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'A catalyst for something bigger': UNC senior presents film empowering Awakatek creativity

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The film had its first preview screening in the Frank Porter Graham Student Union.

There’s no word for “art” in Kayol, also known as, Awakatek, the Mayan language of UNC senior Brenda Palacios Rodriguez’s family. Instead, she said art is an inherent part of culture, woven into the fabric of the everyday.

Rodriguez is the director and producer of the documentary film “Creative Roots: Qatanum Expressions,” a spotlight on Indigenous creativity in her ancestral community of Aguacatán, Guatemala.

Raised in Morganton, N.C. but with family in Guatemala, Rodriguez has found a home in both places. She said being the first person in her family expected to graduate college in the United States inspired her to learn more about her community and how she can help.

“That was always really important to me — How can I give back to my community? How can I continue being a resource for everyone there and make sure that all the work that I’ve done becomes a blessing for others?” she said.

Rodriguez, an environmental studies and studio art double major, credits her UNC classes with helping her articulate the issues Indigenous communities face, including globalization, capitalist extraction and cultural loss. She said she also learned about Indigenous cultural empowerment work, which she already recognized in her own community.

“All of these thoughts were trickling in my mind, and I was like, ‘You know what? I think it’s time to share our stories, share our beautiful stories, both the good and the difficulties,’” she said.

Rodriguez began connecting with Awakatek, or Qatanum, people in Aguacatán last summer, aided by family and the close-knit community. The John and June Allcott Fellowship — a grant offered to a UNC studio art or art history major — enabled her to return home to film.

There, Rodriguez connected with five Awakatek creatives, some of whom, like chirimilla players Diego Rodriguez and Diego Mejia Lopez, are the last remaining practitioners of their art, she said. 

Before filming, she spent several days getting to know the artists and learning about the Mayan cosmovision, which describes the interrelationships between nature, the spiritual world and all Mayan peoples through time and space.

Rodriguez originally pictured a 5 to 15 minute video, but as the project progressed, she expanded it to a full-length documentary to do full justice to the artists’ and community’s stories, she said.

“I think this documentary isn’t just a documentary, it’s a catalyst for something bigger — with not only our local Awakatek community, but the other neighboring Indigenous communities we have in our region,” she said.

Last month, Rodriguez presented a behind-the-scenes preview of the film in the Student Union, which is in post-production to add English subtitles and make the Spanish and Awakatek-language documentary accessible to a global audience.

First-year Ashley Vicente Lopez, whose mother is Awakatek, said that Rodriguez’s film showcases the beauty of her culture. She said Guatemala as a whole can be overlooked, so seeing her own community of Aguacatán was even more special. 

“A lot of things that have been around for so, so long are being lost, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to see,” Lopez said

She added that she hopes her mom will be able to teach Awakatek — which Lopez understands but never learned to speak — to her grandchildren.

When the documentary is released, schools across the region will screen it, which Rodriguez hopes will empower youth to engage in their own cultural preservation. Ultimately, she dreams of a nonprofit fund for workshops in Aguacatán so local artists can teach their practices to future generations for free.

Rodriguez hopes the film will inspire all viewers to love, respect and celebrate other cultures, fostering harmonious connections for a globalizing future.

She said when Indigenous people are represented in global media, it’s often by outsiders, but her film brings her own personal connection and relational experiences.

“When so much tough history has happened in your community, it’s hard sometimes for the public to see the positives and the beauty, the resilience of the people,” Rodriguez said.

David Weaver, Rodriguez’s friend and a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, finds her project incredibly inspiring as an Indigenous person working to reconnect with his culture, he said.

“My tribe was hit really hard by colonization,” Weaver said. “A lot of our sacred rituals and a lot of our culture has just kind of been erased, and so she is creating a record of preservation so the culture is preserved forever.”

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The film is tentatively projected to be released at the end of summer.

“Everything we do is to help others,” Rodriguez said during her presentation. “At least, that’s my mindset.”

@dthlifesyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com