This article is from the May 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Maya People : Famous or Invisible

by Juan R. Sosa. Ph.D.

Dr. Juan R. Sosa is of Maya descent, and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the StateUniversity of New York at Cortland. He has done fieldwork in the Yucatán peninsula during the last twenty years and has dedicated his life to using his academic position to defend and promote the culture of his people.

Upon hearing the name Maya all kinds of images can come to mind. Based on what is commonly presented, we can feel sure that pyramids, hieroglyphs and multi-colored embroidery most closely represent the Maya people and their culture. Indeed, the Maya may be the most studied and famous culture in the world, and certainly their name conjures up colorful and majestic images. However, the Maya themselves have had very little to do with promoting this imagery, or profiting or benefiting from it in any way. And many in the general public simply do not seem to know that what has been promoted as "Maya" by many academics, agents of tourism and government officials, has nothing to do with the reality of Maya life today or the Maya people themselves. So are the Maya famous, or is it just someone else’s image of them that is so well known, and why is this manipulation seen as acceptable by so many? What results is a massive disappearing act which is aided by all kinds of recognized "experts" who speak for and represent the Maya according to their own criteria. These are usually archaeologists and art historians who seemingly can’t resist the temptation to enrich themselves by giving private tours of the ruins, being consultants on sensationalized television shows, or organizing cruise ship seminars. In fact, one could say that while much of the research on the ancient Maya has resulted in some insights, it also provides the basis for a tourist and media circus, for the benefit of anyone except the Maya. And all this occurs while there is an indigenous uprising in Chiapas, genocide in Guatemala, and increasing poverty and exploitation of the Maya people. I know. I am an anthropologist who is also of Maya ancestry. Based on what I have learned from Maya elders in the Maya language, let me offer the following attempt to more accurately portray our people as we are.

The Teachings of the Elders

The Maya people have lived in the Yucatán peninsula of what is now called México for at least 11,000 years, developing cities, a hieroglyphic writing system and calendar, centuries before the European Dark Ages. Today, a full one million Mayas presently live in the 53,000 square mile peninsula, and six million others who speak 27 different Maya languages live in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and southern Mexico. Far from "dying out," we are one of the most numerous indigenous or original peoples in the world. Unfortunately, however, we have been reduced to third-class citizens in our own ancestral homelands, behind foreign tourists and dominant Spanish-speakers. The daily disrespect that Mayas feel is one of the true burdens that we bear, with our continuing spirituality guiding us as we carry even this with dignity.

Our elders still teach that our path is filled with thorns, and as we walk we get cut around our ankles and bleed. To be afraid to go forward is to be afraid to bleed, and when the road becomes particularly overgrown we must take out our machetes and hol ch’ak, open a new hole to continue going forward. We are taught that our burden is heavy because it is important, and we only exist today because our ancestors accepted theirs with a long-range perspective focused on us. This inheritance of an imposed burden and how we carry that burden is truly one of the hallmarks of today’s Mayas.

As is commonly the case with indigenous people, our elders also teach that we were created together with our land and that we are a part of it. Our ancestors therefore named us and the land, Mayab, the same as our language, and for us the speaking of it is what makes us Maya. Despite the concern of many that Maya language and culture are being "lost," both still dominate most of the peninsula, with many communities forbidding the use of Spanish in public. Even in the larger cities such as Mérida, Valladolid or Chetumal, one can usually still give taxi drivers directions and do other business purely in Maya, and the tourist magnet of Cancún was built by and largely exists because of Maya cheap wage labor. Of course many who vacation in Cancun never even know about the countless Maya construction workers who died in the erection of their five-star hotel, nor does it seem to be considered that the whole place couldn’t function if not for Maya maids, waiters and janitors, who are always subjected to belittlement, wage discrimination, and threats of sexual abuse.

The Price of Someone Else’s Progress

Many of us would rather be able to make a living as our ancestors did, as corn farmers. They gave corn to the world, but increasing price discrimination in the marketplace makes it more and more difficult to be able to live this way. Therefore, many kòolnàalo’ob, many corn farmers, lose their dignity and look for work in Cancun, since our traditional agriculture is becoming less and less cost-effective. One reason for this is that the Maya kòolnàalo’ob are typically paid below market value for a 200 pound sack of corn that they carry on their backs with a tumpline across their foreheads, because the same thieves that have robbed us all this time know we will not lug it back home. Then if we must buy corn at some point, we are charged above market value for the same product. This is only one of the many ways we continue to be ripped-off, which of course makes us poorer and poorer. Many seem to blame our poverty on us, but few seem equally interested in doing something about our access to fair markets.

