Building Bridges

The Mayan people may be considered “ancient,” merely a subject for middle school social studies classes. However, descendants of the Mayans of Mesoamerica live throughout the world, bringing their history and culture into the 21st century. Roselyn Costantino, professor of Spanish, women’s, gender and sexuality studies and Latin American studies at Penn State Altoona, has been studying Mayan women for a long time. She says, “The women are an inspiring story to begin with but they’re also an important story.”

Costantino makes a point about these women: “We have these ideas about indigenous people—Mayan women are small and dark and wear ‘costumes’ that are art pieces that narrate stories and communicate identity.” But they are also socially and politically active. “The first time that a dictator was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide in his own country, where it happened—in Guatemala—was because of the Mayan women. They’re also at the forefront of the global environmental movement, fighting the hydro dams, the Canadian gold mines, and other extractive industries.”

Costantino’s writing subject was a younger generation of Mayan activists. Lake Worth, Florida, is home to a large group of people with Mayan ancestry and so contains the Guatemalan-Maya Center, a thriving community center where people may speak English or Spanish or one of 21 Mayan languages that “are distinct, that is, not mutually understood,” says Costantino. Unfortunately, that makes communication difficult, especially when trying to let people know what services the center can provide.

Enter the Maya Girls. “This group of girls, as part of their high school graduation requirement, decided to figure out a way to make important information available to those who didn’t speak either English or Spanish about services provided by the center,” Costantino says. “They came up with this idea—how do we get this information into an accessible format?” It couldn’t just be written out, either, because “Maya is an oral language so most speakers do not read or write it.”

The girls decided that the most efficient way to communicate was through video/digital access. They applied for a grant at the March 2019 Philanthropy Tank Live Pitch Event at the Palm Springs Civic Center. Costantino is in awe: “These students did it. Wearing their traditional clothing, they carried the culture, language and history on their backs. They got up and in English and in Mam (one of the Maya languages they speak), they said, ‘Hello! We are the Maya Girls.’”

The students made their pitch for money for video equipment and “they were funded. These videos are now available on community members’ home computers and other devices, in libraries, and at the Guatemala/Maya Center where services are provided and the girls volunteer. A lot of the programs are designed to strengthen families and build community, providing already existing information on “asylum legal aid, immigration issues, educational programs”—Costantino rattles off the list of uses. It’s not easy, though, to find enough fluent speakers so they are still looking for young people who speak the different Mayan languages. “They need those people in order to expand the reach of their programs.” In addition, they are also training other Maya youth.

Beyond the accomplishment of getting the funding was a less obvious but still important success: “What was brilliant was the way they inserted themselves in both elite spaces, where they presented, and social groups, such as wealthy philanthropists, where they brought the little-known story of the history of the Maya. They not only broaden the reach of services but impact the community by strengthening its language and culture,” Costantino says. “It’s a great example for young people of being leaders, being innovators, to make the community strong and make America what it is.”

Therese Boyd, ’79

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