LOCATION: Southeastern Mexico; Guatemala; Belize; Honduras; El Salvador
POPULATION: About 8–10 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; various Mayan dialects
RELIGION: "Folk Catholicism"; evangelical Christianity
Today's Maya are descended from one of the great civilizations of the Americas. They live in the same regions of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras as their ancestors and retain many of their ancient traditions. Mayan history reaches back some 4,000 years to what is called the Preclassic period, when civilization first began in Central America. However, it was during what came to be known as the Classic period—from roughly AD 250 to 900—that Mayan culture reached its peak and the Maya achieved their celebrated advances in architecture, mathematics, agriculture, astronomy, art, and other areas.
They built spectacular temples and palaces, developed several calendars—including one reaching back to 13 August, 3114 BC —and evolved a numerical system capable of recording a number that today would be expressed as 142 followed by 36 zeros. They developed a complex system of writing and, beginning in 50 BC , were the first people in the Western hemisphere to keep written historical records. Around AD 900 the construction of buildings and stelae—stone slabs inscribed with names and dates—ceased abruptly, and the advanced lowland civilization of the Maya collapsed, creating a mystery that has fascinated scholars for many years. Possible causes that have been proposed include warfare, drought, famine, and disease.
The Spanish campaign to subdue the Maya and conquer their lands began around 1520 and ended nearly 200 years later when Tayasal, the last remaining Mayan region (in present-day Guatemala), fell to the conquistadors in 1697. The Spanish seized Mayan lands and enslaved their populations, sending many to labor in the mines of northern Mexico. In addition, thousands of Maya died of diseases spread by the Europeans, especially smallpox. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Central American lands won their independence from Spain, but the lives of the Maya did not improve. They labored on vast tobacco, sugarcane, and henequen plantations, in virtual slavery enforced by their continuing debt to the landowners. In the Yucatán, many joined in a protracted rebellion called the Caste War that lasted from 1847 to 1901.
After the revolution of 1910, the Maya in Mexico gained increased legal rights and better educational and job opportunities. However, a steep drop in world prices for henequen—the "green gold" from which twine was made—turned the Yucatán from one of Mexico's richest regions to one of its poorest. In Guatemala, the disenfranchisement and poverty of the Maya—comprising roughly half the population—continued unchanged into the twentieth century. Since the 1970s, political violence has forced many Maya to flee to Mexico, where they remain as refugees. In Chiapas, Maya of the Tzeltal and Tzotzil tribes took part in the Zapatista uprising of January 1994.
The modern Maya live in southeastern Mexico and northern Central America, including Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Altogether, their homelands cover an area of approximately 125,000 square miles (323,750 square kilometers) with a varied terrain that encompasses both northern lowlands and southern highlands. Volcanic mountains dominate the highlands. The fertile soil of the highland valleys supports the largest segment of the Maya population. While many Maya have settled in cities—particularly Merida and Cancún—and adopted an urban lifestyle, most remain rural dwellers.
Reliable figures for the total number of Maya are unavailable. Estimates range upward from 4 million. The true figure is probably between 8 and 10 million, including about half of Guatemala's total population of 10 million, close to 2 million Maya in the Mexican Yucatán, and additional numbers in Mexico's Chiapas state, as well as Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Among the larger individual groups are about 750,000 Quiché (K'iche') in the midwestern highlands of Guatemala; 445,000 or more Cakchiquel in several Guatemalan departments (provinces); and over 500,000 Mam in southwestern Guatemala and southeastern Chiapas.
Most Maya today speak Spanish. The two Mayan languages of the Classic period, Yucatecan and Cholan, have subdivided into about thirty separate languages, some of which are not mutually intelligible. The most widely spoken are Mam, Quiché, Kekchí, and Cakchiquel. Advocates of Mayan cultural autonomy protest against the relegation of their indigenous languages to limited use, often in remote rural areas, while Spanish remains the language of government, education, the church, and the media. The following example is drawn from a creation myth in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan holy book:
Keje k'ut xax k'o wi ri kaj nay puch, u K'ux Kaj.
Are ub'i ri k'ab'awil, chuch'axik.
And of course there is the sky, and there is also the Heart of Sky.
This is the name of the god, as it is spoken.
The greatest body of Mayan tradition is contained in the Popol Vuh, an ancient text first transcribed into Latin and later translated into Spanish that preserves both sacred and secular lore. According to its creation myth, the gods made three different attempts at creating human beings before they had a version they were satisfied with. The first beings, which were made of mud, were destroyed because they had no brains. The next ones were made of wood and proved deficient because they were without emotions and thus could not properly praise their makers. Finally the correct material—maize (corn)—was found, and perfect beings were fashioned. Ultimately deciding to protect them by limiting the extent of their knowledge, the gods decided to damage their eyes so they could not see too much, and the resulting beings were the first Maya.
