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Maya community asserts indigenous self-identity and roots itself in relationships


Part I:

Maya community asserts indigenous self-identity as a people

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a two-part series, El Perico looks at the local Maya community through the eyes of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos.

In this first installment, he discusses the challenges faced by his indigenous displaced people in asserting their identity and being understood.

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Guatemala’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free have come north for decades seeking new lives in the United States, Among them, the Maya comprise an indigenous minority group who escaped persecution by the Guatemalan government. Over time, they’ve made lives for themselves around America. A small community of perhaps 1,500 people of Maya origin live In Nebraska – mostly in South Omaha.

Luis Marcos left Guatemala at 16. After living in California and Iowa he settled here in 2005. Two years later the self-taught Marcos helped form the local Maya community center, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. It’s where his people practice their traditional culture and support each other in adjusting to life here and getting others to understand their plight as a displaced people.

Everything about the center, located at 4513 South 32nd Street, is steeped in Mayan ways and informed by the experiences that brought its members to America. Even though Marcos is its executive director, he said, “Our process of decision-making is very collective. We are a community.”

His story echoes that of other Mayans.

“I left Guatemala in 1989 due in part to the war and the genocide happening against my people at the time. The state was recruiting young people my age for forced military service where I would be trained to go back and kill my own people. Lack of educational opportunities was another reason I decided to emigrate.”

Where his story diverges from most is his involvement in Maya governmental affairs. Comunidad Maya’s mission is rooted in social, cultural and political concerns.

“We basically desire to keep our identity,” Marcos said, “and be recognized as a displaced indigenous people and respond to the complex needs and aspirations of the Maya community.”

Macros acknowledged getting a fix on his people’s heritage can be elusive for outsiders since the Maya are dispersed in several Central American nations and yet Spanish is not their first language,

“If we’re sitting face to face you would readily assume I am Hispanic or Latino because I look like one. If I tell you I come from Guatemala, it will seem to confirm I am Hispanic or Latino. The reality is we are not. I am lucky to speak Spanish and English fluently but that does not make me Latino or Hispanic or Caucasian. I just speak the languages. I am not of those cultures. I don’t even understand those cultures, as much as I try.

“That becomes a life and death situation for us when it comes to encounters with the health system. Because of the historical discrimination against indigenous peoples and the desire to avoid pain, most likely a Mayan would indicate they speak Spanish and nod to whatever you’re saying, without really understanding what’s happening when it comes to their health.”

His organization bridges those information gaps.

“Any activity we do is done with the objective of educating the health, educational system, legal systems and religious institutions. Recognition of us as a displaced indigenous people is really important. It has taken a lot of education and explaining.”

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Though he said Omaha and other American cities  are “very welcoming,” there’s still ignorance where Maya are concerned. Many people he meets believe the Maya disappeared hundreds of years ago when the great civilization they built was dismantled by conquerers. Though subjugated, the Maya retained their culture.

“It has not been easy,” he said. “We invite people from the wider community to our festivals so we can introduce our music, our dress, our language. That’s when the recognition, welcoming and support come.”

The Maya still have much to learn about this country.

“It hasn’t been easy for us to understand the values of the wider community. There’s been a lot of lessons for us to learn. Where we have shared our experience, our culture, our language, we also have learned from the dominant culture and from other cultures values that give us hope to be a flourishing community. It’s been a painful experience but also joyful at times.”

The intent, he said, is to help others understand “we are one people as defined in international law.”

“We have our own language, story of creation and spiritual sovereignty. We have clearly defined territories. We have our own philosophical understanding, government and way of organizing socially. We are a people and a people in international law has a right to self-determination.”

He’s participated in conventions with otter Maya leaders from around the U.S. and. he said, “We have chosen to identify not as migrants or refugees but as displaced native people. That’s the path we have chosen.”

That path, he said. is “very similar” to the experience of Native Americans.

“The root cause of our suffering as indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere goes back to the Doctrine of Discovery. This series of papal bulls decreed we can’t govern ourselves and we can’t own land. They declared our land ’empty land.’ European nations used the doctrine as a way to justify their invasion, domination and exploitation of the continent.

“In the process of assimilation you either become Christian or you die. That was the experience of the boarding schools native people’s suffered in, where we were forbidden to speak our language.”

Further binding the Maya with Native Americans, he said, is their spiritual beliefs.

“The spirituality of indigenous peoples is the same. It’s earth-based.”

Formal working relationships exist between the Maya and the Omaha tribal council in Nebraska.

Visit pixanixim.org

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Next week: Part II – Rooted in relationships

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Image result for luis marcos omaha

EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a two-part series, El Perico looks at the local Maya community through the eyes of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos.

