History Department
History Department

Students experience history first-hand in Guatemala program

Thu, December 8, 2011
Students experience history first-hand in Guatemala program
Casa Herrera, in Antigua, Guatemala

This fall, over a dozen undergraduate students participated in a intensive study abroad program offered by the departments of History, Religious Studies, Art History, and the Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, at Casa Herrera, a program of UT's Mesoamerica Center, in Antigua, Guatemala. The for-credit seminars focused on the archaeology of Mesoamerica, Maya writing, Guatemalean history, and religion and culture in Latin America.

Under the authoritative and inspirational guidance of program coordinators and professors Virginia Garrard-Burnett of History and David Stuart of Art History, students were immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and political and cultural climate that made the subjects they were studying relevant and powerful.

Participants traveled to the remains of some of the sites they were learning about, witnessed the bullet holes from twentieth-century police brutality left in ancient walls, listened to traditional religious chants and songs, and watched the news and heard the very subjects they were discussing in class debated by the future and current leaders of the country. They viewed firsthand the very works of art they were analyzing in their classroom, seeing through them a new perspective lasting themes and concerns of a people and a culture.

Perhaps most poignantly of all, they developed relationships with their professors, each other, the places, and the ideas they discovered that will likely impact them for the rest of their lives. At Casa Herrera, genuine education in its noblest sense was practiced and applied.

One of Dr. Garrard-Burnett's goals was to "get the students to engage with the culture and the history and to be able to access and contextualize what they were learning." Her students produced four journal entries per week designed to demonstrate their involvement with the material in the courses. Students in both of her courses participated in various creative projects. In her "History of Guatemala" class, students chose themes such as ethnicity, human rights violations, and the political shift during the nineteenth century that they creatively portrayed on a map of Guatemala. They also wrote short research papers based on primary documents located at the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamerica (CIRMA), an archives and research center also located in Antigua.

Many participants in the program were Fine Arts majors and produced creative projects. In Professor Garrard-Burnett's class on "Religion and Culture" class, for example, one student created a photographic project on colonial archangels with Mayan spirit images juxtaposed on top and a traditional huipil (blouse) and corte (skirt) outfit for one student's hometown. Students also took part in participant observation outside of their own religious tradition.

"The greatest advantage of study abroad is the ability to experience what you study in the classroom," said Teaching Assistant Stephen Dove. "The students were able to participate in and observe everything from Pentecostal services to Catholic masses to Mayan spiritual ceremonies, really underscoring the diversity of religion and culture in Latin America."

The main site of classroom activities, and the living quarters for the professors, was Casa Herrera, a seventeenth-century home and sugar-processing facility that sits in the heart of Antigua and is now a teaching and research center leased in perpetuity to UT Austin. The architectural gem was intricately restored in preparation for UT by the Fundación Pantaleon, which owns the house. The traditional central courtyard, red tile roof, white stucco exterior, and rough-hewn carved wooden columns, doors, and woodwork offered a stunning setting of man-made elegance beneath the striking enclosure of volcanoes that surround the Spanish colonial city of Antigua.

Students lived with individual families, experiencing first-hand the lives of Guatemalans from various backgrounds and stations. Classes were held Monday-Thursday for three hours each day and afternoons were often spent on engaging field trips within the city and to surrounding areas. One such trip was to Lago Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America, with several religious sites scattered along the shore. Students were able to witness and even participate in various religious ceremonies.

Students also visited the National Police Archive, which was discovered in 2006 hidden under an explosives’ depot in active use by the national police, where they were permitted to handle and read some of the documents stored there that reveal many atrocities committed during Guatemala's thirty-six year civil war (1960-1996). Authorities in Guatemala have been sorting, scanning, and filing these documents for five years, and UT now has digital access to all of the collection in one of the most significant acquisitions by any institution in the nation. These documents will undoubtedly remain some of the most valuable evidence to be widely used by professional historians and political scientists for decades to come, and these fifteen undergraduates have experienced some of them first hand. For more information about this archive, visit http://ahpn.lib.utexas.edu/.

The Casa Herrera program is a partnership between the Department of Art and Art History and the Fundación Pantaleón and operates as branch of the Mesoamerica Center in cooperation with Study Abroad Office and the History Department.

The esteemed Maya expert David Stuart, who came to UT's Art and Art History Department in 2004, was instrumental in forming the partnership with the Fundación Pantaleon. This fall, he taught "The Archaeology of Mesoamerica" and "Ancient Maya Writing and History."

Professor Garrard-Burnett, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Faculty Fellow in Latin American Studies and Institute for Historical Studies Fellow, taught "Religion and Culture in Latin America" and "History of Guatemala."

Dr. Garrard-Burnett recently participated in the "Politics of Memory" conference at UT Austin to launch a digital archive consisting of some 12 million pages of records from the Guatemalan Historical National Police Archive, making online resources publicly accessible to researchers, human rights activists, prosecutors and ordinary citizens. She will also  present a workshop for the Institute for Historical Studies on January 23, 2012, entitled "Casting Out Demons in Almolonga: Development, Identity, and Being in a Mayan Town." For more information about the workshop and to RSVP, please visit the IHS web site.


Additional resources:

Fall 2011 program at Casa Herrera program in

Casa Herrera featured in the Alcalde

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