Mam Cultural Festival Celebrates Growing Mayan Presence in Bay Area

 Musical ensemble Maco y su marimba el quetzal play the marimba at the Mam Cultural Festival

To view pictures of the Mam Cultural Festival, click here. All photos courtesy of volunteer photographer Khai Pham.

As a high-schooler, Henry Sales frequented the César E. Chávez Branch Library in Fruitvale; it was a perfect place to finish school work and hang out until it was time to head home. However, he found it difficult to communicate with his fellow library goers - many of whom were fluent Spanish speakers.

Henry’s native language is Mam, the second-most popular language of the 21 Mayan languages currently spoken in Guatemala and Southern Mexico. For the last 15 years, thousands of indigenous Mayan immigrants have settled in Oakland and the East Bay, including Henry.

“I used to ask the staff and other patrons a lot of questions, but I wasn’t fluent in Spanish. And, I didn’t speak English very well at all back then. So naturally we had a lot of trouble communicating,” says Henry, now 25 and a library aide at the Chávez Branch. “I assumed if this was happening to me, then a lot of other Mam might be experiencing the same thing, and not just at the library.”

So, Henry decided to get involved. Upon graduation, he volunteered as a tutor at the Chávez Branch before joining Oakland Public Library’s Ready, Set, Connect! - a professional development program designed to help Oakland youth discover the professional skills necessary for technology focused careers. Eventually, he became a library aide at the Chávez Branch, where he immediately became the go-to person to help communicate with Mam patrons. Non-profit organizations and government agencies asked Henry to be a language consultant to cater to the needs of Mam clients.

Henry Sales (left) speaks with a patron during the festival.

Photo: Henry Sales (left) speaks with a patron.

It became obvious to Henry that the Mam community was growing. He was being asked more and more questions about his heritage - the language, the dress, the history. In addition, he encountered Mam families directly affected by changing immigration laws, limited access to healthcare and education, and an expensive housing market.

“Instead of blaming someone, I thought, maybe I can help by letting people know that we are [in the Bay Area]. We’re active, proud members of these communities, and we have a unique culture that we want to celebrate,said Sales. “So, that’s where the idea came from.”

Sales organized the Mam Cultural Exchange - a group of Mam community members that help out fellow Mam and share the Mam culture to the wider public. And, with the help of two grants - Cal Humanities’ Library Innovation Lab and the Akonadi Foundation’s Beloved Community Fund - he organized the Mam Cultural Festival at the Chávez Branch.

So on Saturday, September 15, nearly 300 attendees joined Henry in a celebration of the Mam culture.

Two dancers perform in front of the Marimba.
Photo: Two dancers in traditional Mam dress dance in front of the marimba.

Traditional Mayan music resounded throughout the afternoon as three musicians played the Marimba - an instrument resembling a large xylophone - with men and women displaying traditional dance in the center of the courtyard.

Mam women served hungry patrons chuchitos with corn and beans, a typical Mam meal, and displayed traditional weaving techniques while making blankets and clothes. In one corner, patrons were invited to learn basic phrases and words in the Mam language.

All in all, Henry was grateful for the opportunity to display his culture to people who might not have even heard of the Mam.

“It was an amazing experience. For me, it was a success,” says Henry. “To see the public enjoying watching our traditional performances, eating our food, enjoying our company - it was more than I could ask for. I’m excited to do it again - and not only in Oakland.”

Henry hopes for the opportunity to showcase his culture to other areas where a Mam community exists.

“Since we are a minor group that keeps growing every year, we want people to know we are human beings just like everyone. Many families have been separated and this is a good way to show that we are not a threat, we are not criminals, we are not the enemy,” says Henry. “We still exist. We’re not extinct, like many people believe the Mayans are. We are a part of this century, this country and this world.”

A woman showcases the traditional weaving process.

Photo: A woman in traditional dress displays a Mam weaving technique.

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