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Maya Literacy Project Taking its Lessons to Mexican Universities -Sna Jtz’ibajom (The House of the Writer)

Since 1987 the literacy program of Sna Jtz’ibajom (The House of the Writer), a Cultural Survival Special Project, has awarded close to 7,000 diplomas to men, women, and children who have learned to read and write in Tzotzil or Tzeltal.This school system operates largely in teachers’ homes, where the teachers give two three-hour-long weekend classes. The six-month course is provided in the two Tzotzil towns of Zinacantán and Chamula and the Tzeltal town of Tenejapa. Because of limited funding we can only hire five teachers per community, but the program is so popular that two teachers have had to work double time. It is a system in which all the teachers want to teach and all the students want to learn. The teachers are equipped with Sna Jtz’ibajom manuals for training classes. The students, once mainly adult men, are now primarily women and children.


The public realizes that the state and national bilingual schools in Mexico even now continue to be a disaster, but bilingual literacy training is providing job opportunities as government agencies and businesses recognize the need for bilingual employees. Another encouraging development is that the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Chiapas has hired Diego Méndez Guzmán, president of Sna, to teach its mainly non-Indian students Tzeltal. “Students will become more useful citizens for their town, their state, and their country, capable of confronting with success the challenges of the future, acquiring at the same time love for their identity, their language, their society and their culture,” Guzmán said.


Together with the director of the Chiapas State Centro Estatal de Lenguas, Arte y Literatura Indígenas, Sna has applied for a national grant that could be the seed of a Maya university in San Cristóbal de las Casas.


Unlike several of the Mayan languages along the Guatemala border that are close to extinction, both Tzotzil and Tzeltal now have over a half million speakers. With the population explosion in Chiapas this number is increasing daily.


More than 1 million Maya live in the United States. Emigration from Chiapas, once a rarity, is all too common these days. In the past only men sought work across the border, but now groups of women are making the perilous trip. Communication in the two Native languages between the United States and Chiapas, both by cell phone and by letters, is increasingly frequent.


Other news from the Sna Jtz’ibajom project:

• On a recent visit to the Zapatista town of Oventic, Guzmán and I donated our manuals and other publications for their autonomous school library, and offered to help them correct their inscriptions in Tzotzil on the outside of several buildings.

• A selection of writings by literacy program graduates, published by the state of Chiapas, is now at press. Many of the authors whose work is included have already won state literary prizes.


Robert Laughlin is coordinator of the Sna Jtz’ibajom project.

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