Maya Traditions Journal > USH: MTF Leaders Begin Work with New Communities

Maya Traditions Foundation began partnering with Unlocking Silent Histories ‘USH’ in 2012 offering young people involved in our Youth Education Program the opportunity to develop and share their voices through creating their own short documentaries. Here, the USH Guatemala Field Director Jenn Miller shares the latest developments within the program:

A heavy rain begins to fall on Saturday afternoon as we wrap up our first Unlocking Silent Histories meeting with two new groups of program participants in Santiago Atitlan. The indigenous youth gathered around the table where we sit in a second floor office don’t seem to mind, using the rain as a welcome excuse to stay longer and engage in a lively discussion about their opinions on gender roles across communities.

Carlos, our Youth Educator from San Juan La Laguna, shares his perspectives as a member of a different Tzu’tujil community, while Domingo, a Santiago Atitlan native, takes a different stance. I smile as he concedes that his compañera across the table, Rosa, might have more right to share her opinion on the matter, and Rosa confidently vocalizes a feminist viewpoint, stating that the traditional roles of men and women have been influenced by patriarchal systems, and while they are changing now, there is still a long way to go.


Carlos with students in Santiago Atitlán

It is incredible to me that most of these youth met for the first time just a few hours ago – through the course of our first USH meeting, they each introduced themselves, shared their passion for bringing to light the stories of their communities and their passion for their cultural heritage, and now feel comfortable with one another, debating deep issues, listening and respecting one another’s points of view, joking and laughing with one another, and sharing and exchanging cultural elements across communities.

As the rain slowly lets up, Carlos closes the meeting, thanking everyone for their time, and telling these eager new participants that he appreciates all that they shared today, has learned a great deal from them already, and knows he will continue to learn from them throughout their progress in the program. He is happy to be able to share with them the little that he knows, he adds modestly.

DSC02749 copy

Chema with students in San Juan

Meanwhile, across the lake in the small community of Patanatic above Panajachel, Youth Educator Chema is engaging students gathered in the home of 17-year old Tony. Huddled together over a notebook, our Patanatic participants begin planning the film they will make about the founding of their community – a broad topic that they will eventually narrow down as the story begins to emerge from interviews with community members.

EIMG_0418arlier in the meeting, Chema discussed with the students the importance of community film-making, posing insightful questions to them, such as what is the value of local voices in the media? What role can filmmaking play in inciting community change? How might filmmaking assist in cultural preservation? As the critical thinking wheels began turning in their heads, program participants were inspired to discover, document, and share the story of their community and its cultural uniqueness. Light bulbs went off as ideas emerged – “There’s an anciana that lives above the church who was one of the founding community members. We should interview her!” And the planning process for these students’ first film thus had begun.

The next day, Youth Educator Carmen takes a camioneta, followed by a microbus, followed by a pick-up truck on the 2 hours journey from her home to the community of Quiejel, a canton of Chichicastenango. Carmen began working with a group of young students here earlier in the month, marking our first expansion into a new departamento of Guatemala, and she now confidently follows the winding dirt path to Mariela’s home.

Carmen reviews with the students the various types of shots she went over with them last week: plano general (wide shot), plano mediano (medium shot), plano corto (close-up), and plano detalle (macro or detail shot). Once the students understand the definition of each, Carmen heads outside with them and a camera to put what they’ve learned into practice!

The fertile land and temperate climate in Quiejel make for an abundance of fruit trees. The students begin practicing shot types while capturing all of the different fruit-bearing trees and plants that grow on Mariela’s family’s land – avocado, gauayaba, peach, pear, plum, yellow peppers, cactus, coffee, and more.  The students take wide, medium, close-up, and detail shots of each, and we sample the delicious fruits as we go. With a great variety of photos of each type of fruit, the group heads back inside to start their first editing process. Guided by Carmen, they put together a short video of their photos so that they can see first-hand the importance of capturing a variety of shot types to make their videos more visually interesting.


Carmen with students in La Antigua Ixtahuacan

Later in the day at Carmen’s house in La Antigua Ixtahucan, students begin to arrive shortly after lunch. This group of program participants has already begun their pre-production stage. Last week, Carmen worked with them on identifying a subject for a practice video, and they unanimously agreed they’d like to focus on the cultural significance of their traditional dress. Notebooks and pencils in hand, students begin research and planning, talking through their ideas with Carmen and listing the various shots and interviews they’ll need. “White signifies pureness and red signifies blood, but I don’t remember the rest of the colors,” one student states. “Well, who could you interview that will have that information?” Carmen answers, and the students identify a few community members who are sure to know.

Later in the week, Chema will meet with another group of students in San Juan la Laguna, and will be accompanied by our Creative Consultant, Franklin. Because of busy work and school schedules, these students meet late at night, but their motivation and enthusiasm for the program really shows as they work long after nightfall. Last week, Chema led this group through a creative visualization exercise, having them lie down with their eyes closed as he guided them through a meditation to “transport them to another world,” as Chema stated, opening their minds to the imaginative visions they’ll need to create their films.DSC02715 copy

With Franklin’s assistance for their next meeting, Chema will guide themin applying their creativity to the framing of shots, teaching them to focus on visual elements such as lighting and color, line and shape, angle and perspective, to enhance the aesthetic appeal of their videos. The students have been anxious to get their hands on the equipment and start putting what they’ve learned into practice, so this next meeting is sure to be exciting for all of them.

And so we have officially kicked off our third year of the Unlocking Silent Histories program, expanding our number of student groups to 6, and our number of communities to 5, including 3 new communities! Our Youth Educators are now seasoned professionals, adeptly putting into practice our popular-education pedagogical model as they guide program participants through a transformative filmmaking discovery process, learning from students and community members as much as they share their own knowledge and skills, in inspiring cross-cultural and cross-generational exchanges.

We are all thrilled to continue in this work through our partnership with Maya Traditions Foundation, who have helped us to grow, reaching new communities where the Foundation has established artisan groups and bringing them new opportunities to learn, share, and seguir adelante.

To learn more, visit: and

Member of the
World Fair Trade Organization