Lasting Impact of Maya Arts Program

Last Friday I swung by the elementary school of Chuicavioc to chat with a few teachers who had participated in the Maya Arts Program for over a decade. The program was a result of community surveys with members of the Association of Highland Women (AMA) who were reporting problems with local schools. Primarily they were concerned with emotional changes in children that attended public schools as well as negative attitudes towards elders and tradition. The program was begun not many years after the end of a 36 year civil war and decades of military dictators. The education curriculum and teacher training represented more of an interest to assimilate and control the indigenous population rather then empower them to change their conditions of poverty.

A priority of the program has been to improve the self-esteem of students by providing teachers from outside the communities with quality training from Maya educators concerning Maya history, cultural and world view. A result of this process in Chuicavioc was the desire to transform the rather prison like appearance of the school into an inspirational space that reflected the values and culture of the community.

Upon arriving, my question was: How has the Maya Art Program changed the perspective and ideas about being indigenous that the children have?

The first stop that I made was at the computer lab that was built through the MAP process. Inside stood professor Susy Giron, teaching her six grade class how to use computers to solve math problems. We stepped outside to look at the murals that the same children had painted 5 years ago. The painting has faded a little under the sun and rain, but the figures and the meaning remained as clear as ever.

Professor Giron explained to me that the participation of the children in the Maya Art Program has had a strong and lasting impression. According to her, the children that participated in the Maya Art Program began to question the shame they felt for being indigenous. They began to discuss, understand, and finally realize that being indigenous is something to be proud of.

“Here in Guatemala, the curriculum used by public schools is formed by the government. The problem with that is that there exists a prejudice against the indigenous people that has been included in almost all of the school materials,” she said. “Before, the children felt ashamed of being indigenous. That speaking a language other than Spanish is ignorant, and that dressing themselves in  traditional Maya dress is backwards. Working with AMA has helped us to show our children that our heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”

A group of children circled us as Giron led me along the painted walls, telling the story behind each mural. He stopped in front of a sweeping painting of stars in a night sky. The painting includes many painted children climbing the branches of a great tree while other children floated amongst the clouds. Seated upon the ground was a professor, watching the children in the sky.

“This mural shows how the children working together can reaching their dreams represented by the stars in the sky,” explained professor Giron. “Below, we can see how the teacher  is guiding them. This mural also teaches us that we are all parts of the natural world and that we must treat it with respect.”At this time, we are struggling against messages that tells us that we must choose between our culture and the Western world. This means they must choose between the pursuit of a professional career and college, or their indigenous identity.  There is also the message that maintaing an indigenous identity is at odds with the modern world.

AMA’s Maya Art Program demonstrate that the two paths can coexist. For AMA, the Maya Art Program is essential to change the mentality of the future generations and ensure the survival of the Mayan culture.

“The forced loss of a traditions and values is something very sad to watch,” said Guadalupe Ramirez, the founder of AMA. “We are trying to teach people that our culture and history is our strength and legacy.  We also strongly feel that many of the values and ideas that are introduced from outside of our communities are not appropriate nor do they lead to healthy and happy families.  We are not against science or change.   An aspect of our programming is to educate our youth that their ancestors were great at math, astronomy, physics and chemistry.   One of the things that I love about computers is teaching kids that our ancestors invented zero and we all know how important that is for much of the technological progress over the last century.   Rather then being opposed to progress, we invented it!”

Since the initiation of the Maya Art Program, HSP and AMA have partnered to improve the social organization in communities in support of transformative education. One based on developing critical and creative thinking skills.  Each mural painted, class room constructed or teacher trained in Maya pedagogy represents a block in the construction of a better world.