Yucatec Maya Summer Institute Celebrates Twentieth Anniversary

August 30, 2012

While 2012 is a high point for apocalyptic rumor about Mayan culture, fueled by the final tic on the Maya Long Count calendar, this year marks a significant milestone of a different nature: the Yucatec Maya Summer Institute celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Created in 1992 by Sharon Mújica, the institute was developed by the Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education through the consortium’s Title VI grant and an endowment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Yucatec Maya is spoken by 700,000 to 1,000,000 people in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico and northern Belize. The Yucatec Maya Institute provides intensive Maya language learning – reading, writing, listening, speaking – as well as an experiential program in Mexico. Mújica views the on-site fieldwork as essential. “I thought it was very important for students to see the country, to meet people, to hear the language as it’s spoken,” she said.

Divided into three levels of increasing accomplishment, students find meaningful engagement with Maya communities as central to the program. Level Three requires students to do independent fieldwork. One student worked with a Mayan playwright in a public theater production produced entirely in Yucatec Maya. “The things they study are fascinating,” Mújica said, “and at the same time, they are improving their language skills.” John Elliott ’12 completed a project this summer that involved interviewing primary school students about their experimental bilingual education in both Yucatec Maya and Spanish.

To date, 216 students have participated in the institute, with approximately 15 to 20 people each year. Ben Fallaw ’88 was one of the institute’s first students. While a PhD student at the University of Chicago, he traveled with the inaugural 1992 cohort to Mexico. Fallaw, who now teaches Latin American history at Colby College, said that by learning the Yucatec Maya language, he “came to understand how the Maya organize reality in a way very different from my native culture.”

“As a graduate student, I was trained to use documents to write history,” he continued. “Thanks to my experience with the institute I came to read my documents in new ways, reading between the lines as it were to see the subtle but pervasive ways Mayan culture survived and influenced land use, politics and religion in twentieth century Yucatán.”

It’s this sort of cultural nuance that the institute cultivates. “A lot of people sometimes assume they can study other cultures by looking at what’s been written about them in English,” said David Mora-Marín, associate professor of linguistics and a Level One professor with the institute.

The institute works closely with Yucatán-based educators, as well as scholars affiliated with the Maya Linguistics and Culture program at the Universidad de Oriente in Valladolid, Mexico. The Universidad de Oriente is a new teacher-training site for Maya language instruction in primary schools, which Mora-Marín calls “essentially a testing ground for new government policy in Mexico. It’s a major step forward in the revitalization of languages.” Serving as assistants and instructors, Mayan scholars gain professional experience working with non-native students, while the institute’s students get to work closely with top Mayan academics, advocates and artists.

The summer institute enrolls graduate and undergraduate students from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Latin America. It serves non-traditional students, including heritage learners, independent scholars and community members. The Department of Linguistics at UNC also offers academic-year classes in beginning Yucatec Maya.

Allison Bigelow earned her PhD in English and comparative literature this summer, and while her interest is in the scientific literature of English and Iberian writers, Maya study influenced her dissertation work. Bigelow “didn’t come to Carolina expecting to study Yucatec Maya.” In fact, she said, “before enrolling at UNC I hadn’t even realized there were so many present-day Maya speakers or so many Maya languages.” But after taking a class to fulfill a language requirement, Bigelow discovered the wealth of opportunities in the institute. She said that “…building linguistic and cultural competency in Yucatec Maya has helped me to contextualize some of the English, Portuguese, and especially Spanish-language records that I studied in my dissertation project.” She’s since collaborated on an English-language translation of contemporary Yucatec Maya verse that was presented at an international poetry festival in Slovenia.

Elliott was an undergraduate when he took a Maya topics course without “really knowing what it was.” Interest piqued, he plowed through just about all Maya course work available to him. After moving through all three levels of the institute, Elliott is now applying to graduate school to study Maya civilization, with particular interest in bilingual education.

“From a linguistics point of view, it’s really great to study a language with no relationship to English,” Elliott said. “You know more about language when you know more about first languages.”

Elliott didn’t have a Spanish background when he first traveled to the Yucatán with the institute. “It’s probably an experience a lot of people wouldn’t get, having your first experience in Mexico from an indigenous standpoint,” he said.

Mújica noted that “people in the villages are always thrilled: they want to help (the students) learn the language and welcome them into their homes … when you speak their language, they open up in a way they wouldn’t before.”

Hardly limited by geography, the learning tools developed by the institute are used in classrooms across the nation, including the campuses of Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Chicago and The Maya Cultural Center (San Francisco). Materials are sold to individuals, libraries and publishing houses. The institute has been tapped for consultation with Hollywood producers and cooperates with agencies seeking interpreters. The institute also produced a Yucatec Maya documentary featuring Yucatecan talent, and it supports a community library in the town of Xócen. As well, scholars affiliated with the institute worked with the Santa Elena (Mexico) mayor’s office to bring ancient stories of the town to its cultural center. The stories are painted in glyphs and include wall panels explaining their meaning.

Tied to these two decades of the institute expanding the deep study of Mayan culture and language, an exhibition of large images of Mayan peoples and sites will be displayed on UNC’s campus throughout the fall semester. The images in “Ancient and Living Maya Through the Photographic Lens” were photographed by National Geographic staffers from the 1950s through the 1980s and are on loan from the collection of George E. Stuart ’75 PhD, a former National Geographic archaeologist. Lowland and highland Maya garments and textiles are also part of the show. The exhibition runs Sept. 18 – Dec. 14 in the FedEx Global Education Center.

Pivoting off the photography exhibition is a symposium, Oct. 25-26, and a second exhibition featuring rare books. The symposium, “13 Bak’tun: New Maya Perspectives in 2012,” will turn pop culture interest in 2012 into a more meaningful conversation about the significance of calendric cycles for the Maya. There will be lectures, multimedia presentations and poetry readings. The symposium is free and open to the public. Registration is recommended but not required: www.maya2012.unc.edu.

“The symposium will highlight the resources at UNC to study Mayan culture and language,” Mora-Marín said, who plans to give a talk on Mayan astronomy. He added that scholars who are themselves Mayan will lead much of the symposium’s conversation.

The second Maya exhibit, concurrent with the symposium, will display rare books that tell the story of European discovery of Maya sites, languages and literary traditions, as well as the fervent political history of the region. This exhibit, located in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room of the Wilson Library, is on display Oct. 8 through Jan. 27, 2013 and includes materials from the George E. and Melinda Y. Stuart Collection and other holdings in the Rare Book Collection of UNC.

Going forward, the institute hopes to extend its reach to scholars in a wider range of disciplines. While it is popular with anthropologists and art historians, Mora-Marín said he’d like to see more participants from additional fields, like comparative literature and journalism, in the next generation of students. Elliott said the institute should also appeal to political science students, especially those interested in inter-racial and inter-cultural politics. “If you want to do something intercultural in the U.S., it’s a really good opportunity to understand the relations between majority and minority groups in another country,” he said.

The 2012 cultural renaissance of the Maya provides strong ground for the institute’s next twenty years. Besides having a rich network of relationships developed over two decades, popular interest in Mayan culture is at a peak, Mexico just elected a new president, and the country is experimenting with pioneering policies to integrate indigenous languages into modern Mexican life. “It’s an exciting time to be there and learning,” Mújica said.


-Story by Anna Clark