The poverty imposed on us for so long also has negative consequences for our health, and we have an unacceptably high rate of infant mortality, and a general scarcity of quality health care. The traditional hmèen shaman curers still exist, but there are not nearly enough of them and they often are not able to pass on their knowledge to youngsters, something which we must remedy, or the accumulated wisdom of uncounted generations will be lost. Despite all of these difficulties, it is precisely these types of counselors who tell us that in our own way we have still beaten the odds and at least in terms of that which is most important, our language, culture, ceremonial commitment, community solidarity, and the value we place on respect, we thrive and are confident the traditions will continue. But we do all this in private, in our thousands of communities in the jungle, because amongst Mayas, to be too visible is to be vulnerable, and 500 years of experience with colonialism, disempowerment and violence has taught that lesson well.

Who Gets To Define the Mayas?

Unfortunately, however, many people seem to believe that the Maya are all dead now, or that they are just the degenerate leftovers of a more glorious past. This seems to be a direct result of all the emphasis placed on this past by the development of archeological sites as tourist centers, as well as the scholarly scramble to explain the so-called Maya "collapse" of about 800 A.D. This fascination with "the disappearance of the mysterious Maya" has resulted in some truly ridiculous theories, all of which do a great disservice since we as a present-day people have been rendered virtually invisible, as have the devastating, continuing effects of the holocaust we have suffered since the arrival of Columbus.

So they keep coming to Yucatán to try to solve "the mystery," relying on Maya hospitality for water, food, supplies, housing, information and physical labor. In short, the "experts" could not do their work if not for the Maya. And according to Maya culture, this generosity should not be taken for granted, since it allows these outsiders to make their careers, but should be reciprocated. I’m sure that most Mayas would be satisfied if all of these "experts," most of whom can’t even speak Maya, would at least see fit to portray us as human beings who have survived enslavement, with our language, culture and value system intact, for that is indeed who we are.

And yet we continue to be viewed as somehow inferior to our ancestors, perhaps because we can no longer read the hieroglyphs. But what many in "Maya studies" fail to realize is that it is precisely the brutality of inquisition-type torture and forced cultural change by Spanish friars and mercenaries, designed to remake us according to some European image, that is responsible for a disconnectedness between past and present Mayas. That many of us are not sure what the cities of our ancestors have to do with us is testament to the fact that our focus has had to be on survival, and besides, foreign tourists presently have more access to these places than we do.

If we do not acknowledge the roles that centuries of torture, rape, enslavement and forced change have played in a people losing touch with elements of their past, then we both trivialize their suffering and run the risk of blaming the victim. What more do we have to do to demonstrate that we have human worth and that we have not "collapsed" or "lost our civilization"? How can it be common knowledge that Mayas built the pyramids, and in the same breath it is often said that "the Maya" have passed from the scene? If we are still here, how is this possible, and according to whose definition of civilization? Is civilization only measured by monumental architecture, or is it also an unbroken occupation of a particular area? We are still the caretakers of Mayab. It is a sacred responsibility that we continue to accept regardless of how outsiders characterize us and our ancestors.

Survival Leads to Rebirth

Our ancestors called their enslavement Pàalitzin, "being made a child of," by being forced to work for someone else. This began in about 1545, and eventually we were forced to harvest henequén fibers from cactus, used for making rope, as well as being forced to feed the dzúul, the Spanish-speaking outsider. Our elders still remind us of how the greatest threat to our families was the chronic rape of our mothers and the abductions of our daughters, soon followed by a lifetime of prostitution. One such famous case sparked the so-called "Caste War" of 1847-1910, which was one of the most successful resistance movements to colonialism in the Americas.

Known to many Mayas as the War of God, it is believed that Hahal Dios, the "True God," directed Maya leaders to throw off enslavement through a sacred armed uprising. Rarely is our enslavement taken into account by the "experts," and only through the courage of the ancestors was a measure of Maya autonomy and freedom won during this conflict. The defenders of our grandmothers are embodied in the legitimate Maya leaders of today, who still maintain community traditions and combined political/religious responsibilities that pre-date the arrival of Europeans. They still have titles which translate as "they who bear the burden of the community," or, "they who embrace and are embraced by the community," and they continue to function as sacred guardians of Maya places of worship.

The record of Maya resistance to being controlled is therefore one of our most significant characteristics, and yet it has not come without a price. As for most ethnic people dominated by another group or culture, the Maya are often divided, between those who dedicate themselves to the continuation of our culture, and those who give in to the system of rewards established during colonialism, believing that they can simply leave their "Maya-ness" behind in the pursuit of economic advancement. This divides whole communities and even families, with the choices made by individuals on both sides having real and lasting consequences.

I myself have made these kinds of choices in my own way. Although born in the U.S., my decision to become an anthropologist was fueled by my own Maya ancestry and my need to return to my homeland and my people. Having had the good fortune to be able to do this, I now have my own responsibilities, including that of accurately representing Maya life. I have been able to learn that to understand that which is really Maya, one must speak Maya, as I do. One must also live among Mayas, which I also do, to really understand some of the essence of the culture, which still lives today as it did 1,000 years ago. To be Maya is to be more dedicated to one’s family, community, earth, and Creator than anything else. Maya means patience, not giving the impression that anything is more important than a given person, and respecting one’s elders. Doing ceremonies with one’s family, speaking the language well, and always striving to make the funniest joke even funnier is also what it means to be Maya.

