A Trilingual, Trigenerational Effort to Tell Stories of the Mayan Diaspora

Filmmakers Cindy Dzib Tuz (left) and Kenny Dzib Tuz created 'Mundo Maya' to document their community's diverse life experiences and rich storytelling traditions. (Leonard Caoili)

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When Rafael Dzib Canul heard that a new park in San Francisco’s Mission District would be named In Chan Kaajal, a combination of surprise and joy came over him. “It’s an honor for us. How can there be a place in San Francisco named in Maya? Not even in my town back in Mexico do they name things in Maya,” he says.

That was back in 2017, when the Recreation and Parks Department inaugurated the park, the product of relentless community organizing. In Maya Yucateco, ‘In Chan Kaajal’ means ‘little village’ or ‘mi pueblito’ in Spanish. The name was chosen to honor the growing Maya community from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico that has made the Mission District its home.

And now In Chan Kaajal serves as the stage where the Dzib Tuz family hears and collects the stories of this community, through a docuseries project called Mundo Maya, or Maya World.

The creators of Mundo Maya are Cindy, 27 and Kenny Dzib Tuz, 21, Rafael’s children. The Dzib Tuz family is Maya. While Rafael and his wife, Rita, originate from the town of Oxkutzcab, Cindy and Kenny were born and raised in the Mission.

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As children, Cindy and Kenny met Jesús Jaimiro Canul Canul, or Don Jaime, a retired agricultural worker who worked in farm fields all over the U.S. Kenny knew him more as a more quiet elder who used to babysit him as a kid, but he and his sister had a feeling that Don Jaime had so much more to tell.

And they were right.

Don Jaime agreed to be part of the project, with a bit of reluctance, but once the cameras turned on, he relived dozens of adventures and travels. Before their eyes, the man Cindy and Kenny knew best as their former sitter became the man who took part in the effort to uncover and reconstruct the ancient Mayan ruins in Yucatan.

“Our people have such powerful stories and powerful ways of telling their stories. So let's just put a camera in front of them and let them do what they know how to do naturally,” Cindy says.

In the second episode, we meet Elvia Guadalupe López Cano, a nanny and motorcyclist that’s part of the generation that migrated after Don Jaime. Elvia arrived in San Francisco in 1994, with a plan to just stay for a year and work enough to buy a motorcycle and return to Yucatan. But her passion for adventure, motorcycles and her new family in the U.S. convinced her to stay.

“It was a bad thing to see women [in Yucatan] ride motorcycles. So I felt very restricted. You can't do this, you can't do that, because the neighbor… As a teenager there was a lot of tension and so I sought my freedom and I came to the land of the free!” Elvia proclaims with a smile in her episode. “I loved it!”

By adding a couple cameras and a small black stool for the interviewee to sit on, Cindy and Kenny turn the grass field at the center of In Chan Kaajal into a studio, an island of memory in the middle of the chaotic Mission soundscape. The next seven episodes will be released on a biweekly basis.

“We’re not telling history through facts and dates, we’re telling oral history,” Cindy points out. Growing up, she and her siblings would listen to her parents and family friends tell elaborate stories in Spanish and Maya. These anecdotes were passed down from generation to generation, as an alternate and more personal understanding of history.

The oral tradition

“When you come to the U.S., you can’t always think about Yucatan or the Maya culture because you’re trying to keep up with this new way of life. But you can never forget,” Rafael says. “No matter where you are, we tell stories of the lives we left behind so that perhaps the younger ones can learn something,”

He first came to San Francisco in 1989, a few months before the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Since then, he’s worked as a cook and has only moved a few times, always staying in the Mission.

Since the 1990s, the Bay Area has become one of the epicenters of the Maya diaspora, which includes dozens of different languages and populations from the Yucatan peninsula, southeastern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. While San Francisco hosts a predominantly Maya Yucateco-speaking population, Oakland has become the home to a large Mam-speaking community, originating from Guatemala.

“In the Maya community everything is passed down orally,” she explains. Cindy only understands a few phrases in Maya Yucateco, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of her connecting with one of her favorite storytellers, her grandmother. “She only speaks Maya Yucateco and her Spanish is at a beginner level so we have a really challenging time.”

“This language is her language for us. It’s always been normal hearing an unknown language and learning words at a young age. To the point that I didn’t realize knowing Maya Yucateco was special, or unique within our community,” Cindy points out.

Cindy Dzib Tuz and Kenny Dzib Tuz (center and right) enlisted their father, Rafael Dzib Canul, a fluent Maya Yucateco speaker, to help create 'Mundo Maya.' (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí)

For Kenny, Spanish and Maya Yucateco would come together without him realizing it. “My mom would tell us Mayan sayings and I thought these were Spanish words. I’d tell them to my other Latino friends and they had no idea what I was talking about,” he says with a laugh.

The two siblings had talked about recording and sharing these stories online to connect the Maya diaspora all over the U.S. and the world. The two make a good team: Cindy is a communications professional and Kenny is a film student at Cal State Los Angeles.

Not satisfied with the Indigenous representation he’s seen in Mexican and Latino films, this would be Kenny’s chance to produce something he’s never seen before. “I am an up-and-coming filmmaker, but not just a filmmaker but a Mexican-American filmmaker, but not just a Mexican-American filmmaker, but an Indigenous Mexican-American filmmaker,” he says.

