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Ph.D student Francisco Díaz stands at the Penn Museum. Photo: Eric Sucar

Yucatec Mayan voices matter in academia

UPenn doctoral student Francisco Díaz aims to explore the contributions of living Maya people to early archeological projects.

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Francisco Díaz was born in Mérida, Yucatán, and moved to San Rafael, California, in the Bay area at the age of five— learning how to read at the age of three by a “happy accident,” as he likes to reference, by observing his mother teaching his older sister how to read and “hovering around the periphery,” Díaz, a lifelong learner whose parents, both from Peto, a small town in the Yucatán peninsula, pursued better socioeconomic opportunities in the U.S.

“My dad was the only one in his family who went to college,” Díaz shares. “Even with a college degree, he saw that he couldn’t make it.” 

His father moved to the United States working four jobs: handyman, janitor, the gas station attendant, and tow truck driver, despite having a civil engineering degree, “this was the type of immigrant work that he did his whole life,” commented Díaz, who returned to Mexico at the age of eleven—noticing the disparities in how ancient Maya culture, is elevated and represented, attracting millions of people to visit the Mayan ruins, a contrast from how marginalization continues within this community that faces underrepresentation and lack of economic opportunity.  

Díaz shares that his father is a testament to the Yucatec Maya people’s tenacity and ability to persevere, adding that he instilled the importance of his Yucatec Mayan and indigenous background. 

The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) doctoral graduate explains that “as more indigenous voices come into academia in general, it becomes something different…we critique those earlier studies but also continue to study ourselves and elevate our cultures and our voices.” 

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Indigenous voices in academia

Francisco realized a Ph.D. would give him the authoritative voice to speak about his culture and background and persuade others to listen. 

Díaz dissertation, inspired by his cultural identity and connection to his community and archeology, looks at early Mayanist research in the 1890s through 1930s from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to uncover and foreground contemporary Maya within the archaeological study.

“The current efforts are to try to voice and try to make them more representative because, for a long time, they haven’t been,” said Díaz, because when discussing the ancient Maya people, it is about “feasting and monumental architecture and the big idea of like ‘they disappeared,’” which he says archaeologist understand “cultures change and shift.” 

While conducting research, he recognized the distinction in the way ancient Maya had been studied, originally by European people that provided an outside view— Díaz, as a Yucatec Maya, believes his cultural connection brings a different viewpoint, “where Maya voices are better incorporated and better represented, and the views of Maya people are part of the study and not ancillary to it.” 

Considering his background— his first year at UPenn, he would pass through the Mexico & Central America Gallery at Penn Museum that holds the largest group of Maya stone monuments on display in the United States, including “Stela 14,” which Díaz views as receiving significant recognition; a contrast from other Mayan art and artifacts. 

According to the Penn Museum, “Stela 14” is the monument that “helped Penn archeologists crack the code to deciphering incredibly complex Mayan glyphs in the 1960s.” 

Díaz thought process shifted to what was not represented within these findings, explaining that “I wanted to bring out the contributions, the presence and any information about Maya people, but not the ancient Maya, but the living Maya people who worked with the archeologists,” and his starting point was Piedras Negras, a Maya site in Guatemala noted for the sculpted stelae and hieroglyphic inscriptions it has yielded, according to Penn Museum.  

UPenn conducted an excavation at Piedras Negras between 1931 and 1939, with John Allen Mason leading the first two seasons of work (1931-1932), followed by Linton Satterthwaite, who directed the remaining six seasons (1933-1939, excluding 1938). 

Díaz, concerned about Mayans' portrayal in the way that represented his heritage, found many of these efforts to be present in Piedras Negras, stating, “They were the ones who took these huge stones that weighed several tons and moved them out of the jungle using… wooden carts and homemade rope that they made from material out of the jungle,” and “incorporating their local knowledge to take these objects out.” However, only Stela 14 and one leg from Altar 4 remains on display in the Penn Museum.

He notes that without the contributions of Mayans, these archeologists would not have been able to complete “most of the actual excavation and most of the actual archeological work.” 

While navigating the archives, the records show Mayans were hired repeatedly, with some of the same names showing up throughout the years— crediting Mayans for bringing their own traditional and local knowledge.  

Mayans' exposure to archaeological work meant “they were trained in archeological techniques and excavation surveying and even being able to discern from a rock and an archeological stone,” shared Díaz, who explains that his work is getting to these stories and being “able to express them and talk about them in a way that returns their presence and the contribution of Maya people to the study of their own past.” 

While in the archive, he found a photo album with staff photos and some of the workmen's names. 

“I got to know these people’s names through the excavation diaries of the archeologists,” Díaz shares. “I have returned to personhood. I connected…. Because they were interested in the people. They just needed to record them to have a record of what went down in the excavation process.” 

He adds, “But they are not artifacts of the ancient Mayan path. They are artifacts of the study of the ancient Maya,” a clear and crucial distinction. 

Some of the textual records of Piedras Negras include financial records, field notes and diaries, catalogs, reports, and publication materials. 

Concurrently, the story of a washwoman who died in one of the fields— in the river washing clothes when she got caught in the riptide, explains Díaz, noting that only half her face is visible in a photo. 

“We don’t even have a visual record of who she is, but the fact that this is nowhere but the archives shows how devalued and not acknowledge the efforts and struggles and the presence of indigenous people has been,” he lamented, but being able to speak about her story was significant to him. 

“Nada hace falta”

Referencing the concept of the number zero, where in the Western point of view, zero represents the absence of something, “it’s a void, it's a lack of something,” shares Díaz, adding that in Maya cosmology, in Maya thinking, zero means you have enough. 

“Nada hace falta,” or nothing is lacking, Díaz said. “If you have this concept, you have this knowledge, this idea…what can it do for your work in whatever else you are trying to do.” 

The best way to go forward is to [know] that we are doing this for each other. We are doing this to bring each other along. We pay forward to the next generation.


 

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