Seems fitting that my last post on Mel Gibson's Apocalytpo is followed by a more historically accurate description of the Maya land and people than what he gives audiences. If I share enough, perhaps it can undo a bit of his travesties.
I'd previously visited Veracruz, Cozumel and Chichén Itzá, but my wife and I had wanted to see Yucatán's capital, Mérida, for some time. A Denver University, Spanish total-immersion class was perfect; it turned out almost that unique.
While I highly recommend such a class, I don't write this to make you otherwise go to Mérida; there are too many of us, too many Ugly Americans touristing Mexico, still-birthing the economy and society. I won't name certain places where we shared moments with Yucatecos because revealing their location puts them on a Cancun-Tijuana path, changing them into artificial enclaves remade in our image.
I expected the class might resemble the beers-bimbos-n-bikinis semester-abroad courses once typical of U.S. colleges. While there was some of the first and few of the latter and last-- it's wintertime--our Profe made it a course appropriate for the gringos and worthwhile for us two Chicanos.
The dozen of us students were senior to young, roughly half female/male, of varying Spanish fluency, with several gringos more fluent than me. Our history in Mexico and reasons for taking the class varied as much, our extended companionship managing to remain civil, despite the intense itinerary.
Pobre Mexico: tan lejos de Diós, tan cerca de los E.U.
December '74 was the first time I went deep into Mexico, in search of Lucio Cabañas, the rural guerrilla leader targeted by Pres. Echeverría's repressive Dirty War. I'd hoped for an interview for a Denver Post column, or more. As wife-to-be and I attempted to get our Pinto wagon past military aduanas into the state of Guerrero, the radio reported Cabañas and followers killed in a shootout with the military--this time, a truthful report. Today the government's investigation of Dirty War crimes continues, fruitlessly.
Back then I was young, rebellious, even adventurous. This trip is different; no protest marches or Cabañas (Yucatecas seem politically conservative), and no security checkpoints (other than the airport and American consulate). We meet no teachers-turned-guerrilla; instead, Maya-culture and business university professors, and eco-agriculture scientists.
We even stop at the American Consulate. While waiting outside for clearance for a lecture, one in our innocent party decides a group photo's a great memento. Mas rápido than you can say "Put that camera down, gringo," a security guard comes flying out, one hand almost at his holster. The post-9/11 American gov't is now more paranoid than the Mexican.
Inside, the compound resembles something out of the Iraq War more than Mexico's most tranquil state; nothing smaller than a tank could get thru. Steel doors two inches thick, heavier than refrigerators, maybe explaining why personnel were in such great shape. A series of armed checkpoints, metal detectors, wary and reticent guards repressed me with what it means to be an American traveling abroad.
In 8 days, I see a handful of beggars and only one Yucateco who looks like our American homeless people. Of course, most of the poorer classes' homes look like our tool sheds, but they don't come with variable rate mortgages, and lenders probably wouldn't come out ahead taking them over, anyway. The few dogs on the streets are owned either by tourists or better-off Mexicans, though in the pueblos we see skinny strays.
I bring up these things because it's almost Xmas, and back in Denver, I couldn't walk down most any street for long without a reminder of how often our society creates the homeless, in one species or another. In Yucatán, widespread poverty at least seems congregated within hovels, not abandoned. I wonder which society is the more humane.
Since I'm an elementary school teacher, I'm drawn by younger children and talk with many of them and their parents. The vast majority are girls, and I wonder if boys are kept home by vendors because tourists are likelier to buy from girls, or are little boys out working the fields and such. The toys kids have or want are Western merchandise like blonde dolls and GameBoys. Even their names tend to be Evelyn, Jasmine, Tiffany and Stephanie; I could just as well be in Denver because I only hear one Mexican-type name, Guillermo. Our society's domination of theirs penetrates even to what Yucatecos christen the next generation.
In 8 days I partake de los frutos of the Yucateco community. Puc choc, pibil, pescado frito, marine snails, black beans, Xtabentún and the other honeyed or passion fruit concoctions inspire my own dicho: Mi autobús llegó al Cielo, y se llama Yucatan! In most places, Yucatecos seem to think tourists prefer ultra-protein dishes, with few greens or staples, perhaps because our fat wallets equal their annual incomes.
But my dicho doesn't only refer to food. It's an attempt to encompass the cordiality with which almost every Yucateco we encounter befriends us. Even where our dollars aren't leverage, people treat us as if ignorant of our government's historical crimes in supporting Echeverría, Guatemala, Panama, or our preemptive invasions of Mexico. It's not some peon docility; perhaps the mountains to the west and the vast Gulf to the north have incubated, inoculated them against our global omnipresence. At the moment, they're luckier than their dark brethren in far off Iraq.