While there’s increasingly more documentaries being released that focus on Maya communities in Latin America, Cindy points out that she’s never encountered a work where both those in front of and behind the cameras are Maya. For her, that marks a big difference on what narratives are developed about Maya populations, including the diaspora.

So the siblings knew they had to center Maya voices every step of the way, even before they started to record. They recruited their dad, who for over the 30 years has lived in San Francisco and formed countless connections within the Maya community in the Bay Area, from those first to leave Yucatan in the 1970s to the most recent arrivals.

The family set out to track down members of three generations. The first arrivals (or “pioneers” as the siblings would call them), then Rafael’s generation that followed, and lastly, the children of these immigrants that have now grown up and started their own lives.

“There are so many of us in San Francisco and I’m always curious, why are we here? How did our community establish itself in the most expensive city?” Cindy asks. While these questions guided their journey, the sibling duo chose to keep their final vision for the undefined.

Don Jaime, the Dzib Tuz siblings' former babysitter, opens up in front of the camera. (Leonard Caoili)

“I recruited my best friends, Aaron Pham and Leonard Caoili, to help me out with the shoot because they are also filmmakers as well,” Kenny says, “They’d ask me, ‘you don’t have a specific goal in mind?’ And I’d tell them, ‘Nope! We don’t know what they’re going to say but I can tell you it’s going to be worth it 100%!’”

But keepings some things up in the air made it easier for Cindy and Kenny to learn and connect with each of their nine subjects. Turns out that what it means to be Maya changes across language and generations.

“I do identify as Maya. I do claim that. However, that’s not the case for everyone in our community,” Cindy points out. “For so long it wasn’t allowed to call ourselves Maya. It was looked down upon to be Maya, to be Indigenous, and to speak the language,” she says.

Telling stories that uplift

In his interview, Don Jaime mostly spoke in Maya Yucateco, so the siblings turned to both Rafael and Rita to translate his story to Spanish. Cindy would then translate to English while Kenny and his friends would edit the film. All of this took place while Mundo Maya never received funding.

“Our motto is that the best tool is the tool you have at your disposal,” Kenny says. While he found creative ways to get around some production obstacles, he still was nervous about how the final product would be received outside the Maya community.

“I was more worried about the non-Maya, the non-Latinos, outside of our bubble. How are they going to respond to this? Are they even going to listen?” he mentions. “But I’m proud to say any doubt I had turned out to be really wrong,” he says with a laugh under his facemask.

The episode on Don Jaime has reached viewers beyond the Bay Area, across the U.S., back in Yucatan, the rest of Mexico, Canada, and even Europe. In just a few weeks, the story was viewed more than 22,000 times on Facebook.

But the feedback that has meant the most for the Dzib Tuz siblings is from their neighbors and friends, those who imposed the project from the start. Their hope is that these videos serve as a respite from the trauma that COVID-19 has produced in the Maya community.

In her 'Mundo Maya' interview, Elvia Guadalupe López Cano talks about how her passion for motorcycles brought her to San Francisco. (Leonard Caoili)

While the overall Latino population across the Bay Area has been the ethnic group with the most cases of coronavirus, the Maya community has been specially affected, with the most recent UCSF study done in Oakland’s Fruitvale District showing that Mayan Latinx tested positive for active infections and antibodies higher than any other population group.

But Mundo Maya would seek to provide an alternative during turbulent times.

“At a certain point, when you give out these statistics, you kind of desensitize the public. Instead of it being my dad, or Cindy, or Kenny, we’re just a number. We’re just a number that’s sick,” Kenny explains.

“We wanted to bring this more positive, uplifting content to highlight that there is more to us, more to our community than hardship, than trauma.”

“We’re taking off the bandages”

Even while she’s thousands of miles away in Yucatan, Cindy and Kenny’s grandmother always felt somehow part of the project. While she is also a talented story-teller, her limited Spanish and the sibling’s limited Maya Yucateco makes it a little bit harder to exchange stories over the phone.

“My relationship with Maya Yucateco has always been of admiration and now, I’m trying to learn it and see what I can do, how can I communicate with my grandma one day?” Cindy asks. “That’s my goal. I want to communicate with my grandma in her language, in the language she feels comfortable with.”

Rafael feels proud that his children are doing so much for the language he grew up speaking, but also recognizes that their obstacles to hear and learn Maya Yucateco were much greater than his.

“Everyone in my town spoke Maya, it’s like here but backwards. Here everything is in English, and there everything is in Maya, in the store, the market, the streets. So it sticks to you whether you realize it or not,” he says.

“The opportunity to interact a lot with my children and have them hear Maya as they grew wasn’t there. Even when my wife and I would plan to teach them, we weren’t there. I was working two jobs as a cook. And when we were in the house, they were away at school,” Rafael explains.

But while the language they’re said in changes, stories continue to be told, now about life in the U.S. “Things continue to change and get more modern. But the flow keeps flowing through our veins, traditions continue one way or another,” Rafael says. “There’s new generations.”

Due to the pandemic, Rafael works less and now has the chance to spend more time with Cindy and Kenny. The three have spent hours together planning, recording and translating. These new stories being told may show the future of the diaspora.

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“We’re taking off the bandages off our eyes,” Cindy says, “and telling the world, ‘look at us, look at the color of our skin, look at our language, this is who we are.’”