Intricately woven with thread in a vibrant rainbow of colors, a beautiful collection of Mayan textiles from Guatemala is currently on display in the exhibit area of Kellogg Library at CSUSM. The tapestries, blouses, tunics and purses were created by a small group of determined Ixhil Mayan men and women. The textiles play a significant role in the women’s quest to become literate in their native language and to share their unique histories while also preserving their culture for future generations.
Lucia Cabo practices her writing.
For over a decade Cal State San Marcos Associate Professor of Linguistics Jule Gómez de García has traveled semi-annually to the small village of Nebaj in the Guatemalan highlands. Her work there first began as a simple project with a $2,000 grant from CSUSM to record the audio of women telling their accounts of what happened to them during the gruesome 36-year civil war and genocide. Subsequently, the National Science Foundation granted $160,000 to create a multimedia database of narratives and conversations and $336,000 to create a dictionary and description of grammatical rules for the Ixhil language.

Dr. Michael Hughes in CSUSM’s Department of Modern Languages is collaborating with Dr. Gómez de García on the project, working primarily with the village’s men. He explained that documenting the Ixhil language is important for a number of reasons but, from a linguistic and scholarly perspective, because it is at a significant risk of dying out. “Worldwide there are about 6,000 known languages. About 30 to 50 percent of those will disappear within the next 100 years,” Hughes said.

Globalization and urbanization play a major part in this language extinction as many youth grow up and leave for better opportunities in large regional cities where Spanish is spoken.  “Language doesn’t make a culture, people do,” said Dr. Hughes. “But language brings people together and it can help embody a culture.”
A Mayan woman creates an intricate textile
Similar to the way they learned how to intricately weave symbols and pictures into their richly colored textiles, the Mayan men and women are learning the written mechanics of their native tongue. With their new skills of linguistic analysis, they are recording the spoken history of their culture. Recently composed books include information on the traditional uses of medicinal plants; how to plant, care for and harvest a cornfield Mayan style; and how to make bricks out of adobe.

Dr. Hughes explained that this project is providing the Mayans with important analytical skills that will serve them well in other areas as they work to build their community and raise themselves out of poverty. In addition, they are learning how to use computers and the Internet.

“The Mayan men and women are excited to share their stories for future generations,” said Dr. Gómez de García. “They have a desire and a need to write down their personal stories – to tell what happened to them during the war and what is important to them now.”

The Kellogg Library display of Mayan textiles can be viewed through May 18. A special lecture, free and open to the public, will take place on Thursday, Mar. 15 from 2:30 to 3:45 p.m. in the Arts Building, room 240.  For more information, e-mail mchu@csusm.edu or call 760-750-4378. 

The textiles play a significant role in the women’s quest to become literate in their native language and to share their unique histories while also preserving their culture for future generations.