Young U.S. Latino changes lives in El Salvador through soccer and ‘The Power of Play’

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The first class of AFJA in Los Amates. (Photo/ Sara Jule / AFJA)

There are few who know the extreme disparities between the U.S. and Central America like 29-year-old Steven Levy.

His mother immigrated to Los Angeles from the infamously dangerous Los Amates, El Salvador in 1979. A decade later, Levy was born, the youngest of five brothers — and the only one born on U.S. soil.

 

He was also the one to give birth to a legacy of lasting change.

One year ago, he founded Academia de Fútbol Juvenil Amatense (AFJA) — a Los Angeles based non-profit that recycles soccer equipment throughout the U.S. and establishes community-based soccer academies for youth, ages 5-19.

Founder Steven and mother Maria at his graduation from USC.

Founder Steven and mother Maria at his graduation from USC. (Photo/ Ron Sosa / AFJA)

Brian Aguilar, of Guatemalan heritage and Levy’s college friend, heard about the project and was inspired to make a short documentary about it called, “El Poder del Juego” (“The Power of Play”). It will be screening at the Central American International Film Festival this Saturday, November 10, in Los Angeles.

The idea for AFJA was conceived because Levy’s mom would send him to her hometown, a town made up of about 150 homes in the northern part of El Salvador, during summer vacations, while his school friends were being sent to summer camp. This allowed Levy to witness firsthand the life his mother had left behind.

“I saw kids, already at 10, working in agriculture and doing hard work,” said Levy about the impoverished youth in El Salvador, who often only had one pair of worn shoes, if that.

“I would communicate with the kids, and make friends, through soccer,” said Levy. “I would start leaving stuff behind like soccer balls, equipment, and toys, because I saw the disparity between my friends here and there.”

Fast forward to 2015. Levy graduated from the University of Southern California, and he now works full-time in IT at an LA-area hospital. However, despite his average American life, with everyday comforts like clean drinking water and takeout food, the image of his young friends in El Salvador — without those same luxuries — never left him.

In the summer of 2017, Levy decided to start a Go Fund Me with a $500 goal, which was quickly surpassed.

Donations collected are sorted out at AFJA HQ in Lynwood, CA.

Donations collected are sorted out at AFJA HQ in Lynwood, CA. (Courtesy AFJA)

“I was just going to buy new gear, and bring it to the kids, but within two weeks we surpassed the goal,” Levy told NBC News. “After I went to El Salvador and took videos and photos, then it really took off. People saw the joy in the kids’ faces. We captured the moment of some of these kids receiving their first shoes.”

The original idea was to give these hard-working youth an outlet to play, but it grew to become an academy for them to also be future leaders in their towns. There are three requirements for eligibility, including academic, attendance, and community service. One of their most important duties is “clean up days.”

“The coaches, teachers and kids in the community get together to pick up the trash in the neighborhood,” Levy explained. “You know we’re having impact when a 5-year-old sees an adult throw a wrapper on the ground and says, ‘Hey, pick that up.’”

Another serious problem Levy has witnessed is the water, which is contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.

“The same water kids were taking to practice is contaminated. One of the moms told us she had to take her 10-year-old to dialysis, because of the level of contamination in the water,” said Levy. “We partnered with another nonprofit called La Mission por Vida, (launching a Giving Tuesday campaign on the 27th of this month) which provides water filters for the whole community.”

Levy said he could not have done this all without the help of his mom, who is the program’s director, residing back in El Salvador, as well as the help of other family members and some of the children’s parents. Thanks to the group effort, the organization now serves 122 youth in Los Amates and Ateos, El Salvador, and there are plans to start a chapter in Guatemala in January.

In Los Angeles, Levy said it really hits home for him to see Central American children in the news, detained by immigration authorities. But he understands why they try to come. It’s out of desperation.

“Here we are with the same kids, and what they look like when someone believes in them,” he said.

