Meeting the Mayas
There are distinct differences in the physical appearance, traditional clothing and origin myths among the many branches of the Mayas. In fact, the physical differences between the Highland Mayas, Tabasco Mayas, Puuc Mayas and other branches are so stark, that there is little doubt that their ancestors were different peoples, who later acquired Maya dialects and versions of Maya cultural traditions.
The Mayas Then and Today – Part Two
Two branches of the Mayas definitely have verifiable traditions of migrating to southern Mexico from somewhere else. The Tamulté de las Sabanas in Tabasco State fled Tamaulipas (Northeastern Mexico) around 1200 AD when the region was overrun by Chichimec barbarians. The formerly spoke a dialect of Itza, hence the Itza and Hitchiti Creek suffix for “people” at the end. Most of these refugees headed northeastward to present day Georgia, kicking off the explosion of construction activities and population growth that anthropologists labeled the “Middle Mississippian Period.” In Georgia, they were eventually called the Tama, Tamauli, Tamale or Tamaute Creeks. They were visited by Hernando de Soto.
Less some anthropologists start smiling like Cheshire cats, perhaps we should add some more details before moving on. The Tamulté are the only indigenous people in Mexico, who eat grits and corn on the cob. They are also the only indigenous Mexicans, who celebrate the Green Corn Festival and start their new year on the Summer Solstice. They and the Highland Mayas are the only indigenous Mexicans, who dance the Stomp Dance . . . although it is quite popular in Central America and Northwestern South America.
The Tamulté are the only branch of the Mayas that resemble Muskogees, aka “Lower” Creeks. Several other branches of the Mayas strongly resemble the branches of the Itsate-speaking (Hitchiti) Creeks that originally predominated in Georgia, however. In a later article POOF will discuss them in more detail.
The Itzá Mayas lived in the Chiapas Highlands during the Classic Period (200 AD-900 AD). Apparently they originally spoke a language similar to Panoan from Eastern Peru. Between 200 AD and 600 AD they were ruled by the Totonacs from Teotihuacan and absorbed many Totonac words, which now can be found in Hitchiti-Creek and Miccosukee. While under the domination of ethnic Mayas between 600 AD and 900 AD they absorbed Maya words, and probably continued the Mayanization process throughout the Post-Classic Period. However, their elite and priesthood always remembered their original South American language and used it when they didn’t want ethnic Mayas to understand them.
FIRST CONTACT: Señor, ¿le gustaría una mujer bonita?
My travel coordinator at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia insisted that while in Yucatan, I must spend at least a few nights in Merida’s oldest hotel. It dated from the 1700s. She said that if Georgia Tech complained, I should say that Dr. Piňa-Chan instructed me to do so . . . in order to study its historic architecture. Architecture, the hotel did have. It was an incredible building and actually much cheaper than the modern hotels in Merida, since at the time, most Gringos only wanted modern conveniences.
I had only stayed in a hotel once in my life prior to flying to Mexico. However, prior to being in Merida, I had always stayed in small, inexpensive posadas, which were essentially, inns. This place was in a class by itself.
FIRST CONTACT! I was still in a state of shock because of the high ceilings and ornate details of my room, when a Mestizo Maya hotel maid came to my room to see, if I needed anything. Since she couldn’t speak English, she carried a card with pictures on it. I could point to the picture to tell her what I wanted.
Then she went into a state of shock when I spoke Spanish to her and was egalitarian. I told her that I was an architecture student and could not afford to order beverages or meals to my room. At that time there were still words that Middle and Upper Class Mexicans used to put the Indios in their place. I used words like Mexican friends use between each other.
In retrospect, I realize now the the hotel maid was quite a looker. However, she was in her mid-to-late thirties and so looked like an “older woman” to a guy, who had just turned 21, two days before.
The maid had only been gone about 30 seconds before she knocked on the door again. She came into the room and began asking me personal questions, like was I married and why I was traveling alone. She said that I did not look like a Latinamericano or a Norteamericano. Where was I from? I told her that I was part Indio- Norteamericano. She smiled and said that she was part Maya. She said that North American Indians are taller than anybody. She then asked, “Señor, ¿le gustaría una mujer bonita?” I thought that she was asking if I like beautiful women, to see if I was straight. I blurted back, “Sí, me gusta mucho las mujeres hermosas.”
