Only yellow corn Xa q’ana hal,
And white corn were their bodies. Zaqi hal u tiyohil.
Only food were the legs Xa ’echa r aqan,
And arms of man. U q’ab vinaq.
Those who were our first fathers Ri ’e qa nabe qahav
Were the four original men. E kahib chi vinaq tzak.
Only food at the outset Xa ’echa ’akinak
Were their bodies. Ki tiyohil. (1)
In the mid 1500’s the Maya in Quiché, Guatemala (present day Santa Cruz) were forbidden by the Spanish conquerors to practice their religion and to tell their ancient stories. Across the entire Maya realm, hieroglyphic books were burned by Spanish missionaries. This prompted a group of Maya to learn the Latin alphabet and to write down their myths in their language, Quiché (the town, the language, and the people are the same word). These alphabetic substitutes for hieroglyphics were painted on deerskin or fig bark in bundles of codices, or accordion books, and carried over the mountains to the neighboring town of Chuui La, present day Chichicastenango, where they were hidden.
In 1701, a Spanish friar, Padre Francisco Ximénez, found one of these sacred narratives, the Popol Vuh, or Counsel Book. He knew the language of the Maya, Quiché, made a copy of the text, and translated it into Spanish. This treasure, the history of the creation of the Maya world and of humans from corn, was housed in Guatemala and Paris and now rests in the Newberry Library in Chicago. The Popol Vuh is still part of the belief system of over half a million contemporary Quiché, even though most are now Christians.
Time travel. Academic year, l999-2000. New Haven, Connecticut. East Rock School New Arrival Center. Kindergarten to eighth grade ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), 70 students, 25 countries, 20 languages, 3 teachers, all levels of English. The challenge: how to make the Popol Vuh relevant to children from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and South America.
This curriculum unit will begin with an adaptation of the Popol Vuh as a play. Technical suggestions will follow for sound, set design, character development and costumes.The unit will end with a recipe for tamales, a symbolic creation of people of corn.
The Popol Vuh is appropriate for Social Studies and Language Arts instruction for intermediate and high level ESOL students, grades 4-8, and satisfies Goal 2, Standard 2 of the National ESOL Standards, “To use English to achieve academically in all content areas.” (2) It may also be used by teachers in mainstream classes, grades 4-8.
Children are rarely more excited or focused during Language Arts than when they read a play. ESOL students in particular are often reticent to speak publically and it is useful for them to assume character roles to break this barrier. The teacher has the discretion to use this play simply as a dramatic reading or as a full-scale production or anything in between.