Levy said he’s most proud that he’s making his mother proud.

“She came to the U.S., worked the jobs nobody wanted to work,” said Levy. “My brothers joined the military, and I went to college. [Los Amates] is where my mom comes from, the school she went to still has the bullet holes from the civil war.”

“With the academy,” said Levy, “I want to build a sustainable model to be able to use soccer as a vehicle for social change.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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‘Home Truth’ Shows a Mother’s Fight for Justice After Her Husband Killed Their 3 Daughters

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Jessica Lenahan, 52, the subject of the new documentary “Home Truth.” (Courtesy Adequate Images)

Jessica Lenahan has gone through a mother’s worst nightmare, and it all took place on one night in June 1999. A new documentary portrays her ordeal.

The Castle Rock, Colorado, mother of four had successfully obtained a permanent restraining order against her emotionally abusive husband, Simon Gonzales, earlier that month, requiring him to remain at least 100 yards from her and her four children, except during specified visitation time. Despite that, he took his three daughters in violation of the restraining order. Lenahan frantically called the police for hours; they told her there was nothing they could do and to let them know if the girls did not come home.

In the early morning hours, Gonzales drove to the police station and started shooting; the police shot back. They found he had killed his three daughters; the bodies of Rebecca, 10, Katheryn, 9, and Leslie, 7, were found in his van.

Filmed over the course of nine years of Lenahan’s life after the tragedy, the documentary “Home Truth,” directed by Katia Maguire and April Hayes and co-produced by Latino Public Broadcasting, captures an intimate portrait of the lives of Lenahan, her surviving son, Jessie, and how the trauma from domestic violence is difficult to extinguish, no matter how much time passes.

The film documents Lenahan’s relentless pursuit of justice to change the ways police and towns respond to domestic violence situations and includes interviews with members of her legal team, such as attorney Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, a former Obama adviser on violence against women.

In time for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the film premieres Wednesday on the World Channel at 7p.m ET, as well as additional PBS stations throughout October (check local listings), and will be available for streaming on pbs.org beginning Wednesday as well.

The directors of the film heard about Lenahan’s story from someone at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 2008. At that point, Lenahan, who is of Native American and Latino descent, had already been fighting her case for nine years and had endured a long and emotionally strenuous journey. She had filed a lawsuit against the Castle Rock police for failing to enforce her restraining order right after the incident, and in 2004, her case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Jessica Lenahan, 52, the subject of the new documentary HOME TRUTH, and her four children. (Courtesy Adequate Images)

When it was ruled, 7-2, that she had no constitutional right to the enforcement of her restraining order and that police departments could not be sued for improper enforcement of such orders, Lenahan and her legal team, including the ACLU and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, filed a case against the U.S. government with the help of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

With this case, Lenahan became the first individual domestic violence survivor to bring a case against the United States before an international board. In a 2011 landmark decision, the commission found the U.S. was responsible for human rights violations against Jessica and her three deceased children.

Maguire, an Emmy-nominated Latina filmmaker, said they first saw Lenahan speak at an event.

“What struck us the most is that she is able to talk about the horrific things that happened to her over and over again,” said Maguire. “We thought, ‘How does telling her story affect her? How does she do that? We understood that the story had historic significance but being filmmakers, we wanted to look deeper into her story.”

“We really started telling the story from before the girls were killed,” Maguire told NBC News. They had footage of the girls as well, because their father had a habit of filming them — and Jessica —frequently.

Though it took nearly a decade to make the film, Maguire said they learned a lot about the judicial process and the lasting effects of domestic violence on families.

“The skeleton was Jessica’s case, but the other part was her relationship with her son, Jesse,” Maguire said. “The ripples go on far and wide. It’s a problem we have to look at from a public health perspective as well.”

Jesse was 13 when his sisters were killed, and he mentions in the documentary that when the girls died, so did the nurturing side of his mom that he loved so much. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress took a toll on their relationship — and to this day they remain emotionally and physically distant.

