Scenes of enslaved Maya Indians building temples for a violent, decadent culture in Mel Gibson’s new film “Apocalypto” may ring true for many of today’s Maya, who earn meager wages in construction camps, building huge tourist resorts on land they once owned.
Some Maya are excited at the prospect of the first feature film made in their native tongue, Yucatec Maya. But others among the 800,000 surviving Mayans 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 Indian 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 Maya, most of whom live on Mexico’s Yucatan 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 Indian actors. The Maya 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 Indians are largely absent from those beach resorts, where vacationers tour mock Mayan Villages or watch culturally inaccurate mishmashes with “Mayan Dancers” performing in feather headdresses and face paint.
“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 chambermaids,” said Cool May.
“Apocalypto” also portrays Mayan civilization at a low moment, just before the Spaniards arrived, when declining, quarreling Mayan 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 Maya as an idyllic, peaceful culture devoted to astronomy and mathematics. Evidence has since emerged that, even at their height, the Maya 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.
Talking about 2012
The latest trendy theory is a largely Internet-based rumor that the Mayan 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 Indians — the Maya’s 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 Maas, a Maya who teaches the language at Yucatan’s state university.
Maas, 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 Yucatan radio station XEPET, “The Voice of the Mayas,” which began broadcasting in the Indian 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 Yucatan state fell from 37 percent in 2000 to 33.9 percent by 2005. Paradoxically, for a state that advertises the glories of the Mayan 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 Yucatan 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 Yucatan.
Interestingly, some Maya 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.”