Where did the Mayans go?
By GUY GARCIA PALENQUE-With reporting by Laura Lopez/San Cristobal de las Casas
A tour guide at the legendary ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, likes to tell the story. A tourist, after staring in awe at the towering pyramids, turned to the guide and said, "The buildings are beautiful, but where did all the people go?" "Of course, she was talking to a Maya, " the guide says, shaking his head at the irony. "We're still here. We never left."
The exchange illustrates a living paradox at the heart of the Maya puzzle: even as scientists continue to investigate the mysterious eclipse of the classic Maya empire, the Maya themselves are all around them. An estimated 1.2 million Maya still live in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and nearly 5 million more are spread throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and the cities and rural farm communities of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Ethnically, they are derived from the same people who created the most exalted culture in Mesoamerica. Yet the thousands of visitors who come each year to admire the imposing temples of Palenque might be shocked to know the ignominious fate of the Maya's modern-day descendants.
Centuries of persecution and cultural isolation have turned the Maya into impoverished outcasts in their own land. At best, they are often reduced to tourist attractions; for a little money, Mexico's Lacandon Indians, for instance, will display their traditional white cotton shikur and long black hair. But condescension is the mildest of the abuses suffered by today's Maya. In a 1992 report on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Amnesty International cited dozens of human-rights violations carried out by Mexican authorities against the Maya people of Chiapas: they include an incident in 1990 when 11 Maya were tortured after being arrested during a land dispute, and another one two years ago when 100 Maya were beaten and imprisoned for 30 hours without food or medical attention. In Guatemala's 30-year-old civil war, it has been the Maya who have been the primary victims of the military's antiguerrilla campaigns in the highlands, which have left 140, 000 Guatemalans dead or missing. In some cases, government troops have burned entire Maya villages.
The systematic subjugation of the Maya dates back to the Spanish Conquest of the early 16th century, when Catholic missionaries outlawed the Maya religion and burned all but four of their sacred bark-paper books. Indians who were not killed in battle or felled by European diseases were forced to work on colonial plantations, often as slaves. Bands of Maya rebels, known to be ferocious fighters, resisted pacification for almost 400 years, first under the Spanish occupation and then under the Mexican army after Mexico became independent.
Despite this history of defiance-or maybe, in some cases, because of it-the Maya continued to be targets of abuse even after being incorporated into the family of Central American nations. As recently as 20 years ago, Maya peasants carrying chickens or peanuts to the town market in San Cristobal de las Casas were in danger of having their wares snatched away by non-Indian women, or "Black Widows." And though the town's economy depended on trade with the Indians, Maya found walking the streets at night would be thrown into jail and fined.
Today, despite government decrees that guarantee equal rights for Indians and the new presidency in Guatemala of human-rights champion Ramiro de Leon Carpio, indigenous peoples like the Maya remain at the bottom rung of the political and economic ladder. In Chiapas, where the natives speak nine different languages, literacy rates are about 50%, compared with 88% for Mexico as a whole. Infant mortality among the Maya is 500 per 1, 000 live births, 10 times as high as the national average. And 70% of the Indians in the countryside lack access to potable water.
In these sorry conditions, many Maya have seized on their old ways to make sense of their modern lives. In the remote highlands of Guatemala and Mexico, where the rugged terrain has held the outside world at bay, contemporary Maya still practice many of the same rituals that were performed by their ancestors 4, 000 years ago. Maya weavers embroider their wares with diamond motifs that are virtually identical to the cosmological patterns depicted on the lintels of ancient temples at Yaxchilan and other Maya sites. By marking their clothing with the symbols of their ancestors, the Maya artisans build a material link to pre-Columbian gods-and the indelible spirit of their cultural past. "Depictions of everyday life do not occur in the weaving, " notes Walter F. Morris Jr., a Seattle-based anthropologist and author of Living Maya. "It's always something supernatural, something dreamt, something you can only see in dreams."
THE YUCATAN-FROM PREHISTORIC TIMES TO THE GREAT MAYA REVOLT:A NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE ORIGIN OF MAYA CIVILIZATION AND THE EPIC ENCOUNTER WITH SPANISH CONQUEST
MSD Natural Rubber Large Table IMAGE ID: 13491003 Mayan symbol on texture background
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