“Everyone is in a different place in their lives,” explained Maguire. “Different family members need to step away to take care of themselves, and we thought that was a very powerful part in the story.”

She added that she is proud of Jessica, who continues to fight for justice and against her fatigue. Although Jessica has made some strides, even winning awards from the U.S. Human Rights Network, among other groups, she told NBC News she still has lots more work to do.

Lenahan is currently a visiting scholar at the Dorothea S. Clarke Program in Feminist Jurisprudence at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y. She said it’s been a 20-year battle regarding her case, but she wants an outcome that recognizes the legal rights of domestic violence victims not just in the U.S. but in other countries as well.

In ‘West Side Story Reimagined,’ a Jazzy Version of the Iconic Score Also Helps Puerto Rico

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“West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined” album was recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City in November, 2017 with Bobby Sanabria and entire 22-piece orchestra. (Photo/ Sarah Escaraz)

From the opening whistles and finger snaps to the soaring notes of composer Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria,” “West Side Story” is one of America’s most recognized and beloved musicals. A half century later, an acclaimed Latin jazz musician “reimagined” the score, creating a mostly instrumental album that has been drawing rave reviews and raising funds for an island dear to his heart.

“Two years ago, I came up with the idea of re-arranging the music from Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, ‘West Side Story,’ and performing it with my Multiverse Big Band, but in a way that has never been done before: a complete Latin jazz reworking of the entire score in celebration of the show’s recent 60th anniversary and Maestro Bernstein’s centennial,” said bandleader and Latin jazz percussionist Bobby Sanabria, about his two-disc compilation, “West Side Story Reimagined.

“Besides paying tribute to the composer and music, I saw this as an opportunity to give back and help my ancestral homeland Puerto Rico,” he said.

Sanabria, 61, who has garnered seven Grammy nominations, was 15 when he was first introduced to “West Side Story.” Inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the 1957 musical revolves around a forbidden romance amid the racial tension between two New York City gangs: the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican. The musical was written during a time in U.S. history that saw a wave of Puerto Rican migration to the mainland, the “The Great Migration” of the 1950s.

The musical was later adapted to a film of the same name in 1961, which won ten Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Music.

“On the 10th anniversary of the film, in 1971, my parents took me to see it in a Bronx theater,” Sanabria told NBC News. “I was completely flabbergasted. I had a love affair with the music and how it dealt with the themes of hate and bigotry… It was very unique how it was done, but the music blew my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”

Sanabria was born in 1957, the same year as the musical’s creation. Growing up in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, he said he could relate to the rhythms — as well as the larger themes of ethnic tensions and prejudice.

“On any given summer night, you’d hear drums in the park…Salsa was the gospel of the masses at the time,” said the jazz musician about his formative years. “My mother was from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, and my father from Guanica, Puerto Rico, and they met in New York City – in a house party in the Bronx.,” he said.

“New York was very territorial back then. My parents experienced that, and so did my sister and I,” said Sanabria, speaking of the prejudice Puerto Rican families felt.

“They were American citizens, but they [white New Yorkers] just feared them out of ignorance. Those whites abandoned those neighborhoods. Now the sons of daughters of the whites that fled want those neighborhoods back,” said the musician, referring to the changes in recent decades that have brought many young whites to New York City neighborhoods that had been seen as primarily ethnic enclaves for decades.

ITS THEMES AND MUSIC STILL RESONATE

The themes of “West Side Story” are more timely than ever, said Sanabria. Coincidentally, Steven Spielberg is currently working on a new adaptation of the film.

“In certain parts of this country it’s very dangerous to be Latino right now,” said Sanabria. “This CD is an affirmation of all the great contributions we’ve made to art, theater music, poetry, and activism. It all started with us in New York City. It’s also an affirmation for Latino culture in general and what we’ve contributed to the United States.”

