Celebrating Mayan Literature and the Cultural Heritage of our Central American Clients

September 15, 2023

Popol Vuh Readers Theater Event  

Last month, KIND’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee organized a virtual bilingual (English-Spanish) event for staff to honor International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9). The event focused on the Popol Vuh, a sacred text of the Kʼicheʼ Maya people that recounts their origin story, mythology, and history. A number of KIND’s indigenous clients from Guatemala are K’iche’. The K’iche’ people inhabit the land that is today known as Guatemala and southeastern Mexico. Educating staff about the sacred text can help them connect with KIND’s Kʼiche clients.  

The book is especially important because the Mayan language is considered to be the most fully developed Mesoamerican writing system, and Mesoamerica is one of only three places in the world where scholars believe writing developed independently.  

Marisa Peterson, Staff Attorney at KIND’s Houston office who helped organize the event, explained, “This text is special to people with Maya heritage. It is known and taught in schools throughout Central America, and it is starting to be incorporated into curriculums here in the United States. So, many kids are familiar with the Popol Vuh or with stories featured in it. Familiarity with the Popol Vuh gives staff another entry point for these conversations and can encourage kids to feel safe talking about their cultural heritage.” 

Sometimes called America’s oldest book, the Popol Vuh has only been widely available to the public since the 1950s, but scholars estimate that it was written four centuries prior, between 1554 and 1558. Archeological evidence suggests that much of the content of the Popol Vuh was passed down in oral tradition for centuries before that. The text was written amid a period of indigenous cultural genocide during which the Spanish were burning books of the Maya in the Yucatan region. The text, hidden by the K’iche’ people for centuries, was rediscovered in the 1940s. The first modern translation in Spanish was published by Guatemalan scholar Adrian Recinos in 1947.  

Marisa and co-organizer Rafael Contreras, Staff Attorney at KIND’s Washington D.C. office, were inspired to organize the event after a conversation about the rich indigenous history of the Americas prior to the arrival of Spanish colonists. They wanted to showcase the rich heritage of the Popol Vuh and share their enthusiasm for the text with their colleagues. 

Rafael why he is so passionate about the Popol Vuh: “The Popol Vuh is one of the few cases where an oppressed people learned the alphabet and language of the oppressor to tell their own story. This shows not only the resilience of the K’iche’ people but also foresight and a profound understanding of how times were changing and how to preserve their culture amid disruptive and often violent change. They were visionary.”  

KIND staff members read selections from the Popol Vuh in English and Spanish. Participants engaged in discussion in small groups, sharing thoughts and reflections about the text and its rich cultural significance. One hundred and eighty staff members attended the event. 

The Popol Vuh belongs to the K’iche’ people, but some of its themes are universal. One line in particular resonates with KIND’s commitment to children on the move no matter where they are from:  

“However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn.” -Popol Vuh.