanca), Sa’anjo’ol (Cabeza Grisácea) y Chak Mo’ol (Garra Roja).

Chan Kéej se despertaba muy temprano todos los días, para saludar a su amigo Yuum K’iin. Apenas se bajaba de su hamaca, salía a la puerta de casa y daba unos brincos de alegría. Después caminaba por el sak bej (camino blanco) que va hacia donde sale Yuum K’iin. Caminaba hasta llegar al lugar donde el tractor había amontonado las rocas más grandes y subía hasta alcanzar la cima, donde estaba su roca favorita: el pedernal rojizo. Ahí se quedaba sentado a mirar fijamente el lak’in (oriente). Besaba suavemente el horizonte, sin respirar el sereno,[ii] hasta que el Sol extendía sus primeros rayos.

Después de inclinar su chan pool (cabecita), para reverenciar a Yuum K’iin y estirar sus pequeñas patitas para saludarlo, le preguntaba:

—Yuum K’iin, ¿puedo respirar el sereno?

Su amigo le contestaba, con su brillo y calor, que sí.

—Sí puedes respirar el sereno.

Él respiraba hondo y profundo, y luego emprendía su regreso a casa, acompañado por la luz y el tibio cuerpo del Sol.

Mientras tanto, sus hermanos, en el patio de su casa, jugaban a las escondidas.

Pero un día en que Chan Kéej fue a saludar a su amigo Yuum K’iin como siempre, justo cuando terminaba de llenar sus pulmones de acero con el frío sereno, abrió sus ojos y vio una pelota de fuego que caía del cielo. Asustado se preguntó:

—¿Qué será esa luz que cayó? ¿Será que mi amigo Yuum K’iin, se cayó de su hamaca?

Sin pensarlo dos veces, empezó a correr, a correr y a correr hacia donde cayó el fuego. Sin embargo, por mucho que corrió día y noche, hasta el amanecer del tercer día, no encontró la pelota de fuego que cayó del cielo.

Decepcionado y triste regresó a su casa. Cuando llegó la noche, se fue a dormir y empezó a soñar la luz que vino del cielo. De repente, en su sueño despertó y se paró junto a la ventana, mirando hacia el lak’in. Ahí descubrió que dentro de los árboles de ya’ax che’ (ceiba) que anidan el patio de su cerro favorito, se veía una luz resplandeciente. Como si las ceibas amurallaran una gran ciudad de oro.

Chan Kéej sin dudarlo salió de su casa y se abrigó con el frío manto de la noche, llena de estrellas. Y, con el son de la maaya paax (música maya) que tocaban los grillos, fue corriendo a ver qué luz cuidaban los árboles de ceiba, en esa noche.

Corriendo y corriendo se tropezó con una piedra y lastimó su patita derecha, pero eso no lo detuvo. Él siguió caminando hacia donde estaba la luz. Cuando le faltaba poco para llegar a su cerro favorito, se encontró con un lobo muy hambriento. Chan Kéej se asustó mucho y empezó a correr de nuevo con la patita adolorida hasta que logró perderse del lobo. Por correr tanto se cansó y se cayó en un barranco sin darse cuenta; rodó, rodó y rodó mucho, hasta llegar a dar en una cueva donde quedó desmayado por unas horas.

Al abrir los ojos se dio cuenta de lo ocurrido, entonces se levantó y empezó a explorar la cueva hasta que alcanzó a ver una luz, que le hizo pensar que por ahí estaba la salida. Chan Kéej como pudo emprendió de nuevo su camino iluminado por la luz.

No tardó mucho pataleando, cuando de repente la puerta del corazón de un pueblo, habitado por una amiga venida de lejos, lo recibió con un fuerte abrazo. Era una hermosa estrella que vino a visitar la tierra, y que justo había sido el fuego que vio caer del cielo aquella mañana desde su cerro favorito y cautivó su corazón para emprender un extraordinario viaje en los bosques del sur.

Chan Kéej se detuvo vislumbrado por la luz de la estrella que vino a visitar la tierra. De repente escuchó una voz en el canto del viento que le decía:

—Hola Chan Kéej, soy Chan Éek’ (Pequeña Estrella). Yuum bo’otik (muchas gracias) por venir a rescatarme. Si me tocas, regreso al cielo y desde ahí, en el cielo, te veré todas las noches.

Entonces Chan Kéej tocó a Chan Éek’, al mismo tiempo los dos volvieron a sus casas.

Si del cielo a la tierra no hay fronteras entre los seres cósmicos y los animales, ¿por qué en la tierra ha de haber fronteras entre los seres humanos?


Sáasil reading to her little siblings and teaching them how to count in Mayan and Spanish—Video © Hilario Chi Canul, for his PhD thesis about the revitalization of the Yucatecan Mayan language



For more information on Hilario Chi Canul’s work, see his book La Vitalidad Del Maya Yucateco, his poem in Mayan and his appeal in Spanish to protect the earth (both with English subtitles), as well as his essay on Maya culture in a Mexican journal of philology.


* In 200 years, the proportion of speakers of Indigenous languages in Mexico has plummeted from 65% of the population to 6.5%, according to the National Statistics Institute, INEGI. “Our languages don’t die, they get killed,” declared Mixe linguist Yásnaya Aguilar, when she brought the matter before Mexico’s House of Representatives in 2019, blaming national public policies for this murder.

[i] According to the Maya tradition, breathing the sereno or cold morning air is not good for you; it can give you a cold or a sore throat.

[ii] Según la tradición Maya, respirar el sereno antes de que salga el sol puede provocar que uno se enferme de gripa o de la garganta.



Sáasil Uj Chi Xool is a 10-year old schoolgirl, poet and writer who lives in the city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto (also known as Chan Santa Cruz), in the Yucatan peninsula. She loves animals, but finds it very hard when they get ill. She is the daughter of María Reneyda Xool Yam, a devoted mother committed to the revitalization of the Mayan language, and Hilario Chi Canul, a doting father and long-time researcher and professor of the Yucatecan Mayan language, who has translated works such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are into Mayan.