What is Maya, What Is To Be Maya?

The word Maya is like the seed of maize falling on fertile soil or some stony place, full of thorns, where some hungry birds lurk, desperately looking for a light breakfast in the morning. The seed that falls on fertile soil is what some call pre-Hispanic, Mayanists classify it as a so-called preclassic, classical, or postclassic period; and those who listen, whether foreigners or locals, show friendly amazement and admiration, with particular envy or at least respect, perhaps because the first thing that comes to their minds is the pyramid of Chichen Itzá, Uxmal, or maybe Mayapan.  

The other seed, the one that survived colonization, independence, the Juarist reform, the revolution, and the fourth confiscation (I think they officially call it transformation) has been in resistance for more than five hundred years under fierce persecution, criminalization, imprisonment, torture, racism, forced disappearance, among other unfavorable conditions for it to be born, germinate, and bear fruit, multiplied by a hundred. This vulnerable seed has become an impressive political tool for those who label it as poor, instead of impoverished, and have abused it. Moreover, they continue to do so through a narrative nourished by favors called aid or welfare, as it is fashionable in these fourth-category [1] times. 

That is, there is a kind of schizophrenia around what Mayans are. If “pre-Hispanic and dead,” they are exalted; if creating and recreating life in the present as a person, a couple, a girl, a grandfather, a peasant, a family, an organized community—particularly if they are foolish enough to defend their territory—then they are considered right-wing,  far-right, conservative, those people who “just want to screw the 4th,” according to FONATUR’s director. [2] But if it is a Maya that can be placed in the niche of a museum, painted on a relic, exhibited on currency or an archaeological site, then they are attractive, a source of pride of a glorious past, promoted in other countries, visited by their own and strangers, exalted for their scientific and artistic domain, that is, Maya is something to sell.  

So what is Maya today? What is to be Maya? To better clarify the answer to this question, it may be appropriate to begin by listing what is NOT Maya, from the point of view of us Mayan communities in defense of our territory and identity.  

It is not Maya those performances at shopping malls, parks, and archaeological sites for tourist, commercial, and political purposes represented by peculiar characters related to particular interests or groups in which certain activities are done around a campfire by those who wear clothes and souvenirs that make foreigners, in particular, believe that those are ceremonial elements of the Mayan culture including the famous political staff of the dictatorship.  

It is not Maya to teach the Mayan language, especially if it responds to partisan political interests, nor to speak the Mayan language to help the usurpers of the territory to manipulate the men and women of a community who lack objective information about the intentions of companies that want to hoard Mayan soil in the Yucatan Peninsula, in cooperation with the political forces in power.  

It is not Maya to promote a hotel called Maya, a restaurant called Maya, a museum called Maya, a newspaper called Maya, a riviera called Maya, an avenue called Maya, a gas station called Maya, a university called Maya, and of course, a train,  even if they call it Maya.  

The most unfortunate thing about it is that these lines of commerce built by big businesses in Mayan territory are what today most know as Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula. While flesh and blood Mayans, who continue to survive the conquest and colonization, are hidden by the government and its accomplices in the tourism business, like kidnapped, hand-tied, mouth-gagged prisoners, abandoned to die of hunger and thirst in the dirtiest corner of a dungeon. This happens somewhat to those who still live in their communities but particularly to the young men and women who go out looking for employment in what today we call “development centers,” the masons or construction workers, waitresses, cooks, gardeners, narco-retailers, police without rank, piecemeal drivers, who are forced to change their ways of dressing, footwear and even their language in order to survive in that dungeon. These are not the Mayans corporate and political powers are interested in, even when Mayans become an electoral campaign agenda.  

The strangest thing is that the Maya promoted by companies are nothing like us Mayans, such as a hotel, a restaurant, and much less, a train. What happens is that the Maya of the classical period is very attractive for tourists: the image of the scientific and artistic Maya, the Mayan astronomer and the architect, the urban Maya and the politician; that is what is collected in museums as part of the tour package offered in archaeological sites where those Mayans lived, the lagoons and cenotes where they fished, sailed and bathed, now conditioned as luxurious places to eat, rest and have fun.  

When I asked fellow Mayans why this had happened, without thinking about it, as if coming straight from the heart, one of them said, “They robbed us!” “But they are not satisfied with what they already control, always wanting more, they come all over the territory to steal the sunlight and the force of the wind, to throw us out of our homes so that the only Mayan thing left, which will promote other ‘Mayan’ businesses, is that train of death,” said a Mayan woman energetically while making tortillas from freshly harvested corn flour from the milpa. “Moreover, they are spaces of exploitation and humiliation for our children who work there,” she added to make a final point.

The nojoch wíinik [3] have left us a tsikbal [4] that tell us assertively what they believe is to be Maya, that is, what Mayans are according to their own understanding. They confirm that to be Maya is to believe that human beings cannot live if their environment has no life for their lives were born from that founding life, their lives as women and men emanate from the water, the sunlight and the night’s darkness, from the wind of the four corners of the world, from the flat and mountainous earth, from the white and black clouds, from the fire that sleeps on the rock,  from the trees and the corn that gave us their flesh to walk like jaguars, leave footprints like deers, and sing like pheasants.  