New York City now, said Sanabria, is much more ethnically diverse; neighborhoods that used to be primarily Puerto Rican now have many Mexican, Dominican, Haitian, Indian and Brazilian families compared to 1950s New York.

"West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined" performs at the Lincoln Center Center Out of Doors on August 10, 2018."

“West Side Story: A Masterwork Reimagined” performs at the Lincoln Center Center Out of Doors on August 10, 2018.” (Photo/ Maria Traversa)

“When my ancestors came from Puerto Rico, mambo was the biggest thing, but Bernstein didn’t know about the bomba and plena, so I incorporated that — as well as Dominican, Brazilian and funk sounds,” said Sanabria.

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Marysol Castro, Mets’ First Female PA Announcer and MLB’s First Latina, Hits it Out of the Park

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Marysol Castro at Citi Field in Flushing, Queens. (Courtesy New York Mets)

Marysol Castro remembers a hot and humid summer day between third and fourth grades. She was playing stickball with her brothers and neighbors in her native Bronx, New York, and she remembers some boys looking at her with disdain when she hit her first home run.

She noticed the looks, but it didn’t stop her, and it certainly hasn’t stopped her yet.

Castro, who’s about to turn 44, has spent a little over a month in her job as the first female public address (PA) announcer for the New York Mets and the first Latina PA announcer in Major League Baseball.

“This month has been incredible,” said Castro, speaking to NBC News from her new “office” in Citi Field. “The minute I open this door and look at this view, I realize how incredibly fortunate I am.”

During her two-decade career, Castro has worked in local TV news and has been a national network weather anchor on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and on the “The Early Show” at CBS, as well as a reporter on ESPN — all positions often dominated by men.

“I’ve worked really, really hard,” said Castro.

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Marysol Castro is the first woman PA announcer for the Mets and first Latina for MLB. (Photo/ Kristina Puga for NBC News)

Sporting feminine wedge sandals and bright red nail polish, Castro is petite, yet she speaks with an authoritativeness and power that shows she’s used to hanging with the guys and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

Castro was ambitious at an early age; she recalls first wanting to be the shortstop for her hometown team, the Yankees, and then wanting to go into politics. At 12, she decided on her own that she would get a full scholarship to boarding school, and she did. Castro says she knew the world was bigger than the Bronx, and she wanted to see it and learn about it.

She taught English at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, and it’s there, Castro says, where she learned the power of real communication. After attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she began her career in broadcasting.

A ‘BRIDGE BUILDER’ FOR MLB’S GROWING LATINO AUDIENCE

The new PA announcer is proud of her job and of being a Latina role model.

“In almost every job I’ve had, I’ve been the only Latino,” said Castro. “We have to reflect the eyeballs that watch us.”

Both of Castro’s parents were born and raised in Puerto Rico. Her father, who passed away when she was 10, was a U.S. Navy veteran, a NYC bus driver and was active in the Young Lords, a groundbreaking civil rights group, as well as other community organizations.

Landing her new position “means everything,” said Castro, because she gets to “be a bridge builder for other Latinos” at a time when Hispanic-viewing baseball audiences are at an all-time high in the U.S.

A study showed that the addition of international players to MLB teams, many from Caribbean and Latin American countries, have resulted in a jump of millions in profits. As of last year, MLB players hailed from 19 countries, including the Dominican Republic (93 players), Venezuela (77) and Cuba (23).

Castro, who grew up speaking primarily English, went to the Mets Clubhouse on one of her first days on the job and asked each player how they wanted her to pronounce their names. This meant a lot to many of the players, including the 11 Latinos in the 40-member team.

“They looked at me with a smile, which seemed to say, ‘Wow, no one has asked me that before,’” recalled Castro. “That, to me, means a lot…Everyone is entitled to have their name pronounced correctly. It’s a human thing.”

The youngest of four children, Castro said that by the time her parents got to her, they realized none of their kids were fluent in Spanish.

