The Mesoamerica Center turns a 17th century building in Guatemala into a UT gem
by Jen Reel
When David Stuart requested a meeting with Dean Doug Dempster in 2007, he had an ambitious proposition. What if the College of Fine Arts could create a teaching and research center in Guatemala?
Stuart, who came to UT in 2004 as the director of The Mesoamerica Center, had been traveling to Guatemala for decades, first as a student and then as a professional archaeologist and epigrapher of ancient Maya culture. He knew how beneficial having a space close to ancient sites would be. And for a university like UT, which already housed an impressive amount of programming in Latin American and Mesoamerican studies, it could serve a large population of students and faculty members beyond the College of Fine Arts.
It was easy to explain why he wanted it, but the “how” and “where” had always been elusive. This was not Stuart’s first attempt—his initial talks go back to when he taught at Harvard University but lacked prospects to move forward. This time, he told Dempster, his idea came with a gift.
His friend Barbara Arroyo, an archaeologist in Guatemala, told him about Casa Herrera, a building her family owned that sat unused in the heart of Antigua, Guatemala. Built in the 17th century, it was a beautiful colonial residence that changed owners throughout the years until a member of her Herrera family bought it in 1869. In 1896, the family’s business repurposed it for offices and a warehouse. They eventually moved to larger facilities, leaving the space vacant. Could it be what Stuart was looking for?
Arroyo brought the question to her family’s philanthropic foundation, The Fundación Pantaleón. Antigua’s close proximity to volcanos and Spanish colonial architecture and its UNESCO World Heritage site status had prompted other businesses to turn historic buildings into boutique hotels and restaurants, reaping the benefits of a tourist town. But the Herrera family wanted Casa Herrera to have a greater purpose and support the foundation’s focus on education, health and the environment. Stuart’s idea aligned with their mission. Excited to revive Casa Herrera, the family took it a gracious step further and committed to provide the millions of dollars needed to refurbish it. It was the miracle that Stuart and the College of Fine Arts needed, and Dempster gave his blessing to move forward.
Within two years, the building was restored to showcase its original architecture while adding the conveniences of modernity: Wi-Fi, a full kitchen, bathrooms, living quarters, meeting spaces and classrooms. Dempster worked with the provost’s office to obtain funding for startup costs, and the new UT facility opened its doors in summer 2009 as a teaching and research center focused on Mesoamerican cultures, pre-Columbian art and archaeology. Artist and scholar residencies and conferences were held during the first year, and The Maya Meetings (now The Mesoamerica Meetings) the following year. Student programs were established in 2011 and have occurred every year since.
“Casa Herrera has blossomed from what I first took to be a too-good-to-be true aspiration to a sustainable, day-to-day enrichment of our educational and research mission," says Dempster. "I’m hugely impressed by David Stuart’s vision and ambition and enormously grateful to The Fundación Pantaleón for its generous partnership.”
Now 10 years in, Casa Herrera and The Mesoamerica Center are bringing UT to the threshold of a remarkable and groundbreaking future.
It’s the fourth day of classes in Antigua, and Nikita Sveshnikov is worried. He applied to this summer’s program led by Stuart after learning about it in a Maya art and architecture class taught by Professor Astrid Runggaldier. Runggaldier is the assistant director of The Mesoamerica Center and has designed and led several of the study abroad programs. Sveshnikov says her class inspired him to learn more about the Maya and begin his own research project, but today he has hit a snag.
Stuart had invited Vincent Stanzione, a writer and researcher on Maya religion living in Guatemala, to speak in class. He was telling the students about the altarpiece of Santiago Atitlán, a massive altarpiece in one of the oldest colonial churches in Guatemala. Two brothers had been commissioned to rebuild it after an earthquake damaged it in 1976. Sveshnikov’s project was on the altarpiece, but Stanzione was telling a version of events that was different from what Sveshnikov had found in his research. When he raised some questions with Stanzione, Stanzione encouraged him to search for answers while in Guatemala. The class would soon be traveling to Lake Atitlán, near where one of the brothers lives. Why not find him and ask him?
