Q’eqchi’ Mayan Language Revitalization: Preserving Indigenous Legends on the Radio
Excerpt from the Cultural Survival Quarterly
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.
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 shaman
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 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.