Dialogues on Higher Education, Identity and Mayan Culture

Mérida, Yucatán – Strides were made recently to foster new, innovative bi-national exchanges between the U.S. and Mexico, thanks to a group of committed, engaged Mexican Americans from the U.S. and University faculty and Maya experts from Mexico. The Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán (UADY) and the U.S.-Mexico Foundation joined efforts to organize a two-day conference on Maya identity/identities, culture and higher education exchange programs between Yucatán and the United States from March 31st to April 1st, 2014. A total of 69 participants attended the conference in Mérida, representing institutions of higher learning in the Yucatán Peninsula, California, as well as Texas and Virginia. Attendees exchanged ideas about how to make a substantial contribution to communities in Yucatan, particularly those with a high degree of emigration, as well as the diaspora from Yucatan in the United States.

On the first day of this forum, renowned Mexican economist Carlos Heredia discussed Diasporas from a more global perspective and their contributions to their communities of origin. He stated that, in order to truly demonstrate the strength of the Hispanic demographic in the U.S., the most important challenge is achieving greater cohesion between the Mexican American and the immigrant community in the United States. PhD Patricia Fortuny discussed the impact that Yucatecans abroad have on their communities of origin; she highlighted the importance of the organization, naturalization and political participation of the Yucatan diaspora in the United States. Engineer Fidencio Briceño and Bernardo Caamal delved into the importance of the Mayan heritage in sciences, as well as the importance of incorporating cultural knowledge and competency into health, education and human development issues – specifically the importance of the preservation of Mayan language and scientific knowledge.

The Consul General of the United States in Mérida, Sonya Tsiros, and Gaspar Orozco Ríos from the Consulate of México in Los Angeles offered their full support to universities in Yucatán to promote student exchanges between Mexico and the United States. José D’Loría from “Centro Cultural Eek Mayab” located in Los Angeles, provided his perspective as a member of the Yucatan diaspora and highlighted the importance of utilizing Maya and other Mexican cultures as a tool to bring together diaspora communities in the U.S.

The conference also included Carlos Woolfolk, technical secretary of the Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research (FOBESII) created by Presidents Peña Nieto and Obama in order to expand economic opportunities for citizens of both countries and to develop a 21st century workforce for our mutual economic prosperity. Mr. Woolfolk shared the challenges, goals and progress of this program, which has been important to develop a shared vision of collaboration on binational educational policies.


The discussion of the theory and practices of international exchanges became truly grounded with the presentations of students from Yucatan who have studied abroad and returned to Yucatan, making important contributions to their state in engineering, conservation, and human rights law. Azul Uribe, a young woman who studied in the U.S. as a “DREAMER”, as many undocumented youth are now known, represented the recently established non-profit “Dream in Mexico A.C.”, and shared the perspective of students in the United States who live with daily uncertainty as they try to advance in their studies and make a life in a country where they are undocumented, as well as those who return or are returned to Mexico and face severe economic, psychological and cultural challenges upon their return.

On the second day of the forum, Dr. Margarita Zarco from UADY reviewed some important aspects of higher education in Yucatán: the learning challenges for the indigenous students and the need to inter-culturalize conventional universities. Similarly, Marco Pacheco from “Casa de la Cultura Maya” emphasized the importance of recognizing Mayan culture and identity; he talked about the loss of Mayan values among the Yucatán diaspora. He mentioned that it is vital that every program or project with the peninsula respects and takes into consideration the Maya cultural heritage.

On the second day, all of the participants joined different groups and worked on different issues concerning eight main areas: Health, Sustainable Development, Education, Technology, Service Learning and Communication, among others. Some of the most important agreements of these groups were: 1) collaboration for anti-obesity programs operated by Haciendas del Mundo Maya, 2) Provide bilingual educational materials for children in Mayan communities and 3) Create a student exchange program between UADY and California State University at Long Beach.

One of the critical takeaways of hosting this dialogue is that it demonstrates that what seems like an initially overwhelming task (securing channels and institutions for 100,000 students to study abroad) is less daunting with each gathering of the right set actors. These medium size, but strategically selected, convenings can result in great successes if the participants have the passion and commitment to push this process forward in their own sphere of influence. This particular meeting marked the beginning of at least a few new strategic alliances between communities in Yucatán and the United States. Now the key to success lies in replicating this exercise and maintaining the commitment therein discussed throughout both our countries.

by Zuraya Tapia-Hadley, Director, Mexican American Leadership Initiative of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and
Mercedes Caso, Program Officer, U.S.-Mexico Foundation

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