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Transplanted from capital, Viña takes root in Sololá

     Tapping into the true vine, Viña Association is a technological resource to Guatemala’s Christian community. Since 1992, Viña has offered audio-video expertise to Guatemala’s diverse linguistic milieu, descendents of the ancient Maya.

     "I see Viña doing audio-video stuff, and I say that is exactly right," said Ed Beach, a linguist and Bible translator with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) in Guatemala’s highlands. "That is exactly where Mayan people are at."

     Viña’s story really begins in the mid-1980s, where its predecessor was a simple recording studio in Guatemala City. SIL sponsored and housed the original studio at its Central America Branch office. As the academic arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIL has done indigenous language promotion and Scripture translation in all of Guatemala’s Mayan languages, plus several dialects.

     In the capital, SIL sponsored sound recordings of translated Bible portions and stories under the tutelage of Jerry Douglas of Bible Translations on Tape. At that time, SIL had lots of material to record, the fruit of many years of work. The organization and its work in Guatemala dates back to 1931 when Wycliffe founder Cameron Townsend’s translation of the New Testament was published in the Mayan Kaqchikel language.

     The SIL recording studio expanded to include video services when Paul and Cheryl Bendele arrived in 1985. Bendele received linguistic training at SIL’s Dallas, Texas center. He hoped to promote Scripture translations by offering them on film. The response to printed Scriptures had been less than anticipated. "They told us, ‘The reason we want you to go down there is because we’ve got a lot of Bibles and a lot of books in storage,’ " said Paul Bendele.

     Bendele, an expert in theater, began dubbing films into Guatemala’s indigenous languages. One of the most successful dubbed films was the Life of Christ, according to Luke’s Gospel. Bendele dubbed this film many times, helped by a Mayan Awakateco man, Manuel Chavez.

     In the early 1990s, after decades of work, SIL began to finish its translation work in Guatemala. As its attention turned elsewhere around the globe, SIL began the process of closing its Central America Branch, as well as its recording studios.

     But by then, Mayan Christians had come to recognize the value of having recorded Scriptures and videos in their own languages.

     One of the earliest successes occurred in the picturesque lakeside town of San Pedro La Laguna, where SIL linguists Jim and Judy Butler worked among the Mayan Tzutujil people. After seven years of work, they found Tzutujil people had little interest in reading the Scriptures in their own language. But everything changed in 1971 when the townspeople heard Scripture recordings in their mother tongue.

     Soon, Bible Translations on Tape provided 25 cassette players and several hundred cassettes, jump-starting a project much bigger than the Butlers ever envisioned.

     "There was one man who had an alcohol problem who just by taking a Scripture tape for two or three weeks into his home got off the alcohol problem," Jim said. "This was repeated in other cases. We had young wives coming to our gate saying, ‘I want to borrow one of those tapes — my husband drinks!’ "

     "We found that the people had the capacity to understand a great deal just from the translation, without any explanation," Judy said.

     Meanwhile, Bendele and Chavez and others were busy producing and dubbing close to 70 videos in 18 languages including dramatized videos on the "Prodigal Son," "Lazarus" and "The 10 Virgins."

     In the early years, Chavez, Bendele and others traveled around the country to present the films. For a screen, they often hung a sheet from a tree, directing the projector at it. This way, people could sit on both sides of the impromptu screen, doubling the audience.

     "It was a tool that created a revolution in the indigenous areas," Chavez said of the Gospel films. "I always saw the people leaving in tears."

     One day, as Chavez and translator Rodrigo Barrera packed projection equipment up a hill they were met by a band of thieves. The thieves planned to steal the expensive equipment. More men waited behind them. But Manuel and Rodrigo stood their ground.

     "We’ve got films in your language," Rodrigo told the would-be thieves. "That’s impossible," the thieves answered. "There aren’t any films in our language." But Rodrigo told them to come watch the films and see for themselves; later, he said, they could steal the equipment if they still wanted to. The would-be thieves let the two pass. Later that night, they came to watch the film on the Gospel according to Luke. Afterward, they said they would act as guards to protect the equipment from thieves.