“I didn’t expect this trip to be so transformative, but having the opportunity to talk to people who live here and are close to the topic is really, really good,” says Sveshnikov. “I may be able to find out the truth from the person who actually carved the altarpiece, and that’s not something I could ever experience in a classroom or book.”
He and the class have been looking forward to the trip since they first arrived. In a few days, they would drive three hours to Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America, where several ancient sites dot the area and Maya culture is prominent in the surrounding villages. It would be their first overnight stay since arriving in Antigua, but it wouldn’t be their last. They would travel to Tikal National Park in northern Guatemala and eventually cross the border to Belize, where they would meet up with Runggaldier to visit the archaeological team she has been working with before returning home.
Stuart and Runggaldier have been able to craft their itineraries around Casa Herrera, using it as an anchor as they crisscross the region with students. Runggaldier’s work studying buried architecture in Belize as well as both she and Stuart’s extensive involvement with the San Bartolo/Xultun Archaeology Project in northern Guatemala (which has an office in Casa Herrera) have given students a firsthand look into the research being conducted in the field. Their work has also helped to bring The Mesoamerica Center into the fold of Planet Texas 2050, UT’s ambitious project to address Texas’ vulnerabilities to climate change. Casa Herrera will be a critical base for UT and other Mesoamericanists engaging in this research.
“Some of the recent research initiatives launched at UT, like the Planet Texas 2050 grand challenge initiative, have energized the community of Mesoamericanists and archaeologists at UT, and that also means more opportunities for students to expand their education abroad,” says Runggalider. “The Mesoamerica Center’s activities and programs at Casa Herrera give students and faculty access to something truly special.”
Milady Casco has been going through old pictures lately. She’s working on a photo exhibit for Casa Herrera’s 10th anniversary party celebrating UT’s partnership with The Fundación Pantaleón. There’s the picture from Holy Week, when art students created an “alfombra,” a flower and sawdust carpet, as part of a public art project for Easter festivities; there’s one of a former education student turned Duke University professor who held a basketball workshop for grade schoolers; another of a doctoral candidate and now practicing archaeologist in Guatemala giving a presentation on hieroglyphs; and a photo of a local dance troupe that drew so many people to Casa Herrera that day. Casco has had her hand in nearly all of it, handling everything from the minutiae to large, complex programming.
Casco was one of two graduate students who came to Casa Herrera when it first opened in 2009. After graduation, she moved to Antigua to become The Mesoamerica Center’s onsite coordinator for Casa Herrera, and she is now the program manager. Her work has been essential not just for The Mesoamerica Center, but also for UT’s education abroad office, Texas Global. Study abroad logistics are usually handled by a third party, but having Casco coordinate programming meant the process for students and faculty members would be streamlined, and having access to Casa Herrera, UT’s first international facility, was an exceptional resource. Texas Global began reaching out to other departments.
Education Professor Luis Urrieta had just returned from a Fulbright program in Mexico in 2010 when he was approached by Texas Global. His department had started a study abroad program in Mexico in 2007, but in 2009 it was suspended for safety concerns. In 2010, it was suspended indefinitely. Would he and his staff be interested in basing their program in Guatemala?
The idea intrigued him. He had been to Guatemala only once, years earlier for a workshop near Lake Atitlán, but he could imagine taking students there. Its cultural diversity, its history of education and the social, political and cultural constructs, especially for Maya peoples, could give students a critical perspective on education in the U.S., particularly for marginalized communities and the students’ own roles as future educators.
He flew to Guatemala to research the area, looking for schools where his students could volunteer and teach, and vetting Spanish and Maya language programs that offered home stays and transportation. When Urrieta toured Casa Herrera during that trip, it all seemed so promising.
