When Donna DeGennaro took a leave of absence from her prestigious university job, sold all her belongings, and hopped a plane to Guatemala, she never imagined that just four years later she’d be sitting onstage at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Next to her sat her collaborators—Chema and Carlos Vasquez, and Carmen Tzoc Portillo, three aspiring filmmakers barely out of their teens. They had traveled to New York City from remote villages in the Guatemalan highlands. Together, the frustrated American academic and the budding directors had created something truly special.
After years researching the causes behind the achievement gap in education, DeGennaro’s quest started from a simple question: What if you gave marginalized students the tools to tell their own stories? “Educational systems don’t really focus on indigenous histories, or if they do, they’re often wrong,” DeGennaro explains, referring to portrayals of Native Americans as either primitive savages or idealized Pocahontas types. For an indigenous student, such an environment can create a crisis of confidence and self-worth. “These kids become afraid to assert their voices or use their languages,” she says.
In Guatemala, the Maya were particularly oppressed, their languages banned and their communities targeted in a “silent genocide” that lasted decades. These were the communities that DeGennaro wanted to learn from. “I wanted a place where I could be the outsider,” says DeGennaro, now a professor of educational leadership at University of North Carolina Wilmington. “It put them in a position of power to teach me, tell me about their world and the kind of education they would like to have.” The result of DeGennaro’s two-year stint on the shores of Guatemala’s achingly scenic Lake Atitlán was Unlocking Silent Histories (USH), a nonprofit that encourages indigenous teenagers to express themselves through documentary filmmaking. Chema, Carlos, and Carmen were among USH’s first students, and now they lead the staff.
DeGennaro’s first lesson came early. Though she hoped her students might explore issues related to colonization, government oppression, and war—to be critical of the narratives they’d been fed—she quickly learned it wouldn’t be so simple. “It’s not normal for their communities to be filmed,” she explains. “People are skeptical of what’s going to happen and the information that’s recorded, because there’s a lot of corruption and disbelief in the government.”Instead, the students made films documenting their proud cultural traditions and investigating issues that concerned them, such as alcoholism and the environment.
Then, in 2016, came an invitation to speak about the project at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Chema, Carlos, and Carmen answered questions from the audience and saw their work projected on a large professional screen for the first time; they also met accomplished documentarian Pamela Yates, posed for pictures in Times Square and experienced the wonders of the New York City subway system.
More recently, DeGennaro has expanded Unlocking Silent Histories to the U.S., working with members of North Carolina’s Lumbee tribe. “It was always a vision to do this across the world as a way of allowing indigenous students to see their similarities,” DeGennaro says. “The story of the colonization of indigenous communities around the world is very similar. These are people who have been seen as inferior in so many ways; not human, not knowledgeable, antiquated, primitive.”
Only recently have the scientific contributions and social sophistication of indigenous communities been acknowledged. “Today there’s a push to bring that back, to use indigenous scientific and communal knowledge to contribute to thinking about how to address climate change or medicine or balance in the environment,” DeGennaro says. “But that movement is slow, because there’s still the overarching perspective that we know better than them.”
Back in Guatemala, some USH students have gone on to pursue filmmaking as a career. One alum, Franklin Cholotio, started his own business, shooting wedding videos for the people of his community, and there’s talk of USH grads being hired to work on visiting productions that film around the lake. Indigenous youth “haven’t been as valued by dominant cultures in the world,” says DeGennaro. “Their voices have been silenced. But we need to hear their voices. We need to develop them as leaders to move the world into a more harmonious and peaceful place. The little ones are the ones who are going to do it.”