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In the Yucatan, the Maya Continue to Thrive

A success story on cultural assimilation.

The Maya didn't disappear, and time isn't about to collapse!

Aren't the Maya trendy now? All of that "end of the world" prediction of theirs has stirred up a frenzy and put them squarely in the headlines. They are in movies, from Mel Gibson's "Apocalipto" to John Cusack's "2012", and collections of ancient Mayan jade masks are being intermittently displayed in art galleries around the world. It would seem that the Maya have captured the attention of the world.

But the truth is that the Maya have been trendy since the early 1800's, when adventurers like Jean Frederick Waldeck and John Lloyd Stephens amazed the European scientific establishment with the art renditions and photographs of ancient cities that they found buried in the tropical forest of Central America and the Yucatan.

Since then, the ancient Maya have been the subject of extensive study. Universities and other formal institutions in Mexico and around the world, in conjunction with private enthusiasts, have helped tremendously to reconstruct the history of the fascinating late civilization.

Thanks to this intensive research, we now know a great deal of what the Mayans were all about. This knowledge is fascinating as we now know what truly amazing people they were.

Mayans used a collection of phonetic glyphs to record their history. This scripture code was recently broken by an eclectic group of scientists and adventurers that can now read exactly what the ancient Maya were etching in stone. They had a lot to say.

We now know that among other skills like art, architecture or botanic knowledge, they were also gifted astronomers, that could predict cosmic events such as eclipses, solstices and equinoxes. These understandings were relevant to their agricultural economy. It was this knowledge that brought them to design the famous calendar that has a lot of people on their toes today wondering if the world might end.

Like with any other thing that goes viral, there are a lot of misconceptions about the Maya and their calendar, predictions and whereabouts. Some of these misconceptions are really funny. For example, if you Google the images for Mayan Calendar, 80 % of your search results will display pictures of the Aztec calendar (the one with a face in the center). This mistake is consistently repeated throughout the Internet and even in some poorly produced Discovery Channel shows. The Maya and the Aztec were completely different people.

In Mexico, there are a lot of different ethnic groups. Besides the mainstream "mestizo" Mexican (mestizo means a mix of any of the tribes with Spanish blood, and that happens to be the majority of the population now), there are the Taraumara, the Raramuri and Seris in the north. In the west are the Huicholes. The Nahuas (or Aztec,) Mixtec and Zapotec populate the center of Mexico. The Purepecha reside in the southwest. And the Maya are in the south. There are many more ethnic groups in addition to these. In order to get a clue of the number of different tribes, consider that there are 364 different varieties of dialects, derived from 68 language groups out of 11 families of languages spoken in Mexico.

Mexico is the fourth most language diverse nation in the world. There are slightly more than 60 families of languages in the world. The southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca has more language diversity than the whole of Europe. We are now facing what experts call a linguistic extinction. Worldwide, a dialect disappears every 6 weeks.

When a dialect disappears, it does not necessarily mean that the tribe died off, but it's almost as bad: It means that the identity of the tribe or ethnic group associated with that language also disappears. And along with their identity, they disappear as a representative group, most of the times absorbed by a politically and economically stronger ethnic group. Through segregation and racism, they are pushed to speak the language of the dominating majority. In time, they forget their own.

Mexico's war of independence against Spain in 1810 didn't fulfill the promise of well-being to the indigenous people. While they were happy not being subjects of the Spanish crown anymore, their real social, political and economic situation remained mostly unchanged from the more than 300 years of Spanish colonization and abuse.

The indigenous people certainly didn't get their ancient land back, so they had to take land that no one was claiming. Obviously this was not the best land. And around 1855, they were once again stripped even of those lands.

At the time, the Catholic Church often sabotaged the progress of the post-war efforts by meddling in political affairs in an attempt to chain the country back to the times of the inquisition and monarchy. In order to end this problem, a constitutional re-write aimed at separating the church from the state, and seizing the church's real estate, was redacted in such a way that the law also contemplated the expropriation of land taken by indigenous people.

The indigenous people didn't have a real judicial legal ownership over these lands as a group because they were not recognized as a group anymore. Now they were recognized as just Mexicans, so if they wanted to own land, they would need to buy it like anybody else. If someone denounced land as being owned by the Church or a communal group, the land was put up for sale by the government at a relatively cheap price.

This motivated the rich elite to buy enormous amounts of land. This resulted in vast, single family owned gigantic estates known as "latifundios". This phenomenon provoked the social gap that triggered a revolution 55 years later. In the meantime, the indigenous population retreated to secluded areas difficult to access. They endured more hunger, hardships and segregation. The government called these places "regiones de refugio" or refuge regions.


"Tierra y libertad" was the slogan of the indigenous fighters of the revolution of 1910, it means "Land and freedom". After a million deaths, the revolution prevailed and an agrarian reform was drafted. The land was to be returned to their original owners, the indigenous people who actually labored on it. The large estates of the defeated rich elite were dismantled in order to be given back to the people in a new form of communal land: the "Ejido". But when the slicing of the cake took place, the indigenous people ended up once again with the worst part.

