When I visited Merida, the capital city of the State of Yucatan on the Yucatan Peninsula, I was struck by how many Maya lived there and how integrated into mainstream life they seemed to be, at least in comparison to the Maya in places like the Western Highlands of Guatemala.
Between 750,000 and 1,200,000 people speak Mayan in the Yucatán Peninsula, which includes the States of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. The Maya, however, are not a single ethnic group and, in fact, speak many different languages.
Only a few of the Maya in the Yucatan seem to wear the traditional dress.
When I travelled by bus to the small fishing village of Celestun, 96 km from Merida, I saw many Maya who were living in traditional thatched-roof houses (the above photo was taken through a dirty bus window).
The Maya civilization flourished in the Yucatán Peninsula for more than a thousand years. Without having any metal tools, they built many elaborate temple-pyramids and ceremonial structures, the most famous being in Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. They were also skilled farmers.
The Maya have been called the serpent people, the symbol of water and lightning.
When the Spanish conquered the region in the 1500s, they worked to replace the Mayan culture with Christianity and many Mayan structures were destroyed. The Spaniards used the huge stones from some of the pyramids as the foundation for the Cathedral of Merida (Cathedral of San Ildefonso), which is the oldest cathedral on the American continent.
In the Government Palace across from the Main Plaza in central Merida there are several murals by Yucatecan painter Fernando Castro Pacheco that tell us more about the Maya. The painting above shows the Maya emerging from an ear of maize.
The Sisal Cutter’s Feet and the Sisal Cutter’s Hands represent the suffering of the Mayan peasant under the Spanish.
The Maya peasant was virtually slave labour, “perpetually on the move, going to his field at sunrise and not returning home until dusk”.
His hands “bled from the spines of the sisal”. Sisal is a plant native to the Yucatan, cultivated by the Maya to produce ropes and cords.
The Maya conquest by the Spaniards was difficult and the two races never got along. The Maya had a fierce resistance to being dominated. The Caste War of the Yucatan broke out in 1847 with the Maya revolting against the Spanish in a way described as merciless. The war lasted over 50 years and close to a third of the population was wiped out.
The Montego House in Merida is one of the oldest Spanish-built houses in the country. The sculpture on its façade depicts two Spaniards with each foot on the head of a Maya.
The Yucatan was rather isolated until the mid-1900s when the first road to the peninsula was constructed. In the 1980s, airports were built in Cozumel and Cancun, bringing in many international tourists.
Today, the Yucatan has the largest Maya population in the country and welcomes the largest number of foreign tourists. An interesting place.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013