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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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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.”

 

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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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South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference


South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Among the melting pot South Omaha subcultures.that Ellen Struve’s new play EPIC dips into is the Maya. The Omaha playwright’s original work will premier in three free performances May 29-31 at 7:30 p.m. on Metropolitan Community College’s South Omaha Campus, ITC Building 120, at 2909 Edward Babe Gomez Avenue.

EPIC is part of the PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries program in MCC’s Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). Program works are developed through community engagement that playwrights and directors do with residents. Struve met with several South Omaha groups in researching EPIC.

Abstract Mindz Collaboration was one.

“They’re an artists collective of very creative, talented young artists,” Struve said, “They have a fabulous amount of energy that sort of pops right off the walls.”

Additionally. she met with the artists behind the South Omaha Mural Project, whose works depict various South O cultures. The group’s prepping a Maya mural to be completed this year.

 

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Ellen Struve

 

Finally. Struve reached out to Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, an organization of indigenous Mayans whose oral histories inform both the mural and EPIC.

“Witnessing people overcome trials with bravery and compassion is incredibly inspiring and certainly every one I’ve met at Comunidad Maya Pixan Oxim has done that time and time again while exhibiting an overwhelming sense of compassion,” Struve said.

“I have found there a wish for well-being for our shared humanity despite many obstacles. Executive director Luis Marcos, for example. came to America from Guatemala at 16. He taught himself English and Spanish. He’s trilingual. His people have been persecuted. There was a genocide against the Maya in the 1980s. To not only survive but to maintain such a strong sense of community and compassion and a deep appreciation for the arts is inspiring and connects with my own values and interests.”

 

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Maya community members

 

Struve already volunteered at the Maya community center when GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler asked her to create an original PlayFest piece.

“I immediately thought of Luis and how much I admired Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim,” Struve said, “and asked if he would be interested in partnering with us. He was.”

The project dovetailed with related interests that bleed into Struve’s life, including a passion for immigration rights. Her play The Dairy Maid-Right examines issues about immigration in Nebraska. She’s advocated for DACA rights through the Heartland Workers Center. She interfaced with Dreamers while working at a Chicago music school. More recently, she’s discovered a Latino ancestry she never knew. She’s still deciding “how to creatively process” her own family story.

EPIC draws on the Popol Vuh – an ancient book of sacred Mayan stories – and it’s intersection with stories of first and second generation Americans.

Luis Marcos asked her to adapt it.

“It’s a beautiful epic poem I was unfamiliar with prior to working on this,” Struve said. “It tied in beautifully with the artist narratives and the idea of murals. I developed a narrative about a company of young artists creating a mural in South Omaha that turns out to be about the Popol Vuh and the way it speaks to our current moment and the ways we can make a better world.”

Struve and director Michael John Garces from Los Angeles conducted story circles with artists and Maya community members. The resulting script dramatizes ancient sagas and personal tales of South O natives, migrants and refugees who, Struve said, “are experiencing events in their lives reflective of events in the Popol Vuh. “Some of their stories are definitely impacted by the current immigration policies in the U.S.,” she said. “There are also timeless family stories of sons and daughters having second generation issues with first generation parents and timeless issues of artists coming into their own and connecting with a really important piece of art, the Popol Vuh, that is part of our hemisphere.”

 

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Popul Vuh

Struve considers the Popul Vuh “a fabulous document of a great civilization akin to the The Odyssey or the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” She even learned a Mayan language. “It has been a complete joy for me.”

Her play is in Maya, Spanish and English.

“Not only is it exciting to bring these community stories to the stage, but we’ll do it with production elements that are exciting for me to work with.”

In addition to community members acting on stage, certain things will be represented via shadow puppetry.

“I’ve always wanted to work with a puppeteer and we have a wonderful puppeteer and designer in Lynn Jeffries.”

Jeffries, who works with Garces at L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Company, enjoys bringing the Popul Vuh to life. “It’s a fabulous story just on the level of storytelling. It’s funny and complex and has a lot of things that lend themselves to puppetry,” she said. “There’s a lot of action. It’s a very fluid mode of storytelling with multiple layers and characters who are often one thing and another at the same time.”

The production will use overhead projectors to make small shadow puppets manipulated on stage. Local artists will bring their own aesthetic to the figures.

Rather than a limitation, puppetry is a luxury.

“You can create a lot more with shadow puppetry because you can make a bunch of small things out of paper and fill the room with them,” Jeffries said.

Garces called puppetry “a wonderful theatrical device.” “Particularly for any element on stage that is supernatural,” he added, “it gives it life theatrically in a way that doesn’t feel forced as sometimes it does when people wear costumes. Audiences will accept things that puppets do and will really go on a journey with them in a way that’s harder to achieve with actors embodying those same features. Shadow puppetry allows us to more evoke things than do them. It’s quite a supple medium. I like that a lot about it.”

Technical aspects aside, Struve aims for audiences to have their curiosity peaked about Maya culture.

“I hope people learn more about the literature and the contribution the Maya community is making to make our city a more vibrant and exciting place to live.”

 

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Michael John Garces

 

Garces became familiar with Maya culture and the Popul Vuh years ago working with a theater company and writers collective in Chiapas. Mexico.

“The experience of working on Mayan-themed shows had a big impact on my career. It’s part of what led me to work at Cornerstone and it’s a reason why I embraced theater community engagement work.”

This marks the fourth time Garces has come to Omaha to flesh out a South Omaha-based play for the Great Plains festival.

“All the plays are an attempt to answer the questions, how did we get here and where do we go from here. These are vital origin questions. All these folks in the community are, like all of us, trying to figure out how to move things forward.”

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South Omaha Mural Project

 

Collecting the stories of EPIC fed his already “intense curiosity about South O denizens and allowed him to “delve much deeper into a wider range of this community where I’ve developed relationships.”

“If you’re going to be a serious theater practitioner,” he said, “you have to genuinely cultivate the part of you that is curious because if you don’t you’re just not going to have quality engagements with the subject matter you’re working on.”

There’s nothing he’d rather do than community engaged theater that grabs audiences.

“I’m very blessed to do the work I do and I’m grateful for it. It is hard work, but it’s satisfying and joyful.”

As for Struve, she said, “This has been a really humbling way to approach theater for me because my job is to serve the people who have contributed their stories and experiences to the project. It’s incredibly rewarding. It takes it out of your ego and it gives you a different kind of purpose than perhaps you had before.”

Visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfest.

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

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