Ann Sittig Tells a Story of The Mayans Among Us
By Melissa Mendonca
There was a degree of reverence Redding’s Ann Sittig took in opening the box of her first book, “The Mayans Among Us,” when it arrived at her doorstep in March. “The whole process, because I work full time as an instructor and my co-author is a mother of four, took over 10 years,” she says, clearly in awe that the process is complete.
The book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is a rare glimpse into the lives of Mayan women who have immigrated to the Great Plains to work in the meatpacking plants. “We wanted this book that is about Nebraska to be published by that press,” says the Lincoln, Neb., native. “For me, it was like coming home working with them.”
Sittig, a tenured Spanish instructor at Shasta College, marvels at the turn of events that led to her research, including her introduction to co-author Martha Florinda Gonzalez. Fresh out of a Fulbright grant in Peru and her PhD program at the Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain, she took a teaching job at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha and joined a research team working under the U.S. Department of Education and looking at the intersection of Mayan and Winnebago Native American cultures.
The research had Sittig traveling to Guatemala and Belize to meet Mayans. She had to do a double take, then, when she witnessed two Mayan Guatemalan women in their traditional cortes (skirts) walking into a store in South Omaha. “We were spending all this time and money to go study the Mayans and they were right here among us,” she says.
Sittig became eager to learn their stories and approached the Catholic religious community to gain access. A priest had her make a presentation during Mass one Sunday, and that talk led to the meeting of Gonzalez, a Mayan woman who had been in the process of earning her master’s degree in political science from the Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala City when she emigrated to the United States.
Gonzalez had served on the Coordinating Commission for Indigenous Women, the Technical Commission for Negotiations and on the Commission for Women as well as the Peace Processes in Guatemala in the aftermath of the more than 30-year civil war that claimed approximately 200,000 indigenous lives.
“They didn’t feel that anyone had asked them their story,” says Sittig of the many Mayans she and Gonzalez interviewed for the book. “Their story is largely similar to our own of working and supporting our families and having a home.” Yet their story is also unique. They are Central Americans who largely speak indigenous languages, not Spanish. And they have escaped war to seek peace and prosperity in a country where English is the native language and most other immigrants in their area speak Spanish.
The new start has come largely through work in meatpacking plants. It’s physically and psychologically demanding work that not many want to do, but that immigrants have found success at. “I have a special affection for immigrants in the U.S.,” says Sittig. “They go through a lot to come here and do the hard work.”
The book is highly accessible and was written so intentionally. “I’m more of a community person than an academic person,” says Sittig. Although the book has been subject to the rigors of an academic press, it is published as a trade book to reach a wider audience. “I feel it’s a story that needs to be told.”
Gonzalez flew out in April to do a series of readings and events with Sittig both on and off the Shasta College campus in support of the book release. In November, Sittig will fly out to Nebraska for a series of presentations there.
Until then, she will continue to support Shasta College students as a beloved instructor and club adviser to the Latin@s Unid@s Networking Alliance on campus. “We try to create more awareness about Latino culture and issues on campus and in the community,” she says. She is particularly passionate about supporting first-generation college students as they navigate the educational system. Additionally, she says, “We do activities to show how much we love and respect our bilingualism and biculturalism.”
“My weakness in life is that when I see social injustice I have to react,” says Sittig. While the book was 10 years in development, she feels its release in 2016 is particularly timely. “The way that it turned out was just perfect, the way that it should be.”