Thursday, December 07, 2006

Apocalypto...How do the Maya feel?

Formato de impresión patrocinado por

Mayas excited about new Mel Gibson film
Wire services
El Universal

Jueves 07 de diciembre de 2006

Scenes of enslaved Maya building temples for a violent, decadent culture in Mel Gibson´s new film "Apocalypto" may ring true for many of today´s Mayas, who earn meager wages in construction camps, building huge tourist resorts on land they once owned

Scenes of enslaved Maya building temples for a violent, decadent culture in Mel Gibson´s new film "Apocalypto" may ring true for many of today´s Mayas, who earn meager wages in construction camps, building huge tourist resorts on land they once owned.

Some Mayas are excited at the prospect of the first feature film made in their native tongue, Yucatec Maya. But others among the 800,000 surviving Mayas are worried that Gibson´s hyper-violent, apocalyptic film could be just the latest misreading of their culture by outsiders.

"There has been a lot of concern among Mayan groups from Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, because we don´t know what his treatment or take on this is going to be," said Amadeo Cool May of the indigenous defense group "Mayaon," or "We are Maya."

"This could be an attempt to merchandize or sell the image of a culture, or its people, that often differs from what that people needs, or wants," Cool May said.

Gibson employed Mayas, most of whom live on the Yucatán Peninsula, in the filming of the movie, and says he wants to make the Mayan language "cool" again, and encourage young people "to speak it with pride."

The film has been screened for some U.S. Indians, who praised the use of indigenous actors. The Mayas haven´t seen it yet, but like Indians north of the border, they have seen others co-opt their culture, as in high-class Caribbean resorts like the Maya Coast and the Maya Riviera.

But the indigenous are largely absent from those beach resorts, where vacationers tour mock "Maya Villages" or watch culturally inaccurate mishmashes with "Maya Dancers" performing in feather headdresses and facepaint.

"The owners are often foreigners who buy up the land at ridiculously low prices, build tourism resorts and the Mayas in reality are often just the construction workers for the hotels or, at best, are employed as chamber maids," said Cool May.

"Apocalypto" also portrays Maya civilization at a low moment, just before the Spaniards arrived, when declining, quarreling Maya groups were focused more on war and human sacrifice than on the calendars and writing system of the civilization´s bloody but brilliant classical period.

Outsiders´ views of the Maya have long been subject to changing intellectual fashions. Until the 1950s, academics often depicted the ancient Mayas as an idyllic, peaceful culture devoted to astronomy and mathematics. Evidence has since emerged that, even at their height, the Mayas fought bloody and sometimes apocalyptic wars among themselves, lending somewhat more credence to Gibson´s approach.

Warrior-kings and priests directed periodic wars among the ancient Maya aimed at capturing slaves or prisoners for labor or human sacrifice. Entire cities were destroyed by the wars, and whole forests cut down to build the temples.

The latest trendy theory is a largely Internet-based rumor that the Maya long-count calendar predicts a global calamity on Dec. 22, 2012. Some have woven that together with prophecies from the Bible.

Mauricio Amuy, a non-Maya actor who participated in the filming of Apocalypto, says the production staff discussed the theory on the set.

"We know the Bible talks about prophecies, and that the Mayas spoke of a change of energy on Dec. 22, 2012, and it (the movie) is somewhat focused on that," Amuy said. "People should perhaps take that theory and reflect, and not do these things that are destroying humanity."


While they resisted the Spanish conquest longer than most of the indigenous groups - the Mayas´ last rebellion, the War of the Castes, lasted until 1901 - many were virtually enslaved until the early 1900s on plantations growing sisal, used for rope-making, or in the jungle, tapping gum trees. Discrimination and poverty are probably their greatest enemies today.

Just as Gibson´s use of Aramaic in "The Passion of Christ" sparked a burst of interest in that language, some Maya are hoping "Apocalypto! will do the same for their tongue.

"I think it is a good chance to integrate the Mayan language ... for people to hear it in movies, on television, everywhere," said Hilaria Mass, a Maya who teaches the language at Yucatán´s state university.

Mass, 65, recalls that children were once prohibited from speaking Maya in school. There is still little bilingual education, and many of those who speak Maya can´t read it.

One sign of progress is Yucatán radio station XEPET, "The Voice of the Mayas," which began broadcasting in the indigenous language in 1982. While it began with a mixed Spanish-Maya patois, it now broadcasts in 90 percent pure Maya.

The station is trying to purge words borrowed from Spanish and revive a purer form of Maya. It broadcasts all sorts of music - from rock to rap to reggae - with Mayan lyrics.

Still, the percentage of Maya speakers in Yucatán fell from 37 percent in 2000 to 33.9 percent by 2005. Paradoxically, for a state that advertises the glories of the Maya culture for tourists, it is having a hard time keeping the present-day Maya there; many are migrating to the United States.

"For tourists, that´s what sells ... what catches their attention are the archaeological sites," said Diana Canto, director of the Yucatán Institute for the Development of Maya Culture. "We are trying to sell them on the living Mayas too, so that people get to know their cultural richness."

Today´s Maya are known mainly for their elaborate rhyming jokes, a cuisine based on pumpkin and achiote seeds, and loose embroidered white clothing. They´re largely peaceful farmers and masons who carry their goods on ubiquitous three-wheeled bicycles over table-flat Yucatán.

Interestingly, some Mayas reach much the same conclusion as Gibson´s movie, which focuses on one man´s struggle to save his family as a metaphor for saving the future of a people.

