Folklores turning into story books by local Guatemalan artists

60% of Guatemalans are of Mayan descent, comprising over 20 ethnic groups, speaking 22 languages in addition to Spanish. In recognition of this, The Riecken Foundation spearheaded a project to preserve and promote the unique stories and languages of this heritage.

In 2000, illustrator Susan Riecken and social entrepreneur Allen Anderson established The Riecken Foundation with the goals of sparking young people’s curiosity and enthusiasm about reading and inspiring a commitment to civic participation. The birth of this organization was the answer to a simple question, “What would be the one product or the one useful resource in Central America that could travel across geographical and economic obstacles and transcend poverty?” The answer was access to information. And that is when the founders chose to underwrite the creation of a new network of community libraries, stated Paul Guggenheim, the Director of The Riecken Foundation when asked about the origins of the foundation.

“To date, The Riecken Foundation has established 64 community libraries in Central America, with 11 in Guatemala and 53 in Honduras. The first Guatemalan library was established in La Libertad in 2001. In 2009, The Riecken Foundation inaugurated its 10th and 11th libraries.”

“In Guatemalan society, few people keep books in their homes and reading is often considered to be laborious as opposed to being a pleasurable activity. In this context, The Riecken Foundation provides an alternative to the existing, traditional state-funded-research-library model through creating and implementing learning programs in Guatemala that germinate a love of reading among children, especially those of Mayan descendant in rural areas. The Riecken Foundation also sponsors initiatives that promote reading, a fundamental right, emphasizing that literacy is central for people to exercise their human rights. The latest project consists of publishing diverse reading materials, including books in indigenous languages that celebrate living Mayan culture. In order to spark a spirit of discovery and foster citizen participation in rural communities, we believe publishing high-quality books with illustrations and stories, to which the community can relate, in both their original indigenous language and Spanish is very important.”

Beginning in April 2009, The Riecken Foundation began the Culture and Identity Project with the Finnish Embassy to Central America based in Managua, Nicaragua. In 2010, The Riecken Foundation, with the participation of local elders, young writers and illustrators, created two bilingual publications. The project supports bilingual storytelling for young children while rescuing and preserving local oral traditions. Now The Riecken Foundation has a total of eight bilingual publications.

Speaking more about the process that went into creating these books and about the workshop that Riecken held in June this year, Israel Quic, the author of two of the stories and the director of the community library in San Juan la Laguna, Sololá, tells us, “In a highly participatory process, six rural communities from the network of Riecken Community Libraries came together from Sololá, Totonicapán, Xela and Quiché. Young, local, indigenous artists and writers collaborated with the Guatemalan publishing company Amanuense, acclaimed children’s literature experts, and Mayan language scholars to produce these books which reflect local images, stories, and values. The final products are very gratifying. It’s something that, from beginning to end, the communities can call their own: the pictures, the text, the authors and the publisher are all from the tierra madre of the Maya,” says Israel, emotionally charged with pride.

Cristina Stabile, a professor from Rafael Landívar University, and Monica Salas, from ArtCorps, facilitated the workshops for the creation of these books by encouraging the authors and illustrators from each community to choose and record a story that is particular to their community and specific to their language, with illustrations indigenous readers would relate to.

The director of the publishing house Amanuence, Rodolfo Bolaños, explains, “Each book is reviewed and endorsed by members of the International Board on Books for Young People, La Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala, the Guatemalan Ministry of Education, and Francisco Marroquín University. The books are bilingual with Spanish and different Mayan languages: Mam, Tz’utujil, and K’iche’.” Of the eight books, six reflect unique stories from each community involved, one is a guide for young children to learn to count in the K’iche’ Mayan numerical system, and the last is a compilation of short stories that represent all of the communities.

These materials serve teachers, parents, librarians, and young readers as a resource for story hours, book clubs, cross-cultural understanding and inclusion, reading comprehension between Spanish and Mayan languages, and native language preservation. They also serve to strengthen pride in Mayan culture and identity. Rodolfo observes, “Oral story telling was the way these unique languages were preserved and they are slowly becoming extinct. I am left with a very good feeling about being a part of this process.”

The books were formally presented at the International Book fair of Guatemala (Feria Internacional del Libro en Guatemala – FILGUA). There was a reading of the books in the indigenous languages so people can hear how these languages sound when spoken. The Riecken Foundation planned on printing 8,000 copies of the books by the end of the year.

You can watch the video of the making of these books here:

A little more about the books

Kaqak’axool (Nawal of Kaqasiwaan Hill) is from the Maya Tz’utujil oral tradition of San Juan La Laguna, Sololá. It is based on a legend about the relationship between humans and nature.

Jun k’aslem ximil chirij jun paplo’t (A Story Tied to a Kite) is from the Maya K’iche’ oral tradition of San Carlos Sija, Quetzaltenango. It is about a grandmother and her grandson, and overcoming the pain of losing a loved one.

Yolel echwinqlal tnom te Ka’b’e kan (Stories of Cabricán) is from the Maya Mam oral tradition of Cabricán, Quetzaltenango. It includes two legends about the mystery and origin of the name “Cabricán”.

Mjeb’le’n toj tnom te Wi’ta’n (Marriage in Huitán) is from the Maya Mam oral traditionof Huitán, Quetzaltenango. It is about how couples used to get married in the old tradition.

Ri Chikopi’ rech ri Juyub’ (The Animals of the Mountain) is from the Maya K’iche’ oral tradition of Xolsacmaljá, Totonicapán. It is about local animals.

Tzijholaj is from the Maya K’iche’ oral tradition of Quiché. It is about the legend of the Patron Saint of the Masheños, who brought prosperity to Quiché.

B’alam is from the Maya K’iche’ oral tradition of Xolsacmaljá, Totonicapán. It is about their numerical system.
The eighth book is a compilation of stories from the six communities involved in the project.

[This article was first published in Spanish-English bilingual magazine Que Pasa, in Antigua, Guatemala. You can read the article written by me, published on their website here]


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