These Guatemalan Teens Photographed Maya Women In Los Angeles And Learned Critical History Lessons About Their Culture

During a gray chilly Saturday in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, nearly 200 people stood on a line that extended down a long street, waiting excitedly to enter “Maya Women in LA,” a youth photo exhibition documenting Maya culture and diaspora.

The exhibit, put together by Las Fotos Project, a community-based nonprofit using photography to educate and inspire low-income girls of color, featured the photos of six of its students — all Guatemalan teens. The goal of the event, according to teaching artist and project ideator Floridalma Boj Lopez, Ph.D, is to help the city’s Maya community foster a triumphant narrative of rebellion and endurance.

“I am Maya K’iche’. I know part of the Maya struggle because my family and I have lived it. So often what you learn about is the oppression that we face, and I also want to make sure that we create moments to connect and celebrate our collective survival. We as a people have faced so many forms of state violence and racism and yet here we are,” Boj Lopez, an activist-scholar whose research focuses on the organizing and cultural production of the Maya diaspora from Guatemala, told FIERCE.

(Photo Credit: Yvette Montoya)

In a world constantly trying to control people of color’s inner narratives by telling us who we are, knowing who and where you come from is a necessary weapon against internalized racism and machismo. The girl photographers had an opportunity to either reconnect with their own family members or with other Maya women living in Los Angeles in order to photograph them and learn more about the history of the ancient Maya as well as Maya traditions.

The hanging textiles and photos of women in their traditional dress laughing or sitting stoic in front of their homes is also a way to contextualize the persistent myth that the Maya disappeared when the Spaniards invaded in 1519. The show directly addresses the role colonization as well as the Guatemalan and U.S. governments played in the Mayan genocide, civil war and near extinction of Mayan traditions. They remind those who need reminding that indigenous people — the Mayan people, in particular — were mathematicians, astronomers, artists and scientists, and that Maya women are powerful activists and community organizers.

The participating girls — Emaly Escobar, Ixchel Boch, Nimsy Rivas, Jessica Oxlaj, Mayán Alvarado-Goldberg and Jasleen Reyes — now represent the next generation of guatemaltecas that will continue to keep the Maya traditions alive through what they learned through this project.

Nimsy Rivas, 19

(Photo Credit: Yvette Montoya)

Nimsy Rivas, a 19-year-old featured photographer, is from Guatemala. Born and raised in Morales, a small town on the East Coast of the Central American country, she has been living in the United States since 2014. Currently a senior attending Community Health Advocates School at Augustus Hawkins High School, this fall, she’ll be an incoming freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. She joined the “Maya Women in LA” project because, for the first time since arriving in this country, it was an opportunity to talk about her culture.

What has it been like for you to take part in the project?

“Being part of this project has been an amazing experience since it allowed us to document and recognize the stories of Mayan womxn in LA as well as the stories of their families and communities. Las Fotos Project has opened doors for us by creating a place where we are able to talk about an unspoken minority. Also by giving us the tools to show people more about Guatemalan Maya culture and how we are here to stay and grow.”

What do you want people who view your pieces to know about Maya women and heritage?

“I want them to know that Maya womxn are more than huipiles and cortes. They are the history behind their traditions and families, the strength of their roots and the fruits of the hard work and resilience.”

Ixchel Boch, 16

(Photo Credit: Yvette Montoya)

Ixchel Boch, 16, was born in Los Angeles to parents from Guatemala City. Currently attending Mendez High School, she is thankful for what she calls a wonderful opportunity to be a part of documenting “Maya Women in LA.” Through this project, she hopes to gain more historical background on indigenous people from Guatemala, since most of their history has been erased or misunderstood due to tragic genocides.

Did you have much contact with your Mayan heritage before this project?

“Unfortunately, I have not had much contact with my Mayan heritage because I’m not so close to my father’s side of the family.”

What has is been like for you to take part in the project?

“This project has definitely been a challenge because we want to make sure that with our pictures we capture the life of a Mayan womxn in LA along with demonstrating the struggles that continue even in a different country.”

Why is it important for us to know about Mayan heritage?

