Harnessing Emergent Digital Technologies to Facilitate North-South, Cross-Cultural, Interdisciplinary Conversations about Indigenous Community Identities and Cultural Heritage in Yucatán

Gabrielle Vail (vailg@email.unc.edu), University of North Carolina, United States of America and Sarah Buck Kachaluba (sbuckkachaluba@ucsd.edu), University of California, San Diego and Matilde Cordoba Azcarate (mcazcarate@ucsd.edu), University of California, San Diego and Samuel Francois Jouault (samuel.jouault@correo.uady.mx), Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán

This panel brings together practitioners of digital humanities with backgrounds in history, anthropology, and film to discuss projects that embrace interdisciplinary perspectives in exploring cross-cultural conversations about the role of expert knowledge and digital technologies in community and tourism development, indigenous cultural heritage protection, and learning pedagogies. Using digital technologies and interfaces, the four projects bring to light historical and contemporary indigenous experience in various communities in Yucatán, Mexico.

The first makes use of an interactive website that documents historical and contemporary rural Yucatecan community experiences to explore evolving individual and communal identities through interviews with elderly community residents remembering social reform, economic restructuring, and state-building in the decades following the Mexican Revolution, as well as owners of current businesses and young adults. Of interest is how such identities are affected by globally-driven economic development, as the Yucatán is increasingly defined by commodity production for global export, and as historical haciendas that once served as the center of communal economic production are converted into luxury hotels to serve foreign tourists. The website aims to capture the voices of and facilitate communication between community members, visitors, scholars, and interested parties.

The second project employs an online format that allows diverse audiences ranging from lay people to academic specialists to explore the calendric, iconographic, hieroglyphic, and thematic content of prehispanic Maya screenfold books using a sophisticated search engine to perform queries. This tool enables contemporary speakers of Mayan languages to engage, either on their own or as participants in instructor-led workshops, with valuable historical objects that constitute part of their cultural heritage, but ones that they would otherwise lack the means to access. Use of the website in Latin American and U.S. communities with large Maya populations helps to foster discussions across borders about Maya identity in the past and today.

The third presentation discusses Co’ox Mayab, an organization dedicated to sustainable tourism in Yucatán through practices that promote collaboration and solidarity, with a focus on social consciousness and justice. The organization has several goals, including the promotion of intercultural dialogue through the interaction of visitors and indigenous hosts. Digital technologies—comprising a webpage, documentary, and promotional videos—play an important role in evaluating the effectiveness of Co’ox Mayab as an organization, and in understanding how sustainable tourism practices are achieved in Yucatán.

The final presentation describes the preliminary steps in creating an ethnographic documentary that charts changes in the socio-cultural organization of the former henequen town of Tekit in inland Yucatán. The town has recently been transformed into a domestic factory town, and it produces textile souvenirs and uniforms for the hospitality industry in the region and beyond. The documentary aims to show how the domestic maquila (workshop) system of production has led to its differentiation from other Yucatecan communities that cannot provide enough work for their inhabitants, leading to extensive migration. This ethnographic documentary is part of a collaborative effort to link the social sciences and the humanities, digital media technologies, and documentary film through multimedia storytelling as a pedagogical practice.

These four projects each engage with and facilitate discussion about the role of digital interfacing, multimedia initiatives, databases, and documentary film in fostering more inclusive and participatory community development projects, cultural heritage protection practices, and learning pedagogies across the Americas.

The panel consists of the following presentations:

1. Pueblos Yucatecos: Building an Interactive Website to Create, Exhibit, and Examine Indigenous Community (Hi)stories

Sarah Buck Kachaluba, University of California, San Diego

This presentation details the creation of a website exhibiting materials to tell community stories that originated with oral history work the presenter undertook in 2000 in villages in the state of Yucatán, Mexico. The interviews themselves (both audio versions and textual transcripts) and selected photographs will be archived in an academic digital library with the website pointing to such digital objects, while simultaneously providing access to supplemental material, including additional photographs, maps, records, and eventually interactive features such as chat and TEI-enabled tools that will facilitate further content creation, editing, and commentary. This project has expanded and changed significantly from the original oral history project defined by the goal of charting the experiences of women who were the members of women’s leagues that played a role in securing Mexican women the right to vote and expanding the definition of Mexican female citizenship in the decades following the Mexican Revolution. The current project explores rural communal identities in the face of economic development driven by globalization, as the Yucatán is increasingly defined by commodity production for global export and historical haciendas that once served as the center of communal economic production are converted into luxury hotels (funded by multinational corporations such as Banamex, Citibank, and Sheraton) to serve foreign tourists. The website aims to capture the voices of community members, as well as other visitors, scholars, and interested parties. The project is simultaneously an exhibit of and a tool to shape community, community histories and contemporary stories, and identity formation. It also reveals and explores the use of various kinds of screen technologies, including smart phones and social media, to enable cross-cultural, multilingual, and North-South communication.

2. The Online Maya Codices Database: Fostering Community Conversations about Maya Heritage and Identity

Gabrielle Vail, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The Maya Codices Database, developed with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, provides an online format for exploring the calendric, iconographic, hieroglyphic, and thematic content of the prehispanic Maya screenfold books dating to the Late Postclassic period (c. 1250-1521 CE). It was developed with dual user interfaces to maximize its utility for reaching a variety of audiences—the general public, students in grades 4-12 and above, codical specialists, and academics in other fields of study. The database is used as a teaching tool in hieroglyphic workshops held in both the U.S. and Latin America, often for Maya-speaking audiences consisting primarily of educators, students, and ritual specialists. The visual representations of rituals and daily activities enacted by ancestors of contemporary Maya people, along with the written hieroglyphic texts describing what is pictured, generally trigger a series of recollections among indigenous participants, who then relate their stories, reminiscences, and descriptions of ritual activities, tying this information into the almanacs depicted in the codices.

