Entre Brechitas y Carreteras : The Possibilities of Museum-led Maya Language Education in the Yucatan Peninsula – Frances Kvietok

August 16, 2016

As kids arrive to the Museo de la Guerra de Castas (Caste War Museum) located in Tihosuco, Mexico, they are greeted by Bety and Antonia, two of the museum’s cultural promoters, and myself in Yucatec Maya. ‘Ma’alob k’iin’ (Good day!), ‘Bishabel?’ (How are you?). Some children reply with a shy smile, some respond in Maya and others in Spanish. Later that morning, Antonia plays a clip of an interview she recently recorded with one of the town’s elders. As the group gathers around the loudspeakers, 84-year old Doña Jacinta recounts her childhood memories of the town in Maya. Since yesterday, the group has been learning about what Tihosuco was like in the past; they have been gathering information from Bety and Antonia, by interviewing their relatives, and now from Doña Jacinta. In groups, they will build their own representation of Tihosuco in the form of a model. After the audio clip ends, we ask kids to show us how much they comprehended. Some raise their hands as high as they can to express they understood most of the recording, others keep their hands at shoulder length and some near their waists. After sharing some of what they learned, in Spanish and in some Maya, we remind them they can ask members of their group to translate what they missed.  

This vignette shares a glimpse into the summer program ‘Veranearte 2016: Jo’otsúuk un Patrimonio Vivo’ (Tihosuco: a living heritage) which took place during July-August 2016. This program is part of ongoing museum-led efforts to promote the use of Maya among children and youth in the community of Tihosuco, located in Quintana Roo, Mexico. As a member of the Tihosuco Heritage Preservation and Community Project (THPCP), a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and the Caste War Museum, I returned to the museum for a fourth year to support their Maya language education efforts (see Leventhal et al. 2014).


The 2016 summer program. Photo by Bety Poot Chablé.
The 2016 summer program participants. Photo by Bety Poot Chablé.

The objectives of the summer program coincide with longstanding museum goals of promoting the oral and written use of Maya, children’s self-esteem as Maya speakers, and pride in one’s cultural and linguistic heritage. A running thread across the two-week program was exploring what it meant to be Tihosuquense (someone from Tihosuco) and valuing the town’s past and present heritage. This was done through activities related to exploring the colonial buildings of Tihosuco, the history of the Caste War and Tihosuco’s subsequent abandonment as well as its repopulation, and present day cultural practices that build on and bring forward the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of Tihosuquenses. And, this was accomplished through the medium of both Maya and Spanish, languages that were heard, spoken, read, and written by our community of participants.

1.‘I am Tihosuquense, I speak Maya’. Our ba’ pach wíinkila, our silhouettes. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.
‘I am Tihosuquense, I speak Maya.’ Our ba’ pach wíinkila, our silhouettes. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.
2.‘I love Tihosuco because it is fun’ Our ba’ pach wíinkila, our silhouettes. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.
2. ‘I love Tihosuco because it is fun.’ Our ba’ pach wíinkila, our silhouettes. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.

Promoting the continued use of Indigenous languages like Maya in a context of language shift to Spanish is not a simple task. The historical prohibition and present-day erasure of Indigenous languages in schools and other public institutions, internalized language shame and insecurities, and the growing pull of English as the language of employment opportunities in the region are forces well known to museum cultural promoters Bety Poot Chablé and Antonia Poot Tuz. Promoting Maya among the younger generation additionally entails understanding local family language practices, as fewer adults speak to children in Maya and more and more children and youth use Spanish as the preferred language of peer interactions. Within this context, Bety and Antonia have crafted and implement multilingual pedagogies to engage a diverse group of learners (in terms of ages, learning styles, and language proficiencies for example). Throughout my involvement in the summer program I observed how in this particular space Maya language promotion goes hand in hand with supporting the development of learners’ voices (Hornberger 2006). That is, the program is about encouraging children to feel comfortable in expressing themselves through their diverse bilingual and cultural repertoires, as well as supporting them in expanding these repertoires.

3.Starting our day sharing what we learned the day before. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.
3. Starting our day sharing what we learned the day before. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.

The summer program was a space where positive identifications of being and becoming Maya speakers and writers was not at odds, but rather went hand in hand, with speaking and writing in Spanish. The workshop was also a space where one could choose to expand their abilities in Maya in various ways – by just listening to it, trying to pronounce new words, taking a go at reading texts in Maya, translating for a friend, and/or experimenting with writing some words in Maya. While this approach might appear too ‘slow’ to those concerned with tallying actual numbers of (new) speakers as a sign of successful language maintenance and revitalization, there is actually much more at play. Through Bety and Antonia’s committed practice, the summer program became a space where children felt emotionally comfortable at expressing and taking on different identities. It became a space where children’s participation styles, learning rhythms, and past experiences were recognized and included. The workshop was moreover a space developed by and for community members, in a bottom-up fashion, and where there is room for attending to the particularities of the local language ecology. While acknowledging some of the limitations of the program, both Bety and Antonia are confident there is much more they are ready to accomplish with next year’s group.

4.Close up shots of finished models of Tihosuco. Photo credit: Frances Kvietok Dueñas
Close up shots of finished models of Tihosuco. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.
5.Done! One group places down their model for the group exhibit. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.
5. Done! One group places down their model for the group exhibit. Photo by Frances Kvietok Dueñas.

As Antonia described to me in an interview in 2014, she views their work as long-term, similar to opening a ‘brechita,’ a path, which eventually leads to their goal. During the past two years alone, they have engaged in conversations with children’s parents about the importance of Maya both in the museum and during home visits, continued developing their own curriculum and educational materials, hosted various workshops for children at the museum and in local primary and pre-schools, created bilingual comics, and started their own historical research into education in Tihosuco (Antonia) as well as become involved in translation activities (Bety). This year Antonia mentioned they might actually be opening not just a ‘brechita’ but, in fact, a ‘carretera,’ a highway. I agree. Through this instance of museum-led Maya language education, there is much they have accomplished and I look forward to continue accompanying them in this journey.


Hornberger, N.H. (2006) “Voice and Biliteracy in Indigenous Language Revitalization: Contentious Educational Practices in Quechua, Guarani, and Maori Contexts.” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5(4), 277-292.
Leventhal, R., Chan E.C., Moo P.E. and Poot C.D. (2014). “The Community Heritage Project in Tihosuco, Quintana Roo, Mexico.” Public Archaeology, 13(1-3), 213-225.