“It’s important for people to know about Mayan heritage because their history has been erased due to the genocides committed by the government.”

What do you want people who view your pieces to know about Maya women and heritage?

“I want people to know that through their cortes they continue to fight through oppression.”

Mayán Alvarado-Goldberg, 16

(Photo Credit: Yvette Montoya)

Mayán Alvarado-Goldberg is a 16-year-old Guatemalan-Jewish student photographer born and raised in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. A sophomore at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, she joined Las Fotos Project to honor the memory of her grandmother and great-grandparents as well as to reconnect with her Guatemalan background. In the Central American country, her family traces its roots back to Guanagazapa and Escuintla, and others to San Marcos, San Jose Pinula and La Capital.

Did you have much contact with your Mayan heritage before this project?

“Before the Maya Womxn in Los Angeles project, I had felt connected to being Guatemalan, but I was not really in touch with being Maya. I grew up surrounded by stories of Guatemala and pictures of my mom in her Corte and huipil on her wedding day, but my grandma never really mentioned the richness of Maya culture or history to me. Once I joined Las Fotos, I realized I had been so oblivious to all the struggles that my people have gone through. For example, I did not know about the Guatemalan genocide until Las Fotos and it was so incredibly shocking for me to see its effects on the Maya community. For my bat mitzvah, my grandma gave me the gift of culture — something that I was not able to fully understand until I became more connected to my roots. Today I feel proud of my indigenous heritage.”

Why is it important for us to know about Mayan heritage?

“It is important for us to know about Maya heritage because the culture itself grounds us in Mother Nature. It is beautiful to be a part of a history so focused on paying respect to the land, our ancestors and our stories. I feel proud to be a descendent of some of the greatest astronomers and teachers, and people who continue to feel so connected to their surroundings and energies.”

Jessica Oxlaj, 17

(Photo Credit: Yvette Montoya)

Jessica Magdalena Oxlaj Zarat, 17, is a Los Angeles-raised Latina whose family is from Totonicapan, Guatemala.  A student at Mendez High School, she heard about Las Fotos Project and their “Maya Women in LA” project and was interested because she never really acknowledged the importance of her ethnicity before. Through this program, she was able to not only learn about where her family comes from and its culture but also about Guatemala in general through photography.

Did you have much contact with your Mayan heritage before this project?

“Before this project, I did not have contact with my Mayan heritage. I had very little knowledge about Guatemala in general. Now that I know more, I believe it’s important for us to know about Mayan heritage because it’s how we can identify ourselves and how we are recognized.”

Emaly Escobar, 17

(Photo Credit: Yvette Montoya)

Emaly Escobar is a 17-year-old-high school student attending City of Angels. Born in Los Angeles, her father is from San Marcos, Guatemala. She joined this semester of Las Fotos Project because she found it interesting to document Maya indigenous women from Guatemala. She’s glad that she decided to participate because she learned the important history of Guatemala, which she believes shouldn’t be forgotten. It also helped her connect more with her grandmother, or as she calls her, “abue.”

What has is been like for you to take part in the project?

“Joining the project has made me appreciate and want to learn more of my home in Guatemala. Being raised in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood had blinded me of the importance of my Guatemalan identity. Now I’m hoping to one day visit Guatemala and meet the rest of my family there.”

What do you want people who view your pieces to know about Maya women and heritage?

“I want people who view the exhibit to acknowledge that Mayan woman exist and that they’re apart of our community.”

Jasleen Reyes, 17

(Photo Credit: Gordon Baker)

Jasleen Isabel Reyes, 17, is a Hollywood, Calif.-born and -raised guatemalteca. A junior at North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet, she decided to join Las Fotos Project’s “Maya Women in Los Angeles” because she had an interest in photography since she was in sixth grade and saw it as an ideal place to begin her journey with the art.

What do you want people who view your exhibit to know about Maya women and heritage?

What I want people to know is that Mayan womxn play a vital role but are always placed in the back. I want people to know that womxn of color are always put into the back of the shadows, but in this exhibit, and what we want people to take out from the exhibit, is that Mayan womxn are the center and the womxn behind the tejidos need to be brought to attention, and not put in the back.

