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

Maya womxn in LA credit: Emaly Escobar

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.

 

Maya Womxn in LA
(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

Maya womxn in LA
(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

Maya Womxn in LA
(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

Maya Womxn in LA
(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

Maya womxn in LA
(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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