Admin Note: This post comes from Carin Steen, the chaperone who accompanied Dilcia and Norma to Spain. Her reflections on the activities of the Forum and the girls’ participation point to the importance and potential of youth engagement and leadership on heritage issues.

I left Honduras with two timid girls from a small mountainous village in Honduras and came back with two worldly young ladies.

Norma Lopez (left) and Dilcia Rosa (right) prepare for their journey at Copan

Just before Easter week I got the invitation to take two kids from a Maya Ch’ort’i community to the 4° Youth Forum on World Heritage in Spain. What an opportunity! But which kids to choose? The restrictions were that the participants had to be between 12 and 15 years old, enrolled in school and Spanish speaking. I decided to look at the attendance list of our former projects, to get an idea which kids had been most active. It turned out that most of the boys were already too old, but of all the participants, two were outstanding because of their high attendance rate: Dilcia Aracely and Norma Esperanza, who had both participated in our archaeology, mapping and photography projects. The girls were excited to go and their parents gave their consent. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. It took quite a while to get the girls their passports and travel permits, but on June 9th we were finally ready to go.

I guess that going to Spain was quite an abstract concept for the girls, and a bit overshadowed by the excitement about travelling by plane. But in the end an airplane is not that different from a bus, so by the time we switched planes in San Salvador, the girls were already experienced travelers.

Dilcia (left) and Norma (right) in Alacala de Henares

Once we were picked up at the airport by the organizers of the event, everything started moving really fast. The very next morning we left for the University of Alcalá de Henares, for the official inauguration of the forum in the exact same hall where the prestigious Cervantes Prize is handed out every year. From there we went on to the Regional Museum of Archaeology, followed by a visit to an archaeological site with the foundation of an ancient roman building. Then back to headquarters for a typically Spanish, very late dinner. As a surprise, in the context of immaterial patrimony, the organizers offered us a typical dinner. The girls’ eyes lit up at the words “comida típica”, not yet knowing that the meal was typical for Spain, not Honduras… Of all things new, the different food was probably the hardest to get used to.

Dilcia (left) and Norma (right) at El Alhambra in Granada

During the following days we visited one fabulous place after the other: the royal palace in Aranjuez, the Prado Museum in Madrid, the historical centre of Baeza, the Alhambra in Granada and the famous Mosque of Córdoba. My personal favourite was the visit to the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España in Madrid, where we got to see how ancient objects are restored and conserved. It’s a rare opportunity to visit these labs and see how x-rays reveal century-old secrets within wooden statues or how paintings and objects are carefully cleaned and repaired. The girls, however, preferred the royal palace of Aranjuez. Well, to see the bed where a real kind used to wake up is interesting too, of course.

Norma(left) and Dilcia (right) present on the cultural heritage of Copan and their community

The forum didn’t consist of just excursions. Until late every night, the participants and tutors were engaged in workshops and presentations. Beforehand, each participant was asked to bring a PowerPoint Presentation about his or her patrimony, as well as a minute long of video. This turned out to be an excellent way to learn more about other interesting places and customs, but it also gave the participants a chance to bond and to share experiences. Dilcia and Norma Esperanza were a bit nervous when the time came to present the Ruins of Copán to their peers, but they did very well and proudly told me the next day that many people had congratulated them on their performance.

The adolescent participants also worked on a definition of what patrimony means to them and on what the 5C’s of patrimony stand for: Conservation, Credibility, Community, Capacity and Communication. Further on, they worked on a personal plan of action for their community. Dilcia and Norma plan to start a folkloric dance group and charge for performances for tourist so they can buy computers for their school.

Norma (left) and Dilcia (right) with Norman Garcia Paz, the Honduran ambassador to Spain

And then, just when we felt we had been there forever and ever, the forum came to an end…The result of the workshops, a booklet with patrimony-related terms defines by the participants, was handed out as well as a big print of a group photo which the kids eagerly signed for one another. The last night there was dancing and I couldn’t get Dilcia and Norma off the dance floor…

Dilcia on the dance floor with other Forum participants

In order not to fly over the US and get the needed visas for the girls, we had to spend an extra night in Spain. We took advantage of the situation and went to the nearest beach (in Malaga) so the girls could see the ocean for the first time in their lives. They eagerly put on their newly bought bikinis and I was astounded at how much they had changed in only ten days. Those oh so timid girls were now excitedly modelling on the beach, giving me directions on how they wanted their picture taken!!! But when I pointed out some interesting building, later, during our walk to the train station, I got no reaction. Saturated of old buildings, I guess.

Dilcia (left) and Norma (right), the seasoned travelers

While in Spain Norma and Dilcia represented not only Honduras and the Ruins of Copán, but also their identity as Maya Ch’ort’i.  As little as they themselves knew about Spain and the other countries represented in the forum, probably few of the participants had much prior knowledge about Copán or the millions of Maya people still very much alive in this day and age. So in that sense, the girls shared their patrimony with others, which was one of the goals of the forum. Another objective was to have the participants take stewardship of their own patrimony. I think this has been quite successful, although maybe in different way than expected. Observing the girls, I think that more than anything, they now realize how delicious their own food is, how incredibly lush and green the Honduran mountains are and how beautiful their village is. There is no better place than home, of course, but I think this goes beyond that. We, who have travelled often, have learned to appreciate our home (or criticize it, for that matter), because we are able to compare it to other places. But if you have never ever left the place you were born in and you’re not constantly overwhelmed by impulses and imagery through TV or modern media, then there’s really nothing to compare it to and you probably don’t value it as much. You need to suffer a bit in order to appreciate what you have! Those two Maya girls, standing there on a stage in a far away town in Spain, in front of 44 adolescents from all parts of the world, were truly proud of who they are and where they’re from.

I happened to see both Dilcia and Norma in the last few days since we came back, and they’re both sill glowing. I wonder how exactly this trip will affect their lives. That it will, I’m sure of. What an empowering and life-changing experience!

Carin Steen, Copán Ruinas, June 27, 2012