The exhibition will be on display at the Las Fotos Project Gallery at 2658 Pasadena Ave. every Monday between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. until June 4.

Read: Breena Nuñez Peralta Is An Afro-Salvadoran-Guatemalan Artist Making Cartoons About Black Central Americans

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Venezolana Verónica Sanchis Bencomo Started Foto Féminas To Promote Women Photographers In Latin America And The Caribbean

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Venezolana Verónica Sanchis Bencomo Started Foto Féminas To Promote Women Photographers In Latin America And The Caribbean

Latin America is in the news again. Today, it’s Venezuela. For the first time in its history, the South American country has two presidents, and each one has fierce support on the country’s streets and in neighboring and distant governments. Images capturing local unrest are once again captivating a global audience, but most of the photos broadcast and published in mainstream media, not unlike coverage of turmoil across Latin America and the Caribbean, are being taken by foreign male photographers, not locals or women, whose critical and varied perspectives during crises like this rarely attract international attention. For five years, Foto Féminas, a platform promoting the work of female photographers from the region, has been fighting to change that, and its efforts are increasingly important.

Created in 2014 by Venezuelan photographer Verónica Sanchis Bencomo, Foto Féminas is elevating a long-overlooked demographic. Through its website, Bencomo features a different Latin American or Caribbean female photographer, sharing their work and story through monthly interviews. On Instagram, these visual artists also have the opportunity to engage with Foto Féminas’ nearly 10 thousand global followers through takeovers that expand their audience beyond the confines of their home countries. The founder also uses this platform to help emerging Latin American women photographers, those who might not yet have the experience or acclaim as her monthly features, but whose talent, too, deserve to be recognized.

“We are all of different ages, backgrounds and come from different countries, but we all share photography and feel that’s what’s most valuable, that we are a community and know about each other and discovered each other’s work,” Bencomo, 32, told FIERCE.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

In recent years, the digital space Bencomo has cultivated, which is now 50 members large, has also expanded into the material world, with Foto Féminas hosting several international exhibitions, photography festivals and gallery speaking events, collaborating with art and photography institutions and creating the first-ever library of photobooks by Latin American female photographers, Biblioteca Foto Féminas – María Cristina Orive.

After working in the industry for about five years, as a photographer, editor, writer and archivist, in cities across England and New York, Bencomo was hungry to discover women photographers in Latin America and interested in seeing the way these locals were covering the stories she was reading about overseas.

“Maybe it’s because I felt slightly or somehow isolated because I was in the UK and New York, and most of the people around me were of other backgrounds. The works I saw were interesting and great, but I wanted to know about our women. That’s why I was always searching,” Bencomo, who now lives in Hong Kong, said.

The photographer, it seems, has been seeking this representation since she first fell in love with the art as a teenager in Caracas. An avid reader of National Geographic, she was drawn to the way photography could be used to inform communities and provide them access to different parts of the world. But in the region she resided in, photography jobs were limited to weddings and events, not the journalism she enjoyed. After graduating high school, her father, urging her to learn English, encouraged her to move to Brighton, England. There, her English teacher, who also spent some time living in Venezuela, suggested that she stay in the country, where she could take courses and even earn a degree in photography. She heeded his advice, first getting a bachelor of technology for photography and later a degree in photojournalism.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

During her time in university and in the industry, Bencomo was introduced to numerous esteemed photographers. Some of them even told her about visual artists in Latin America. Her interest was piqued, and she felt an urgency to discover more. During a three-year gig at Ventana Latina, the art and culture magazine of the oldest Latin American NGO in the United Kingdom, Latin American House, she was given the opportunity to highlight the works of Latin American photographers with monthly interviews for the publication. But soon she realized her features were overwhelmingly of men.

“I researched a lot, but I realized while I was doing this that it was so hard to find women photographers. I was more mature and understanding gender issues, so I began to be more conscious about that,” she said.

Bencomo eventually left England for New York, where she began working as a library assistant at Manhattan’s International Center of Photography, a museum for photography and visual culture and a photography school. While sifting through countless intriguing archives on the job, Bencomo had an idea that could bring all of her interests — gender, Latin America and photography — together.