Not all the 1910 revolutionaries were indigenous. Many of them had already been absorbed into the mainstream mestizo society and culture. These people spoke only Spanish and did not recall or recognize that much of their indigenous heritage. They were normally a part of the higher ranks among the rebel armies. And so they got the cake's best slices, the best "Ejidos".

Back then, you would have better chances throughout your life if you didn't say or accept that you were indigenous. By not speaking your ethnic language and saying you were Mexican, not Indian, a life of less hardship was possible. There has always been pressure on the indigenous people to integrate. Today, for example, the number of Huicholes in the western estates of Jalisco and Nayarit has decreased to less than 20,000 and continues to decline.

The indigenous youth don't want to dress in ridiculous dresses and speak with funny sounds like their parents. They want to wear jeans and sneakers. They can't find a middle ground between integrating into society and preserving their pride and their indigenous heritage. If this middle ground does exist, the Maya may have found it.

Not all the "Ejido" stories are sad. There are nice and refreshing stories of successful indigenous "Ejidos". One such story is that of the Maya of Quintana Roo, the state where Cancun and Playa del Carmen are located.

The revolutionary generals turned politicians that were in charge of the agrarian reform thought of these lands as the bush. What is now a tropical vacationing paradise was once considered a useless and dangerous territory with rebellious Maya Indians. They didn't mind giving the land back to them.

So the indigenous Maya of Quintana Roo did get good "Ejidos": tropical land with fresh underground water. Eventually, and because of tourism, the land turned out to be prime real estate.

Since 1994, the Maya are allowed to sell their "Ejidos". Many of them have and for very good money. The land is theirs to do whatever they want with it. The Maya from Chiapas were not as lucky with their "Ejidos" which led to the "Zapatista" rebellion in 1994. Thanks to this successful rebellion, Maya from Chiapas can now get legal proceedings in their own language, among other gains.

The Maya language continues to thrive to this day while languages of other ethnics groups that are disappearing. The Maya are very, very proud of their heritage. Perhaps this is because of the attention they have received from the world since the 1800's, or the majestic pyramids that still stand announcing their glorious past. Or maybe it's a deeper understanding that they are no less than any other. Whatever it is, it has worked. The Maya have managed to integrate without losing their language or heritage.

The Mayan language is not disappearing, it is actually growing. It is taught at some schools and community centers within the peninsula of Yucatan and in other Mayan countries. People who speak Mayan are proud to say so. There are radio stations that broadcast in Maya. When hurricane alerts are given on the radio they are in Spanish, English and Maya. They participate in the politics (the former and the current mayor of Playa del Carmen are both Maya), they participate in business (some of the wealthiest people in Quintana Roo are actually Maya).

Today there exists a population of around 6 million Maya. Only 3 million of them live in Mexico, mainly in the states of Yucatan Quintana Roo, Campeche and Chiapas. The rest live scattered in the countries of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. They organize huge Maya yearly conventions, each country taking turns to host them. In these celebrations, they share cultural activities such as gastronomic tastings, folkloric dance presentations, Maya poetry reading, theater, etc. Out of the 3 million Mexican Maya, about 800,000 speak the Mayan tongue, but many more are learning it.

They are so proud of the heritage that they actually tried to become independent from Mexico, and at some point they achieved it for a while. The infamous "Caste War" (1847-1901) started with the rebellion of Maya of the southeast of the Yucatan peninsula, against the people of European descent, or "Yucatecos," who held control of the region.

It was a long war between the Yucatecan forces in the northwest of the Yucatán (supported by the federal government of Mexico) against the independent Maya in the southeast (supported by Maya from Belize).

The war finally ended with the bloody occupation of the independent Maya capital of Chan Santa Cruz (what is now Felipe Carrillo Puerto) by the Mexican army in 1901.

A total of a million Maya died in the hands of the army. Since it was not that long ago, harsh sentiments remain (similar to the USA and the Civil War). The revolution began nine years following the war. Today, the agrarian reform ministry keeps giving land back to the Maya, creating new "Ejidos". But a lot of Maya are still exploited today by the tourism industry that is in the hands of large foreign corporations, many of them Spanish (ironic?).

There are two Mayan calendars, the short count (Tzol'kin) and the long count (B'ak'tun). The count of the B'ak'tun is what will end in 2012. But that only means that one needs to start reading the calendar again from the beginning, just like we do when we change to a new calendar every new year. Sadly for those expecting some excitement in 2012, the recycling of the B'ak'tun does not signify the end of the world.

Population of Mexico's Indigenous People Through Historical Events
1810, Independence from Spain war.Indigenous: 3,500,000
Creole (Spanish born in Mexico, of Spanish parents): 1,000,000
Spanish: 70,000
Casts (mixed blood, like Mestizos and many others): 1,930,000.
1910, Revolutionary war (100 years later).Europeans: 2,500,000
Mestizos: 8,000,000
Indigenous: 6,000,000
Today (2010 census)Indigenous: 13,000,000 (10.5 % of the population)