Maya 2012: Mexico
There is an art to sleeping in a hammock. I learned this after a week of research in the Yucatán Maya village of Muchucuxcah. I’m talking about how to get a healthy night’s sleep while strung between two poles in a thatch-roof palapa, the way the Maya have been sleeping in their homes for thousands of years.
Our homemade hammocks, made right in the village, were comfortable, but it was tricky to get situated. I had to lie diagonally, across the axis where it hangs, in order to straighten out enough to rest. And I still woke often to the geckos chirping or for a night hike to the latrine.
But each night got a little easier, and every morning for a week our “solidarity tourism” group would rise and emerge from our huts, achy-backed and sleep-crusted. The huts were positioned in a loose circle around a water tower and a shared bathroom. They were constructed with the help of visiting groups, like ours, who wanted to volunteer in a Maya village while at the same time meeting community members and learning something about their lives.
I was guiding a multigenerational Seattle delegation of American Jewish World Service volunteers, and we helped build the last few structures. It was fascinating work; we prepared and assembled the materials using traditional Maya methods and tools.
In the morning, we splashed water on our faces at the central pila then soaked in the birdsong as we joined our assigned families for breakfast. There, in homes with carefully swept dirt floors and traditional kitchen hearths, excited children and animals greeted us as we sat down to a table full of eggs, beans, country cheese, and comal-toasted tortillas. Our days were full of sweat and dirt, meetings and talks, activities and interactions—both in Muchucuxcah and on day trips to Chichén Itzá and nearby towns.
This was my introduction to Mexico’s Mundo Maya, and I still have much to explore.
The Yucatán peninsula was settled primarily according to the location of fresh water sources, since it is mostly flat, low, and without rivers. That’s why so many Maya archaeological sites and modern communities are built near swamps and cenotes. By about 1000 B.C., farming villages in what is now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco had begun developing the Olmec culture. They created a Long Count calendar and hieroglyphic writing system, which were crucial contributions to the Maya society.
The Olmec extended their influence south, into the Preclassic Maya empire of Izapa. The Izapans made important advances in the use of various calendar systems, including the Long Count. Other strong Preclassic city-states like Tikal and El Mirador pushed north from Guatemala’s Petén into the Yucatán, whose ascending cities had received the Long Count by the end of the third century A.D.
Thus began more than a millennium of shifting power and alliances throughout the Mexican Mundo Maya, ending in its near total collapse in A.D. 900.
Of the surviving Mexican Maya, their knowledge of ancient systems, including the Long Count, migrated south or disappeared (until Western explorers dug them up centuries later). After the cities were abandoned, illiterate, warring cultures—including Toltecs from the north and Itzá from the west—stepped in. The Itzá established short-lived dynasties across Mexico’s Mundo Maya, with Chichén Itzá ruling all.
Chichén finally fell in A.D. 1224, and the scattered indigenous peoples of the Yucatán repeated the cycles of war, peace, and migration, all the way up to and through the Spanish conquest in the 1500s.
Ever since the first garrison Cortés sent up the Grijalva River in Chiapas was beaten back by fierce Maya, the people of this area have had a reputation for resistance. It took many years and several Maya uprisings before the colonizers finally gained control over Chiapas and set it up to produce cash crops for export (sugar, cattle, coffee, timber), which meant forcing rural Maya to gather in villages and converting them to Christianity.
Tension between indigenous, Spanish, and Ladino erupted in the Caste Wars, a period of hundreds of years of violence throughout the Yucatán marked by violent revenge cycles between the different races and classes. Quintana Roo, adjacent to Belize along the Caribbean Coast, was a no-man’s-land for more than a hundred years.
The 20th century saw the Mexican revolution and significant land distribution and subsidies for indigenous farmers, but in the 1990s, all of that was undone when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari removed the constitutional provision guaranteeing land for all farmers; he also privatized the collective peasant organizations that had existed for most of the century.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was passed around this time, further disempowering Mexico’s small-scale Maya farmers and acting as catalyst for the rise of the Zapatista revolutionary movement, a leftist organization based in Chiapas, where about one third of the population is Maya. One of the Zapatistas’ main demands is increased power, land, and respect for the indigenous people of Mexico and the world.
Today, you’ll find Yucatec Maya culture and language dominant throughout the Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and into Belize, while the Chiapas highlands are occupied by Tzeltal- and Tzotzil-speaking Maya, with pockets of Lakandon, Tojolabal, Chol, and Chontal.
The Yucatán peninsula is a 70,000-square-mile flat shelf of limestone surrounded on three sides by the Caribbean Sea, comprising the large Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. The Maya area here continues south and southwest, along the border with Guatemala’s vast Petén wilderness and into the Chiapas highlands.
© Josh Berman from Moon Maya 2012