On a recent Saturday in August, the grounds of Trinity Lutheran Church were buzzing. Festival Maaya yiatsil yéetel kuxtalil – Mayan Culture and Tradition Festival – was just beginning, and performers milled around the emcee tent, chatting and making last-minute clothing adjustments. There were numerous performances to come: music, dances, games. Picnic tables lined the far edge of the field, occupied by festivalgoers – individuals, families, couples, groups of teens – eating marquesitas, churros, tamales and panuchos.
The festival was in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood, home to a large Indigenous Mayan community. The event was the first of its kind in Oregon, born from the efforts of numerous neighborhood residents, community organizations, restaurants and artists.
One of the organizers was Patricia Vázquez Gómez. A multimedia artist who splits her time between Tenochtitlan (presently known as Mexico City) and Portland, Vázquez Gómez has spearheaded several initiatives in the Cully neighborhood to connect its Mayan residents with Yucatec Mayan, one of the Indigenous languages of Southern Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. She has taught printmaking to teens, organized Yucatec Mayan language classes and a workshop with a Mayan rapper, and helped plan the festival.
These efforts were partially funded by a Community Placemaking grant from Metro that Vázquez Gómez received in 2020. Community Placemaking grants support community-led, equity-centered, arts- and culture-based efforts that strengthen people’s connections to one another and the places they care about. Grants are awarded yearly and can range from $5,000 to $25,000, with typically 10 to 12 proposals selected for a grant.
Vázquez Gómez caught on to the heavy presence of Yucatec Mayan in Cully through her involvement with housing justice efforts in the neighborhood. As Vázquez Gómez, who is not Mayan, became more involved in neighborhood circles, she noted that many of the Mayan speakers in the neighborhood did not write or read Yucatec Mayan, and many children of Mayan immigrants didn’t speak the language fluently. A printmaker, Vázquez Gómez had an idea.
After gauging interest from neighborhood mothers, she began to work with a small group of teens of Mayan origin. Vázquez Gómez taught them about printmaking, and they worked to create prints that incorporated Yucatec Mayan in a visually appealing way. The project took on the name "Tene’kin Tanik Maaya: I speak Mayan.” The initial products of the group’s work—printed coloring books, tote bags, t-shirts—were intended primarily for Cully’s Mayan community. Their positive reception alerted Vázquez Gómez to the project’s potential for wider reach.
“Indigenous languages are not very well represented in the visual or the printed art worlds,” she said. “So there was an opportunity to put this language out there in a way that is attractive to the wider public.”
After receiving the Community Placemaking grant, Vázquez Gómez was able to include more local teenagers in the project and increase the level of production. Demand for the prints grew quickly; soon they were being shipped all around the country to teachers, libraries, museums. They were displayed at the Portland Art Museum. Still, Tene’kin Tanik Maaya remains a project predominantly by and for Mayan residents of Cully. The group’s latest endeavor is to – with the assistance of Vázquez Gómez and artist Thea Gahr – paint a mural on the wall of Morel Ink, a print shop in the neighborhood.
"The teens have done great,” said Vázquez Gómez. “They’ve learned a lot about printmaking and about how to translate concepts into images and visuals in a way that’s powerful and attracts people’s eyes."
Some of the high schoolers Vázquez Gómez has worked with were at the August festival. Ahead of their performance – a dance – they hung around to the side of the stage, nervous excitement in their voices. They were dressed in flowery ensembles composed of three parts: the hipil, a dress; the fustán, a lace-trimmed slip worn underneath it, and the jubón, a rectangular collar fitted over the hipil. These garments form the Terno, a traditional outfit from Yucatan.
Now juniors in high school, the students have been working with Vázquez Gómez – known to them as Pati – since 8th grade.
"I don’t know how to speak Mayan,” said Diana, whose mother was also at the festival. “But I sort of understand it. And I’ve learned new words with Pati. Another girl who works with us has an uncle who speaks fluently in Mayan, and also knows how to write it which is something that not a lot of Mayans know how to do."
Diana was referring to the relative of a Mayan family in Cully who, commissioned by Vázquez Gómez, has been teaching Yucatec Mayan language classes to a group of neighbors over the last two years. “He was kind of perfect [for teaching the classes], because he had ties to the neighborhood and he knows the language very deeply,” said Vázquez Gómez. The classes have grown into something beyond a place to practice the language.
“Now it’s more than that,” she said. “They’re classes, but they’re also just an opportunity to chat and get together. The idea for the festival came from [that] group.”
The classes were initially offered in two sections: one group of adults and one of kids and teenagers. Vázquez Gómez was unfazed when attendance began to dwindle with the younger class. The online format made it difficult to fully pique their interest, she theorized. But she was determined to create opportunities for youth to engage with Yucatec Mayan in a meaningful way.
Enter Pat Boy.
A musician from Quintana Roo, Pat Boy is one of the most well-known artists to rap in Mayan. He is an outspoken advocate for the preservation of Indigenous languages through music and art and has developed a curriculum for familiarizing kids and teens with Yucatec Mayan through rap. With funds from the Community Placemaking grant, Vázquez Gómez brought Pat Boy to Cully.
“We got about 15 kids, I think,” said Vázquez Gómez. “Ages 7 through 18. And they loved it. They absolutely loved the workshop.”
With Pat Boy’s guidance, the kids created a rap song in Mayan, and Vázquez Gómez enlisted friends in the music industry to professionally record it. Pat Boy gave a performance at Mississippi Pizza Pub, where he called the kids on stage to perform their song with him. The audience was packed with the families of the kids involved, but word of the performance had spread beyond Cully.
“There were Mayan people from Hillsboro, from Beaverton, from Gresham. From really old ladies to little kids, because we made [the show] all ages,” explained Vázquez Gómez. “People loved it. It worked really well as an opportunity for youth to use the language in ways that are exciting for them and to bring the Mayan diaspora together around an event that centers their language. It was incredible.”
Pat Boy’s Mississippi Pizza performance was in April, and a few months later he returned to Cully to close out the festival. He was met with raucous applause as he took the stage. Off to the side, Vázquez Gómez was in organizer mode, bouncing between booths, talking to neighbors. Behind the scenes is where she hopes to remain going forward.
Up to this point, Vázquez Gómez has taken on a de facto leadership role in the project because she speaks English and has experience finding and navigating funding opportunities. But she has complete faith that Tene’kin Tanik Maaya will continue on without her. The thing about a neighborhood coming together with a common goal, she emphasizes, is that everyone brings different skills to the table.
“The whole project is a combination of things that come from the neighbors, and things that I find in the world that I think are opportunities to do something exciting and meaningful. My hope is that at some point I disappear.”
For now, Vázquez Gómez is herself learning to speak Mayan.
“Being out and about and saying hi in Mayan, speaking a few words in Mayan when I run into people feels very important to me,” she said. “I’m able to connect with a very essential part of their identity and their experience; in this case, the language. I know my neighbors in a deeper way.”