|A Pyramid at Tikal National Park|
But in all of this the real Maya–– the Maya of today––are somehow strangely overlooked.
Some two thousand of them live in San Marcos de Laguna, one of the smallest villages on the shores of mythical lake Atitlan. Lost in lush coffee forests and hills blooming in wild sunflowers, it is among the most ancient continuously populated settlements on the American continent. The contemporary Maya and their children still speak their native Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel tongues, and wear traditional handmade clothes–– not to please the tourists but to be themselves.
And that too has become a sales pitch.
|A Maya Tz'utujil Woman|
Day or evening, silence is in deficit here, with dogs and children so numerous that there is hardly a moment of peace. But the tranquility is intruded much more violently by the megaphone speakers mounted on the roof of the Catholic church. Starting at dawn, a monotone voice loudly and unavoidably delivers the daily discourse; an evangelical church brings the sound up shortly after. Hallelujah, indeed. The indigenous descendants of the Maya who worshiped everything but Jesus have embraced today the religion of the Spanish conquistadores with a peculiar consistency, and much more fervently so after American missionaries began throwing the bait here some forty years ago.
On one afternoon when the megaphone preaching became intolerable, I walked to the main church, a large barn-like place in the center of the village. Inside, the person with the megaphone sat in complete solitude, with a wooden Jesus looking down on him from a lavish decoration of paper drapes and fake flowers.
In the churches of Petén, Guatemala’s jungle state in the north, Jesus comes in a fake gold polish that peels off to reveal his cheap plastic body. He also hangs on heavy necklaces dipping into women’s deep cleavages, or is crucified on a bumper sticker that declares, “Jesus is my King”. The Maya sacred sites in this state draw a huge number of tourists, the remains of the ancient city of Tikal making the greatest attraction. This region, once the true heart of the Maya civilization, is today a Mundo Perdido, a lost world. The Maya ways here have been forgotten, the colorful traditional attire long replaced with the mass produced clothing of the developed world, Nike caps and Quicksilver sweatshirts, tightly fitting jeans for the women, their artificial nails festooned with little pearls. Only the guides taking tourists on pricey tours to the pyramids keep telling the stories of the Maya in broken English, and that pays off.
|Maya Kaqchikel women at their workplace in a hotel kitchen|
In reality, the astounding cultural heritage of the Maya that has driven big money into the region has brought little or no benefit to the Mayan descendants. Not much has changed in their lives or social status, except now they are selling themselves as construction workers, housekeepers, and toilet cleaners, serving the foreigners.
Passing by a small travel agency one day, a young native woman stopped me. Don’t I want this or that, a Maya tour or a guide for a volcano hike? But then she pulled me nearer, looked me in the eye, and whispered, “I have to tell you something. My little daughter, you see, she is very smart, she really wants to be in school, but––” glimpsing over her shoulder to make sure no one’s listening–– “there is no money to continue. My husband wouldn’t give any. Do you know of anyone who could help?”