A student interacts with a child in the family hosting her during a week in the village of Xocen. Few people have cameras or photos so students take photos, then give them to the families. She also gave a frame to the child, and he is putting his face in it for fun.
Maya program students outside the Xocen library. Here, program founder Sharon Mújica taught English to children. The library, poor as it is, is an integral part of the village, and benefited from the Maya program's donation of books in Maya, chairs, fans, a clock, white boards and other items.
Student AJ Meyer visits with his house father Don Teodoro.
In the village of Xocen, a Maya program student at right learns Maya from native speaker Don Lauro (in the hammock) while one of Lauro's children chimes in. Lauro worked with program students for nine years as they stayed a week in Xocen.
2012 Yucatec Maya Summer Institute participants and their instructors.
Meyer, who is studying anthropology, archaeology and art history at Carolina, stops at ball court #2 in Cobá during his Yucatec Maya Summer Institute time.
Students and instructor John Tuxill enjoy a meal at the Hacienda Ochil, while visiting a Henequen plantation.
Allison Bigelow finished the institute in summer 2012, then moved on to the College of William & Mary as an Institute/NEH Postdoctoral Fellow, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, (2012-2014). (Photo courtesy of Stephen Salpukas/William & Mary)
Bigelow with some members of her 2012 host family.
20 years of Yucatec Maya
Apocalyptic rumors about Mayan culture are in high gear, fueled by the final tic on the Maya Long Count calendar, but 2012 also marks a significant milestone of a different nature: the Yucatec Maya Summer Institute celebrates its twentieth anniversary.
Created in 1992 by UNC’s Sharon Sullivan Mújica, the institute was developed by the Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education and an endowment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Yucatec Maya is spoken by 700,000 to one million 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 for students, faculty and the public. 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 engage meaninfully with Maya communities. 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, a 2012 UNC graduate, completed a project in summer 2012 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, a 1988 UNC graduate, was one of the institute’s first students. While a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, he traveled with the inaugural 1992 cohort to Mexico. Fallaw, who 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 said. “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 United States, 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 Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from UNC in 2012, 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.
Published October 26, 2012.