BY SERGIO ROMERO & SUSANNA SHARPE
LLILAS BENSON MOURNS the death of our beloved colleague and friend Manuel de Jesús Tahay Gómez, aka Tat Wel, who died of COVID-19 in Guatemala on August 14. He was 61.
A revered educator and scholar of the Maya K’iche’ language and culture, Tahay was also a father and husband, a poet, and a community leader who served as mayor of the Guatemalan municipality of Nahualá, where he lived, taught, and raised a large family along with his wife, Isabel (Nan Xe’p) Tjaz.
A Life of Teaching and Service
Manuel de Jesús Tahay Gómez was born on April 19, 1960, in the town of Nahualá, in the western highlands of Guatemala. He grew up in a traditional K’iche’ family, and his father was a community leader who held important roles in traditional Catholic lay societies. As a child, Manuel used to accompany his father and grandfather to civil and religious functions, which enabled him from early on to acquire a profound knowledge of K’iche’ traditions and ceremonial language. Having won a competitive scholarship, he was able to attend high school at the Instituto Santiago in Guatemala City, a famous Catholic school for Indigenous young men, from which many important Maya leaders have graduated since the late 1960s.
Tahay was trained as a primary school teacher and taught for many years in rural and urban communities in Nahualá, and in the neighboring township of Santa Lucía Utatlán. He was a dedicated and patient teacher, remembered for his commitment to students, and for his respect and deference to community leaders. He was also active in the Catholic Church and was one of the founders of the Hermandad de Procesiones Nahualá. He received training in Mayan linguistics, and was involved in language revitalization in Nahualá. After his retirement, he taught for several years at private secondary schools in his hometown and began his long career as K’iche’ instructor for non-K’iche’ students (2006–2021). He taught at the University of Chicago, Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, he was head instructor of a summer K’iche’ program run in consortium by several American universities, which continues to this day.
Manuel Tahay also played a crucial role in saving his hometown from genocide at the hands of Guatemalan Army in the early 1980s. A popular and respected leader, he ran three times for the office of town mayor. He was finally elected in 2011 and held office for four years. His tenure is remembered in Nahualá as one of the most successful in recent memory for the extraordinary number of public works that were completed, and for the personal involvement of Manuel and his wife Isabel in attending to the needs of Nahualá’s poorest.
It is a testament to Tahay’s kindness and dedication as a scholar and a human being that he has left behind so many grateful students, colleagues, and friends. Here are some of their words about this great and humble man.
“I was very lucky to have known Manuel as a close friend and collaborator for many years. As his friend, I had the privilege of witnessing the career of a wonderful teacher, committed community leader, and beloved family man. He will be sorely missed, and never forgotten.”
— Sergio Romero, Associate Professor, LLILAS, Department of Spanish and Portuguese
“I join so many who mourn the loss of one of the most beloved champions of Maya K’iche’ language and culture, whose lifetime of teaching—both formally and informally—has made a lasting impact on hundreds of students and scholars, as well as his people. Don Manuel Tahay’s Maya K’iche’ classes were known to be exceptionally rigorous and challenging, requiring significant effort. What he demanded of his students, however, was reciprocated with an extraordinary generosity of the likes we rarely see today. His patience with and support of his students was unparalleled. I remember how proud he was when one of his students at UT Austin, Ignacio Carvajal (now an assistant professor at University of Kansas), opened his dissertation defense presentation with a lengthy Maya K’iche’ introduction and expression of gratitude. Don Manuel was in the audience beaming, like a proud father.
“Don Manuel truly loved teaching, his language and culture, and all beings on the planet. I wish I could send him one more email, conveying how deeply honored I have been to know him, and how much I have learned from him about being in good relations with others. For now, perhaps we can show our gratitude for what we have learned from him by continuing to cultivate patience, kindness, and generosity in our interactions with others, while we continue to support the revitalization and flourishing of Indigenous language cultures.”
— Kelly McDonough, Associate Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese; Director, Indigenous Languages Initiative
“Don Manuel was an extraordinary teacher, colleague, a community leader, and cultural and linguistic treasure. He lived his life with great dignity and purpose, and his contribution to the teaching and dissemination of the Maya K’iche language was unsurpassed.”
—Virginia Garrard, Professor of History and Religious Studies, former LLILAS Benson director
“Tat Wel was a teacher, poet, and visionary. He was, and will continue to be, a weaver of memories, a river of wisdom, and a forest of love for the self-determination of the Maya K’iche’ people. My most heartfelt sympathies, respect, and affection to his wife, his daughters, and all of the women who accompanied him in the struggle for life and love. Sib’alaj maltyox che la [Thank you so much].”
— Joanna Beltrán Girón (Xw’an)
“In the summer of 2018, on break from law school, I wanted to study K’iche’ in Guatemala. I sent an email to the professor from the UT program, Don Manuel Tahay (Tat Wel). Never having met me, Tat Wel replied immediately and offered that I could stay in his home with his family in Nahualá. He and his daughter Nela would give me private lessons for a month. That kind of generosity never wavered over the next three years that I knew him.
“When I learned that Tat Wel and his wife Isabel (Nan Xe’p) would be living in Austin the following academic year, I immediately enrolled in his class for the fall, and then the spring semester. If I ever had to miss his class due to a schedule conflict, Tat Wel would not only move around an office hour, but would recap an entire class for me one-on-one. The last time Tat Wel saw my husband, he literally gave him the clothes off his back: a hand-embroidered men’s jacket from his hometown. I am comforted only by the thought that his smart, humble generosity will live on through his twelve children. That they are burdened with his medical bills, on top of the grief, is another injustice.”
— Leah Rodriguez, former student, immigration attorney
UT Austin’s online K’iche’ program for beginner to advanced students is available at https://tzij.coerll.utexas.edu/. We are forever grateful to Tat Wel for his contribution, and for his abiding friendship.
Manuel Tahay’s family is faced with crippling debt due to his hospitalization and treatment. Sadly, they had to sell their home in order to pay the hospital. Mareike Sattler of Vanderbilt University, a former student of Tahay’s, is collecting funds to support the family: https://gofund.me/a47dd5a9