2. Empowering the Oppressed – The Mayas

Mexico (Yucatán Peninsula)

The Mayans in the Yucatán Peninsula call themselves simply Maya. Anthropologists and linguists call their language Yucatec Maya. People of Maya ancestry are about 3 million in the Peninsula but only about 1.2 million speak to varying degree the Maya language. The social system that the Spanish established in the Peninsula was based on different rights and social status. At the top were peninsulares, Spanish individuals born in Spain and in service with the king in the overseas colonies as top officials. Next came the criollos (often called Yucatecos in the peninsula), Spanish descended individuals born in the Americas. After that came the mestizos or the Ladinos (these two phrases will be used interchangeably in this article), which is the phrase more often used today, the mixed blood people that came into existence with the mixing of Indian and Spanish blood. The ladinos are an heterogeneous population, which expresses itself in Spanish as a maternal language and possesses specific cultural traits of ‘Hispanic’ origin mixed with indigenous cultural elements. At the bottom were the indios or the Native Americans, of many different ethnic groups, states, chiefdoms and as hunter and gatherer societies. Finally at the bottom but sometimes above the indios were the negros, Sub-Saharan Africans, slaves imported to work on plantations in the most horrid conditions.

A new world market opened up in 1833 for henequen and sugar products. Both could be grown in the Yucatán. This made the Yucateco criollos very wealthy. More millionaires lived f.x. in Mérida in 1900 than anywhere else in the world. To get the land needed to benefit from this trade, the criollos had to steal it from the Maya peasants. This along with a cruel treatment caused even more tension with the oppressed Maya communities. In 1847 the political turmoil that so often had engulfed Mexico, had created problems with marketing their new products from the Yucatán Peninsula. US-Mexico tensions were at an all-time high. To solve this the Yucateco criollos declared independence from Mexico in 1821. Another Yucateco criollo faction on the other hand believed a future within Mexico was the best course of action. Both factions drafted Mayas into a militia force in fear of an internal strife. The Mayas however had for a long time been preparing in secret an uprising against the rule of the Yucateco criollos. The independence declaration meant that the Yucatecos would stand alone without the military backing of the Mexican army. Now armed with modern weapons both Maya militia groups united and attacked their Yucateco criollo oppressors. Well organized the Mayans took the whole of the Peninsula in what has been called the Caste War until only the capital Mérida stood besieged. At the last moment when the Yucateco criollos were preparing to give up, abandon Mérida and flee to the coast, some unexplained internal strife among the Mayan rebels dissolved their besieging armies. With complete victory at their fingertips only to see it slip away. Such a tragedy, only days from establishing their own state for more than 300 years.

An ancient Maya highway leading to Uxmal.

Yucateco criollo authority returned after that with a vengeance. All resistance was brutally depressed and native leaders mercilessly killed. Only the southern part of modern Quintana Roo state, called Chan Santa Cruz, held out. Recognized officially by the United Kingdom, who regarded it as a buffer against the new Yucateco state to the north, it defied the authority of the Yucatecos. Chan traded with British Honduras, modern day Belize, and had cordial relations with the British colonial authorities there. Betrayed by the British however in 1893 who negotiated with Mexican authorities about withdrawing their support for the Mayan state. At the same time the Yucateco criollos gave up on their independence and opted to join Mexico again. In marched the Mexican army and crushed all opposition in Chan Santa Cruz. Skirmishes continued however until 1935 when the final peace treaty was signed.

Modern day Mayas in the Yucatan Peninsula are politically disorganized. Maya culture is fast disappearing because of Spanish culture onslaught. In schools children of Maya descent are taught to be ashamed of their heritage. Official history in modern time narratives in the Yucatán Peninsula portray the Mayas in a negative light as villains and murderers. The Yucateco criollos and their allies are however portrayed as valiant heroes. The Mayas are basically denied their rightful place in history. A people without history as Eric Wolf would have put it. Shame and humiliation is the feeling young Maya people feel growing up as members of an ethnic group denied access to an economic system where advancement and wealth is based on sangria or identity of blood and Spanish language fluency. That feeling runs so deep that millions of tourists flocking to see their ancient cities every year bring no feelings of pride and connectedness in their ancestor’s accomplishment. In people’s minds in the peninsula, being Maya is synonymous with being a poor oppressed farmer. Most modern day Mayas who identify as such are therefore rural, whereas urban Maya loose their identity fast to escape discriminatory processes of sociocultural marginalization.

Colorful buildings in Mexico reflect the Native American heritage, in this case the Mayas.

The pressure of assimilation by the Spanish culture is overwhelming. Schools are only in Spanish. Same goes for the media, TV and radio. There is no connection in their minds between the ruins in the bush and jungle and modern times. Result is that the Maya language and identity is fast disappearing. Billboards and images of sought after beauty have European-looking models. That’s how the majority of the modern day elites look like anyway. And they have the power on their side. TV characters are also mostly European looking.

All stacks up the visual message that looking like an Indian is bad and ugly. Same message is delivered in schools where the emphasis is on the negative aspect of the Native American heritage. Human sacrifice is there much trumpeted to emphasize that negativity. No mention is there however that more people were tortured in the most horrible way and then killed for petty crimes mostly for entertainment in medieval Europe at the same time. Such a message is not delivered in the school system in Mexico as that would blemish the image of the European-descended elite.

A common imagery in Mexico, a Caucasian face on a local advertising board.

How can this longstanding wrong be corrected? Mayans in Yucatán need hope and renewed pride and connection to their magnificent heritage. To accomplish that the Mexican state must seriously redefine itself as a multicultural and multilingual state. Instead of the traditional top-down approach to power relations, bottom-up system would empower ordinary citizens to be more involved in important decision making. Community based committees and councils that have power over serious issues that concern their community directly, like education and economic matters. The community would then elect their representative to be their candidate on a wider national level. For Maya communities and other indigenous people in the Yucatan, teaching in their own language should be the only language taught to schoolchildren for at least the first three-four years of their education. After that bilingual teaching should then start. The state must sponsor vigorously TV and radio programmes and stations. Other kind of media and entertainment, like computer games, should be strongly encouraged to follow suit. Village, town and city affairs where a large part of the population is descended of Native Americans, should be conducted bilingually. A wide variety of Native American language courses for all age groups should be easily available at all levels of the state, sponsored by the state. All effort should be made by the Mexican state to portray Native American heritage in a fair and positive light. Past wrongs should be corrected. Native American territories should be granted self control over all matters. And furthermore, where territories inhabited by a Native American ethnic and/or linguistic group are large enough, new states should be created within the union that is Mexico.

This would change the political landscape of central and southern Mexico specifically. But, it would also bring justice to the people and break the stranglehold that the criollo elite have in society as a whole. Sometimes drastic changes are necessary. Mexico is known for its rich and varied culture. Warm, relaxed and hospitable people. My suggestions would add and enhance this richness considerably. On present course Mexico will be considerably poorer culturally in the future. Continuing the assimilation of Native American ethnic groups is a great tragedy.

Among the younger generation in the Yucatan, modern media provides an outlet to express their dreams and desires. Some use it to encourage cultural revival and political activism. Artists like rapper Pat Boy and Yazmín Novelo use music sung in Maya to encourage other young people to be proud of being Maya, use their own language and endorse their identity. Rap music has been adopted as one of the ways to express dreams and criticize the social order. Sleek music videos and spectacular scenery coupled with smiling young people present positiveness and believe in a brighter future. Who doesn’t want to be part of that?

2 Comments on “2. Empowering the Oppressed – The Mayas

  1. Pingback: A Way of Speaking: Identifying as Native American in Mexico – Man in the World

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