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2007 Inspirational Young Alumna: Maria Luz Garcia '01

Maria Luz Garcia '01

Maria Luz Garcia '01 earned her undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies at Pomona College and then she set off for Guatemala, where she wound up working with survivors of that nation’s long civil war. Today, even while pursuing her doctoral degree, Garcia carries on her efforts in a small Guatemalan village, and her dedication has led the Pomona College Alumni Association to name her as the recipient of the 2007 Inspirational Young Alumni Award.

The student selection committee determined that Garcia’s work since graduation best exemplifies the quote on the College’s Blaisdell Gates: "They only are loyal to this college who departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind."

At Pomona, Garcia wrote her senior thesis about the Recovery of the Historical Memory Project (REHMI), the Catholic Church’s detailed account of military persecution of civilians during the 36-year-long Guatemalan Civil War, which ended in 1996. The report implicated the military in 90 percent of the Mayan civilian deaths.

Upon graduating, Maria set off for Guatemala and eventually ended up in the highlands village of Nebaj, where the vast majority of the population is Ixil Mayan. They are mostly refugees who escaped to the mountains during the civil war. Many, if not most, lost parents, husbands, siblings and/or children to the military persecution of the Mayans. In order to survive the post-war chaos, the women of Nebaj founded a small cooperative, Grupo de Mujeres por la Paz (Women's Group for Peace), to sell their weavings. But they were still struggling to feed their families and survive.

When Garcia arrived, the women had just received a $2,000 grant to develop and agricultural project. With Garcia's help, the women rented a plot of land, built a greenhouse and grew vegetables to sell at the local market. Garcia worked side by side with the women, who would share their life stories as they tilled the land together. Eventually she began to learn their language, understand their stories, and started recording their history.

"What they really want is for people to hear their histories, to know what happened to them in the past ... and to know that the legacy of violence and poverty is something they're still dealing with today," says Garcia.

Garcia started a literacy project which has expanded to include other family and community members, received grants and assistance from other American linguistics professors (including her mother, Jule Gomez de Garcia ’72) to document and preserve the language of this culture, and made numerous professional presentations which have earned her the respect of peers many years her senior.

In 2003, Garcia was awarded a Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship for Minorities and she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where one of her professors writes that Garcia “is one of the best students we have ever had.”

Throughout her graduate studies Garcia has returned to Nebaj repeatedly and continues to work tirelessly to record the stories of the survivors and document their struggles and achievements. One of her goals is “to make the researcher obsolete as the women learn to do the work of documenting their language and their lives themselves.”