We are thrilled to welcome Wen Calm to El Tímpano’s team this summer. Wen is an Oakland-based journalist and storyteller, and El Tímpano’s Mayan Community Engagement Assistant, focused on researching ways El Tímpano can better serve the Mayan indigenous community.
In this Q&A, El Tímpano’s Director Madeleine Bair spoke with Wen about her background as a journalist, her introduction to El Tímpano, and the relationship between the Bay Area’s Mayan communities and local media.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, and what led you in the direction of a career in journalism?
Wen Calm: I am from a small village of Todo Santos, Guatemala. My family came to the United States when I was a young infant, and was able to get asylum as they were trying to escape poverty and discrimination as Maya Mam indigenous people. They were searching for the “American Dream” and it turned out it was more difficult than they imagined, as they were learning not only a whole new culture but also a whole political system that was almost completely inaccessible in their native language.
My interest in journalism started at a very young age with the story of us living in public housing in Oakland where our apartment was deteriorating with black mold and pest infestation. Many of our neighbors were poor brown and Black families who were unable to afford the expensive Bay Area housing of the early 2000s. We also had few resources to help ensure that landlords maintain the buildings.
One day our neighbors decided to protest and the local media interviewed us. Due to all the public pressure, they renovated our apartments. As a child raised in this community with such few resources and feeling like our voices were constantly silenced, it changed me. I saw the power of the media and the importance of storytelling to give this community a voice to make important changes in our everyday lives.
You are from Oakland’s Maya Mam community. How have you seen your community reflected in the media (if at all)?
There has been very much a generalization of us in the media. My community identifies as Maya — not Latino — but in the media we are homogenized and included within the Latinx or Hispanic identity. And because of language barriers, you don’t see many Maya people as main sources in stories. Moreover, many people fear speaking out, as they feel vulnerable because of their immigration status. So it can lead to an already small community to be even more marginalized. That causes many parts of our identity and struggles to be erased. However, I think the main reason that has happened is because Maya people have not been able to be our own source of information.
What are some barriers that the Mayan community faces when it comes to accessing resources and information? What effect have you seen those barriers have on Mayan individuals, families, and the community as a whole?
The two biggest barriers are literacy and language. A lot of our history of colonization included denying and erasing our language and culture. The long civil war in Guatemala disproportionately affected Maya indigenous people and added to the many layers factoring into their inability to access education.
This especially affects my parents’ generation as many missed the opportunity to get a full education during the three decades of war. Even things that are translated in the Maya language can still be inaccessible because some of the older Mayans are illiterate even in their own language.
Another barrier, rooted in generations of trauma, is a skepticism of any type of aid or service from outside of our community that makes us feel included. In my own Maya Mam community, we have such a long history of being disregarded as an important community in our homelands. This makes it very hard to trust any systems, because we know — or assume — they are not created with us in mind. Those beliefs are something I see many indigenous people in my community still believe, even as more organizations and agencies here in Oakland are beginning to recognize our Mayan identity and try to reach us in our own language. Maya Mam people are so used to adjusting ourselves to get any type of resource, whether that means learning Spanish or finding an interpreter through community. I have been that very resource within my own family. Whenever my parents had important paperwork that was not translated or was too complex to be understood, my mother would translate it from Mam to Spanish, and then I would translate it from Spanish to English. This is how our community works as a whole and why it’s so important in our culture to stay connected to those in our own specific Maya community.
But it also causes us to be in a vulnerable position, as it makes it difficult to build bridges with other communities and institutions who do not understand this history.
How are you supposed to ask for help when you feel like you will be constantly misunderstood? When for generations, you couldn’t expect help from anyone outside of your community? Many people in my community feel doubt when asking questions or advocating for services when their needs will be unmet.
It can feel like a large, complicated issue for us to overcome because we can feel like such a small and new community that is still adjusting to finding its place in Oakland. Yet while it is hard, the Maya community has every right to imagine a world where resources are easy to access in their language and with people who are part of their everyday community.
How did you learn about El Tímpano, and what excites you about interning with El Tímpano?
I actually learned about El Tímpano from my mother, who signed up for El Tímpano’s text-messaging platform while waiting in line for free groceries. I had also heard about it from other peers in my community who were excited about hearing that it informs, engages, and amplifies the voices of Mayan immigrants. What excited me most was El Tímpano’s community-driven design. El Tímpano is engaging with a community whose story has not been told before, and doing it in a way that goes beyond facts and numbers to report in a more humanizing way, through personal stories that have been missing from the Oakland community’s larger history, as well as addressing bigger issues such as lack of accessibility and resources.
What is your own favorite source for news and information?
My favorite sources for news and information are mostly grassroots news organizations such as Mayan League, Earth Daughters, The Guatemalan-Maya Center, Centro America Times, The CentAm Collective, and the Guatemala Solidarity Project — Maya activists and journalists who are part of a bigger movement of trying to tell more complex and compassionate stories. On social media, I engage with and follow hashtags such as #CentralAmericanews #Mayanews #Guatemala to witness in real time how other Maya communities are sharing their stories on a national and international levels. These online communities are all connected because they center Maya identity and many are run by other Maya people.
I have not seen too many media platforms in the States that are trying to center Maya voices. As one of the first to tell stories of the Bay Area’s Maya community through the lens of a Maya Mam person who has grown up in this community, it’s very exciting to be a pioneer, taking part in a shift happening here in real time. I seek to create a bridge for my community to express their stories through their perspective. Even though I can never speak for the entire Maya Mam community, I really would like to build a foundation that allows for different Maya perspectives to be told, asking people what is important to them, and then giving them tools to advocate and create changes in their own community.