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Like millions of other young adults, Cindy and Kenny Dzib Tuz had moved back in with their parents to wait out quarantine during the pandemic. Kenny, 21, had been attending film school at Cal State Los Angeles and his older sister Cindy, 27, was working in communications. The Dzib Tuz kids grew up in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood and their parents, Rafael and Rita, emigrated from Oxkutzcab, Yucatán, Mexico, in the late 1980s, arriving in San Francisco just before the Loma Prieta earthquake. The whole family identify as indigenous Maya, but even in a place as diverse as the Bay Area, they didn’t always feel represented, even within their neighborhood.  

Cindy and Kenny Dzib Tuz — siblings and San Francisco-based filmmakers who identify as indigenous Maya — have created “Mundo Maya,” a documentary series, hosted on YouTube, that explores the stories of the city’s Maya community. (Photo by Leonard Caoili)

“You don’t really notice growing up,” Kenny says from his home in the Mission, “but even within our own Mexican community, even if we identify as Mexican Americans, we don’t always feel Mexican.”

Around 15 percent of Mexico’s population identify as indigenous, with Maya being the second most spoken indigenous language in the country behind Náhuatl. Rafael Dzib Canul left his municipality in the late 1980s, a time when many others in his community were spurred to leave in part by Mexico’s involvement with NAFTA, which led to land reforms that hurt small farmers and the henequén fiber industry central to the state’s economy. San Francisco has become home to thousands of Maya people since Rafael arrived, with SFGate reporting around 5,000 in the city in 2002. Researchers from UC Berkeley estimated that around 25,000 Yucatán immigrants were living in the Bay Area as of 2018, but there’s not yet an indication of how the pandemic has impacted these numbers.  

Kenny Dzib Tuz, left, and his crew filmed part of “Mundo Maya” at In Chan Kaajal, a Mission District park that opened in 2017, the first to have a Maya-language name. (Photo by Leonard Caoili)

Despite generations of history and presence, one of the most prominent physical symbols of Maya recognition in San Francisco appeared only a few years ago; a new park named In Chan Kaajal — “My Village” or “Mi Pueblito” — opened in 2017. More murals and public art with Maya imagery now appear around SF’s Mission neighborhood, and annual celebrations like Carnaval hold space for their performers.

“I felt seen; I felt recognized,” Cindy says. “You can see how the community is changing. It’s like when you go to Chinatown, and you see those names.”

Cindy and Kenny wanted to contribute to the conversation. Over the summer, they started discussing a potential project for National Hispanic Heritage Month, an institution where they believe indigenous presentation and nuance are still lacking. So they started “Mundo Maya,” a documentary series hosted on YouTube that blends anthropology, linguistics, personal testimony and family to telegraph the personal narratives of San Francisco’s Maya community. 

They have released five episodes of the planned seven, with characters like Don Jaime, whose serene lilt recounts leaving Mexico when his infant daughter became ill and eventually landing a job at the Cliff House. Elvia Guadalupe López Cano sold her pet pig to buy her first bicycle, determined one day to get on a motorcycle. She came to the United States at 19 to save up for a hot rod to bring back home, but then she fell in love, marrying and raising her family in the Bay Area. When Gonzalo Dzay Ix arrived in San Francisco in 1979, he says he was afraid of going outside and being accosted by immigration officers before he received his residence card. After 25 years as a bus driver, he now wants to return to his homeland and immediate family. 

All the episodes contain both English and Spanish subtitles, regardless of what language the subject is speaking. Cindy and Kenny do not speak Maya fluently, so their father often helps out with translating, sparking new conversations within their own family.

The Dzib Tuz family records an interview with Maya immigrant Don Jaime in the San Francisco park In Chan Kaajal — “My Village” or “Mi Pueblito” in Maya — on 17th Street between Shotwell and Folsom streets. (Photo by Leonard Caoili)

“This has been an idea in my head, exploring my own roots. I’ve always lived in these two or three worlds,” sys Cindy of reconciling her American upbringing with her Mexican heritage, and her Maya heritage within them both. Many others like Cindy feel the weight of living between worlds shaped by culture, language and geography. “We’re doing this to uplift identity, and it may not be there already. Our content is to start conversations in the households of the viewer. How does identity change in the U.S. versus Mexico? It’s complex.”

And it is. Everyone in the series so far has come from Oxkutzcab, but live vastly different lives. Ignacio Maldonado, the youngest of the group and the only subject so far to conduct his interview in English, speaks most candidly about this identity Venn diagram. He came to San Francisco as a teenager and thus attended school, exposing him to a spectrum of Latino identity and one of his lifelong passions, capoeira. Like Kenny, he hasn’t always felt belonging among his peers.

“I identify as Mexican,” Maldonado says in the video, “but when I’m around other Mexicans I feel like I’m not Mexican, I’m more of a Yucatecan,” whether its humor, dialect or cultural norms.  

So far, the reception of the “Mundo Maya” series has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I was very nervous to release the first episode,” Kenny says. “I was most worried about non-Latinos: Would they care to hear these stories? That definitely shocked me. An opportunity to uplift my own community is always a goal of mine, and you don’t have to be Mexican to relate to these problems.”  

Most of these subjects are people from Cindy and Kenny’s childhood, babysitters or family friends whose stories they can now transmit like a beacon. Like the series’ introduction states, “Seguimos aquí. We’re still here.”

* Follow the “Mundo Maya” docu-series on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6pWCl2CScA4yAE0zIlV-Aw.