Save Mayan Conservation Practices

by Creative Action Institute
ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrio
ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrio

ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió invokes Fred Astaire to facilitate a dynamic exchange around shared power and tradition in the first training workshop with members of the Natural Resources Council of 48 Cantons, Totonicapán.

When I came to visit Totonicapán for the first time, I thought I knew all there was to know about 48 Cantons: it has one of the most deeply rooted structures for indigenous self-determination among the first peoples of the country. The area is also known for their community work to protect forests, water and natural resources.

Nonetheless, as I walked the streets I saw the people carrying a black stick in their hands; I thought: people DANCE here in Totonicapán. The image of Fred Astaire with his black cane and tap shoes flashed in my mind.

But that was not the case. The scepter in Totonicapán is the HIGHEST SYMBOL OF AUTHORITY. Whoever is carrying the scepter is, at that very moment, representing the power of the Maya Quiché people of Totonicapán and its villages. A tradition that is over 200 years old.

For the inhabitants of Totonicapán, the scepter is a well-established symbol, and one with which they are very familiar. For the uninitiated, it can awaken foreign and fantastic interpretations.

Under that idea, we designed a workshop together with the members of the Natural Resource Council. The idea was to deconstruct the significance of the scepter, taking it out of context, and then reconstruct its importance to reaffirm its living presence. The intent of this activity was to help conserve ancestral practices.

I sent an email to some friends around the world, attaching photos of the people of Totonicapán holding the black stick in different daily situations. I asked my friends what they thought of these images. Who were the people in the photos? Why were they holding black sticks?

Yuko, from Japan, said they might be police officers who were using the sticks to protect women and children from would-be thieves. Silvia, from Spain, said that they must be healers who carried herbs in their sticks to heal the population. Sunil, from the USA, thought they might be religious students. Amalia, from Italy, thought they were retirees. Eva, from Germany, said that they might be magicians going to perform at a children’s party.  Anki, from Norway, also thought they could be dancers. And Zartosht, from Iran, said that the sticks were to keep bad spirits away.

I shared these answers with the nearly 40 members of the Council. They listened intently, with reactions ranging from alarm to laughter.

As soon as I finished reading the responses, the council members began to speak out, as if defending themselves. Taking their feet and raising their voices, they extolled the importance of their scepters.  Without further prodding they spoke for more than 30 minutes, expressing ideas that included:

  • “Authority is music, authority is song. Sometimes it’s played low, sometimes it’s sad, and sometimes it’s joyful. But everybody listens.”
  • “Authority is like marriage, where partners respect each other. We are together in good times and bad.”
  • “Authority is related to water and forests. Water is life, and authority is life, too.”
  • “Authority is the sun and justice for all, regardless of race or social condition.”

The president of 48 Cantons,  Carmen Tacam, told us that she feels energy through the scepter: “The scepter holds the power, we are just intermediaries.”

Just as the scepter can be a blessing in the lives of those who carry it, it can also be a curse if people do not know how to use it appropriately. The scepter cannot be loaned to anyone.  It can be used only by the person who carries it for that year.

Carmen also told us that the scepter only changes hands on the last day of the year, as it is passed on to the new Council President. The scepter is left in rosewater, in a clay pot. Rose petals are spread upon it, and it is left to rest for the night on December 31. A candle is lit, incense is burnt, and thanks are given for the protection, aid and wisdom that the scepter has granted that year. The scepter can then be passed on to the new authorities with new energy.

As we were all motivated after the intense discussion and exchange of ideas, we decided to set up a sort of mandala in our work space. Everyone spontaneously put their scepters in the circle. Through the exercise of drawing we joined into this year of mandalas, this time representing the past, present and future, as individuals and groups had done before us.

The morning flew by and before we knew it, we were having lunch amidst mandalas that had been filled with our concerns and hopes. And we had renewed energy to finish out the year.

This project is being implemented in collaboration with the EcoLogic Development Fund

ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrio
ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrio
ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrio
ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrio

It was the second training session with the teachers of “Los Rocosos” from the Panquix area facilitated by ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió. They gathered in the morning in the meeting room of the Community Association of the 48 Cantons in Totonicapán.