The Maya maid then asked what I liked women to do for me. Oops! She was soliciting for prostitutes. The Mexican Consul in Atlanta told me to avoid prostitutes while traveling in the campos. If they knew, I was alone I could get robbed or end up dead in a back street. Actually, I was absorbed by the “dating culture”, I wouldn’t even known how to behave with a prostitute. At any rate, I quickly cut off the conversation with a “No, gracias, tengo una hermosa novia en la Universidad de Anáhuac en la Ciudad de México.” (I have a beautiful girlfriend at Anahuac University in Mexico City.) She looked puzzled and left the room.
I spent the rest of the day, studying the Colonial architecture in Merida. When I returned to my room late that afternoon, the determined Maya maid showed up again. She asked me if I liked boys. I told her No-o-o-o. She then told me that her 16 year old daughter saw me on the street and said I was the man of her dreams . . . so tall and so handsome . . . not too white and not too dark.
(Blah – Blah – Blah)
The hotel maid then said that her daughter wanted to be with me as soon as possible and then wanted to go with me to see all the ruins in Mexico. She would make me very happy at night and learn to speak English. “¿Su hija? “ I didn’t believe a word she was saying. The maid then pulled out her wallet and showed me a photo of a 16 year old version of Salma Hayek. I assumed that it must be 20 year old photo of somebody else and at any rate, age 16 was jail bait . . . but I later learned not in Mexico. Among the Mayas then, it was considered prime marrying age.
I told the lady that her daughter was beautiful, but I could not afford to pay for a female escort for the two months, I would be touring Maya sites and that the girl would need a passport to get into Belize and Guatemala. The lady was exasperated with my indifference and exclaimed, “No prostitutia! Libre, libre” (No fees charged.)
How could she expect me to believe that any mother would set up her beautiful 16 year old daughter to shack up with a strange man from another country and then go out into the jungle with him? I told her no again and asked her to leave my room.
The next afternoon, I saw her daughter in front of the hotel . . . far prettier in person, getting into a taxi with a young German archaeologist. She had met another man of her dreams. Oh the mistakes of a misspent youth!
Later, while still in Yucatan, a Maya man, who was fluent in English explained what I had experienced. The Spanish conquistadors had picked out the prettiest Maya girls and made them mistresses. Generation after generation, their daughters became mistresses, while their sons became the non-commissioned and junior officers of the Spanish colonial army.
The beautiful 16 year old girl belonged to a special mestizo caste, who were expected to be paid escorts and ultimately mistresses, but would never consider being a hooker on the street and rarely married. Four centuries of “selective breeding” in the Latin American countries produced mixed heritage senoritas, who by the late 20th century were winning all the international beauty contests and becoming movie stars.
The hotel maid figured that the best possible fate for her 16 year old daughter was to go off into the sunset with a nice, Gringo mestizo. Providing him daytime company and nighttime entertainment was the duty of her caste and not a question of morals. Thinking like a mother, she also knew that since I was Mestizo myself, I would welcome Mestizo children. At the time there was a great deal prejudice against Mexicans and Indians in the Western United States. She had probably heard stories of Gringo men tossing out their Mexican mistresses, when a black haired, tanned skinned baby arrived.
We like Americans. We hate the Spanish
One of the first things that Dr. Piňa-Chan did in our orientation session was to toss the syllabus prepared by some Georgia Tech architecture professors in the trash can. He asked if I wanted to be a Gringo tourist or to know the ancient architecture of Mexico. The professors had planned for me to fly to the largest cities then take guided bus tours to a few well known Pre-Columbian ruins scattered about Mexico and Guatemala.
Instead the famous archaeologist instructed me to travel on the same buses used by Indians and Mestizos to both the famous sites and in addition, many more in remote areas that had never been restored. That was the only way that I could understand the restoration technology being taught me at the museum. In the heart of Yucatan and the Guatemalan Highlands I even had to hike to mandated destinations. I spent quite a few nights, sleeping in Maya huts or ancient temples. The only weapon I was allowed to carry was a SEAL survival knife. A young Gringo carrying a US military gun in Mexico might provoke lots of questions.
