Newsletter Launch! A little about Our History…

This past week, we launched our Monthly Newsletter.  Join us on the 15th of each month to get the snapshots of our journey!  We’ll connect you here for more details!  Here is the contents of our first issue:

Unlocking Silent Histories Monthly Newsletter!

Welcome!!! Thank you for joining us.  Each month as we share our stories and progress.  We are excited to keep you informed of our ongoing journey with indigenous youth. For our inaugural newsletter edition, we want to start out with a little history about how Unlocking Silent Histories (USH) began.

Our Story: In 2012, our founder and director Donna DeGennaro took a a leave of absence from her tenure-track University position with the vision of reinvigorating her passion for her work.  Since her graduation from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, she had been working toward a pedagogical design that was youth-driven and focused on digital media technologies.  She was primarily concerned with the deficit ways that culturally diverse youth were educated and the negative media representations that seemed to help reinforce this assumption.  Donna’s approach to her work is “constructivist”, which means that she always includes the voices of youth, whose ideas contributed to the unfolding concept or learning design.

Donna’s hiatus from the university took her to Guatemala where she was expecting to expand her research in a small private school.  When obstacles thwarted that that possibility, she was initially dismayed.  Yet, as fate would have it, she found herself serendipitously in the right place at the right time!  When all seemed doomed, Donna met with then Director of the Maya Traditions Foundation, Marcelle.  Marcelle was eager for Donna to do work with the youth Maya Traditions supported and invited Donna to begin visiting their communities and meetings. It was a match!  Shortly after, Donna got to work not only on her concept, but also on solidifying her idea as a non-profit.  It was with this seed that Unlocking Silent Histories (USH) was born.

USH started as a pilot program in 2012 in collaboration with the Maya Traditions Foundation (MTF). With the generous support of MTF, Donna began implementing the pedagogy that she had been developing for many years with youth in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.  The MTF Director and Donna collaboratively decided to start the program with a small group of youth in the rural community of Chirijox. For five months, Marisol (MTF Programs Coordinator) and Donna met the youth once a week in a small home in the mountains.  The trek from Panajachel to Chirijox was anything but easy, requiring crowded buses that moved rapidly up steep and windy hills and two transfers, once in the town of Sololá and then in Los Encuentros.   Donna carried two backpacks filled with cameras, computers, chargers, and other materials, determined to initiate this program.The youth engaged in what Donna calls an emergent learning environment.  This means that there is not a written script or set curriculum, instead, learning is a grassroots endeavor that starts with youths’ ideas, traditions and cultures. Specifically, the youth identify personally meaningful and community-connected topics, generate questions, and move through their learning as they define what they

need to know.  After gathering data, they analyze it and decide what they need to learn next.  It is an organic engagement that is flexible so that they can have the agency to draw upon their cultural knowledge and languages to have a personally meaningful experience.  Youth then were in charge of their research, their stories, and ultimately the short documentaries they create to share their learning.
Everything seemed to fall into place: enthusiastic youth, a supportive partner organization, and the resources to begin our journey through a successful Kickstarter Campaign.  This inspired Donna to apply for non-profit status under the name of Unlocking Silent Histories.  Unlike Donna’s previous work with the broader focus on the underserved youth population, USH would center its efforts on working with indigenous youth in impoverished communities.  USH officially become a 501(c)(3) in October of 2013.Since USH’s inception, and through a solidified partnership with the Maya Traditions Foundation, we have expanded from 1 – 6 of their communities.  Between our start in December of 2012 and 2013, 18 students have completed individual films and in early 2014 nine youth formed two production teams to create original documentary shorts.

Finally, we identified four of our first year students to become part of our staff. These Youth Leaders take on teaching new students, administering the organization, and contributing their ideas to the ongoing development of USH.  After a recommendation by a youth program leader from Cultural Survival, our Youth Leaders helped us to secure a second partnership with ADECCAP in Santiago, Atitlán.  This May these same leaders began our third year of USH, with new students in our present communities as well as in our new ones.

Click on the image below to see our video\

Next Month Preview:

Youth Leaders: We will introduce each of our youth leaders, tell you where they are from and what they are doing.  You’ll hear the philosophy from their perspective and what they envision for the future of USH. For a quick peak, visit the About Us section of our website.

Upcoming Show:

Save the Date!! On June 20th at 6PM, USH will be presenting two films at Casa Herrera in Antigua, Guatemala.Casa Herrera is a research, conference and teaching facility operated by the University of Texas, Austin.  We will provide more details in our June New letter.


USH: MTF Leaders Begin Work with New Communities

A heavy rain begins to fall on Saturday afternoon as we wrap up our first Unlocking Silent Histories meeting with two new groups of program participants in Santiago Atitlan. The indigenous youth gathered around the table where we sit in a second floor office don’t seem to mind, using the rain as a welcome excuse to stay longer and engage in a lively discussion about their opinions on gender roles across communities.

