YUCATÁN, MÉXICO - A group of youth with diverse backgrounds from the Laguna Pueblo, California, and several Maya communities in the Yucatán came together on July 2-9 in southern México for a field study and cultural exchange.
The cultural exchange program is the brainchild of Dr. Isabel Hawkins, Astronomer and Project Director for the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Calif., and Dr. Shelly Valdez, CEO of Native Pathways, Laguna Pueblo, who accompanied the participants with six other chaperones.
This exchange was the second phase of the project, which began in 2011 with a visit by Pueblo and Maya youth to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The project’s goal is to develop youth leadership skills by strengthening their cultural identity through interactions with other cultures that share similar values and traditions.
The 15 young people who participated were selected for their knowledge of their cultural traditions and native languages.
Visits to rural towns in the Yucatán engaged the youth in community-based settings that fostered and deepened their knowledge of the Mayan civilization. This understanding allowed them to make connections between contemporary subjects like geometry, astronomy, and medicine, with ancient traditions and to integrate these knowledge systems into a holistic practice.
The group visited Maní, Santa Elena, Pebá, Muna, Telchac, and Mérida, as well as the archaeological sites of Loltún, Kabah, and Uxmal.
The Ecological Agricultural School, U Yits Ka’an, in Mani, and the archaeological site of Uxmal jointly hosted the group’s visit.
These partners provided learning experiences that integrated ancient Mayan legacy with the living traditions of the Maya people today, who have lived in the Yucatán peninsula continuously for 2,000 years.
At the home of a Mayan elder, Don Hernán Perera, or Santa Elena, participants were able to learn how Maya communities today honor and cultivate corn in the traditional way. Students worked alongside Don Hernán as he conducted a Sac Ha’ offering (corn ceremony) in his “milpa” or cornfield.
“They have a lot of respect for corn and the Mother, the land; everything they do revolves around the respect for it,” said one Laguna participant.
Hernán also shared his knowledge of the construction techniques of the traditional Maya home, did a demonstration of rope-making with “henequen,” and shared his knowledge of medicinal and other native plants in his garden.
The group was treated to a traditional meal prepared by Don Hernán’s family.
Visits to Loltún, Kabah, and Uxmal, ancestral sites still held sacred by the Maya people, provided a chance to interact with local Maya archaeologists and restoration teams who are uncovering important information about how the Maya engineered several water- collection systems a 1,000 years ago, in an area with no rivers and very few natural water sources.
This site provided opportunities for the participants to reflect on the importance of water and the traditions shared by these cultures relating to water and rain.
One student described the exchange experience as a unique privilege, and said, “You can’t find the words to describe it, it’s a feeling inside and we’re privileged to have these experiences; being at Chaco and then at the Pyramids…”
A special moment came when the youth had a chance to work with native, non-stinging Maya bees called Xunan Kab at the ecological school U Yits Ka’an. They learned how the local community cares for the bees and how they process this special honey into medicinal and edible products.
The cultural exchange culminated with a fiesta attended by more than 150 people from the nearby Maya communities who were affiliated with the ecological school. The day featured traditional music, dance, foods and interactions among all participants.
The Pueblo youth shared social dances of Buffalo, Butterfly and Eagle.
The Maya youth and community shared traditional dances of Jarana and Cabeza de Cochino.
The fiesta allowed participants to hear their respective native languages, Yucatec Mayan and Keres, and stressed the importance of keeping these languages alive.
“I need to try harder and do better …everyday language… otherwise were going to lose it. It’s got to start someplace, and it needs to start with me,” said one student.
Another explained the cultural and linguistic challenges faced between the Pueblo and Maya people, “Knowing that there are others having the same struggles in culture and language being lost and knowing there are people trying to maintain it, and knowing who they are. Learning who our people are, how we came to be and how we began, and hopefully we will continue to do the same things.”
The collaborators are now planning the next cultural exchange program to foster continuity and continue to develop the leadership potential of our youth – the next generation.
Editor’s Note: The collaborators would like to extend their gratitude to everyone who made this cultural exchange possible.
They include: Archaeological Site of Uxmal in the Yucatán; Birth 2 Work, Whittier, Calif.; Dream Catcher Foundation, Alberta, Canada; Red Wind Farms, N.M.; Lobo Ranch Preserve, Seboyeta, N.M.; Ideum, Corrales, N.M.; and Laguna Housing Development and Management Enterprise, Laguna, N.M.