Something as simple as cherishing the coolness of lying in a hammock in our thatched roofed houses, or smelling our tortillas cooking, or reveling in hearing the melodious laughter of our family and friends can all be considered basic to Maya culture — especially the laughter. In all honesty, Mayas tend to have such developed laughs, because we do it so often, that laughing hard is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of my people. The fullness of this lifestyle is what we share with each other with open hearts, as we still live throughout the Yucatán peninsula, practicing our resilient culture on a daily basis. There is all this ability to have survived the darkest centuries of our history, plus our ancestors having fought the war 150 years ago to end 300 years of enslavement, and yet academics who mostly focus on our ancestor’s documents presume to speak for us and characterize those same grandfathers and grandmothers according to their own Eurocentric criteria, even sometimes giving them English "nicknames." Who gave them the right and what real damage does this do?

Does Everyone Allow Tourists in Their Homes?

The damage can be seen in the way these academics contribute to the Ruta Maya, or the "Maya Route," named by outsiders to attract tourism, but all it will do is turn Yucatán into a living Maya zoo, promising a bowl of beans for tourists’ lunches in Maya homes. This is also called the Mundo Maya, or the "Maya World," which will link five countries with highways large enough to handle uncountable busloads of outsiders. I’ve even heard that there are plans to erect a monorail along a stretch of this "route" so that the curious can look down into villages and "see how the natives live." The emphasis on the burial places of our ancestors will further enable anyone to violate their sanctity. Where else in the world are graveyards and sacred places considered the same as amusement parks? Isn’t it obvious that we have had nothing to do with any of this?

There is also so-called ecotourism, which sounds good and maybe sometimes is considerate, but many of our elders, the legitimate representatives of our communities, forbid any tourists in their communities so that the ancient sacredness of these places can be maintained. Of course, this is completely overlooked by many outsiders and the elders are neither consulted in any planning nor even respected for having an opinion. And yet all of this "development" is supposed to be good for us, but who decides this? The system wants to re-enslave us to tourism. Pàalitzin continues, in hidden forms, in new disguises.

The purpose of this article is to make it clear that the Maya are now at a point where we are going to be insisting on having our own voice. The growing worldwide indigenous movement is all about using the internet, international conferences, and even a newsletter like this to get the word out. We are not disappearing. We are adhering to our traditions so that the next generation will have access to them. And even though some of us have become intoxicated with outside ways, some of which are useful, many of us have remained true to our ancient wisdom and are guided by our elders as to how to use these ways.

The Maya are not spacemen or mystics. We are a people with a spiritual attachment to our land, our Creator, our living relatives, our deceased ancestors and our unborn descendants. We value the equal contributions of men’s and women’s work, good humor, generosity and reciprocity. Many seek to take advantage of us because they see these traits as weaknesses. And many become wealthy from our not having an international voice. We need to find people who want to work with us, who value our right to determine our own future, and who have no hidden agendas.

An Invitation to Help

We need to publish our own books, describe our own version of history and tell our own story. We also need to develop projects to strengthen our communities against many negative effects which come from outside, increase agricultural production, as well as address health and other problems related to our poverty. If you are interested in working with the Maya on these issues, or even in adding your voice to ours in defending our right to at least limit the invasion of tourism, then we want to know of you. We only want to know gente de confianza, trustworthy, sincere people, who respect us as equals and are willing to share some of their resources with us. If you feel you might be able to help, it would be the first time the Maya have gotten anything of value from the outside world. I am not just saying this. This is what our elders say. If you can help, please contact the publisher of The Mexico File, Robert Simmonds, Ph.D., to begin a process of dialogue to put you in touch with the right people. Bob tells us the readers of this newsletter are sophisticated travelers who respect the lands and peoples of México. This is why we are placing the article in this newsletter and are entrusting him with managing the first contacts. It is time for Mayas to be perceived as real people instead of just colorful images. It is not worth being famous if we must remain invisible.

Hach ya’ab a yum bo’otike’esh. May the Creator pay you for your kindness. Thank you, in the Maya way.

The Mexico File feels privileged to print this article by Dr. Sosa, an articulate and sincere spokesperson for the Maya. The information contained in this article is seldom, or perhaps never, seen in print, but this is certainly an appropriate forum, a newsletter for travelers who respect and appreciate the ancient and current cultures of Mexico. The need of the Maya to achieve recognized dignity as a people is great, and this is a timely matter. If you are in a position to contribute financially or in any other way to the Maya in a manner which respects their deep traditions as described in this article, please contact Robert Simmonds, Ph.D., the publisher of The Mexico File,by calling him at 619-483-6070, e-mailing him at, or writing to him at P.O. Box 9814, San Diego, CA 92169-0814.