By Stephanie Raygoza
A delicate paintbrush guided by a detailed stroke glides across handmade paper to create the image of a little girl and woman standing before the pyramid of knowledge. The painting, much like the function of the amate paper made from tree bark, is a piece of Mayan history that represents the gift of storytelling and fruit of knowledge.
Sixty-two years and 150 drawings later, the little girl in the painting has taken the stories inherited from the woman standing next to her, her grandmother, to canvas in hopes of continuing the spread of Mayan culture and knowledge.
Raised by her Mayan grandmother, Mila, up until the age of 10, Carlotta Giangualano’s inspiration and dedication to retelling Mayan mythologies comes from the knowledge passed on to her through bedtime stories.
“The best years of my life were the first 10 years I lived with my grandmother,” said Giangulano, (or “Tita,” as she affectionately likes to be called). “Every night she’d tell me a different story or a continuation of one story that took probably months to tell me.”
Giangualano has been sketching and painting out childhood memories in a primitive style of art for the past 20 years in hopes of reviving the Mayan tradition of passing knowledge to others.
“My grandmother never told me, ‘When you grow up, you’re going to paint and you’re going to do this and do that.’ The stories that she told me were always in my mind,” said Giangualano. “In the beginning, I wanted to get everything out of my mind. It was like a storm.”
She set her mind on creating a work of various paintings titled Legends and Myths of the Mayan Culture after determining that she doesn’t lean on one aspect of the Mayan culture or other– instead it’s a general appreciation of its many facets.
In 2006, Giangualano took her paintings to the public and partook in many art presentations and fundraisers for community organizations and colleges aimed at raising awareness of the Mayan culture and helping to raise money for the advancement of education.
The Signal Hill resident of six years first presented her work at the city’s 2008 “Show and Sell” Art fair, and she is now making an effort to create community art presentations to raise money for educational and community programs.
“I think that, being a woman, when I see someone that needs help, especially on the education level, that’s where my intentions are when I do these presentations,” Giangualano said. “As a citizen of Signal Hill, I can see many areas that we can help. Money raised by the presentations would go toward extended day care and put where it’s needed.”
Exploring beyond the stories
Giangualano’s mother was never involved in her daughter’s life, so the only childhood she knew was spent in Mila’s care after the decision was made by the father to have her live with her grandmother. The young girl, of French and Mayan descent and the oldest of six brothers, stayed in the home state of Quintana Roo, Yucatan with her grandmother, who was also a healer and spiritual leader.
“Many people don’t understand the Mayan culture. The only thing they know is that the world will come to an end in 2012 [according to the Mayan calendar]. That’s it. That’s what they know,” said Giangualano. “My paintings tell stories delivered from the past Mayan events, briefly and personal experiences.”
Being raised without a formal education for the first 10 years did not hinder her dedication to acquiring a proper schooling. She began a nursing education in Juarez, Mexico at 22 years of age and was even accepted into a medical school in Mexico City. However, she gave up the chance to attend the school for a greater opportunity.
At around the same time, she decided to apply and was accepted to work for the US armed forces as a nurse in El Paso, Texas. She immigrated in 1962 and was later denied the position because of her struggle with speaking English.
“I had fights almost all the time with my English teacher because that was part of the curriculum in Mexico, and then she told me once, ‘Senorita, what about if one day you go to United States?’” said Giangualano. “And I said, ‘Me? Go to United States? You’re crazy!’ She wasn’t crazy– she was right.” She laughs.
At the age of 23, she received her registered nurse credentials from Los Angeles Community College, worked as a nurse in Culver City and, two years later, married and had to her first child. She has since remarried, raised six more children, all of whom are college graduates, and lives with her husband of 30 years, Italian-born Franco.
“I had seven, which was very brave. They told me that they’re cheaper by the dozen but they lied to me,” the 72-year-old retiree laughs.
At the age of 35, she began working as a food inspector for the health department– a job she fondly remembers as her favorite.
“I loved that job. It’s interesting how strong a person can be when your knowledge expands,” she said.
Paving a culture of knowledge
Hanging from Giangualano’s neck is a gold jaguar necklace. She says it’s always on her and represents the spirit of fire. The necklace easily serves as an extension of the burning passion she possesses for her Mayan heritage.
Her technique follows the art of her home country by using amate paper dyed with organic colors and painting with standard acrylic and organic paint. The strength of the canvas allows for the recording of long-term works and oftentimes served as an offering to burn in a fire ceremony.
Her art book, which is based on a book written about her relationship with her grandmother contains pictures drawn from the stories her grandmother would tell her. She is currently working on a Spanish edition of the art book.
Her desire to inspire others with her stories so they can continue their studies and educate themselves a little more is the reason she continues the art. “Now that my kids are gone and my husband is still working and I’m retired, I just have more time to dedicate to my work,” she said.
She and her husband alternate yearly trips to Italy, to visit his family, and to the Yucatan in August, for the Mayan New Year for a reunion with her family and friends. She also belongs to a cultural community that preserves the background to Mayan history.
For now, she will continue to climb the pyramid of knowledge for her Mila’s sake and in hopes of further sharing the artistic expression of Mayan art to the community.
“Knowledge is what we need to save ourselves and to help our whole world,” she says. “I want to deliver something to the community, not only for myself, but for other artists here.”