Cultural Revitalization: Cultural Vitality Mission

Mayan Cultural Revitalization Promoting Cultural Vitality through Verbal Art

Our mission: keeping language and culture alive

Immediate objective: the revitalization of Mayan language and culture through verbal art.

Goals to achieve Mayan Cultural Revitalization:

  • Collect Mayan oral histories, folklore and other speech genres to promote cultural revitalization
  • Document and translate the Mayan oral histories
  • Create a digital archive of the Mayan oral histories (with free access to all)
  • Broadcast Mayan folklore, legends, and oral histories on community-based Indigenous radio stations in Guatemala and Belize -in collaboration with Cultural Survival
  • Disseminate  recorded CDs of the narratives (for use in schools and libraries)
  • Disseminate illustrated bilingual books of the narratives (for use in schools and libraries)
  • Build community participation through radio theater, inviting participation to tell stories
  • Train Indigenous radio announcers to record and collect new oral histories from all generations in the community; encouraging male and female storytellers to participate.


Maya people, Guatemala
Maya people, Guatemala

Maya Culture Endangerment

There are many variables contributing to the endangerment of the Mayan oral tradition. First and foremost, the elders are dying and legends aren’t being passed down to the next generation. This means that the next generation won’t be able to continue to pass on the oral tradition to their children and their children’s children. For a culture to thrive, this is a necessity.  Another contributing factor is that the younger generation isn’t self-identifying with their native Mayan language. Maya parents (in Guatemala) are more and more frequently speaking in Spanish to their children rather than in their first language, in the hope that this will provide better opportunities for them to succeed in the world. These instincts are reinforced by the fact that “bilingual” education classes are taught in Spanish. Sadly, the message for “success” is to: speak Spanish; listen to Spanish radio stations; go to school and receive an education in Spanish; forsake one’s Mayan culture; forsake one’s Mayan first language; and often, forsake one’s traditional Mayan clothing.

The Cultural Vitality mission “to keep language and culture alive” is focused on developing an intervention through community radio. Our goal is to broadcast traditional Mayan narratives to reinvigorate the Mayan oral tradition and to promote Mayan cultural revitalization through verbal art.

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Mayan Rituals: How to Plant Corn

Mayan Rituals

The Mayan rituals for planting corn are passed down from generation-to-generation. A Maya farmer will undoubtedly tell you that he plants corn the way his father taught him. The preparation can be elaborate. Some times, it may take a few days to prepare. Many farmers and neighbors gather and work together.

This narrative was told to me in Q’eqchi’ by Carlota Yalibat in 1978, while in Cobán, Guatemala. When you listen to the video, you will hear Carlota’s soft voice. You will also hear her recipe for the soup that must be prepared. Most importantly, what is conveyed is how important it is to respect nature, to respect the ways of our ancestors, to burn one’s incense, to say one’s prayers, and to ask for permission before planting your seeds or picking your corn so that you may yield a healthy and plentiful crop.

In the translation of this text, Carlota mentions that the farmer must go to the center of the cleared field and and plant the seeds in the form of a “cross”. The true significance of this stems from the cosmological reference to the four astrological points:  East – West and North -South. Once putting the seeds in these four points, it does indeed form the shape of a “cross.” The origin of the practice, according to Victor Cal, a Maya educator at Tumul K’in, is related to the Maya calendar and relates to the four directions and their corresponding relationship to the elements needed to produce a good crop, e.g. East- fire, West- earth, North- air/wind, and South- water.

Sometimes, traditions are practiced over and over, “because it is the way it has always been done; it is the way of our father, and our father’s father; and it is how we were taught.” The reason behind the symbolism however, may sometimes be obscured as religious symbols, like crosses, become more prevalent in the (modern)culture.

Enjoy the translation and video about “How to Plant Corn,” narrated by Carlota Yalibat in Q’eqchi’.

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Q’eqchi’ Mayan Language Revitalization through Verbal Art

Q’eqchi’ Mayan Language Revitalization: Preserving Indigenous Legends on the Radio

Excerpt from the Cultural Survival Quarterly

#Proud2BIndigenous Week
May 13, 2014


“Francisco Choco’oj Paau, a Q’eqchi’ Maya storyteller from Cobán, Guatemala, then in his late fifties, would take his time to prepare to tell a story. He would say his prayers; he would burn his (copal) incense. That’s because, these weren’t just stories, they were ancient Mayan legends; legends that had been passed down from generation-to-generation; told in a precise way; told in the same way; for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Each legend holds a custom, tradition, or particular insight into Maya beliefs and culture. Each legend also holds a moral about Maya life…”

To promote Q’eqchi’ Mayan language revitalization through verbal art, Aurelio Sho, of Radio Ak’ Kutan in Belize, broadcasts Q’eqchi’ legends on a weekly storytelling program. The folktales from the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala, narrated by Francisco Choco’oj Paau in 1978, are now being heard throughout the Toledo district of Belize. These legends about “The Buzzard and the Snake,” “The Snakes of Senahu,” “The Hunter,” “How to Cure a Toothache,” “The Dance of the Deer,” and in particular, “The Hills and the Corn,” are inspiring a young Q’eqchi’ generation to respect Mother Earth and to be grateful for her natural resources, while simultaneously rekindling ancient memories for their parents and grandparents, many of whom immigrated from Guatemala.

