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Ricks Center students learn firsthand about Maya culture

Third and fourth graders from the Ricks Center traveled more than 230 miles to Colorado’s San Luis Valley to participate in a cultural exchange with Maya students at Alamosa Elementary. Photo courtesy of the Ricks Center

When Gay Carlson and Kim Hammond’s upper primary students from DU’s Ricks Center for Gifted Children began their study of world cultures, they never imagined that their journey would be the beginning of a life changing experience. On April 9, the third and fourth grade class traveled more than 230 miles to Colorado’s San Luis Valley to participate in a cultural exchange with Maya students at Alamosa Elementary. Alamosa is home to more than 400 Maya people who immigrated to the area to work jobs in agriculture. Dating back more than 4,000 years, the Maya people are a Mesoamerican civilization that originated in the Yucatan peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.

The visit was part of the upper primary class’ social studies/cultural studies schoolwork curriculum. The Maya students welcomed the Ricks Center kids by wearing traditional dress and by sharing marimba music. The Ricks Center students returned the welcome by performing the Mayan corn dance, which was choreographed by Spanish teacher Hilda Sanchez. Both groups of students shared traditional Mayan foods including Guatemalan tamales and homemade atole (a warm drink thickened with masa).

The experience was life-changing for many of the Ricks Center students. “When we went to visit the Maya kids I had many ideas of how it would be, but none of them were completely correct,” says Danna, one of the Ricks Center students. “We all performed a Mayan dance about how the ancient Maya were thanking and honoring their gods for giving them a grateful heart and corn to eat. In that moment, I felt really proud to be a part of the dance in the costumes and everything. It could not have felt more real, and even though we made a few mistakes we improvised and made it even better.”

For many of the Maya students, the interaction with kids from outside of their community was a rewarding experience. “These Maya kids are unaccustomed to other people showing interest in their heritage or their way of life,” Carlson says. “I think the teachers learned as much about Maya culture as the students did. The Maya children were truly amazed that these Denver students actually revere their culture and its impact on human civilization.”

In order to perpetuate their newly formed friendship, the Ricks Center students expect to begin a pen pal program with the Alamosa children. It is hoped that the Maya students will be able to come to Denver and visit the Ricks Center in May.  For many of these students this would be their first trip outside of the Alamosa area.

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