     Once in San Luis Jilotepeque, Bendele arrived to show a Gospel film in the Poqomam Mayan language, where Rick and Carol McArthur were working at the time. They hung the sheet up in a tree, but people were slow to arrive. Bendele wondered if it would be worth the trouble. He recalled McArthur saying, "Paul, you gotta have faith, man!" Soon, little lights began to stream toward the tree. More than 500 saw the film that night.

     But in the early 1990s, the studio’s supporters faced an uncertain future. As SIL began to close its Guatemalan branch, it considered selling the studio equipment.

     Douglas suggested moving to Sololá, and he helped raise $1,200 to buy land for the offices. "Jerry had incredible vision and faith," Bendele said.

     After much prayer and consideration, SIL’s administration agreed to donate the equipment to a new independent studio in Sololá.

     As part of the move, the new studio needed its own name. The founders agreed upon, "Viña," from Jesus’ illustration in the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel. "I am the vine, you are the branches," Jesus told his disciples. "He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing."

     Viña does not pretend to be the vine, but its Scripture-based materials and services help Guatemalans abide in the true vine, which is Jesus Christ.

     Choosing to build in Sololá was no accident. Although remote from the capital — two to three hours by bus — it sits at the juncture of three of Guatemala’s Mayan language families: Tzutujil, Kaqchikel and K’iché. Moreover, Sololá sits much closer to the majority of Guatemala’s indigenous population, reducing travel for those who come to its studio to record.

     The Bendeles and Douglases helped guide Viña through its transition stage to Sololá, staying on several years. Their supporting churches in the United States sent construction teams to help with the work. When these families left, Rick McArthur took over leadership. Viña’s studio had been temporarily housed in a back room of the McArthur’s home for about a year before the new offices were built.

     In the decade after the move, Viña’s technical capabilities grew exponentially. Originally recording on two-channel reel-to-reel tapes, Viña now uses a 24-channel digital recording mixer for its music recordings. This has greatly enhanced its abilities to record high-quality indigenous music. High-speed laptop computers now provide the horsepower for its dramatized readings of Scripture, a specialty at Viña since 1994.

     Audio technician Miguel Angel Rocché, a Tzutujil speaker, recalled the challenges of the older technology. Once, when he realized two Scripture verses were missing from a recording, he fished through a trash bin of discarded tape to find the lost verses and spliced them into the recording. "The quality has really improved," Rocché said.

     Viña’s relationship with Hosanna, an Alberquerque, New Mexico tape recording ministry, took the project to another level. Beginning in the early 1990s, Hosanna’s founders got a vision to take audio Scripture recordings to every language in the world. One of Hosanna’s first forays outside North America brought it to Guatemala and to Sololá. Hosanna contracted with Viña to record translations, providing the training and production equipment.

     Viña’s partnership with Hosanna allows it to reproduce its dramatized recordings quickly and economically. In 1998, Hosanna turned over distribution of Viña’s recordings to the Guatemalan Bible Society in Guatemala City. This allows Viña employees to focus on what they do best: record, edit and produce top-quality audio and video products.

     Today, Viña technicians record audio dramatized New Testament translations, often requiring 25 or more native speakers for all the different voices. Several Viña employees have received training at Hosanna’s Albuquerque headquarters. Viña’s first dramatized recording project took a crew to Costa Rica’s remote jungles to record in the Cabecar language. Since then, the work has multiplied. Viña has recorded more than 20 dramatized readings of the New Testament in Mayan languages.

     Despite some logistical headaches for the staff, Viña often sends its recording technicians and equipment to villages in the language area. This eases the logistics for the native speakers.

     In 2002, Viña became an independent Guatemalan organization, legally separate from the Summer Institute of Linguistics. José Abel de la Cruz, a Sololá native, serves as its executive director, overseeing 11 employees. Viña has a five-member board of directors.

     By doubling its office space, a project that began in 2002 and was completed in 2004, Viña has four video editing suites, two audio studios and a filming room, giving it greater capacity than ever before to serve the Guatemalan Christian community.

     Viña’s board of directors has been seeing the need to move beyond an almost exclusive focus on production. The need for Viña to be involved in promotion and distribution of the materials it produces is recognized as a matter of importance. Plans are underway to begin a major push in this area beginning in 2008. Research is being carried out that will result in new partnerships, more personnel and an ever-increasing role in the promotion, distribution and training in the use of Scripture impact materials.


      Article writen by John Henderer