A pair of chicken feet, fingers weaving wool, a spindle lying in the dirt, a handful of tortillas cooking on a comal.

For photographer Maruch Santíz Gómez, each of these day-to-day items represents a thread that, together, weave a uniquely intimate portrait of the lives, culture and traditions of her people, the Tzotzil Maya.

"It's very similar to the process of weaving textiles. Textiles are complex; photography is complex, even more so when the digital age started," Santíz, who is also a weaver and textile designer, said in Spanish. "The process of weaving has been forgotten. Only a few women still practice the natural process. ... My interest is to recover ancient knowledge that is lost and forgotten."

Santíz has dedicated her life to preserving the wisdom, symbology, language and weaving of the Tzotzil Mayan. The ethnic group is indigenous to the central highlands of Chiapas, Mexico — a place covered by forests and blanketed with humidity. Archeological sites dot the area, pointing to its deep and rich Mayan ties that are still alive through the state's Indigenous communities.

Santíz's photo and textile exhibit, "Beliefs of our Forebears," explores Tzotzil beliefs and myths. Each photo is paired with a traditional Tzotzil saying that is also translated into Spanish and English, such as, "If you eat the first tortilla that comes off the griddle, it is said you will become very talkative, almost a nitpicker."

"These images can transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, serving as a universal language that allows us to share our roots, traditions and perspectives," Santíz said during an artist lecture at the Utah Valley University Museum of Art.

Her exhibit is part of the museum's inaugural collection, "The Art of Belonging," which features dozens of artists whose work explores themes of belonging, community and culture. The museum is free and open to the public, and the collection is open through Sept. 16. Santíz's visit to Utah and her exhibit was made possible through a collaboration with the Mexican Cultural Arts Alliance, the National Museum of Mexican Art and Artes de Mexico en Utah.

Photographer Maruch Santíz Gómez holds a weaving workshop during a visit to Utah in August.
Photographer Maruch Santíz Gómez holds a weaving workshop during a visit to Utah in August. | Artes de Mexico en Utah

Fanny Guadalupe Blauer, Artes de México executive director, said "The Art of Belonging" collection aims to break the narrative that museums are gatekeepers of stolen or taken objects and memories.

"We want to break that with allowing the community to build the exhibit," she said. "This is an exhibit for all, by all."

Santíz's work has graced audiences from Spain to South Africa and now Utah. Her book, "Creencias de Nuestros Antepasados," was published with limited copies that now go for $150 on Ebay. A copy is housed within the Smithsonian Library.

Humble to her core, Santíz still doesn't see herself as an artist despite her many accolades. She was introduced to photography in her late teens after first learning to write the Tzotzil Mayan language and then to speak Spanish through a workshop. Initially she was afraid of the second-hand camera she was lent from volunteers. Electronic devices like a camera or TV weren't something she had seen growing up in a small village in San Juan Chamula.

"You have 18 shots. If one comes out good, you stay in the program,'" she remembers a volunteer telling her in 1993 before sending her to the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas with a camera. "And when they developed the film roll, there was one image that came out that the volunteers told me, 'Yes, we can tell taking photos is something you want to do.'"

"I really wanted to get more inspired, but because I didn't a basic education, I thought, 'What am I going to take photos of?' she said.

She kept practicing, not knowing whether she was even focusing the camera. It wasn't until she took the camera to her community, outside the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, that she truly felt the power her photography could have.

"I think this work and the reach it's had has served to show young people that we value our culture, our way of speaking, our way of dressing and our communication — which is not something that we saw before," she said. "They call us natives or Indigenous people and sometimes that comes with discrimination. But no, a lot of us have fought and been an example so that new generations learn."

Santíz has taught children across the region, including two of her own, to ensure that the Tzotzil language and wisdom is passed onto younger generations. Her son, Juan Leonardo Jímenez Santíz, a 26-year-old language teacher, said he's grateful his mother only spoke Tzotzil at home.

"It's given me a greater sense of where I come from and a greater appreciation for different cultures," he said. "The Tzotzil language is being lost in a way as it's being mixed with Spanish. A lot of people now prefer to speak Spanish to feel superior to those that speak Tzotzil. It's something that you look at and think, 'This doesn't make sense,' but that's how things are nowadays."

Santíz has used her resourcefulness and passion to continue her art. As a teen, she bartered with volunteers to trade a handmade, embroidered wool jacket she had made for her first camera. She later scrimped and saved to buy a digital camera. She has also been denied the copyright to her book. That injustice meant Santíz has not received a penny for the photos that have made her famous across the world. Despite these difficulties, she hopes to repair her current camera and eventually publish a new book.

"More than just respecting the culture, we need to keep it going and make sure the younger generations aren't ashamed of our culture and expressing it or dressing in traditional clothing," she said. "It's happened to me, many people have thought, 'Poor Indians. They don't know anything, they don't learn.' Of course, they're academics and that's how they've learned. But we learn from a very young age how to make wool, to speak to nourish and sow the earth. That we do know."