The database was recently introduced to students of Maya descent in western North Carolina as part of an exchange program to build bridges of cultural understanding among international participants (in this case, with Yucatec Maya students of a similar age attending school in Valladolid, Yucatán). The North Carolina students, despite having parents who grew up in Maya communities in the highlands of Guatemala, felt that they knew little about their indigenous roots and were eager to participate in the workshops being offered and to interact with the archival material made available to them as part of the program. One of the primary goals of the “Maya from the Margins” project was to provide access to resources highlighting prehispanic and more recent indigenous history to give students an opportunity to explore their heritage and what it means to their understanding of their identity. As part of the workshops held with the students, the codices database served as an important avenue for initiating discussions about these topics within the communities involved. Exhibit panels created by the students further served this goal.

The many “born digital” materials from the Maya from the Margins exchange program will form the basis for a forthcoming digital humanities project that explores the lives of Maya descendant populations living in communities far from where they originated, as well as those (the Yucatec students) who still live in their natal communities while attending university in Valladolid. We envision this digital project as a way to continue to link communities whose members share a common heritage, despite the divides of distance and of shifting cultural norms and expectations.

3. Co´ox Mayab : Multimedia Experiences to Create Bridges

Samuel François Jouault, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán

The results of the Atlas de turismo alternativo en la Península de Yucatán carried out by a group of social entrepreneurs dedicated to sustainable tourism in the state of Yucatán revealed the difficulties that individuals and groups providing alternative forms of tourism face in promoting and commercializing their services and attracting a sufficient market to support their business.

The term Co´ox Mayab means “Let’s go to the Land of the Maya” (“Vamos al Mayab”). Today, Co’ox Mayab is also the name of a union of ten social entrepreneurs committed to sustainable tourism in Yucatán, who aim to demonstrate the value of responsible tourism while promoting solidarity and collaboration, social consciousness, and justice across public, private, and commercial sectors through the promotion, commercialization, and practice of alternative, community tourism in Yucatán. Such alternative tourist practices can be described as:

         responsible tourism that reduces the impact of tourist activity 

         supportive and reciprocal encounters that allow visitors to engage with social reality and coexist with their hosts, promoting intercultural dialogue

         a just commercial industry in which public and private institutions cooperate with local organizations to ensure an equitable division of the benefits generated by tourism

         conscientious travel experiences contributing to personal growth through shared living experiences between visitors and local hosts, while also remaining sensitive toward natural and cultural heritage and resources

This presentation will focus on the role that various digital technologies, including a webpage, documentary, and promotional videos, play in facilitating and evaluating the Co’ox Mayab organization itself, as well as the experience and practice of alternative and sustainable tourism in Yucatán.

4. An Ethnographic Documentary on Sewing for Tourism at Home: Kinship Frictions, Souvenirs, and Debt in Inland Yucatán

Matilde Córdoba Azcárate, University of California, San Diego

This paper discusses how Tekit, a former henequen village in Yucatán, Mexico has become invisibly but densely entangled with the tourism reality of the region through its specialization in the manufacture and distribution of guayaberas and work uniforms for the hospitality industry. Tekit’s transformation has enforced the spatial and social re-organization of the village around a fragmented domestic maquila system of small factories and intermediaries working for major national and international textile corporations, mimicking the US-Mexico border maquila system of production.

The paper shows how this system of production has transformed Tekit into a modern factory town, or desakota, an in-between space, neither urban but not rural, with an extremely economically and socially vulnerable and fragile population but also, and paradoxically, into a space that is home to a thriving young population with increasing material wealth and a generalized sense of well-being. I follow the stories of three different families in the town and discuss how this system of production has deeply differentiated Tekit from nearby communities in which the lack of work has resulted in massive migration to Cancun, Mérida, and the United States. By comparing and contrasting the narratives and livelihood strategies of these families, the paper evinces how internal forms of kinship obligations, dependencies and reciprocities are reconfigured through external forms of debt. Individuals with weaker or smaller kinship networks are more prone to face liquidity constraints and remain in the lowest steps of the production chain while those with larger ones are more likely to perform better. In all the cases, however, this domestic maquila system of production allows families to embrace urban cosmopolitan imaginaries, to redefine traditional gender roles while not migrating and practicing traditional Maya land and parenting practices in a region deeply marked by migration.

This paper is part of both the author’s academic book manuscript in progress on the social, political, and ecological effects of tourism development in Yucatán, as well as part of a more recent collaborative educational ethnographic documentary on uneven forms of globalization in the region developed between the University of California San Diego and the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán. This ethnographic documentary, still in its preliminary phases, will be part of a larger interdisciplinary and collaborative effort between the social sciences and the humanities, digital media technologies and documentary film and media to translate concepts and ethnographic research on global-local relations, uneven geographical development and cultural life into the world of audiovisual storytelling for research and pedagogic purposes. Our aim is to put together a grant proposal to fund an examination of historical and contemporary forms of everyday life in rural communities in the state of Yucatán, Mexico, using a combination of experimental media and historical and anthropological approaches to the study of culture.