Prior to flying to Mexico, I was asked to make contact with two groups of Mayas in remote locations, which the Pentagon feared were being manipulated by Cuban agents. One group was composed of traditionalist Puuc Mayas, who had formed a communal village in extreme eastern Campeche. The significance of that location was that it was the scene of the last battle in 1933 between Maya Insurrectionists and the Mexican Army. (The fight for independence renewed in 1994.) That’s another fact that Gringo history books conveniently leave out. The Mayas have been resisting the Spanish since 1513 AD. They are not the docile simpletons that Gringo anthropologists portray them to be.
I had to hire a Maya guide and his jeep to get the traditionalist village. As a cover, he was also to take me to the Maya cities of Sayil, Labna and Edzna. After we left Labna, he unilaterally offered to drastically reduce his fees, if his teenage son and daughter could come along and see the ruins. I was to let them practice their English with me. The driver told me that the greatest joy in his life would be the day when he and his family stopped having to speak Spanish and attending Roman Catholic masses. Say what-t-t?
The “radical leftist” village could only be reached by jeep trail. They were not insurrectionists at all, but were peaceful people, practicing an alternative lifestyle. Only Maya and English could be spoken there. Spanish names and signs were banned. Some of the villagers had even adopted English first names. Their Sunday religious service was a mixture of Maya traditions and Protestant Christianity. In other words, they burned copal resin while reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Maya. They even sang a song written by Charles Wesley . . . co-founder of the Methodist Church and a former missionary in Georgia . . . but of course, in Maya.
Their heroes were Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter? He was hardly known in Georgia, but was running for governor. Carter was fluent in Spanish and had spent an hour or so at a Mexican migrant labor camp in South Georgia. All of his speech and subsequent conversations had been in Spanish. News of this event had been blacked out in Georgia, but made headlines throughout Latin America. As governor, he would become the first American politician to ever give a press conference in Latin America, entirely in Spanish.
The Pro-American Maya Radicals wanted Jimmy to be President. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that he probably didn’t have a chance at becoming governor. The thought of a peanut farmer becoming US president was ludicrous. However, afterward I did send a letter to the Washington Naval Yard at Anacostia that these “radical Indians” had adopted former US Navy officer as their hero. They were our friends and should be protected in a low profile way.
Several weeks later I was meeting with Mayas in the Guatemala Highlands. They were very much on the war path. Many wore camouflaged uniforms . . . made in Quebec and carried weapons made in Sweden, Czechoslavakia, the USA and Canada. The M-16s assault rifles, RPG launchers and Claymore explosives were from the USA. Say what-t-t-t?
Obviously, because they were intermittently getting into skirmishes with the Guardia Nacional of Guatemala, these Mayas were not nearly as friendly or as open to me. Several did speak English though. There were two Irish-American Roman Catholic priests, living with Maya women in the headquarters village, plus two Marionite nuns from Quebec, sleeping together in a satellite village that was more remote. The nuns ran a school there. They were deeply involved with the Separatist Movement in Quebec that wanted to make it an independent nation.
The politics of this guerilla organization could be best described as Christian Socialist, but both anti-Communist and anti-capitalist. They disliked the US government, but hated the Cuban and Russian communists. They did like American civilians . . . obviously . . . American and Canadian citizens were funding their war. I strongly suspected that Cuban Refugees in South Florida were also sending them money or perhaps paying for weapons. I had no proof of it, though.
The whole situation of being in the middle of a guerilla war being sponsored by non-celibate, radical leftest, Roman Catholic clergy made me very uncomfortable. I stayed there for only two days . . . just long enough to determine that US Army weapons and explosives were being smuggled out of the US into Canada and then being shipped by Marist Brothers and Maronite nuns to anti-Cuban guerillas in Central America and to the Irish Republican Army in Ireland.
Americans were getting a sanitized version of the turmoil going on within the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. It was called “Liberation Theology.” The true situation would explain why during the next few years, several Roman Catholic priests and nuns were murdered by local army commando units in Central America.
I wrote the Naval Yard that there was no way that such a large volume of brand new US Army weapons could be going to the Irish Republican Army and to Liberation Theology guerillas in Central America without protection from some people in the Pentagon. It was an intrigue far too complex for this simple Jawja boy to understand. I was glad to get out of there.
Meeting the real Mayas was not at all what I thought it would be.
Mayas . . . Then and Now Series on POOF
COMPREHENSIVE RESEARCH ARTICLES
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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