"Our culture hasn´t been destroyed, because the family is the base of it," says Maas. "Perhaps some material things have been destroyed, but the real basis of the culture is what a family teaches their children, and that survives, and has survived."

© 2006 Copyright El Universal-El Universal Online


James Creechan said...

A slightly different viewpoint is available (in Spanish) at

This comment is by a descendant of Mayan rulers, and suggests that there are two sides to the film. On one hand, it's good that people are paying attention to the history of the Maya, but on the other hand Mel Gibson's portrayal is simplistic, blood-thirsty, and too focused on simplistic views of a sophisticated culture.

James Creechan said...

The comment mentioned a link above. The document is available here (In Spanish)

El investigador afirma que el filme sacia apetito de quienes gustan de la violencia

Apocalypto refuerza ideas erróneas sobre los mayas: Rosado May

El ex rector de la Universidad de Quintana Roo y bisnieto del último líder de ese pueblo en la Guerra de Castas, asistió al estreno de la cinta de Mel Gibson en Estados Unidos

La clase gobernante tenía relación con los dioses, por tanto no era el resultado de una elección, aclara Francisco Rosado May. La imagen es un fotograma del filme
La clase gobernante tenía relación con los dioses, por tanto no era el resultado de una elección, aclara Francisco Rosado May. La imagen es un fotograma del filme

Francisco Rosado May fue rector de la Universidad de Quintana Roo y ahora es investigador visitante de la Universidad de California, en Santa Cruz. Es doctor en biología y proviene de familia maya: es "bisnieto del general Francisco May, último líder de los mayas durante la Guerra de Castas, quien firmó el Tratado de Paz entre los mayas y el gobierno federal mexicano". El investigador no sólo ha "vivido en la cultura maya desde que nació", sino que además ha leído "extensamente" sobre el tema.

El día del estreno en Estados Unidos (8 de diciembre), Rosado May fue a ver Apocalypto, de Mel Gibson, sobre la caída del imperio maya.

"Apocalypto es una cinta de ficción estilo Hollywood que refuerza las creencias generalizadas, pero erróneas de la cultura maya", describió el biólogo, a solicitud de este diario, en un extenso escrito. "Sacia el apetito de personas interesadas en fortalecer con bases falsas sus creencias sobre una cultura o de quienes gustan de la violencia por la violencia. Definitivamente no es para personas preparadas y de mente crítica".

En la cinta "se teje una percepción de una sociedad violenta, de guerra continua, de sed de sangre, de sacrificios humanos y de conductas despiadadas. 'Estos factores explican su colapso como cultura', escuché decir a varias personas que vieron el filme.

"Quizá influenciados por el libro Collapse, de Jared Diamond, la creencia común es que la cultura maya colapsó de la noche a la mañana y que la causa principal fue la gran cantidad de guerras entre los señoríos, aunado a que la clase gobernante ya no pudo cumplir con promesas de bienestar al pueblo, por lo que éste se rebeló". Pero, argumentó Rosado May, si no "lograron unificar todos los señoríos, ¿cómo pudieron tener la coordinación suficiente para lograr avances tan significativos en matemáticas, astronomía, política, agricultura, arquitectura, ingeniería?; ¿cómo tuvieron suficiente tiempo para desarrollar tales conocimientos si estaban ocupados haciendo guerras?" Un sólo señorío hubiera sido incapaz de hacer todas estas contribuciones.

Por otro lado, "argumentar que si una clase gobernante no cumplía con sus promesas el pueblo lo podría derrocar suena a influencia del concepto de democracia actual. La clase gobernante maya tenía relación con los dioses, por tanto no era el resultado de una elección".

Un maya difícil de entender

Rosado May dijo que las críticas positivas que ha leído sobre Apocalypto tienen que ver con los efectos especiales, el maquillaje y, sobre todo, "a la posibilidad de que haga más popular al maya yucateco: que quienes lo hablan se sientan orgullosos y que más personas quieran aprender el idioma".

Pero no cree que vaya a ocurrir esto, para empezar porque "a excepción de dos personajes (un anciano y una niña), los demás hablan un maya yucateco difícil de entender": no tienen una adecuada gramática y "sí mucho acento extranjero. Dudo que un monolingüe maya yucateco pueda entender todos los diálogos". Si bien "hay que aplaudir el esfuerzo de los actores, en su mayoría nativos de Estados Unidos, por aprender o memorizar (frases) en maya", su trabajo "dista mucho" de ser de gran calidad.

Por otro lado, Rosado May detalla inconsistencias históricas y del medio ambiente. Por ejemplo, aparecen elementos que no son de la época, como el bambú, o "perros que no tienen las características de los nativos de América" o la pantera negra que "no forma parte de la fauna de la región".

Puerta a la educación intercultural

A raíz de "la influencia del método científico en nuestra educación occidentalizada, la mayoría prefiere explicaciones sencillas de fenómenos complejos. Es por eso que la gente suele quedarse con explicaciones del tipo: 'La cultura maya colapsó porque tenía señoríos divididos; porque eran violentos, sanguinarios y hacían la guerra entre sí; porque los pueblos se rebelaron contra los gobernantes que no cumplieron promesas'. Ninguna de estas explicaciones "refleja la complejidad de factores".

Sin embargo, el investigador mantiene la esperanza de que "nuevas investigaciones abran camino para nuevas explicaciones y a nuevos procesos de construir conocimientos. Para esto es necesaria la interculturalidad, no solo la multiculturalidad; es necesario abrir la puerta a la educación intercultural".