For the past three summers (2011–13), PhD Student Bryan Shaeffer has participated in all three levels of the Yucatec Maya Summer Institute offered through the Latin American Consortium of UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. As a recipient each summer of a FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship from the United States Department of Education, Bryan was given the opportunity to study, in both formal and informal settings, the modern-day Mayan language called by its speakers Maaya T’aan or simply Maaya (which literally means “Maya speech”). The program consists of classes in Mérida, Yucatan, followed by fieldwork and homestays with Maya families in Valladolid and Xocen, Yucatan, culminating in a final project for Level Three.
Becoming immersed in the modern Maya cultures of Yucatan has been an essential component of Bryan’s progress toward his degree in art history. Throughout his three summers in Yucatan, Bryan managed to develop a foundational knowledge of this Mayan language. Unique opportunities in Level One and Level Two (summers of 2011, 2012) afforded Bryan unforgettable experiences like staying with a Maya family in the town of Xocen (see picture), one of the most significant indigenous towns during the Caste War of Yucatan (1847-1901). This Maya family and the larger community of Xocen opened their doors to him, taught him how to make tortillas, how to sleep in hammocks, how to stay cool in the humid Yucatan jungle, and helped him to acquire the linguistic skills necessary to engage in daily conversation. Indeed, Doña Ermina and her family were Bryan’s greatest teachers.
The third and final level (summer-2013) consisted of fieldwork in the Maya community of Dzan, Yucatan. For his final project, Bryan worked in the parcelas or “plots” of fruit trees that a majority of families in Dzan own and cultivate. On several occasions, Bryan traveled with his host family to this marketplace where Maaya and Spanish are spoken. Markets have an ancient genesis and significant socioeconomic role in Mesoamerica, including Yucatan.
Learning Yucatec Maya has given Bryan firsthand experience with the modern-day indigenous descendants of the ancient artists who created the art and architecture that he studies. As a region abundant in archaeological sites, folklore, art, and indigenous peoples, the Yucatan is an ideal setting for the study of a living language.