Mayans have a certain outlook on reality, a way of listening to sounds, being in touch with our environment, a certain kind of language, a certain kind of organization, a way of explaining or interpreting events. All of this can be summarized based on the understanding and implementation of a peculiar articulation of everything that is alive, that is, living in all its different forms or expressions, taking into consideration that when we harm someone or something, it hurts everyone, that we only take from life what we need to maintain the cycle of birth, growth, reproduction, death to take another life form. That is why we insist that to defend life we must protect the health of the water, of the earth, of the wind, of the mountain, of the animals, of birds, of the rain, the health of our sons and daughters, in short, the health of our territory.  

To be Maya is to make milpa, that space of learning where children can touch the colors of the flowers, identify plants, call each animal, each bird, each insect, each snake by its own name. The milpa is therapeutic not only because many medicinal plants grow there but because of its sounds, lights and shadows, the diversity that it holds. Among pumpkins, beans, iibes [5], sweet potatoes, and other crops we find corn, the cob that gave us meat, the cob that likes to bathe in the rain, play with the wind and feed all the animals, birds and bees of Yuum K’áax [6] with each Ixi’im [7] that sprouts at the height of the breasts of a body,  like a mature woman.  

To be Maya is to speak the language like birds, like the wind, like the animals, by refusing to be colonized, by refusing to be conquered, by knowing other languages and using them but not renouncing his or her own language, not even for charity from false benefactors of the political and economic class. Speaking the Mayan language does not belong to a [government] program but to a way of life, to an identity linked to all forms of life; in our families, the animals that live with us such as cats, dogs, pigs, turkeys, and chickens also speak Mayan with us, we call them and they come, we scold them and they retreat. To speak Maya is as natural as day and night, in conflict or in love, in commitments or when telling jokes, at home or on the streets.  

To be Maya is to practice agricultural rituals, rituals for health, for protection, and for family celebrations. All the rituals in the Yucatan Peninsula are dialogues with Yuum iik, [8] they are family meetings between those who live in the flesh and those who live in the iik’, [9] the mediation of this dialogue or conversation is the piibil waaj, [10] the sakab, [11] and the báalche’.[12] Mainly, they are the channel, they are the symbols of a healthy relationship to create the space and the spirit to knit thoughts with the word that springs from the heart of the community, always communal, at home, which is the community where all families are one, around Xya’axche’, [13] Siipche‘, [14] and Báalche’.   

To be Maya is to strengthen our beliefs, some call it myths, others call it cosmogonies, and some more adventurous call it witchcraft or idolatry. The truth is that these beliefs are essentially what makes us Maya, we believe that we are corn, we believe that we are just a way of life like plants, like flowers, like birds; we believe in the accompaniment of Xtáabay [15] to our ways of living, its apparitions are warnings, they are messages from our Yuumtsiloob [16] and X Ko’olebilo’ob [17]; we believe in J Wáay [18] as the presence of that other, fuller transcendent life; we believe in the strength of Yuum Cháak [19], of Yuum K’áax, of Yuum iik’, of Yuum K’áak’ [18], of Yuum K’áak’náab [19], of Yuum K’iin [20] of X ki’ichpan Na’ Uj  [21] that keep life, our lives, healthy.   

To be Maya is to feed our kitchen and our stove with products of the milpa and birds we breed in our patios, which enlarge our kitchen and nourish our stoves. The handmade tortillas are sewn with the conversations that pour into the kitchen among drops of sweat and lots of affection scattered by those who cook, they give our meals a unique flavor and seasoning, although many times they are no more than sunny-side-up eggs with stewed maax [24] chili, a crushed garlic clove, and a bit of lemon and salt, perhaps a couple of boiled tomatoes crushed in the same water where they were cooked to dip torn charcoal roasted fatty tortillas in it. There are several simple but delicious and healthy meals that Mayan families are accustomed to and have consumed for years.    

To be Maya is to practice Mayan medicine, which is not herbal or traditional medicine as they call it, by those who do not know the Mayan culture and try to discredit this indigenous community’s knowledge and practice. We assert that it is not traditional because it is based on specific, experienced, systematized knowledge; nor is it limited to the use of herbs as they say, nor reduced to the consumption of teas. Mayan families prevent diseases, they do not focus on curing body aches but teach instead a way of life that prevents the human body from suffering negative impacts. They advise sleeping well, eating healthy, drinking clean water, getting enough sleep, talking a lot, peacefully settling conflicts, creating community spaces, celebrating the Yuumtsiloob, and articulating with the different ways of life so that everything is hale and healthy.  

