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Southern Historical Collection Helps High Schoolers Explore Maya Heritage

Fourteen high school students listened attentively as UNC anthropologist Gabrielle Vail invited them to examine letters, drawings, photos, diaries, codices, newspapers and other Maya materials from the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library.

Photograph of student Adonis Tello-Chavez in Wilson Library

Adonis Tello-Chavez (above) of Morganton’s Patton High School examines records in Wilson Library.

“Start thinking about these materials in terms of ‘how can I tell the story of Maya migration?’” Vail said. “Explore them from a historical perspective, but also bring it into the present and think of a personal connection.”

Maya from the Margins is a program that fosters cultural understanding among Maya youth on both sides of the border — Morganton, N.C., and Yucatán, Mexico. Together, the students are exploring their indigenous identity through workshops, online discussions, archival research and visits to their respective countries, where they will meet face-to-face. At the capstone event this spring, both sets of students will develop research projects in English and Spanish that will be on public display.

On April 13 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., visitors to UNC’s Wilson Library Pleasants Family Assembly Room can enjoy the exchange exhibition “Revitalizing Maya History and Heritage: My View from the Archives,” curated by students from Morganton and Mexico.

The program is funded by a Museums Connect grant, an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the American Alliance of Museums. Partners include the Southern Historical Collection, the UNC department of anthropology and Research Laboratories of Archaeology, and the State Archives of Yucatán. Vail is project coordinator of Maya from the Margins, which builds on longtime cultural heritage work by Kenan Eminent Professor of Anthropology Patricia McAnany.

“If you look at the changing texture of the South demographically … these students are grappling with all kinds of things, including ‘how can I embrace my past and where I find myself today?’” said Bryan Giemza, director of the SHC, which houses the papers and materials of George E. Stuart (Ph.D. anthropology ’75), a scholar of the ancient Maya whose archaeological career with the National Geographic Society spanned nearly four decades. “They are very insightful; their interpretations are really sophisticated.”

Patton High School senior Eduardo Mendoza’s parents traveled from Guatemala to Morganton, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in 1998 looking for better job opportunities. (2010 U.S. Census data indicates a Latino population of 16.4 percent in Morganton, about double the state average.)

Mendoza said he does a lot of online research in school, so he appreciates the exposure to these rare documents.

“You can tell the professors are very passionate about what they do, and I like that I have the opportunity to ask them questions,” he said.

Photographs of students in Wilson Library

Students from Morganton’s Patton High School consult primary source materials in UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library.

It’s also been a great experience for two UNC undergraduate students who serve as mentors. Jacqueline López is a senior pursuing a double major in Latin American studies and public policy. She spent six weeks in Yucatán in 2015 and has been working with the students on learning Yucatec Maya. She will accompany them on their study abroad trip.

“I didn’t start developing the tools to explore my own culture until I arrived at UNC,” said López, a first-generation college student. “To help them do that earlier in their careers has been so rewarding.”

The program has spawned other collaborations that extend beyond the core partners and the campus, McAnany said. Other UNC faculty members have conducted workshops with the students at their high school in Morganton, such as associate professor of romance studies Emilio del Valle Escalante, who speaks K’iche’ Maya. The city of Asheville is interested because Valladolid, where the Yucatán students live, is a sister city. Connections have been made with a Maya archaeologist who teaches at UNC-Asheville. High school teachers, church groups and others have pledged their support.

“We are very happy to be working on a project that is building bridges with our neighbors to the south rather than walls,” McAnany said.

This story originally appeared as “Helping Students Explore Being Maya” on the UNC College of Arts & Sciences website.
Story Kim Weaver Spurr. Photographs by Kristen Chavez.

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