“I wanted to do something about this, a project, a website, where I could archive and share the content of Latin American women photographers. Everything slowly came together,” she said.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

That’s when Foto Féminas was born. Knowing the barriers that exist for female photographers in Latin America, from being overlooked for assignments that are deemed too dangerous for women or not having the funds to take trips where they can show their portfolio or apply for international awards, Bencomo wanted to create a platform that recognized these women’s work. Additionally, she wanted to use this space to highlight the way local female photographers were telling stories that the world usually sees through the lens of foreign, white men.

According to Bencomo, if this is the only perspective people have access to, they will never have the whole truth. “I left home and there’s a lot of negative news about Venezuela. There’s a lot of truth to that, in Venezuela and elsewhere, but I also come from a family that, despite the struggles and the problems happening in the country, have made things work. There are other more positive and inspiring stories or moving stories,” she said.

In addition to images that highlight state violence and civil unrest, she wants to see photojournalism that captures the spirit of mothers who work two jobs or leave their homelands to provide for their children or that show what it’s like for women to carry a nonviable fetus to term because of stringent abortion laws.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

“The photos we see, the stories we hear, that is one side of the truth, but it’s not the entire picture of Latin America. There can also be other stories to tell,” she said. “I’m interested in seeing variety. I want to see variety. I grew up knowing Caracas is dangerous, but there are other sides as well, and I believe it has to be the same in other countries, too.”

In Hong Kong, thousands of miles away from Latin America, continuing the work of Foto Féminas isn’t always easy. Funding this project with her own pocketbook, she doesn’t always have the means to take flights to the Americas for exhibitions and events. But it’s her passion to break barriers, create opportunities, establish community, shift narratives — including those around the ongoing upheaval in her own nation — and leave a legacy for Latin American and Caribbean women photographers that keep the work afloat.

“It’s all motivation. It’s really motivation that’s the drive,” she said.

Read: In Atlanta, Peruana Curator Monica Campana Is Creating Space For Public Art

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7-Year-Old Guatemalan Migrant Jackeline Caal Dies In Border Patrol Custody

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7-Year-Old Guatemalan Migrant Jackeline Caal Dies In Border Patrol Custody

A 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who crossed the southern border into New Mexico with her father on December 6 died in Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) custody last week, the Washington Post reported.

Jackeline Caal, who was part of a group of 163 people who surrendered to Border Patrol officers, experienced seizures eight hours after she and her dad were taken into custody. During a bus ride to a CBP facility in Lordsburg, the girl, who “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days,” started vomiting before the convulsions and losing consciousness. When emergency responders arrived, she had a recorded fever of 105.7 degrees.

The child was then transported to a children’s hospital in El Paso, Texas, where she was revived after going into cardiac arrest, but then died 24 hours later at the facility. Her causes of death were listed as Septic shock, fever and dehydration.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley called the death “a horrific, tragic situation,” but he also indicated that the child’s father, who has not yet been identified, rather than the Trump administration, was responsible for the loss. “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.”

Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas disagrees, telling NPR on Thursday that the president’s immigration policies are putting people, including children like Caal, at grave risk.

“By limiting the ability of folks to present themselves at the port of entry, the Trump administration is making it more dangerous for these folks,” he said.

The CBP and the Inspector General of DHS have said they would each conduct investigations to determine whether the agency followed all correct procedures and policies.

“This tragedy represents the worst possible outcome when people, including children, are held in inhumane conditions. Lack of accountability, and a culture of cruelty within CBP have exacerbated policies that lead to migrant deaths,” Cynthia Pompa, an ACLU Border Rights Center advocacy manager, told the Associated Press.

In a statement, she added: “The fact that it took a week for this to come to light shows the need for transparency for CBP.”

The death follows a year of hardline immigration policy. Officials are holding nearly 15,000 immigrant children in detention facilities, while agents are increasingly apprehending families with children at the border.

Read: An Undocumented Housekeeper At Trump’s New Jersey Golf Club Is Speaking Out Against Mistreatment

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