“So it was important to me to learn it, and I now teach my two boys, Liam and Gavin, Spanish,” said Castro.

On the days she’s not announcing for the Mets, she hosts “The Weekly Good” on OGTV, and “Somos,” where she highlights exceptional Latinos; she enjoys using her storytelling to counter negative news.

Her advice for getting ahead? Reading everything and asking random questions has always helped her.

“Be curious…study the people you admire,” said Castro. “Treat people kindly. Don’t be allergic to hard work, and don’t say ‘no’ to any opportunity.”

Castro said she’s thankful for the way the Mets have welcomed her pioneering role. She said her colleague Colin Cosell, who alternates the PA announcer position with Castro, shed a tear when a little girl held up a sign for Marysol’s opening night that read, “Congratulations on being the first woman!”

In many ways, she’s still the scrappy girl with the confidence to play stick ball with the guys.

“I never settle in any area of my life,” said Castro. We’ve come far, but we have a long journey ahead of us.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Author Junot Díaz Says Dark Times Demand Action: ‘I’m still going to fight’

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Junot Diaz (Courtesy “American Creed”)

Junot Díaz doesn’t remember a time when he’s ever felt completely at home in the United States — the country he’s lived in for more than four decades and where he has found a home as an award-winning writer.

“I grew up in the margins of society — I assumed everyone, when they were 6 years old, was pulled up out of their home country and placed in another place where you had to learn English,” he told NBC News.

Díaz immigrated from the Dominican Republic with his family in 1974, settling in a low-income area in central New Jersey, an ethnically diverse enclave a few miles from Manhattan.

Now 49, he became an American citizen in his early 20s, and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and receive a MacArthur Genius Award in 2012.

Díaz didn’t mince words when asked about a recent decision by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to no longer describe America as “a nation of immigrants” in its mission statement.

“I’m not surprised that a president who is a white supremacist would push for that kind of alteration,” Díaz said.

Reflecting on his naturalization ceremony, Díaz said, “what was most astonishing about it was that very few of us come into contact with the engine that produces so much genius and so much of what is extraordinary with this country.”

That powerful American moment “is something that these white supremacists fear and despise — disavowing the contributions of people of color,” he said.

Clearly concerned that the U.S. is becoming more and more fractured, he said people these days are “consumed by irrational hate.”

“We are living in very strange times,” Díaz said. “It’s a challenging time to be a person of color.”

But to him, now is the time for people to decide whether they are going to resist. “I believe in true democracy, inclusion and reparation,” he said. “If it’s dark out, I’m still going to fight.”

Díaz is one of 11 Americans, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and award-winning historian David M. Kennedy, who spoke about their lives, what it means to be an American and what can bind us together in troubled times in the documentary film, “American Creed,” which aired Tuesday (Feb. 27) on PBS (check local listings).

When asked, “What does being American mean to you?” Díaz responded that he didn’t know the answer but that he didn’t believe he has ever been “accepted” as an American.

Díaz, whose new children’s book, “Islandborn,” is due to be released next month, credits his childhood school librarian, Mrs. Crowell, with treating all students equally. She even believed a Spanish-speaking immigrant would one day write the next great American novel. That support helped solidify his identity in an unstable world, and he realizes how important that is to maintain for those coming after him.

“Libraries and the public school system are underfunded,” Díaz said. “We have to have a thousand fights in a thousand places.”

Díaz saw the contributions of immigrants firsthand in his working-class New Jersey neighborhood.

“We were like some strange United Nations experiment. My upstairs neighbor was African-American, my best friend was Cuban, my other friend was Egyptian,” he said. “It structured a lot of my thinking, a lot of my art. But in a nation as large as the U.S., it’s difficult to achieve consensus.”

He does not think issues like immigration or gay marriage are tearing our country apart; the “enemy,” Díaz said, is what he calls the economic elite and “mass media manipulation.”