Aurelio Sho, Radio Ak' Kutan, Belize
Aurelio Sho, Radio Ak’ Kutan, Belize

To read more about the Q’eqchi’ Mayan language revitalization project and our efforts to broadcast Mayan legends on Indigenous community radio, see the complete article or visit:


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Mayan Oral Tradition: A Testimonial to Enduring Voices

Mayan Enduring Voices through Verbal Art

That the Mayas oral tradition has persisted for nearly two millennia is a true testament to Mayan enduring voices over time. These memories form a record of ritual Maya practices and reflect thought and cultural values. These enduring voices provide an ancient archive to Maya life. The preservation of these enduring voices will help insure the preservation and continued cultivation of enduring voices within the younger generation of Mayas.

Radio has the potential to impact change and language revitalization as it is the one medium that binds Maya communities together. All strata of society listen regularly in Guatemala, as well as in Belize.

So, let us imagine… the impact… if you will… if Maya legends could be heard on the radio… enduring voices reaching hundreds or thousands of homes… accessing and connecting with children and their parents…. together… reminiscent of a time when people gathered together to hear a shaman, priest, or elder of the community convey narrative wisdom, teachings, and rituals practiced by their ancestors.

The Cultural Vitality mission is focused on keeping Mayan language and culture alive so that this and future Mayan generations will continue to thrive.

The stellar Enduring Voices Project is focused on the world’s endangered languages. As we continue to focus on language preservation, so too, must we continue to focus on cultural preservation.

  • Endangered languages lead to endangered culturesMaya shamanMaya shaman
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Q’eqchi’ Maya Storytelling Program

Q’eqchi’ Maya Storytelling Radio Program in Belize

When I first spoke with Aurelio Sho, Manager of Ak’ Kutan Radio, located at Tumul K’in Learning Center in Blue Creek, Belize, I asked (rather tentatively) if he might be interested in a Q’eqchi’ Maya Storytelling Program for his community radio broadcast. His reaction was an immediate, “yes!” He told me  how his father, a traditional Maya, would always tell him Maya legends and how he had been working with the one elder in the Toledo community who still narrates stories. He used to come in regularly to the station to narrate Q’eqchi’ legends, but he no longer comes in because it is too far a journey after working on his farm all day. Aurelio asked if I could send him a Q’eqchi’ story. I did. And that is how our collaboration began. After a few weeks, he wrote to me and said, “Everyone loves the story. Please send more!” After sending one story a month for five months, I realized that I needed to visit Belize and meet Aurelio in person and experience first-hand the impact that he was accomplishing through his Q’eqchi’ Maya Storytelling Program on the radio.

Now, in collaboration with Ak’ Kutan Radio, I am thrilled to announce that the complete Berinstein (2013) Q’eqchi Mayan Narrative collection is being produced on his weekly Q’eqchi Maya Storytelling Program. One of the most popular legends is the story about “The Dance of the Deer” because the dance is known throughout all parts of Belize and is still practiced widely in Guatemala, as well as Belize.

Indigenous-led community radio storytelling programs are able to revitalize language and culture through engagement in oral literature. When  Mayas narrate and broadcast folktales, legends, and other speech genres on their community-based radio stations; memories are rejuvenated and it encourages community participation in the restoration of customs and traditions. It also transmits a shared voice, a shared cultural identity. In this way, Q’eqchi’ Maya storytelling is being revitalized in Belize. And now, because Ak’ Kutan has just received a new transmitter that can broadcast 1000 watts (compared to the former 100 watt transmitter), the station  is reaching 97 % of Southern Belize. They are also reaching the southern communities in the Stann Creek District which is equivalent to approximately 30,000 radio listeners.

On this video of Maya Day, a celebration hosted by Tumul K’in,  the Mayas celebrate their cultural identity and perform traditional Mayan customs, including “The Dance of the Deer.” The deer dancers are fully adorned and the marimba music can be heard in this portrayal of a ritual dance on the video.

Maya Day, Tumul K’in Belize. Click the link to play the video clip.

Tumul K'in, Maya Educational Center, Belize
Tumul K’in, Maya Educational Center, Belize
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Mayan Chirimia and Drum


Maya Fiestas: an Expression of Mayan Chirimia and Drum Music, Marimba, Dance, and Cultural Identity

While doing my fieldwork in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, in 1978, I recorded  Mayan chirimia and drum music during the Pabaank Festival as I walked alongside the procession of Maya musicians.

