Mayan Cultural Vitality

Hi, there,

I am Ava Berinstein. I began studying Mayan languages and other Indigenous languages as a graduate student in linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1976. While doing fieldwork in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, in 1978, I collected and tape-recorded 21 Q’eqchi’ (also spelled Qeqchi and K’ekchi) Mayan folktales and legends. As a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, I later transcribed and translated 18 of these texts. That was in 1984. cassette recorder2

It is now May 2012. Much has happened between then and now. Most importantly, though, I decided that the time had come to do something. Despite the vast population (approximately 500,000 speakers in Guatemala), Q’eqchi’, as all 29 extant Maya languages, faces a different type of threat: the extinction of verbal art. The need to document this lost tradition puts the documentation of the culture at risk.

So, yes, the time had come to resurrect the written English, Spanish, and Q’eqchi’ Mayan translations that had been stored in boxes in my basement. Sadly, the meticulously-typed transcriptions were on very ancient 8-inch floppy disks that were now extinct and could only be read on an Apple IIe – which was also extinct. Luckily, all of the hard copies were well-preserved!

Apple IIe

8- inch floppy disks

It was just after I rediscovered my field notes and translations in May 2010, that I encountered Mark Camp, at Cultural Survival, the Director of the Guatemalan Radio Project (GRP). I asked -rather hopefully- if they might have any interest in helping me repatriate my collection of Q’eqchi’ texts.  I needed to figure out how to bring these stories back to the culture where they originated, as they clearly did not belong in my basement any longer.

Then came the first surprise. Mark said that not only were they interested in helping me repatriate the stories, but they would like to broadcast them in Q’eqchi’ on the community radio stations in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. My response (in shock) was, “They have radio?”

Then came the next challenge: Find the original cassette recordings. That was no easy task. They had been sequestered away for 34 years. I had no idea where I hid them. I knew they were precious so I doubted that I would have stored them in my basement which is subject to mold, however, after two weeks of searching every closet in my house, I resorted to searching the much-dreaded basement. I didn’t find them. It was unbelievable. I had just learned that Cultural Survival had the ability to broadcast in Q’eqchi’ on Indigenous community-based radio stations, and I couldn’t find the cassettes. Worse than that, I was cautioned that should I find them- under no circumstance should I play them because after all these years, they could demagnetize. Finally, after another week of searching, when I thought there was no place left to look, I opened the paint cabinet in my office where I found a box that was safely secured in a climate controlled environment—containing all of the cassettes. Apparently, when I moved here 20 years ago, I knew that one day I would return to the collection and complete what I had once started. Therefore, with that in mind, I hid them in my own office!

tape cassettes

My goal continues to repatriate the Q’eqchi’ texts and to contribute toward the revitalization of Mayan language and culture. Together, with Cultural Survival, we hope to create a regular series of Mayan radio theater broadcasts in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Our hope is that the Indigenous Mayas who run the radio stations will announce the stories, providing the name of the narrator and the date of the recording. Children and grandchildren will hear voices of family members and friends. Memories will be stirred. And hopefully, others will begin to remember variations of the stories, as well as other legends. After each broadcast, the radio announcer will invite storytellers (both young and old) to come to the station to record their narrative(s).

This, we hope will inspire many to participate in the oral tradition of storytelling and to revitalize this vital verbal art, an integral part of Mayan life and culture, and Mayan Cultural Vitality.

Thank you for your interest in keeping Mayan languages and culture alive.

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




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