Maya K’iche’ Scholar Manuela Tahay Shares Indigenous Women’s Wisdom at Yale

Manuela Tahay presents "History Flies" at the Yale MacMillan Center on February 14. Photo by Stephanie Anestis.
February 28, 2024

On February 14-15, the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS) at the Yale MacMillan Center welcomed Manuela Tahay, a Maya K’iche’ scholar and language instructor from Nahualá, Guatemala, to lead a series of events for Yale and the wider New Haven community in its Spring 2024 Colloquia Series “Indigenous Epistemologies from Latin America.”

Seeking to bring together myriad voices from the Latin American and Caribbean region to explore current issues that are at the center of the lives of Indigenous peoples and their communities, the colloquium further aims to “provide an opportunity for students to learn from alternative modes of knowledge production and present-day strategies of resistance and survival.”

Manuela Tahay, who speaks Maya K’iche’ and Spanish, said she was impressed by the strong interest in Maya culture she found in New Haven. “Speaking about my identity proves that Guatemala is a multilingual, pluricultural country,” Tahay said. “Despite being a small country, it has great cultural wealth: Maya people made history years ago, and they do so equally today.”

Indigenous women in Latin America stand at the forefront of many of the social, political, and cultural movements seeking change. Although they face violence and discrimination, indigenous communities continue to thrive, through resistance, creation, art, culture, and joy.

“Manuela brilliantly shared other ways of knowing and building community through weaving, language, and crafting,” said Claudia Valeggia, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies. “As a Maya K’iche scholar, she expertly invited us to experience her culture through many different media.”

In her interactive session “History Flies,” which received support from the Yale global division’s committee on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Manuela Tahay explained the spiritual and cultural significance of kites in her community and then led participants in making their own kites.

During Nahualá’s annual November 2 celebration of Kiq’ij Kaminaqib’—or Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead—hundreds of fluttering kites fill the sky to guide departed souls back home. Parents teach their children how to make the pepilo’t, or kites, a word that is derived from the Maya K’iche’ word pepe, which means “butterfly.” Combined with the burning of incense and the proliferation of marigolds in the cemeteries, the fluttering hexagonal kites, in the traditional colors of red, white, black, green, blue, and yellow, give those gathered a joyful communal experience. Tahay explained that through these rites of celebration, “We feel like our departed family members are with us.”

Yale students, faculty, and staff tried their hand at the communal experience of Mayan kite-making, under the guidance of Tahay. “During the kite-making activity, there were moments of sheer joy,” Tahay described the scene afterward. “With laughter and color, people designed their kites.”

Latin American History doctoral candidate Polly Lauer studied language with Tahay and has spent extensive time with her family while conducting dissertation research in Guatemala. Lauer made the initial connection and provided translation during the lectures.

“I have dreamed of hosting Manuela at Yale for four years, since the early days of the pandemic. I wanted to reciprocate the many years of warm welcomes she’s given me in Guatemala,” Lauer said. “I hope that students will take forward the lessons she conveyed about relating to historical memory and language in a locally grounded way.”

In her lecture on “The History of a Town through Weaving,” Tahay shared the knowledge of her ancestors and highlighted the wisdom of Maya K’iche’ women and their role as community historians through the ancient art of weaving. Each pueblo, or town, in Guatemala has a rich history of weaving, she explained, and the weaving itself carries not only history, but also art and mathematics. 

The distinctive weaving of each town can be recognized by the designs and colors used, and by the ratio of embroidery to cloth left white. Tahay’s town of Nahualá has four deseños, or styles, that are representative of the pueblo, so one can imagine the diversity of styles that exist across the region. Tahay displayed and described the significance of several animal motifs—including deer, horses, snakes, two-headed eagles, dogs, and hummingbirds—each holding meaning in the Mayan calendar.

Tahay emphasized the important role of women weavers as historians. No one tells a woman what to weave, she explained; a woman decides what is important at this moment and inscribes it into her weaving. Tahay showed several examples of modern designs in which women continue to reflect their changing realities, including a depiction of people harvesting coffee and one of a woman working on her laptop, surrounded by her pet cats. 

It used to be that one could immediately recognize which pueblo someone was from based on the woven clothes they wore, Tahay said, but that is no longer the case, as there has been a mixing of designs due to trade. Often, indigenous people do not wear woven clothing at all—especially young people—for many reasons, including modernization, historical conflicts, migration, and discrimination. But there is also a movement to preserve and elevate this tradition, which has always been passed from mother to daughter. In recent years, organizations have fought to retire the term trajes típicos, which means “traditional costumes,” and instead to call woven clothes indumentaria, which means “clothing” or “dress,” a term that recognizes the great value of this artform.

Tahay also led a session for Yale students in the Humanities Quadrangle as part of the Latin American History Speaker Series, and another workshop exclusively for K-12 teachers in New Haven. CLAIS Chair Claudia Valeggia explained, “This collaboration strengthens our partnership with the city of New Haven as well as the Yale Office of New Haven Affairs, with support from Yale’s Department of History and the global division’s DEIB committee. With her colorful and engaging presentations, Manuela embodied our outreach goals and aspirations.”

“Manuela’s visit showcases the Council’s commitment to enriching the understanding of Latin American diversity within the Yale and New Haven communities,” said Maria Jose Hierro, Lecturer in Yale’s Department of Political Science and CLAIS faculty lead on its New Haven outreach initiative. “We hope the series ignites an appreciation for the beauty of indigenous cultures and their alternative modes of knowledge production and contributes to a better understanding of their present-day strategies of resistance and survival.”

“The most significant moments of my visit were when I could share and spend time with people after my talks,” Tahay said. “Maltyox k’amo chech le nuk’ulaxik xb’an alaq pa le nima tijob’al Yale: thank you for the warm reception at Yale University.”

Manuela Tahay is a Maya K’iche’ educator from Nahualá, Guatemala. She teaches Maya K’iche’ language and culture, with over a decade of experience working with beginning to advanced students. She currently teaches K’iche’ language and culture at UT-Austin (academic year) and Tulane University’s Maya Language Institute (summer); she previously taught at Vanderbilt University. Interested Yale students and faculty can apply for enrollment in Tulane’s Maya Language Institute.

View the photo gallery of the Feb. 14 kite-making session.

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