The traditional religions of the Maya, in which astrology and ancestor worship both played a role, were based on a system of beliefs that included the world, the heavens, and an unseen underworld called Xibalba. When Spanish missionaries introduced Catholicism to their regions, the Maya tended to add it onto their existing religion, creating a unique brand of "folk Catholicism." Their traditional gods that belonged to the natural world, such as corn, rain, and the sun, became associated with Christian saints, and various rituals and festivals were transmuted into forms approved by the church.
Since the 1960s, evangelical Christianity, mostly promoted by churches in the southern United States, has been adopted by large segments of the Mayan population. Entire towns have embraced conservative forms of Protestantism, which have not proven as amenable as Catholicism to the retention of customs related to traditional folk religions, such as the use of alcohol in association with religious rituals or the retention of the sacred brotherhoods—known as cofradias in Guatemala and as cargos in Chiapas—which traditionally oversee village festivals and other aspects of civic life.
Most holidays currently observed by the Maya are the holy days of the Christian calendar. Many of their observances, however, still have characteristics of the traditional nature worship of their ancestors. The most important celebrations are generally Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter in late March or early April) and Christmas (December 25). The Maya living in the Chamula region of Chiapas are known for their five-day Carnival celebration, called Crazy February, whose Christian significance (the period preceding Lent) coincides with the older observance of the five "Lost Days" at the end of the Maya solar calendar. Religious societies called cargos sponsor the festivities, which include ceremonial dances, feasting, processions, and ritual reenactments of both religious and historic events.
Major life transitions (such as birth, puberty, and death) are marked by religious ceremonies, many of which combine Christian and ancestral traditions.
The religious societies known as cargos in Chiapas and cofradias in Guatemala have been an important vehicle of social cohesion among the Maya. Charged since colonial times with organizing Catholic religious festivals, they provided the means for the Maya to conform to the customs of their colonizers while privately preserving their own religion, traditions, and world-view. Mayan villages today have both civil and religious cargos, whose officials may ascend through a hierarchy of positions to ultimately become respected village elders, or principales .
Housing varies among the different regions and groups of Maya. The Mam, who live in southwestern Guatemala and southeastern Chiapas, live in houses with adobe walls, small shuttered windows, roofs of tile or corrugated metal, and a floor of hard-packed dirt. The K'iche' in the Guatemalan highlands build rectangular houses with double-pitched tile roofs and walls of adobe, thatch supported by boards or poles, or other materials. Increasing numbers live in more modern homes built from brick or lumber with tin roofs.
Maya folk medicine includes the ministrations of ritual healers called curanderos and female herbalists who may double as midwives. Common cures include prayers, offerings, herbal remedies, and sweat-baths.
The main means of transport for most Maya is the bus. Buses in Maya areas may be crowded as early as 4:00 or 5:00 AM , often with people traveling from remote villages to the larger market towns. By late afternoon and evening there are fewer travelers on the road. Trains in the Maya regions—like those in many parts of Central and South America—are generally slow, old, and unreliable. In some areas, boats are used for public transportation.
Both nuclear and extended families are found among the Maya. Couples generally marry in their late teens or early twenties. Traditionally, all marriages were arranged, but since the 1950s it has become increasingly common among some groups for young people to choose their own mates. In arranged marriages, contact may be initiated by the couple, followed by negotiation between the two families. Gifts are generally exchanged, and in some cases the bride's parents receive a payment to compensate them for having raised her. Couples often have both civil and religious ceremonies, and they may live with the groom's parents until their first child is born.
Family structure may alternate between nuclear and extended, with the addition of newly married couples who will eventually leave to establish their own homes, or elderly parents who come to live with the family when it becomes hard for them to manage on their own.
The Maya wear both modern Western-style clothing and traditional garb (although the latter is more commonly worn by women). Men generally wear trousers and sport shirts or guayaberas— dress shirts with decorative tucks worn outside the belt in place of a jacket. Women wear either traditional woven and embroidered clothing, or stylish dresses and skirt-and-blouse outfits. Traditional women's attire includes the huipil (plural: huipiles ), a long, sleeveless tunic; the quechquémitli, a shoulder cape; and the enredo, a wrap-around skirt. Maya garments are commonly decorated with elaborate and colorful embroidery. The designs, which include humans, animals, and plants, often have some religious significance, and every Maya group and village has its own distinctive patterns of decoration. The decorative designs for huipiles are often said to appear to women in their dreams. Men often wear the traditional tunics over store-bought shirts. Fajas are sashes that hold garments in place and also serve as pockets.