“We’ve been very unfortunate in our leadership, and in our economic beliefs. The folks that have money and power have done much damage in this country,” he said. “When your only goal is to expand your profit, you’re not thinking about the civic, altruism, the well-being of the majority.”

“In the long-term,” Díaz said, “that’s going to leave us with a profoundly damaged planet.”

“We are very fortunate that we have many people that believe in civic justice,” he added. “Otherwise we’d be in much worse shape.”

What Díaz is doing, and what he urges others to do, is to get involved, through volunteering or other activities, and contribute to our “shared” world.

“I don’t approach our civic society as a writer or author, but as a member of it, regardless of my profession,” Díaz said. “I think everyone owes — everyone takes more from this society that they put back in. We all need to take a little time to pay back the interest, to pay back the debt that is ours.”

Being a part of the documentary, he said, is an attempt to open up a dialogue at a time when we are told there should not be a dialogue.

The documentary includes an account of two politically opposed activists who are working to find common ground. Joan Blades, the co-founder of the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org, founded Living Room Conversations in 2011. She is working with Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, as well as others on the right, to create meaningful dialogue between people of opposing views.

“We need to fight to make society better, to make it more accountable, make it safer, to leave it better for the generation that comes,” Díaz said. “Will we win this fight? I’m fighting because it’s the right thing to do.”

“I will take the humble devotion of the average person that believes in justice,” he added, “and I believe we are going to win.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Despite centuries, Mayan healers are still curing, caring with ancient, sacred rituals

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Berta Navichoc, a healer and bonesetter, center, treats Marta Mendoza who was wounded when she fell off a pick-up truck on her way to work. (Photo/Fran Antmann)

Of Guatemala’s 14 million inhabitants, approximately half have indigenous roots, including Maya, Garifuna and Xinca peoples. Throughout the centuries, indigenous communities have endured much turmoil, from the Spanish conquest to a 36-year civil war that resulted in more than 200,000 deaths where more than 80 percent of those were Mayan, according to a U.N.–based report.

But what’s remarkable is that despite violence and death, these communities’ ancient practices have prevailed.

A visually stunning new book details one of the Maya’s most enduring traditions, their healers.

“I was privileged to be allowed to photograph the healings, to listen to their stories and dreams, and to enter the forest with them to photograph Maya ceremonies performed at sacred sites,” said award-winning photographer Fran Antmann, author of the recently published “Maya Healers: A Thousand Dreams.”

 Pedro Mendoza tries to walk again with the help of his mother and brother. After a work-related accident, Pedro’s broken leg was healed over several weeks by healer and bonesetter Berta Navichoc.  (Photo/Fran Antmann)

Antmann, who is known internationally for her several publications and photography collections, said she chose the word “dreams” in the title not just because it’s poetic, but because it’s a big part of understanding their centuries-old practices.

“The healers (curanderos) are said to derive their power and knowledge from dreams,” she said. “The healers are believed to have connections with the supernatural.”

Antmann focused her research in a village called San Pedro La Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán.

In rural parts of Guatemala, medical care is usually expensive and geographically inaccessible. Spanish is a distant second language to the indigenous population, and many feel disdain from doctors. This explains, Antmann said, why it is more comforting for members of some indigenous communities to go to their local healer.

Healers are determined at birth, and it is believed that individuals are born with this “don,” or gift. It’s considered a sacred profession, and one decides to accept it or not. They don’t go to medical school, nor do they get paid.

Healers who use objects to realign the bones, and then their hands to finish the treatment are called “hueseros” or “bonesetters.” They feel like they don’t even guide their hands to heal, explains Antmann, their hands guide them.

 Healer, bonesetter and midwife Josefina Vasquez, photographed by Fran Antmann during a healing. (Photo/Fran Antmann)

“The bonesetters often describe how they found through dreams the sacred bones they use for healing,” said Antmann. “For the Maya, the place and role of dreams is ingrained in their culture.”