When I arrive, some of the teachers are already waiting at the door. As we set up the materials and the space, others continue to arrive. The perfumes of the morning and the cheery multicolored skirts of the teachers add to the ambiance. They like to make jokes with one another.

This training will deal with Public Art and the Environment. We learn that public art consists of art in any medium, planned and executed for the public domain, that is typically outdoors and accessible to everyone.  We see projected images of the work of the artist Tom Otterness and his bronze sculptures that are strategically placed in the New York City subway. Small, sculpted characters sit almost unseen under a door or alongside a stairway. A laugh and a wink for the hurried commuter in the big city.

Such a distant geography and reality: New York City and Totonicapán. But the concept and the enjoyment society takes from such artwork in public spaces, outside of museums and galleries, is shared. With the same smiles and jokes that the teachers so enjoy, we also delight in stumbling on a surprise and a spontaneous invitation to play out on the street.

With respect to environmental art, we are refering to art that deals with ecological issues or with the natural environment. And who better to embark on today’s task than this group of teachers, who are already raising awareness about nature’s fragility among their students. Now we look at projected images of the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, who, alone in the forests and using natural materials gathered outdoors like branches, leaves, rocks, flowers, feathers, etc., creates his ephemeral constructions.

I observe the faces of the teachers looking attentively at the projector. I comment that we are talking about an internationally renowned artist, who uses all of the materials that are also available here in Totonicapán, at arm’s reach in their communal forests, and at no cost.  I tell them that this Scottish artist is very famous and earns “a lot of pisto (cash)” with his works of art.

Looking something between surprised and incredulous, the teachers exchange glances and laughter echoes through the community room once again.

Inspired by these concepts and images, we get to work. We will work on figures with natural mud and dried leaves and branches with no tools but our hands and, of course, our imaginations. We visualize the spaces of the park: there is a fountain, a sculpture of Antanasio Tzul, stairs, and benches, among other attributes. We need to discover and examine the park in order to contextualize the images that will be sculpted.

Euphorically, the teachers get to work without delays or inhibitions, and in less than an hour, we set out with the sculptures to install them in strategic spots around the park. Atanasio Tzul now has a feathered serpent at his feet, there is a clay clock with hands made out of dried branches installed in a space in the monument, there is a lizard on the ground behind the gate, a character with a hat on a commemorative plaque, a small replica of the actual fountain—one by one the teachers installed their work throughout the park.

Passersby look on with curiosity and asked what was going on. Some of them take sculptures home with them, others take photos, posing in front of a cat with eyes made of rocks and ears of dried leaves.

We achieved our mission of intervening in public space with organic materials that wouldn’t contaminate. And we put our first examples of public art on display for the public in Totonicapán’s central park.

This project is being carried out in collaboration with EcoLogic Development Fund.

ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrio
ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrio

Youth Leaders in Conservation listen, feel, express their thoughts through images and share the ancestral wisdom of their Mayan community, under the guidance of ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió.

The children from 48 Cantones arrive early at the Riecken Library in Xolsacmalja. Running, sweating, pushing and shoving, they ask for the ball to get a few minutes of play in before the creativity workshop starts, three times per week.

They are punctual and responsible. And rarely ever absent. In those cases when a child doesn’t show up, someone from his or her household diligently brings me a handwritten note from the family explaining the child’s absence: “He had to plant in the cornfield today.”

The purpose of the workshop series is to publish a book that collects the stories from the oral tradition in the community, illustrated by children. The stories told are about the Maya Ki’che’ people, the Ajaw of the mountain and the water, and some old rules to save the forest, such as “Pixab”, “Pixan”, “Toj” and “Repuj”. All of these are concepts that direct us as human beings to relate to nature: the mountains, the forest, the water, and the animals.

To collect these stories, we go to the “Plxab” (Council of Elders). Every Thursday we walk down the narrow dirt paths to the house of somebody’s grandfather. The children sit and listen. Usually, they are speaking Ki’che’. So I sit with my notebook, the page blank, until Evelyn comes and translates the story into Spanish for me.