The Maya generally eat three meals a day: breakfast (el desayuno), lunch (la comida), and supper (la cena). Corn, the most important food of their ancestors, remains the central ingredient in their diet today and is used to make tortillas or tamales. After corn, beans (frijoles) are the most basic staple, served boiled, fried, or refried. Soups—many of them actually thick stews—form a large part of the Mayan diet. One of the most popular is lime soup (sopa de lima), made from chicken, limes, and a variety of spices.
Poultry forms the basis of many meals—either turkey, which is native to the region, or chicken, which was introduced by the Spanish. Plentiful seafood caught on the coasts of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico is also an important part of the diet. The Yucatán is known for its ceviche, a cold dish made with fish prepared with an acidic marinade (usually lime juice), served with onions, chiles, and cilantro. Popular desserts include flan (a custard introduced by the Spanish) and Torta del Cielo (Heavenly Cake), a cake made with rum, almonds, and ten eggs that is served at weddings and other special occasions.
One of the best-known foods of the Maya is Cochinita Pibil , a pork dish that dates back to pre-Columbian times, when it was made from wild boar cooked in a coal-filled pit. Domesticated pigs, introduced by the Spanish, have replaced the boar, but the dish is prepared with the same seasonings as it was in the past. A recipe for Cochinita Pibil is included in this entry.
The Maya are educated at either public or Catholic schools. In Guatemala, a half-dozen Catholic-run boarding schools are the main source of education for those wishing to progress beyond the basic education available in the villages. Maya concerned with preserving their traditions believe that the formal education available to them has caused them to lose touch with their own culture. The Guatemalan Academy of Maya Languages ( Academia de Lenguas Mayas ) leads a movement to preserve the languages of the Guatemalan Maya.
The Maya have preserved many aspects of their ancient culture, including their traditional clothing, folklore, agricultural techniques, family structure, language, and dance. Many elements of their ancient religions have also survived for centuries under the guise of Catholic religious observances.
In rural areas, the Maya farm their maize fields, or milpas, much as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. Forested sites are converted into new fields by felling the trees and burning the brush (today known as "slash-and-burn" agriculture). Maize kernels are then planted into holes made with digging sticks. Where the ancient Maya used stone tools for clearing and hardened the end of the digging stick with fire, today's farmer uses a steel machete and metal-tipped stick. Because this type of agriculture rapidly depletes the soil, fields must be left fallow for periods ranging from seven to as many as twenty years. Besides farming, Maya also work as laborers and artisans or own small shops. In urban areas, they work in jobs involving textiles or computers, for example.
Serve with beans, salsa, and heated corn tortillas.
Adapted from Gerlach, Nancy, et al. Foods of the Maya. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1994.
The ancient Maya played hip-ball, a game that involved keeping a hard rubber ball aloft with any part of the body other than the hands, head, or feet. In some regions, the ball had to be hit through a set of stone rings. Soccer is popular among the Maya of today.
Sunday afternoons after church are the most popular time for recreation. Most businesses are closed, and many people stroll the village streets or relax in local parks. Popular forms of musical entertainment include marimba teams and mariachi bands.
Maya women are famous for their weaving, often using locally handspun yarn and natural vegetable dyes. Using the pre-Columbian back-strap loom of their ancestors, they produce striped and plain white cloth for shawls, shirts, and children's clothes, some with designs that are over 1,200 years old. Colorful hammocks are woven from fine cotton string. Other craft items include both glazed and unglazed pottery, ceremonial wooden masks, and goods woven from palm, straw, reeds, and sisal.
For centuries, traditional Maya dances have been preserved by the religious men's fraternities called cofradias. These dances were performed for both ceremonial and entertainment purposes. The Pop Wuj dance depicts the four stages of humankind's development: the Man of Mud, who is destroyed because he does not recognize the gods; the Man of Wood, who is too rigid and ultimately burns; the Monkey Man, who is too silly; and the Human Being, who respects and prays to the gods. The K'iche' Maya of Chichicastenango have a dance that centers around Sijolaj, a harvest king whom the Spaniards identified with St. Thomas.
The Maya of Yucatán, like many other Mexicans, suffer from overpopulation, unemployment, and periods of political unrest. In Guatemala, Mayan farmers have been crowded onto mountainous areas with poor land, and laborers must work for extremely low wages. The most serious problem for the Maya in that country has been over two decades of violent political repression by the military and right-and left-wing death squads. Thousands have been murdered or "disappeared," and many have fled the country for Mexico or the United States.
The health of the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya of Chiapas has been compromised by their inadequate diet, which consists of fewer than 500 calories a day—one-fifth of the minimum standard set by the United Nations. Life expectancy is only forty-four years, and the infant mortality rate is 150 deaths per 1,000 live births.
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