To be Maya is to take care of the mountain and the water, which begins with what the West calls rituals. The mountain is a universal space where life is born, complicit with the earth, water, wind, fire, light, darkness, sound, and silence, among other beings present. What they elegantly call today deforestation is an attack on the origins of life; the so-called Western development has exceeded the limits allowed for Mother Earth to remain healthy, there are too many megaprojects that deforest and destroy the environment, pollute the ocean, the cenotes, lakes and even rain. To be Maya, then, is to seek balance, saying no to drunkenness, no to the loss of harmony, no to foolishness but what the body can sustain without being damaged. We believe now is the time to stop the destruction and criminal violence of our territory that turns it into a cement plate with electric rails that can electrocute the weak health of our mother earth.  

To be Maya is to strengthen community assemblies, that space of ideas and words creation that update and give shine to community politics, where women and children weave their voices with attentive ears and a sensitive heart of all the voices there present in an artistic effort to create political, cultural, economic, social, moral, productive, and family lights and shadows. But above all, where power takes human and communal form, a force that is harmful only when controlled by one or a few; that breath must be shared like an offering that is distributed among the community, in fraternity with the Yuumtsiloob; that virtue cannot be private property because it is mother and father to us all; that pain must be horizontal so that human lives are not lost, nor animals, nor birds, nor flowers, and much less bees, nor other lives that are part of the communal family.   

To be Maya is to territorialize or reterritorialize the Yucatan Peninsula with the Maya, which can’t be achieved by planting some partisan trees through little programs pompously called “sowing life.” We must territorialize our steps, our voices, our beliefs, our knowledge, our health system, our milpa, our faith, our corn, our báalche‘, our ch’a’acháak, [25] our ways of listening, our gaze and our heart; we must  reaffirm with all our communal strength forged in the assembly, our identity, to defend our name, our dignity, our colors, our seeds, our sprout, our pollen, our onomatopoeia, our feast, our offering, and our heart.  

To be Maya is to be informed of local, regional, and planetary events, to scrutinize the calendar and geographies to make use of technology and also contribute by creating it. Those who accuse us of wanting to return to the past do not speak clearly; our past is exactly what tourism presumes today, a history built with science and technology to live life in balance with nature, articulated with the environment. It is a mistake to say that Mayans despise technological advances, instead, it was those who came from the so-called old continent to these lands that is our territory, who cut our living rope, chopped the trunk of the xya’axche‘, hanged the Chilam Báalam, burned our books and today sell our archaeological vestiges, in short, they plunged us into ignorance just like they continue to do today. They believe that Mayans are poor and ignorant, that’s what they think, although their beliefs are usually of that nature, decontextualized, contradictory, meaningless and in contradiction. To be Maya is also to dwell not only in the scientific but in the artistic, musical, literary and poetic, among many other art expressions.  

To be Maya is to defend our territory from invasion and dispossession by development megaprojects of legal and de facto crimes against the environment, land, water, mountains, and corn, which we women, men, girls, and boys are;  it is to defend our autonomy and self-determination, to defend and live as subjects of law, in rebellion if necessary, to collapse that treatment we are given like “entities of public interest” in which they equate our communities with a hovel. We have to live our indigenous rights on a day-to-day basis even if colonialist laws do not want to recognize them.  

To be Maya is to recognize oneself as corn, to live together in a community like corn on a cob, to strengthen the generosity of the heart, as well as fill it with rebellion and dignity to roar like a jaguar and sing like a nightingale, as thus: “Mayan land is not for sale nor for rent.”   

 [1] Also referring to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s “fourth transformation” campaign promise.

[2] Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo.

[3] Our elders.

[4] Conversation.

[5] Type of bean.

[6] Father “creator” of the mountain.

[7] Corn.

[8] Father “creator” of the wind.

[9] “Wind”.

[10] Tortilla cooked underground.

[11] Pozole.

[12] Type of “sacred” tree.

[13] Ceiba, “sacred” tree.

[14] Type of “sacred” tree.

[15] Mother “creator”.

[16] Parents “creators”.

[17] Mothers “creators”.

[18] Father “creator” of the mystery.

[19] Father “creator” of the rain.

[20] Father “creator” of fire.

[21] Father “creator” of the sea.

[22] Father “creator” of the sun.

[23] Mother “creator” of  moon.

[24] Kind of wild chili.

[25] Mayan ritual to attract rain.

Photographs: Haizel De la Cruz, https://haizeldelacruzm.wixsite.com/misitio

Pedro Uc Be is a Mayan land rights defender, writer, translator, teacher and promoter of Mayan culture and the protector of its land. As a member of the Assembly of Defenders of the Mayan Territory Múuch' Xíinbal and the Indigenous National Congress (CNI), he has worked on the protection of lands of Mayan peoples affected by mega-projects, including transgenic soybean production, pig farms, renewable energy plants, high-impact tourism and the ’Mayan Train’, which is intended to be both a tourist and regional train that would cross the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. Through his work as a defender of human rights, Pedro Uc Be invites communities to critically reflect on and revalue Mayan culture and language, especially to inform them of their rights to land as indigenous peoples.

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