Qo xnaq’tzan tuj tzalajb’il tu’ntzan tjaw ch’iw qchwinqlal: We teach with happiness for a better future

By Henry Sales and Tessa Scott

Front cover of a Mam language and culture book titled "Qo xnaq'tzan tuj tzalajb'il tu'ntzan tjaw ch'iy qchwinqlal: Aprendemos con alegría para un futuro mejor." (We learn with happiness for a better future.) Comité Nacional de Alfabetización — CONALFA (National Literacy Committee - CONALFA) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization —UNESCO. Guatemala, 2015.

The front cover of a Mam language and culture book; the title translates to “We learn with happiness for a better future.” From Comité Nacional de Alfabetización — CONALFA (National Literacy Committee – CONALFA) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization —UNESCO. Guatemala, 2015.

Henry Sales: My name is Henry Sales and I am from a small town in the highlands of Guatemala called San Juan Atitán. I grew up with the name Mintz, a name that was given to me by my grandparents. When I moved to the city to learn Spanish, I was taught to be ashamed of my Mam language and culture. Every time I spoke Mam (a Mayan language) in Guatemala, I was a victim of racism and discrimination. I moved to Oakland, California in 2011 and I always had in my mind that if I didn’t speak Spanish, I was stupid. However, as a native speaker of Mam, I never wanted to give up on my language and culture. I wanted to stay alive along with my culture. It hasn’t been an easy journey to keep my language alive.

As one of the newest immigrant communities in Oakland, we the Mam students and people face great barriers to prosperity and power. Those barriers include language, as many speak Mam only, and are not fluent in Spanish or English. Another barrier is literacy, as many men, women, and youth never attended or completed school, because we come from impoverished backgrounds where work was prioritized over education. Our biggest barrier is oppression, as we come from a place where, as indigenous people, we are discriminated against. We the Mam people are afraid to raise our voice due to these various challenges. I highly believe that by providing an opportunity for us to practice our language and celebrate our cultural traditions, we foster a sense of pride in our community, and help our Mam students recognize their own strength, beauty, and power.

Tessa Scott: On the first day I met Henry in 2017, in my graduate level linguistics field methods class here at Berkeley, he taught us how to count to five in Mam: “Jun, kab’, ox, kyaj, jwe.” Those words felt so foreign in my mouth that day, and now, almost four years later, they feel like second nature. I knew by the end of that year-long class that it was only the beginning of my relationship with Mam and knowing Henry. That class was also a turning point for Henry. As the students in that class became excited about every word we learned in Mam, I watched Henry open up and begin to unlock that excitement and passion within himself for his language and culture.

Henry: In 2018, I wanted to teach Mam. The biggest question was, how to begin? I want to thank Professor Arturo Dávila and the Latinx Cultural Center at Laney College for helping to create an unofficial Mam language course.

Tessa: Fast forward one year and Henry is inviting me to Laney College on Saturdays, where he is teaching Mam to a few teachers and volunteers who want to learn. Neither of us really knew how to teach Mam, but with my linguistic background and Henry’s passion for keeping Mam language and culture alive, our teaching journey began. Two years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are teaching unofficial Mam language and culture classes through Laney College on Zoom. We’re joined by Silvia Lucrecia Carrillo Godinez, who is a Mam language teacher in Guatemala and a wonderful addition to our teaching team. We are also grateful to work with four undergraduate linguistics research apprentices who help run the classes: Samba Kane, Jay Urbano Gonzalez, Nina Sirna, and Xingyue Tu.

The vast majority of students who take our classes do not already speak Mam. Our students are teachers, health-care professionals, and lawyers, for example, who have Mam-speaking students, patients, clients, and friends. They use their ability to speak Mam to greet, connect with, and get to know the Mam people in their lives. For Mam people, many of whom do not speak English or Spanish, connecting in Mam lets them know that they are cared for, respected, and valued.

Henry: Teaching Mam unofficially at Laney helped me to get a job at Oakland Unified School District to teach Mam. The impact of teaching at Oakland High School has been empowering because many Mam students now dream about becoming Mam teachers in the future. The most important part of the Mam language high school class is that students are learning to empower and strengthen themselves, learning who they are as Mam people, learning more about who they are as human beings. Today, we have non-Mam speakers learning our language, and it gives us hope that there will be a day where we will not face discrimination while speaking Mam. We do not want the language just to survive, but to expand to other non-indigenous communities because “we are not one or two of us, but all” (Popol Vuh)[1]. Chjonte! (Thank you!)

Tessa: Our unofficial Mam class at Laney College is just one effort of so many in the Bay Area to support and celebrate not only Mam language, people, and culture, but also Mayan culture and anyone who identifies as indigenous. These efforts include: the Oakland Mam radio station Radio B’alam; a Mam dance group which performs cultural enactments as well as dances; and Mam and Mayan cultural festivals. Henry also holds several positions in local high schools teaching Mam and supporting Mam students. Before Henry’s involvement, none of these radio stations, classes, and festivals existed. His leadership and passion inspire indigenous and non-indigenous people alike — teachers, doctors, children, high school students, and friends and family — to see the beauty, strength, power, and value in Maya Mam language and culture. Chjonte!

A group of friends from various Mayan cultures (Mam, K'iche', Ixil) after a performance at Urban Promise Academy Middle School in Oakland, California. (Photo courtesy of Henry Sales). 
A group of friends from various Mayan cultures (Mam, K’iche’, Ixil) after a performance at Urban Promise Academy Middle School in Oakland, California. Henry Sales is in the first row, second from left. (Photo courtesy of Henry Sales.) 

[1] The Popol Vuh is a foundational sacred narrative of the Maya Kʼicheʼ people.

Photo of author Henry Sales.

Henry Sales is an Oakland-based activist and Mam speaker from San Juan Atitán, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Henry is a Mam teacher, interpreter, and a volunteer on behalf of minoritized Mayan populations.

Photo of author Tessa Scott.

Tessa Scott is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at UC Berkeley with a Designated Emphasis in Indigenous Language Revitalization whose work focuses on morphology, syntax, and Mam language revitalization. 

Mam courses at Laney College are supported in part by the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies through the Collaboration for Native Cultures and Languages in the Americas (CENCLAS) with Laney College. To learn more or become involved, email Julia Byrd at julia.byrd@berkeley.edu.

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2 Responses to Qo xnaq’tzan tuj tzalajb’il tu’ntzan tjaw ch’iw qchwinqlal: We teach with happiness for a better future

  1. captncabo says:

    This is totally awesome. And as a septagenerian, that’s really saying something.

  2. Xine says:

    😀 😀 😀

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