Antmann was impressed by the faith of the patient and the healer.

“The healing takes place where the patient lives, or sometimes in their sacred Maya spaces,” said Antmann. “The whole family is involved – it’s a communal affair. Family members are praying in the adjacent room, and their participation is integral in the healing process.”

 Fran Antmann’s book, “Maya Healers” (Nirala Publications)

The Maya’s rich traditions have survived much upheaval and violence since the arrival of the Spanish in the fifteenth century.

For Antmann, who was born in the Bronx, New York to German and Austrian Holocaust survivors, it’s been a privilege to be able to witness the Mayan way of life.

“I feel an umbilical cord to Guatemala,”Antmann said, adding that her adoptive daughter is from Guatemala.

As a Fulbright scholar, she spent 1979 through 1981 in the Peruvian Andes recovering the work of the late acclaimed but forgotten photographer Sebastian Rodriguez. A current professor at Baruch College in NYC, she spent the past 12 summers in Guatemala. Though she has recently focused on Guatemala, she has devoted much of her award-winning photography to documenting the people and places of Mexico and Peru.

 A view of Lake Atitlan, which as Antmann explains in her book, is threatened by pollution and overpopulation. (Photo/ Fran Antmann)

“What is most significant to me is the way I was accepted into this community, and how I gradually gained access to and built a bridge of trust to the families and natural healers,” said Antmann.

Another important part of this long trajectory was the experience of going back to San Pedro with the book in hand, sharing it with the healers, and seeing how much it meant to them,” she said. “I can’t think of anything more gratifying for a photographer working in another culture.”

For more information on the book: http://www.franantmann.com/book-maya-healers

Article originally published on NBCNews.com.

What’s El Dia de Los Muertos?

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A dancer performs at the Calpulli Mexican Dance Company’s annual “Dia de los Muertos” production. (Photo/ Kristin Slaby)

What is El Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” as it’s now known in the U.S.?

Despite the white faces and the skulls, it’s not meant to be a spooky holiday and it’s not Halloween. Also known as Día de Muertos, the celebration originated in central and southern Mexico. Those who celebrate it believe that at midnight on October 31, the souls of all deceased children come down from heaven and reunite with their families on November 1, and the souls of deceased adults come visit on November 2.

Families make colorful altars in their homes in honor of their deceased loved ones, and the altars are decorated with flowers, candles, their loved one’s favorite food and pan de muerto (a slightly sweet bread specifically made for this time).

The festivities continue in the cemetery, where families bring picnics, play music and sometimes even spend the night as a way to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer on this earth.

The inextinguishable tradition dates back 3,000 years, during the time of the Aztecs. It survived through the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived to central Mexico and thought the tradition to be sacrilegious. Instead of it being abolished, however, the celebration evolved to incorporate elements of Christianity, such as celebrating it on November 1 and 2 instead of on its original summer observance to coincide with All Saints’ or All Souls’ Day, a time to pray for departed souls.

In San Francisco, California, Martha Rodríguez-Salazar has been working with the San Francisco Symphony for the past 10 years in their annual Día de los Muertos community celebration, which includes music and altars commissioned from different artists.

 Dia de Los Muertos event at San Francisco Symphony. (Photo/Marc Hors)

“My parents never made an altar while I was growing up, but some of my friends did,” said Rodríguez-Salazar, a conductor, flutist, mezzo-soprano and teacher who was born and raised in Mexico. “Every November 1st and 2nd, they put altars of family and friends. In the Bay Area, it’s become sort of in fashion – its own thing — where people dress up. In Mexico, it’s not that way.”

“Here is where you paint your face,” said Rodríguez-Salazar. “Now with globalization, it’s mixing,” she explained.

“The tradition [in Mexico] is you invite people to your house for pan de muerto and then you go to the cemetery. You eat food there, drink tequila or mezcal, and that’s the celebration. You want to leave your door open because a stranger can bring a spirit of your loved one. You never know.”