For the illustrations, we are experimenting with different techniques and visual mediums such as painting, drawing, collage, photography and photo montages. We will also go to the forest to listen to the sound of the pines, smell them, touch them, and of course, draw them.

Mr. Urbano, the teacher at the library, also taught us the kirigami technique, cutting paper to make airy and light forms, something that the children enjoy very much. We plan to paint a mural inspired by these simple forms for Reforestation Day in May.

The idea is that we can experience and appreciate the forest, and that all of its stories – which will be represented in the illustrations, can be heard in due time, enjoying the journey and along the way discovering some new perceptions that come from old stories. Because ancestral wisdom is passed down from generation to generation, and we don’t want it to stop with us.

This project is being carried out in partnership with EcoLogic Development Fund.

ArtCorps Artist Andrea Shigeko Landin travels to Guatemala's capital with her youth group of budding photographers and documentarians from the highlands.

This I have found to be true: No matter how far you go, you will always find something familiar; and no matter how long you stay, you will always find something new.

My time left in Toto is rapidly diminishing and this realization is entering my daily life more and more.  It’s going to be so hard to leave, I know that already; my eyes often tear up just thinking about it.  Sometimes I think about my first few days here when I arrived in January–the novelty, the exhilaration, the foreignness, and the fear.

But these emotions did not run away with the mango season; no, they continue to be familiar friends.  Last week I took a group of kids to the capital, the group that is working on a photography and interviewing project, with the goal of creating a small exhibition about the customs and traditions of Totonicapán in November.  The trip stemmed from my realization a few weeks ago that none of them had ever seen any sort of museum or art exhibition, and so the idea of doing one of our own was abstract and unobtainable.  So after getting permission from the organization, we planned a trip to an exhibition in Guatemala City that addresses issues of race, class, and history in this country.  I had the privilege of seeing it last year, as it was sponsored and compiled by the social science research center where I studied last year in Antigua.  Similar to never having been to an exhibition before, none of the kids had been to Guatemala City (the capital).  As we worked on making the trip a reality, their excitement was contagious.  The day of our excursion, their enthusiasm never waned, from our 5am departure to our 9pm return.  The exhibition was great, but the highlights of our trip were the things I never expected.

"Andrea, look! Look! Quick, take a picture!” Upon the request of several of the kids, I whipped around, expecting to see something bizarre.  Then I realized they were pointing at the sky, and it was an airplane that they saw.  Of course–this flying metal thing that they had only heard about on the radio was indeed extraordinary.  Despite not only having seen, but flown on so many airplanes that I have lost count, I feigned excitement as well and pulled out my camera.   A few more grazed the sky throughout the morning, and the kids never got tired of pointing and gasping.  And something strange started happening to me.  With each airplane we saw, my fascination with them, which had previously been non-existent, grew. By the 4th one I found myself nodding in agreement with the kids as they expressed their incredulousness and staring at the sky until my eyes hurt and the planes finally ducked back into the clouds.

But the most exhilarating, hands down, was the elevator.  First the kids insisted on running up all 22 flights of stairs to reach the top floor of the building.  I followed them a little reluctantly–it was like the stair master on level 20.  Then came time to take the elevator down.  The kids starting screaming before I even noticed we were moving.  My instinct was to smile and laugh at their reaction, but I wasn’t sure what my role should be in this situation–maybe I should tell them to calm down, that there were other people in the elevator, and that we shouldn’t disturb them?  But it felt unnatural to suppress such elation.   So I kept my mouth shut and with each floor we passed in this pulley operated glass box my smile grew.  Before we even reached level 1 they wanted to go up again.  I could tell the attendant in the elevator was a little bothered, but by that point I had forgotten my role as the responsible adult, so I asked him if we could go up again.  He hesitated, and then, in an effort to convince him, I told him this was the first time we (yes, I said “we”) had been in an elevator and, for that matter, had been in the capital and we only had today so could we please just have one more ride.  He finally said yes.  The kids once again began to shriek as we went up and watched the people and cars outside get smaller and smaller.   Then down, all 22 floors, and this time the noise from our group was even louder -because I was screaming with them.