Mel Gibson must have traveled to a different planet to learn about Maya people than those I meet. His 6-foot-plus Maya slave traders were definitely another species. Mayas I meet are sometimes so short I wonder if dwarfism is endemic. Even when it's not Xmas here, tourists could easily confuse many Mayas with Santa's helpers. Their height doesn't make them a cute people; it magnifies their accomplishments. After seeing the humongous blocks of limestone supporting Uxmal's incredible main pyramid, one American student remarks, "How could they have done all this, and without a crane?" It is truly wondrous, and, apparently, size isn't everything, at least not for 2000 years of Maya civilization.
It's humid here. 85%, 95. I read the Diario de Yucatan every morning at the hotel breakfast, but never check how humid. I'm from 0% Colorado, so it's all a sweat bath. There's days where it's perfect, but a too brisk walk reminds you the monte o selva across Yucatan owes its lushness not only to the rain. There's showers some nights, a ten-minute lluvia one afternoon, but we're past the inundations of rainy seasons. It's a peaceful, temperate time.
Downtown, old town Mérida is not the place for asthmatics, nor claustrophobics. Despite a relatively low population of half a million, many of the inhabitants and most of their cars seem concentrated there. Sidewalks are three feet wide and, where a telephone post rests, less. Very few obese Yucatecos pass me. Survival of the fittest can mean falling into the path of the thousands of cars and buses speeding by only inches to your side.
Unfortunately McDoodoos and Burger Kaca are here, smaller than ours but just as busy. The few portly Mexican children I see belong to better-dressed parents who've already adopted the American diet. If I return in ten years, will the sidewalks have transformed into one-ways to accommodate a fast-food addicted populace that can't walk past one other?
Despite being the week before Xmas, our oppressive commercialization of the holidays is absent here--surprising to me because Mérida holds so many devout Catholics. Perhaps having less to spend makes advertising less profitable; perhaps the heavily artisan culture enables them to create more, purchase less; but I think it's something else.
Culture. It's everywhere, in every form. Despite the strips and sectors of commercial development, despite the influx of emigrés from Mexico City, the concentration of humanity, this is Yucatan, a land of Yucatecos. Culture is in the architecture, the cobblestone of the streets, the colonial front doors, vendors dressed in Maya attire, Mayan dialect and signage. Much is Spaniard, too, but only in an attempt to cover over the at least 2,000 years before.
Saturday night, streets are cordoned off from the traffic and bandstands abound, musicians take over plazas, and schoolchildren rehearse or dancers practice in those that are empty. Some of the music is Caribe, Cubano, attesting to the heavy influence of a region that goes back those thousands of years and continues, U.S. blockades notwithstanding.
Like throughout America, pinche Spanish priests tore down pyramids to build their Cathedral in Mérida's Zocalo. It didn't work. Worship in the old ways continues, despite not being listed in tour guides as one of Yucatan's major religions. Idols are sold to tourists with explanations of their import, right outside the Cathedral steps.
And that pinche Bishop Landa, who later regretted putting the entire Maya library of Bonampak to the torch--which is why only 3 Maya codices exist--that same hijo-de-su is best remembered for documenting the ancient Maya ways. According to Dante, Bishop Landa now resides in Circle Seven of Hell, residence of the violent plunderers, those harmful to art. Hopefully, Satan has him hawking Maya figurines in front of cathedrals.
Next to the cathedral is a museum of contemporary art (a huge exhibit I didn't enter). Whereas in Denver a parent needs $13 to take his kid to our art museum, a Yucateco can do the same for free, every day. Our culture is to make money off our culture, even from residents; Yucatan's to is make money off the tourists and allow locals free access to it. Which is the more cultured?
What impresses me most about Yucatecos' cultural depths concerns the Mayan language. Mayas can learn Mayan. Naturally, some of this is due to accommodating tourists' questions about Maya history and language. In Denver we accomplish the same by hiring and training tour guides, at least for languages of people we didn't wipe out.
But in Yucatan, presently at 85 public schools, 20,0000 children learn Mayan. Other schools, too, offer optional Mayan classes. (Must make Landa stomp up and down around his sales booth down there.) Some schools also offer English classes. Such cultural accommodations will have Yucateco children surpassing--like others in the world--U.S. children, whose "foreign" language acuity amounts to, at best, 3 years of one language. So these very poor, elf-size, dark, sometime barefoot, indigenous children I see on Mérida streets will trilingual through life, while more "privileged," prosperous U.S. Anglo children make do with IPod English, in a global economy.
When I return to Denver, Colorado, U.S.A., I won't share this fact with Congress and a Colorado legislature that uses our tax money to round up undocumented Spanish speaking workers, that discounts life-long fluency in more than one language, that thinks you can have a competent, cultured population by building an economy of one-language citizens. They wouldn't recognize the competition emerging from little dark people coming from a 2000-year-old civilization. They prefer to think of them more as Mel Gibson does.
In the next installment I'll do better on specifics of what I experienced and learned in my 8 days among the Yucatecos.
© Rudy Ch. Garcia 2006