At SouthernCultures.org, 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.
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.
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.”