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Awakening the Language & Culture of Ancient Maya

By Rachel Bruton, The Genographic Project

 

It is estimated that by 2100, more than half of the 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will have disappeared. Throughout human history, languages have come and gone, but the rate at which languages are disappearing has accelerated dramatically in recent years.

Why does it matter?

National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project, which is documenting endangered languages, reminds us that each time the planet loses a language, humanity loses an important piece of its cultural identity. Many of the most vulnerable languages have yet to be written down because their culture and traditions are passed down orally.

One of the primary goals of the Genographic Project is to gather and analyze research data in collaboration with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world. Recognizing the importance of preserving indigenous languages and traditions, the Genographic Project developed the Genographic Legacy Fund (GLF) in 2005. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Geno 2.0 DNA Kits goes to the GLF, which distributes grants to indigenous and traditional communities requesting support for cultural and language revitalization projects. To date, 75 grants totaling more than $2 million have gone towards community-led projects.

Maya Mam taking action

In 2012, the Maya Mam community in Guatemala applied for and received a GLF grant to produce two children’s books for its preschool. The books are some of the first the community has written in its own language and are based on Mam legends.  The books will play an integral role in teaching the Mam language and cultural identity. The community’s local preschool, Xnaq’tz Nab’l Qchman (Teaching the Thoughts of Our Ancestors), is grounded in the Maya Mam culture and language. Children that attend the preschool are taught in the local Maya Mam language and learn Spanish as a second language. The school is having an impact on the wider community who feel a renewed interest in the Maya Mam’s people’s cultural heritage and the desire to preserve it for future generations.

An Update From the Maya Mam Community

The following is a reflection of the project “Transmitting Our Culture to the New Generations,” written by Eduardo Jimenez who is the coordinator and founder of the Association Grupo Cajolá and recipient of the GLF grant.

“We are Maya Mam people, one of the largest of the Maya ethnic groups located in Cajola, Guatemala. We speak our own language. Like the rest of the Maya people, we have suffered poverty, genocide, and racial discrimination ever since the invasion by the Spanish in the 16th century through today by the Guatemalan oligarchy state. As a result, our culture and language — and identity — have been under enormous pressure, and now worsened by the impact of immigration. Support from the Genographic Legacy Fund has helped provide materials and equipment for our new preschool Xnaq’tz Nab’l Qchman. The school is based on our language and culture, and has adopted the philosophy of the world-renowned preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, whose philosophy states that education is the work of the family, the school, and the community.

 Our preschool is already having an impact on the community, especially the parents. We host regular meetings for the parents and many have said they have learned better parenting practices, and in many cases have been awakened to their own identity and heritage. They often ask the teachers to explain something about their culture that their children are learning and having been sharing at home.

 The school is also having an impact on the wider community. The children impressed may of the adults with their traditional dance performance in front of the entire community during the annual “Festival of Santa Cruz of Cajola” which takes place from April 27 to May 5 each year. The children are frequently out in the community, visiting elders, the market, and learning about their world. The activity, which is the focus of our photos, was held in the main town plaza. The children and their mothers made rag dolls dressed in the traditional clothing of Cajolá and they interviewed people who passed by and asked them questions about their childhood toys and memories. One primary school teacher who saw the activity has even asked to enroll her child in our school! 

 The two preschool books in Mam that we are writing are getting closer to publication. These are the first of an effort to build a body of literature in Mam. Although we have a written language, there are virtually no books written in Mam. We have made books by hand, but a published book will also make clear the value of written Mam.

 As we are winding up our preschool’s second year and preparing for our third, we can say that we are very proud of our school and the impact it is already having on the children and their families. The children’s activities have engaged the parents and taught many in the wider community to value their language and culture, and to understand the impact of their history.” 

To learn more about the Genographic Legacy Fund, click here. Grant applications are due Sept. 15 each year. Email genographiclegacy@ngs.org with questions.

To learn more about the Association Grupo Cajolá, visit the website by clicking here.

Comments

  1. bette meers
    San Francisco, California
    March 2, 1:39 pm

    This is wonderful. I know well one young emigrant Mayan family and I can testify unequivocally that our country is fortunate to have them…they embody qualities that place them among the finest of human beings.

  2. genry vail
    NJ USA
    December 18, 2013, 12:09 am

    i’m proud to speak mam as my first language and happy to heard about this program “Transmitting Our Culture to the New Generations” and happy of this happening in my little land Cajola !