Traditional Mayan chirimia and drum performance
Traditional Mayan chirimia and drum performance

While marimba music is well-known and practiced widely  during local fiestas, the Mayan chirimia and drum is not as well-known and it is rarely practiced today. The pre-Hispanic Mayan chirimia and drum music is very traditional and it is performed during religious processions, as in the Pabaank Festival which honors the local patron saint in Cobán.

The repetitious melody, often hypnotic in nature, is quite unique and varies from one region to another. This double-reed instrument of the shawm family is made of wood. Its length can vary, but it is usually 10 – 12 inches long. It has seven note holes and does not have a thumb hole. There are three tuning holes, one which coincides with the position of the seventh note hole and the other two on the reverse side, on the same level as the seventh hole. There are two ornamental bands on the instrument, one above the note holes and the other positioned between the sixth and seventh note holes.

Mayan chirimia musical instrument
Mayan chirimia musical instrument

I hope you enjoy listening to this short excerpt of the Mayan chirimia and drum music being played during the Pabaank Festival (recorded in 1978 in Cobán).

This musical tradition is passed from generation-to-generation and can be traced back to the pre-Columbian practice of accompanying religious ceremonies and processions with drums, flutes, and whistles, as depicted  in the Bonampak mural.

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Q’eqchi’ Maya Students Illustrate the Dance of the Deer

Tumul K’in Community Radio Class

Tumul K'in class illustrated the Dance of the Deer legend
Tumul K’in Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya students listened to the 1978 Q’eqchi’ recording of “The Dance of the Deer” told by Francisco Choco’oj Paau of Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. While everyone in the class was familiar with the “Deer Dance,” no one had heard the legend.

While visiting the intercultural Maya educational center at Tumul K’in in Blue Creek, Toledo District, Belize, the students in Aurelio Sho’s class on community radio and cultural identity listened to the original Q’eqchi’ recording of “The Dance of the Deer,” Laj Xajol Kej (from the Berinstein 2013 narrative collection), and then everyone in the  class, including the instructor, Aurelio Sho (in orange shirt) illustrated the story.

Tumul K'in class illustrated the Dance of the Deer legend
The Deer Dancer, drawn by Aurelio Sho, Tumul K’in instructor and Ak’ Kutan Community Radio Manager

Before the students began to illustrate the legend, the first question asked was, “Can we have a copy of the book?” At this time, they do not own any books. Imagine being the co-author of the first book you ever owned! That is the goal. Each book will list all of the artists in the class and it will include a CD of the narration, as well as the marimba music that is played during the Deer Dance performance. In this way, parents and grandparents can listen to the collection, while their children begin to read it.

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Mayan Cultural Vitality FB Page

Mayan Cultural Vitality

Visit the new Cultural Vitality Facebook Page to support Mayan cultural revitalization and promote Mayan cultural vitality!

Please “like” us (and share with your friends) to help support Mayan cultural vitality. With enough “likes,” we can launch a kickstarter fundraising campaign to fund the publication and distribution of bilingual Q’eqchi’- Spanish  book collections in Guatemala with a companion CD. We also hope to disseminate  bilingual Q’eqchi’- English CD/book collections in Belize. The folktale collections will be illustrated with photographs and with an assortment of original student artwork illustrated by the Maya students at Tumul K’in Intercultural Education Center in Belize.

As the stories are played and heard on CDs in the home and broadcast on community radio, we hope that many memories are restored; that the elders and other narrators will be inspired to tell more stories; and that the younger generation will be encouraged to preserve this oral tradition, so that Mayan cultural vitality, Mayan languages, Mayan customs, and Mayan culture will continue to thrive.

Every “like” helps us to support Mayan cultural vitality.

Thank you!!!

3 deer dancersDeer Dancers performing the “Dance of the Deer”


With your support we have surpassed our goal of 500 likes! It has been one month and we are now at 649 likes! Our next goal is 750, then 1,000! Thank you to our fans and supporters!!!!

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Mayan Arts and Culture: Bonampak Mural

Mayan arts and culture: musical instruments

Archeologists have uncovered drums, flutes, whistles, and trumpets indicating that music played an important role in pre-Columbian Mayan arts and culture. These instruments have also been attested in ancient Mayan texts and murals. In this Mayan mural, conch trumpet players are depicted playing for the city lords after a victorious war campaign.

MayanMusic_originalTo this day, the chirimia  and drums are played at traditional Maya folk festivals which celebrate Mayan arts and culture through musical performances and dances which include marimba musicians, as well.

Mayan arts and culture, marimba, chirimia and drum

Mayan chirimia and drum musicians
Mayan chirimia and drum

The wooden chirimia is a double-reed (oboe-like) instrument which looks very similar to the musical instruments  pictured in the Bonampak mural.

Mayan arts and culture: chirimia musical instrumentsMusical performances and rituals play a role in traditional Maya life contributing to our knowledge of Mayan arts and culture and to the development of Mayan music, over time.

Traditional Mayan chirimia and drum music may be heard on the audio file at the bottom of the Mayan chirimia and drum post.

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