This is the first part of what will become a seven part series about the modern day Maya peoples in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. Since the arrival of Spanish conquistadors to their lands from the 16th century onward, they have had to struggle against ethnic cleansing, cultural extermination, alienation, slavery, rape and oppression on an unspeakable scale. Yet, they have endured, partly because their lands are agriculturally unproductive for large scale farming. European migration to their lands was mostly to urban areas and those few areas where good productive land was available. The Mayas peoples struggle for liberty and justice is a tragic and bloody story of resilience and survival against cruelty and greed. Their weapons have been weak but sometimes desperate people have no choice. They either do or die. And in their case, mostly die. That’s the tragic part of this story. But, as we approach their struggle in modern times, we learn of how peaceful means have benefited them politically and culturally. Social media, radio and sometimes TV outlets along with increased participation in the political life of the states they find themselves living in, has increased their visibility and power to get their voices heard, and even to revive once banned and despised cultural traditions and ethnic identity.
Modern day Maya people’s homelands is divided between Mexico (Yucatán Peninsula, Chiapas), Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. In 2012 it is estimated that more than 7,000,000 people belong to the Mayan ethnicity. That excludes mixed blood mestizos of mixed Mayan-Spanish descent which would considerably inflate the total number of Mayan peoples. The Mayan diaspora has primarily directed them to the United States were hundreds of thousands of them live.
The Mayans have survived centuries of cultural cleansing, enslavement and brutal oppression in the colonial countries that they live in. The Spanish-descendant elite criollos have used various methods to oppress the majority Mayans. The key has been access to modern day weapons and better military organizations, without them the criollos would have long since lost their status. Usurping the land of the wealth and resources and giving very little back has been their way. No wonder so many of the criollos like the neo-liberal economic model, it is right up their alley.
The Spanish methods in conquering America from 1492 onward lies in multiple factors. Diseases were probably the most effective and least understood by the natives. No defense was possible against the invisible killer that carried off sometimes up to 80-90% of indigenous societies in a matter of weeks, in some cases even days. As everywhere else on this planet of ours neighbors were sometimes enemies in a power play for influence and riches. That holds true for the Americas as well where states plotted and waited for an opportunity to rid themselves of a bothersome rival. This rivalry and hostility was shrewdly manipulated by the Spanish. The Spanish conquistadors were the masters of deception, manipulation and cruelty on a scale that the Americas had never experienced before. Thus, newly established allies and sometimes even subjugated ethnic groups were used as cannon fodder in the conquest of another entity. The natives were enslaved en mass, their best lands stolen, their culture, religion and language forbidden or despised and servants of the Catholic church kept a watchful eye on any thoughts of rebellion or any form of resistance. It was the main function of the Catholic Church to pacify the natives for exploitation and exterminate all signs of native culture. A modified Christian religion was enforced by all means necessary. When allies had rendered themselves useless by means of diminishing numbers and influence, their lands were also stolen and the rest enslaved to serve the new criollo class of Spanish descended elites.
In time the Spanish colonies wrested control from Spain when winds of a new social revolution for the masses blew in their direction. To counterbalance that they came up with a newly created nationalism and invented or real grievances against the old mother country. All to keep their position and loot intact, or in other words, a social order status quo. The lives of the natives however continued to become ever bleaker by each passing century.
The modern day states of Latin America have different yet similar stories to tell. The tools and ideology has been the same, the difference lies in the degrees by which they have been implemented. The response of any resistance they have met has evolved into how the Mayas of today fight their struggle for rights and lives that would be considered basic human rights in Europe.
Revitalization is however on the rise but to a varying degree depending on which country and region we are talking about. The Mayan culture is making a comeback but on a modern level, not as a museum piece frozen in time, but as a truly evolving phenomenon adapting to our times and the needs of those reviving it. The language is being used increasingly in the music sector like in modern day rap songs. Radio stations broadcast wholly or partly in Mayan. Cultural themes in art are becoming more expressive and accepted by the mainstream dominant Latino society. Religion and spirituality is slowly becoming more visible. Political consciousness and increased pride in the Mayan identity means that the fight for more self-control and land for Mayan communities will be more organized and determined. The old violent struggles of the past will hopefully remain in the past. The new leaders are adapting to using modern means of communicating their dreams on social media and the internet. They are also using the same political system that once was used to deny them their rights in the past, as a platform to democratically accomplish their goals in the present. What the future will bring them is hopefully what their dreams are made of. Let us all dream.