Maya from the Margins

Connecting North Carolina with Mexico

Southern Cultures

At, we occasionally showcase the work of our UNC Library partners. Read on for a glimpse of an innovative initiative by the Southern Historical Collection that, as Kenan Professor of Anthropology Patricia McAnany puts it, “is building bridges with our neighbors to the south rather than walls.”

When Bryan Giemza, director of the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) at UNC-Chapel Hill, visited the State Archives of Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico, he had an “a-ha” moment. Pouring over Mayan-language transcripts of nineteenth-century court depositions and hacienda (plantation) records, Giemza found a cultural bridge. “This is very reminiscent of the kind of materials we have at the SHC,” he thought. But, like so many archives, the collection in Mérida was essentially only accessible in person. “If an archive doesn’t have the digital resources to get its materials out to the world,” he asked, “what could we do to be helpful?”

Giemza knew that Morganton, North Carolina, has a growing population of Latinxs with Mayan ancestry. Displaced by the Guatemalan Civil War, indigenous refugees began resettling in the Morganton area in the 1990s. “I think it’s difficult to be Latino in North Carolina in certain respects, and even more difficult to claim an indigenous identity,” he said.

“I think most people think Mexican people are aggressive, or not friendly. . . but here you’re so welcomed. That’s something I’m going to take home and tell people about Mexico.”
—Ojany Ramos, student at R. L. Patton High School in Morganton, NC

The Caption

Bryan Giemza at the Acropolis at the Maya archaeological site of Ek Balam in Yucatán.
Dr. Iván Batún, Museums Connect program coordinator for Mexico, explains the significance of some of the archival documents in the Archivo General del Estado de Yucatán, of which he was formerly director.

Dr. Batún and his family and colleagues in North Carolina.

The SHC partnered with InHerit, a cultural heritage research and action organization rooted in the Research Labs of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Together with Giemza and other colleagues, UNC anthropologists Patricia McAnany and Gabrielle Vail helped dream up Maya from the Margins, a cross-country collaboration that connects North Carolina to Mexico.

Made possible by a Museums Connect grant, Maya from the Margins created an exchange between fifteen Morganton high school students and ten young people studying at universities in Yucatán. The students visited the SHC and the State Archives of Yucatán, crisscrossed North Carolina and Yucatán, and collaboratively curated a travelling exhibition, “Revitalizing Maya History and Heritage: My View from the Archives,” which was displayed at sites throughout the exchange.

“I grew up in American culture, I didn’t know anything about Mexico when I came here. It was scary. But it taught me so much about where I came from, where my home is.”
—Iván Batún Cante, student at the Universidad Autónomo de Yucatán

Students and other participants visited several cultural sites in Yucatán, including the Castillo at the UNESCO world heritage site of Chichén Itzá.
The last night we were there, there were so many tears.

“I can’t even tell you how rewarding this project was,” Giemza said. “It was a dream come true to watch those kids get involved in archives. One of them was just gobsmacked. He said, ‘I just can’t believe what you have here.’”

Giemza and his colleagues want to envision more projects like Maya from the Margins. “It’s consistent with what I hope is an ethos of decolonization. We want to, in a way, dissolve the walls of the university,” he explained. “That means we actually have to be meaningfully involved in a range of communities.”

Project participants at the Archivo General del Estado de Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico, posing in front of their exhibits.
Visit to the site of Ek Balam in Yucatán on April 17, 2017. For most of the students from Morganton, this was their first experience of seeing a Maya archaeological site in person.

For more on Maya from the Margins, read “Helping students explore being Maya,” on the UNC College of Arts & Sciences website.

Maya from the Margins was funded by a Museums Connect grant, an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the American Alliance of Museums. Partners include the Southern Historical Collection, the UNC Department of Anthropology and Research Laboratories of Archaeology, and the State Archives of Yucatán. UNC anthropologist Gabrielle Vail is project coordinator.

All photos courtesy Bryan Giemza.