Carlos, our Youth Educator from San Juan La Laguna, shares his perspectives as a member of a different Tzu’tujil community, while Domingo, a Santiago Atitlan native, takes a different stance. I smile as he concedes that his compañera across the table, Rosa, might have more right to share her opinion on the matter, and Rosa confidently vocalizes a feminist viewpoint, stating that the traditional roles of men and women have been influenced by patriarchal systems, and while they are changing now, there is still a long way to go.


It is incredible to me that most of these youth met for the first time just a few hours ago – through the course of our first USH meeting, they each introduced themselves, shared their passion for bringing to light the stories of their communities and their passion for their cultural heritage, and now feel comfortable with one another, debating deep issues, listening and respecting one another’s points of view, joking and laughing with one another, and sharing and exchanging cultural elements across communities.

As the rain slowly lets up, Carlos closes the meeting, thanking everyone for their time, and telling these eager new participants that he appreciates all that they shared today, has learned a great deal from them already, and knows he will continue to learn from them throughout their progress in the program. He is happy to be able to share with them the little that he knows, he adds modestly.

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Meanwhile, across the lake in the small community of Patanatic above Panajachel, Youth Educator Chema is engaging students gathered in the home of 17-year old Tony. Huddled together over a notebook, our Patanatic participants begin planning the film they will make about the founding of their community – a broad topic that they will eventually narrow down as the story begins to emerge from interviews with community members.

EIMG_0418arlier in the meeting, Chema discussed with the students the importance of community film-making, posing insightful questions to them, such as what is the value of local voices in the media? What role can filmmaking play in inciting community change? How might filmmaking assist in cultural preservation? As the critical thinking wheels began turning in their heads, program participants were inspired to discover, document, and share the story of their community and its cultural uniqueness. Light bulbs went off as ideas emerged – “There’s an anciana that lives above the church who was one of the founding community members. We should interview her!” And the planning process for these students’ first film thus had begun.

The next day, Youth Educator Carmen takes a camioneta, followed by a microbus, followed by a pick-up truck on the 2 hours journey from her home to the community of Quiejel, acanton of Chichicastenango. Carmen began working with a group of young students here earlier in the month, marking our first expansion into a new departamento of Guatemala, and she now confidently follows the winding dirt path to Mariela’s home.

Carmen reviews with the students the various types of shots she went over with them last week: plano general (wide shot), plano mediano (medium shot), plano corto (close-up), andplano detalle (macro or detail shot). Once the students understand the definition of each, Carmen heads outside with them and a camera to put what they’ve learned into practice!

The fertile land and temperate climate in Quiejel make for an abundance of fruit trees. The students begin practicing shot types while capturing all of the different fruit-bearing trees and plants that grow on Mariela’s family’s land – avocado, gauayaba, peach, pear, plum, yellow peppers, cactus, coffee, and more.  The students take wide, medium, close-up, and detail shots of each, and we sample the delicious fruits as we go. With a great variety of photos of each type of fruit, the group heads back inside to start their first editing process. Guided by Carmen, they put together a short video of their photos so that they can see first-hand the importance of capturing a variety of shot types to make their videos more visually interesting.


Later in the day at Carmen’s house in La Antigua Ixtahucan, students begin to arrive shortly after lunch. This group of program participants has already begun their pre-production stage. Last week, Carmen worked with them on identifying a subject for a practice video, and they unanimously agreed they’d like to focus on the cultural significance of their traditional dress. Notebooks and pencils in hand, students begin research and planning, talking through their ideas with Carmen and listing the various shots and interviews they’ll need. “White signifies pureness and red signifies blood, but I don’t remember the rest of the colors,” one student states. “Well, who could you interview that will have that information?” Carmen answers, and the students identify a few community members who are sure to know.

Later in the week, Chema will meet with another group of students in San Juan la Laguna, and will be accompanied by our Creative Consultant, Franklin. Because of busy work and school schedules, these students meet late at night, but their motivation and enthusiasm for the program really shows as they work long after nightfall. Last week, Chema led this group through a creative visualization exercise, having them lie down with their eyes closed as he guided them through a meditation to “transport them to another world,” as Chema stated, opening their minds to the imaginative visions they’ll need to create their films.DSC02715 copy

With Franklin’s assistance for their next meeting, Chema will guide themin applying their creativity to the framing of shots, teaching them to focus on visual elements such as lighting and color, line and shape, angle and perspective, to enhance the aesthetic appeal of their videos. The students have been anxious to get their hands on the equipment and start putting what they’ve learned into practice, so this next meeting is sure to be exciting for all of them.

And so we have officially kicked off our third year of the Unlocking Silent Histories program, expanding our number of student groups to 6, and our number of communities to 5, including 3 new communities! Our Youth Educators are now seasoned professionals, adeptly putting into practice our popular-education pedagogical model as they guide program participants through a transformative filmmaking discovery process, learning from students and community members as much as they share their own knowledge and skills, in inspiring cross-cultural and cross-generational exchanges.

We are all thrilled to continue in this work through our partnership with Maya Traditions Foundation, who have helped us to grow, reaching new communities where the Foundation has established artisan groups and bringing them new opportunities to learn, share, and seguir adelante.

– Written by Jenn Miller, USH Guatemala Field Director