In this second and final installment, he describes how the community center he leads and the overall Maya community here rely on relationships to advance their mission of autonomy and integration.

Part II: 

Maya community rooted in relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

If a nonprofit is to thrive, it needs partnerships. That’s especially true for the Omaha nonprofit Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. It represents a minority community of indigenous people, the Maya, who have fled persecution in their Central American homelands.

The center serves Mayans who’ve come here from Guatemala and other troubled nations where they have suffered oppression and violence. The Maya were drawn to Nebraska in the late 1980s-early 1990s by meatpacking and manufacturing jobs. South Omaha is home to most of Nebraska’s Mayan population today.  The Maya community center is located there. Much of its programming centers around celebrating and preserving traditional arts and culture. Some of its key activities are based in and supported by relationships with the larger community.

Those relationships include a pastoral care program with the Archdiocese of Omaha  for Catholics of Maya origin, a Maya Community Health Collaborative through the Creighton (University) Medical Students Association and initiatives with the University of Nebraska Center for Reducing Health Disparities, One World Community Health Centers and the Immigrant Legal Center.

“We educate our community and the legal system on our preexisting rights as indigenous peoples to travel our continent, we provide accompaniment to people seeking political asylum and we provide contributions to attorneys,” Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos said.

The Maya are an insistent but “loving, peaceful people,” he said. “What we want is a true understanding of historical events and to start over from a common  understanding of where we have come from.”

The community center marcos leads presents cultural events throughout the year that incorporate traditional art, music and dance. The group also promotes a health initiative and a youth mentoring program.

Maya youth are paired with area college students to expose them to post-secondary opportunities.

“Most of our youth will be first-generation college students,” he said, “and  we want to plant the seed that college is the ultimate goal.”

English language classes are offered at the center.

Maya are often mistaken for Latino-Hispanic. While they share similar features with their Spanish-speaking bretheran, most Maya are not fluent in Spanish. Instead, they have their own native language.

 

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The organization weathered a 2014-2015 crisis that saw some key local leaders detained and deported.

“It was a very difficult experience to recover from,” Marcos said. “We didn’t do much for a long time. We had to regroup. We were successful in securing the release of two of our leaders.”

The center has since resumed a nearly full menu of events and programs. Resiliency in the face of hardship is engrained in its people.

“We stay together. We survive. We’ve survived multiple cycles of violence and genocide and all this stuff, so we stick together no matter what,” Marcos said.

Following that episode, the local Maya community has focused on civil and human rights.

“We work to implement the United Nations declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples. On that we work closely with the Huehuetenango Maya government. Now we have an extension of the Huehuetenango government in the United States. We have a Maya parliament with presence in California, Iowa, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nebraska. We have a council of elders. I am one of them.”

Mayan communities across the U.S. “are connected on many different levels” and well-established by now. “We have come a long way.,” Marcos said. “We have been fortunate to have very harmonious relationships with institutions, faith traditions, nationalities.” This includes a deep relationship with the Catholic Church. Locally, a partnership between the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Huehuetenango, Guatemala sends delegations there.

Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim is supported by the Omaha Community foundation and other groups.

“The Latino community has taken us under their wing,” Marcos said by “inviting us to have a presence at the Cinco de Mayo festival.

The local Mexican consulate invited the Maya community to be part of a binational celebration.

A current exhibition of indigenous Mayan textiles at El Museo Latino includes education programs that highlight various aspects of this traditional culture.

All are opportunities to share the Maya story.

“We continue to articulate our presence as a people as opposed to letting ourselves be assimilated into the dominant culture,” Marcos said. “We have been able to tell our stories.”

 

Image result for ellen struve www.thereader.com

Omaha playwright Ellen Struve has presented another avenue for sharing the Maya story. Intrigued by the culture and charmed by the people, she became active with Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim and then researched a new play based on the lives of Maya and the stories in their ancient sacred text, the Popul Vuh.

“She’s very loved in the community,” Marcos said of Struve. “She’s learned our Maya language. She’s very open-minded to our concerns. We invited her to be a member of our board of directors. We’re really honored to have her in that role.”

EPIC is the name of the play Struve developed with Mayan themes and shorelines. it will be performed May 29-31 at Metropolitan Community College’s south campus.

“This will be a way to empower, highlight the community and the culture,” Marcos said of the production, “and to show that as an indigenous people we can contribute something to the wider society. I think this will be good for others to know us better, which at this time in our history is what we need most.”

For more information on the Maya community center, visit pixanixim.org. For details on the play’s showtimes and venue, visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfes.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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