So I’ve learned that finding something new in a familiar environment doesn’t necessarily have to be something one has never before seen. Sometimes you experience novelty and delight through another’s eyes, and it becomes your own.  And as for finding familiarity in far away places–well, I think my perception of distant and foreign has changed quite a bit.  To me, California matches that description pretty well right now.  But I’m sure when I get off the flying metal thing and go down the pulley operated glass box in the Los Angeles airport, the flood of familiarity will be exhilarating, delightful, and will make me smile.  Tears creep into my eyes just thinking about it.

ArtCorps Artist Allison Havens and CARE Youth Leaders in Conservation bring environmentalism and creativity to a Honduran community's traditional parade.

It was a hot and humid day like normal in La Masica, Honduras and all my 100 kids and their parents were already lined up at the gas station ready to start the parade. My heart dropped a little realizing that they all actually showed up on time, for once.  Meaning that we still had another 2 hours to wait for the beginning of the parade, due to my overestimation of typical Honduran tardiness. But it was just as well considering we still had to feed all 150 people and I realized that most of the kids were still wearing their Sunday best, waiting to change into their costumes. Wow, these kids dressed up to come to La Masica to participate in the parade! OK, this is a big deal for them…

We served them their Wendys hamburgers and fries, graciously provided by CARE. Another point that made my heart drop a little. Here we are marching in a parade for the conservation of the environment and instead of choosing to hire a local group of women to provide the lunch or trying to use as little waste as possible, CARE decided to buy expensive hamburgers from Wendys in La Ceiba, out of a beautiful desire to provide something special for the kids. And all of that money that we spent on those 150 lunches will be now going back into the profits of a rich North American chain restaurant, when that money could have been invested in a local La Masica business. And we just contributed more trash to the environment before our environmental themed parade, in a community that already has a big enough waste management problem. But… anyways, the truth… I was grateful for the specialness of the Wendys hamburgers that day because it made the two hour wait less frustrating and ceased the complaints of the impatient parents who were thrilled that CARE cared enough to provide a special lunch for them and their kids. So anyways, another issue for another day, we can’t solve all the world’s problems in one day… we still had a parade to march in!

And so, we finally sandwiched our two-block long section of 100 kids and youth  marching for the environment in between the beauty queen float and the armed narcotraffickers marching on their pure breed horses. Our environmental-themed exhibit was the first time a group had done something so creative and with a purely social message in the annual La Masica Carnival parade. Normally, it is just beauty queens, business advertisement, lots of punta music, pretty girls and drunk spectators. Oh god, should I have brought these children to this event…? Is this gonna be PG?? Are these parents gonna kill me? But nonetheless, we persevered onward providing a light of positivity and family fun in this annual parade! We were led by the fearless horse crew- leading our horse and buggy carrying the environmental mural the youth from Instituto Gonzalo had painted, next we had our “Water is Life, protect it!” banner painted by the youth working with Junta de Agua, and then the kids from Tripoly in their butterfly and flower costumes, followed by the kids from Tarritos in their paper-mache bird costumes and their giant moving and dancing snake, then came the band from Monte Negro school shakily leading our environmental song and chants, next came the trees walking alongside the river, held in the hands of the girls of Monte Negro in their flowing traditional danza dresses, next were rows of kids from Monte Negro, Naranjal, and Instituto Gonzalo carrying their homemade signs with environmental messages and noise-makers, and finally wrapping up our section were the cars from CARE and the Municipality throwing rambuttan fruit to the crowd and blasting music.

And while the march was definitely a bit too long and everyone was exhausted in the end, the kids were proud. Hopefully we inspired others to try something a little more community-focused and a bit more creative in the parade next year.  And hopefully some of them are also now conserving their use of water more, realizing the importance of their forests, and inspired to protect the future quality of life for their children.


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Organization Information

Creative Action Institute

Location: Ipswich, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Louisa Trackman
Ipswich, MA United States

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