Mayans in the Modern World: People With a Celebrated History Downtrodden in the Present

This is a love-and-hate story being played out in real life in the Yucutan Peninsula. On the one hand we have the indigenous Mayans of the Yucatán Peninsula who have a fascinating and world renown history of cities, pyramids, remarkable science achievements, writing, roads, a trade network and a very rich culture.

On the other hand we have a group of elite rich people mainly descended from Spanish and other European immigrants and their mestizo servents who do their bidding. The mestizos are a group of descendants of poor Spanish immigrants with mixing of Spanish and Native American peoples. The amount of Native American blood within the mestizo group varies widely between regions. The more arid the region is the more likely it is to have higher amounts of Native American ancestry. When these lands were part of the vast Spanish Empire, a strict caste system was in place that relegated specific rights and priviliges to each group in the system according to their blood mixture. The closer one was to a Native American origin the less rights people had and the closer one was to being pure blood Spanish the more rights and priviliges were accorded.

This system was officially abolished when Mexico and other Spanish colonies became independent from the mother country. But as with such a core system that governed people’s behaviour for centuries, this ban did little to affect the wrongs of those oppressed by this caste system. Instead, it just created an easier system to govern society and people’s behaviour. At the top was as in the previous system the old Spanish-descended elite, the criollos, that owned most of the best land and properties. Below them were the mestizos that included all the mixed bloods and poor people. At the bottom of the modified caste system were as before the Native Americans or the Indios as they are called in most Latin American countries. To be an Indio was the same as being despised, poor and devoid of most opportunities. The only thing that changed was that the system between criollos and indos was all lumped into one. Blood mixture had by now become too complicated for the old system to cope anyway.

In the Yucatán Peninsula, the traditional home of the Yucatec Maya, globalisation in the 20th century created a world interest in the old Maya civilization. Tourists flocked from all over the world to see the famous ruins of cities and pyramids as well as the sunny weather and beaches. The better educated criollos and mestizos who had grown up despising the Maya indios, were now busy accommodating the tourists and catering to their every need. Soon the tourist industry became the largest employer on the Peninsula. Everyone wanted to see and hear about the Maya culture and people were not disappointed. Maya faces were all around them trying to earn a buck by selling a trinket or two to the pink skins. Soon these tourists went home and a new group appeared instead. The tourist wheel kept on spinning. As in other economic affairs in the Peninsula, most of the wealth generated in the tourist industry bypassed the poor Mayas.

The main economic benefactors of this lucrative business were the aforementioned criollos and mestizos. They had been raised with the view that they were superior human beings to the darker skinned indigenous Mayans. Although the virtues of the ancient Maya culture was well known to them and their tourist clients, the same cannot be said about other aspects of Mayan life. Mayan struggle to free themselves from the yoke of Spanish oppression was and still is cast in a very negative light. History books taught in schools and placards in public places echo the sentiment that the Mayans are savages. The conqueror writes the history indeed.

When in the Yucatán Peninsula you meet a very lovely people all around, gentle, polite, patient, humble and well mannered. The weather is sunny and warm, the beaches beautiful and the setting ideal for a paradise on earth. It is hard to believe that prejudice, racism and discrimination exists beneath the surface. Although the Maya are in the majority they are a people without power and voice. The Mexican constitution states that Indian communities have the right to have an education in both Spanish and the local Native American language. The states and municipalities are obligated to provide one. But, in too many cases the teachers provided are only fluent in Spanish. Teaching in native languages for older pupils is hardly ever provided. Therefore children grow up where Spanish is the language they are becoming most familiar with rather than their native language. Spanish is the language of success in Mexico as in other Latin American countries. The lack of appropiate native teachers erodes the native identity as language is integral in identifying as indio. In the Yucatán Peninsula the Maya identity and language is loosing ground fast.

Maya influences in modern architecture is visible but almost always superficial for the tourist industry. Local billboards and media outlets show only Castilian faces as the archtypical look for the populace to imitate. It shows which physical type to love and embrace. Those not appearing is a quiet message out into society which types should succeed and which should not. This is a land where Castilian types dominate and succeed. They get the best education and the opportunities to live a prosperous life.

In recent elections in Mexico in 2018 candidates for presidency had to register followers online through the individual voters smart phones. People throughout Mexico are so fed up with endemic corruption and increasing crime rate, that they rejected the traditional political parties and elected a leftist for president, Manuel Obrador. He is facing monumental problems to reshape Mexico and unify it. Regionalism has increased, it is for example not uncommon for people in the provinces in the Yucatán to think of themselves first as Yucatecos and then secondly as Mexicans. That sentiment is heavily influenced by the Yucatec Maya ethnicity, the geographic distinctiveness of the peninsula, and of course the corruption and crime rate.

Although it is clear that the Maya legacy in history, culture and modern day life is undeniable, it does not mean that people are proud of being Maya. On the contrary, they feel ashamed and hide their ancestry as much as they can. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Chile were the Mapuche identity and cultural symbols are proudly displayed in their rights struggle against the state. In Chile Mapuches are proud of their ethnicity and are actively engaged with the government. This is not the case in the Yucatán Peninsula among the Yucatec Maya. Politically they are invisible and their voice silenced. Let’s hope that the Yucatec Mayas find their voice and standing in the years to come.

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