 Dina Leor’s Mexican folk store in New York City has been busy selling items for altars to celebrate El Día de los Muertos. (Photo/ Almeida Photography)

Dina Leor, owner of La Sirena Mexican folk art store in New York City, has been an avid celebrator of Día de Muertos since she was a little girl, and she’s not even Mexican.

“My mom is from Argentina and my dad is American — and my heart is Mexican,” Leor told NBC News. “I was around 11 when I first went to Mexico, and I fell in love with the country and culture; I feel so connected to it.”

Leor opened her store in 1999, and for 18 years she’s been bringing a bit of Mexico to NYC, from its colorful trinkets to its celebrations.

On October 21, she held a Dia de los Muertos pop-up market where she sold everything one needs to make an altar.

“I’d say 90 percent of the people who came were Mexican,” said Leor. “A lot of people were coming to buy stuff for their altars. Copál— resin to burn on the altar, and mini papel picados (paper cut outs), and the flowers made out of paper were best sellers.”

Leor was also asked to do another pop-up at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which celebrated Día de Muertos last Saturday.

“A lot of people were asking, ‘Is this Halloween?’,” Leor said about the visitors, mostly non-Latinos, who were passing by her stand.

“My tables looked like altars with papel picado, figurines, bark paper, and José Guadalupe Posada’s prints. This was introducing them to Día de Muertos. The museum wanted to have a Day of the Dead feel, not Halloween, and the woman who ran the gift shop brought pan de muerto.”

Leor said the celebration has always made sense to her.

“When I was 8, I made a space for my deceased grandmother and lit a candle for her, and left water for her, and I didn’t even know about Día de Muertos,” she said, but not everything was as natural. “Before I had my store, I was worried about having skeletons, and now I love them. I find them colorful and joyful.”

Juan Castaño, co-founderof Calpulli Mexican Dance Company, moved to New York with his family when he was 22.

“I am a Mexican-American born in the border city in El Paso, Texas. My identity is both Mexican and American. Growing up, I knew about Día de Muertos, but it’s not something my family really did, since it came more from southern Mexico,” he said. “When we moved to New York, I met people from Puebla, and I started learning more.”

 Dancers perform at the Capulli Mexican dance Company’s annual “Dia de los Muertos” production. (Photo/ Stefanie Delgado)

When his father passed away, Castaño wanted to do something special, so he decided to make his first altar.

“It was really a beautiful experience…It’s a very personal thing,” he said. “I remember looking at the altar and putting coffee there, because my dad loved coffee. My mom said, ‘No, he would never like it like that — and she took it away and made it piping hot with a little sugar, and the experience created a conversation between us,” said Castaño. Dia de Muertos is very powerful, because you feel peace and a beautiful experience remembering someone and celebrating what they did and who they were.”

His 14-year-old Calpulli Mexican Dance Company has always incorporated elements from Día de Muertos in performances that started on October 26th and will have a final performance on November 4 in New York’s prestigious Town Hall.

“The theme and the message of the story if what Día de Muertos is about — the hope that we have to reconnect with the loved ones we have lost,” he said. “The world of the dead, according to Aztec mythology is called Mictlan – a beautiful world where we all want to be.”

Although they are separate celebrations, Castaño believes there has been a huge influence on Día de Muertos from the U.S. and Halloween, namely the face painting.

“I think anytime cultures come together, it’s a way to bring communities together. In my opinion I don’t think it’s a negative thing,” he said. “I have nephews that love Halloween, but I think it’s really nice for them to know about Dia de Muertos, too — it’s such a nice way to deal with death and celebrate death in a healthy, constructive way.”

“For young people, the boogie man [and Halloween] can be traumatizing,” said Castaño. “Maybe we can disarm the fear, stress and anxiety of what dying represents.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.