“I thought Casa Herrera was beautiful, and I thought it had everything we could possibly need to teach class and more,” says Urrieta. “I said, ‘We have to do this!’ ”
The College of Education coordinated their first program with Casa Herrera in 2011 and has returned every year since, tweaking the program and cross-listing it with both Mexican American and Latin American studies, drawing more students to the program.
“We take students to a primary school that works with children of Maya families, where their culture is promoted rather than oppressed,” says Casco. “I tell the students what a unique experience it is to work with these kids. These are the kinds of communities that some of the kids and their families traveling to Texas are coming from.”
This year also marked the first public health Maymester, bringing a total of four UT student programs through Casa Herrera focused on art and art history, education, public health and language immersion.
“Casa Herrera seemed like an extension of the UT campus,” says Marilyn Felkner, a professor of public health who co-led her department’s first trip. “The staff was extremely knowledgeable and available, and we gathered at Casa Herrera almost daily. It was truly a home away from home.”
Casa Herrera sits just three blocks from where Laura Gámez grew up. She remembers when Antigua was a quiet town where she and her brother could play freely among the ancient sites. Now an archaeologist, she earned her Ph.D. at Pittsburgh University before returning to Guatemala. She began working with The Mesoamerica Center in 2014 to help expand Casa Herrera to serve as an educational space for the Guatemala community at large. Well-versed in both scholarly research and local culture, Gámez is essential in bridging the two.
Gámez works closely with Casco and has designed education workshops for Guatemalan teachers on Maya studies. She has led talks and coordinated events that have drawn tour guides, instructors and a general public interested in learning about ancient and contemporary Maya culture. And this summer, Gámez and Casco worked with students in the education Maymester to host the first-ever children’s workshop. Next year they hope to include an “archaeologist for a day” event for the kids.
“We need to make more present in the mind of the Guatemalan and the visitor that the Maya we see today walking the streets of Antigua are the descendants of the Maya that we see in the big pyramids and with the wonderful classic works of art,” says Gámez. “It’s part of their heritage, and they deserve it back.”
“We’ve created a center not only where we bring students and scholars, but we’re able to incorporate ourselves in the community and make an effort to be a part of the community, and I think that’s a huge deal,” says Casco. “There are so many parallels you can make across Central America, the state of indigenous communities and the state of politics over the years. I can say that’s what drew me here and made me care enough to be able to commit myself to Casa Herrera and to share it with others.”
Casa Herrera may be seeing an increase in activity in the near future, as advancing initiatives and technologies are set to place UT in the top echelon of Maya studies. One of The Mesoamerica Center’s goals in working with Planet Texas 2050 is to establish a lidar (light detection and ranging) archive at UT. Lidar, an advanced surveying method using pulses of light to measure variable distances, can essentially map a 3D image of ancient sites buried under thick vegetation. Several major sites have been surveyed with lidar, resulting in a wealth of valuable data sets, but ones that are spread across several institutions. Accessing the data from a single archive would be an invaluable tool and is a major goal for UT.
This year, The Mesoamerica Center will host a group of collaborators from UT, the U.S. and around the world to discuss establishing this lidar archive at UT. The proposal would make The Mesoamerica Center an international hub for research and education, and UT’s recent addition of Frontera, the fifth most powerful computer system in the world, could also mean extensive collaboration with the Texas Advanced Computing Center.
Largely because of this work and the research at Xultun, The Mesoamerica Center was recently awarded support from the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost for a cluster hiring of three new faculty members. Based on a proposal created by Stuart, Runggaldier and faculty members in geography and the environment, linguistics, history and anthropology, the new hires will include leading researchers immersed in groundbreaking investigations of Maya civilization and culture. Their contributions will help expand UT’s expertise in Maya research and strengthen the bridge between the sciences and the humanities. They will also use Casa Herrera to help educate the next generation of Mayanists.
“Casa Herrera has been an important base for our research activities over the years, and we imagine that the new Mayanists UT is committing to hire will be involved in scholarly activities there as well,” says Runggaldier. “For many of our students, the time they’ve spent at Casa Herrera has been a real turning point in their lives, their studies and their careers.”