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Maya Identity

June 25th, 2011 by Jo Burkholder

Creating cultural heritage:

The 2011 Maya World Summer Seminar sponsored by the U.S. National Endowment for Humanities has convened a set of 24 U.S.-based academics from 2-year and 4-year institutions and a series of relevant experts to explore new understandings of the Maya. My approach to the work of the seminar has been a comparative one looking at the similarities and differences in the many ways people construct ideas of cultural heritage. I am fortunate enough to have experience in both North and South American systems for the management of cultural heritage on which to draw and to date the differences strike me as very significant.

The group has worked for two days with the eminent scholar Jan de Vos, a former Jesuit and long-time researcher on the history and culture of Chiapas. His discussions with us brought home two important points to me. First, was what it meant to be a scholar which he compared to a farmer in a milpa, (which happens to be a common Maya analogy for the universe). The foremost work of a scholar he said was to cultivate knowledge, to engage in sabecultura, likened to a farmer’s agriculture, in which we sow answers (yes, answers) and harvest the questions that spring forth. This is opposed to the ‘normal’ academic discourse in which we pose questions, interrogate subjects and find answers. This sabecultura best done through movement in four directions, towards the four corners or sides of a field: investigation, communication, education/formation, and engagement. The requirements of such work he suggested were the ability for independent thought – to be the boss of our own minds – and the ability to reconcile linear and circular time.

The second point he made amongst his many wonderful stories, was about the ways in which politics, identity, and heritage intertwine. In the context of the seminar we were looking at the heritage of the Maya, particularly as it relates to the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, where de Vos’s part of the seminar was held. In the case of Mexico, and amongst the Maya populations of Chiapas, Campeche, Tabasco, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan in particular, a complicated game of identity politics has been played, beginning at least in the colonial era and continuing to the present, a game in which cultural heritage is often part of the stakes.

The bitter reality of the situation is that we are all, everywhere, a product of cultural hybridization, a process known in Mexico and other parts of Latin America as mestizaje, a process that results in people referred to as mestizos. This has two implications that are often hard to accept. On the one hand, people who are recognized as mestizos often find it difficult to accept that they have roots in indigenous populations, people whom they themselves have often had a hand in oppressing. On the other hand, many people labeled (by themselves or by others) as indigenous often struggle to accept that they are not culturally ‘pure’ and are a product of cultural blending. But, ‘pure’ or not, people placed in the second group are often targeted for discrimination, oppression, and even genocide and thus find themselves faced with limited and unpleasant cultural choices; convert to the unacknowledged cultural blend of the mestizo world or continue to suffer. It seems like death, either way.

But, not only does identity have political implications, it can come from political processes. De Vos said that if you were to go back 30 or 40 years and asked someone from Chiapas, “What are you?” the answer most likely would have reflected a very local affiliation and a reference to a specific community. “I am a child of Santa Marta,” someone might say referring to their natal village. If they referred to their language they might have said they were “gente verdadera,” real people, or people who speak correctly. They would not have referred to themselves Tzotzil, or Chol, or any of the other 30 + linguistic groups now recognized. They would not have called themselves Maya. To a large degree this was intentional, as colonial powers and later republican ones certainly knew they would not benefit from linguistic or cultural solidarity.

According to de Vos and others, self-designation as linguistic groups did not develop until local people began interacting with anthropologists sent out to ‘collect’ examples of Mexican heritage. In the course of their studies anthropologists began to tell people “you speak Ki’iche,” “you speak Yucateca,” “you speak Chonal”. The anthropological expeditions were part of an intentional nation-building project that sought to forge a more unified identity for the people of Mexico by creating ties to a glorified indigenous past. To do so, meant that the Precolumbian past had to be explored and understood. Thus, while cultural anthropologists were sent out to collect authentic cultural materials representing existing indigenous traditions – largely from the groups the state wanted to assimilate – archaeologists were directed to excavate, consolidate, and interpret archaeological sites of an exalted past to which indigenous people formed a kind of missing link between the past and present. Yes, there seems to be an inherent contradiction in trying to reify a connection to the past through the existence of people you are trying to erase, but this did not seem to slow down the process.

Tourism and economic development schemes have brought further economic, social, and political pressures to bear on indigenous populations, especially the Maya. It has done so in a way that raises questions about the compatibility of ethno-tourism, sustainability, and the global economy. But, I will leave these issues for another day.

One result has been to raise serious questions about what it means to be Maya or to be of Maya heritage and who has the right to decide. Where does ‘Mayaness’ lie? Is it in language and speech patterns that many are struggling to maintain? Is it in the hairstyle, dress, and quotidian elements of life that many seem happy to give up in favor of a degree of anonymity and ‘normalness’ afforded them when they blend into the wider world? Is it in the rhythms and sounds of songs and dancing that Spanish colonialism radically altered, but which several hundred years of relative isolation since then have preserved? Is it in the maintenance of a worldview in which there is no point in planting corn if you cannot perform the proper ceremonies for the deities of world which could swallow you whole?

I do not have an answer to these questions, and I may never have one with which I am completely satisfied. I do think however, that we can get caught in one of two potential traps. One says that we should allow for no change at all, that all culture loss or culture change should be fought tooth and nail. To me this seems impractical and paternalistic: impractical, because all cultures change through time; that is the way of thing; and paternalistic, at least in the sense that it so often seems to be well-intentioned outsiders that want to preserve some anachronistic version of a ‘pure’ culture.

A second potential trap embraces change too easily without considering the power dynamics involved. It says that since all things change then we need not do anything, simply watch what unfolds. Here though, I think it is important that those of us involved, as tourists, anthropologists and other scholars, entrepreneurs, political decision makers, and perhaps simply as people, acknowledge our active role in the creation and maintenance of culture and ask ourselves what it is we want to create. Do we want to contribute to the creation of something of beauty and elegance? Or do we carelessly create monsters that will haunt our dreams and eventually swallow us up? The former may be harder to do, but I think the world already has enough monsters.

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