Ramsey Tracy receives research grant for Mayan oral history project
Dr. Ramsey Tracy, assistant professor of Spanish at Western Oregon University, was awarded a prestigious Research Grant from the United States Department of State to support her work in Mexico; an oral history project of the Caste War, for the 2011-12 academic year. Tracy started speaking Mayan in 2004 and began this oral history project in the Yucatan Peninsula in 2007. She goes to villages with a colleague who has ties to the communities with the goal of locating the oldest villagers, a hard-earned privilege facilitated by the duo’s persistent presence and activity in the region. The oral histories commemorate the Caste War, which ended more than 100 years ago, and was the longest, sustained indigenous rebellion in all of Post-Colonial Latin America (1847-1901).
Dr. Tracy (in image at left) participating in a traditional Mayan New Year festivity, “El baile de la cabeza del cochino (The dance of the pig’s head).” She is dressed in a huipil, a traditional Mayan dress.
Tracy and her colleague have interviewed narrators between the ages of 65 and 107, primarily monolingual Mayan speakers who prefer their Mayan language over Spanish. The urgency of this project is palpable to Tracy, who hopes to double her interviews in the next year by doing one per week: “I can see those sands running out of the hour glass.” Each time she returns to the Yucatan a good number of the people she’s met and had hoped to interview have passed away.
One of the most memorable people she interviewed was a 107-year-old man. Tracy said he was an active narrator, moving around a lot. “He swears he’d still be farming if his knees weren’t bothering him,” she said. “Being around centenarians is quite awe inspiring – their energy and generosity with their time and the richness of their stories always moves me, sometimes to tears.” Although there were no records to verify his age, she is able to approximate an age through his narrative by comparing who was in power locally at various times in his life. She found that the youngest he could be was 104-years-old. “When a guy says he’s 107, I think I just need to take his word for it.” She said that ages are often in question because birth certificates didn’t start to be written up in that region until the 1930s.
Ultimately her goal is to publish a book with the oral histories and she plans to return to the U.S. in 2012 with a raw manuscript. She will conduct a semantic content analysis and divide the war in to chapters based on the themes that arise in the narratives. One such theme she’s identified so far is that of the people’s relationship with the land. She said that people often talk about how the natural environment was used as a weapon in the war. “The more I find out, the more of a wealth of information I find is out there” Tracy said. “There’s a fine line between passion and obsession. Some of these narratives blow my mind. These stories are very relevant and have a lot of information for us.”
When asked how Tracy became involved in this research area, she said she’s studied a lot of rebellions. “Basically any time a group of people is willing to stand up and put their lives on the line, I’m really curious what made them stop standing by and start standing up. I’m finding that there are a lot of commonalities with this conflict and other conflicts in Mexico.” Tracy specializes in Mexican cultural studies and Mayan language and culture. She teaches courses in Latin American literature and language courses, which include Spanish for heritage speakers. She came to WOU in 2009 after earning her doctorate in Spanish language and literature from Tulane University.
Tracy mentions that we must be wary of popular misconceptions regarding the Maya: “I want people to know that the Mayan people are still alive and well and that they have plenty to say. The only part of Mayan culture that has vanished is that of the Classic Era. As an ethnicity, they are still here and people should pay more attention to that.”