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Jack Biggs

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December 11, 2017

Digital Narratives of The Disappeared

December 11, 2017 | By | No Comments

Since I’m a returning CHI Fellow for this school year, I wanted to do something quite different compared to my project from last school year. That previous project is called J-Skel and it is an online juvenile skeletal age estimator. That project focused more on the scientific side of things and was intended to be useful in an instruction or classroom setting or to be used as a reference for those who are estimating the age-at-death of juvenile skeletons. Although this is a useful tool for those in the field of human osteology, it is not as applicable to people in everyday life. For this year’s project, I wanted to tackle something both technically and culturally disparate, but first, a quick backstory to explain the impetus behind this new project.

As a bioarchaeologist studying the ancient Maya at MSU, my advisor (Dr. Gabriel Wrobel) runs an ancient Maya Archaeology and Bioarchaeology Fieldschool every year called the Central Belize Archaeological Survey (or CBAS) in Central Belize, about 20 km south of the capital city of Belmopan. As a graduate student, I supervise excavations at the rockshelter sites we dig, as well as give lectures to the students and to the general public if they wish to attend. This year, I lectured over the final segment of Maya prehistory through the Colonial Period and ended with the Guatemalan Civil War that resulted in the genocide of Modern Maya people and the destruction of villages during the late 1970s and early 80s that resulted in the systematic targeting and death of over 200,000 indigenous Maya. As I gave this lecture, none of the students had ever heard of the Guatemalan genocide – also known as the Silent Holocaust. I found this to be somewhat of a disservice that none of them had ever been told about these events. It is because of this that I decided to do my project over the Silent Holocaust.

I want this year’s project to be targeting a much wider audience than my last project and to also take on a cultural and civic justice direction. The Guatemalan Army systematically targeted and eliminated poor indigenous communities in the Guatemalan Highlands, where most of the Modern Maya reside today. Because these peoples mostly speak their own regional variations of Mayan languages and because they have been without a voice since the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, this ethnic cleansing has received far less attention than many others. Families were separated and murdered and entire villages were wiped off the map. It is because of this that I want to inform, or further inform, people about these atrocities that should not be silenced.

Victims and members of the ‘Disappeared’ from the Guatemalan Civil War, Image source: https://espressostalinist.com/genocide/guatemalan-genocide/

In order to make this a project with more of a cultural impact, I plan on creating an interactive map that will allow users to track different journeys concerning the genocide, such as personal journeys or testimonies about fleeing and/or surviving, villages that were attacked, villages that were completely razed, events of social outcry in the major cities, modern-day efforts to commemorate and remember, etc. Although this is not an as well known series of events as other genocides such, as the Holocaust or the Massacre at Srebrenica, it has been heavily researched and there are data out there. I plan on using resources that are publicly available to craft and guide my website so as to be as effective and accurate as possible.

Theoretically, this will not be as technically challenging as my last project (knock on wood) since at that time, I had little knowledge of how to code and interact with different coding languages. Though I’m still not an expert in any sense of the word on coding, I think this will be easier due to my gained knowledge from last year – a pleasantly challenging experience. However, I plan on using at least three new (for me) and different tools this year: Knight Lab StoryMap and Timeline as well as possibly Frappe in order to tell these narratives and help visualize the data. Part of this project isn’t just to inform the general public about events that should not be forgotten, but also to inform me as I will be adding in content as I discover it and I’m excited to go on that journey.

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