Maya Inc.

The commodification of a culture is not a big surprise wherever a local population forms the service sector for a steady stream of foreign tourists.  Think of the identical tchotchske ceramic figurines of temples awaiting you outside any famous Buddhist temple in Thailand, or the authentically dressed gondoliers waiting to row you anywhere you like in Venice, or the Masai herdsmen trotting out to perform their famous lion dance to eager tourists in east Africa.  But this takes on a particular (and, at first exposure, particularly jarring) air when the local population is actually an indigenous population whose culture or history is the very thing the tourists are there to see.  How do you turn the authenticity of a highly localized and unique culture into a set of consumable products or services for a mass audience without destroying that very authenticity and uniqueness?

The hacienda-cum-resort-hotel we are staying at embodies this tension well.  It seems to always be walking a fine line between authenticity and amenity.  Its name alone says volumes — “Mayaland,” which as we were soon to find out, is not only this one resort but has grown into a regional chain, all of them tied to historic ruin sites.   All of the staff here are clearly of Mayan descent, but they are dressed in starched white service uniforms and stand ready to greet you in English.  In our rooms there is a basket containing various soaps and lotions that are all made locally from natural ingredients, and in the mini fridge there is Powerade and Coke and a Snickers bar.  The roofs are made of thatch, but each room is equipped with an air conditioner even though this semi-openness to the outside air makes it highly inefficient.

Mayan woman dancing for lunchtime guests (sorry for poor picture quality)

Probably the standout example was when we ate lunch in an open-air dining hall, during which two women and one man clothed head to toe in traditional Mayan dress entered and performed a short dance routine — except that the music seemed to be highly generic, mariachi-esque Mexican music, and the dance did not seem particularly Mayan.  Their finale consisted of doing another dance with lots of lower-body movements while their upper bodies remained stiff and they balanced half-full beer bottles on their heads!  Was any part of this educational, or was it purely entertainment for the fully Anglo and European audience?


But hold on a moment.  Before we rail against the mindless commodification of Mayan culture on display here, from the endless ceramic figurines of the ruins on sale throughout the site to the advertisements for “Mayan massages,” we should consider a few additional items.  First of all, is it fair to put the Mayans up on some kind of culturally pure pedestal, especially when it has been centuries since they first came into contact with outsiders?  Can we assume that they themselves want to remain set apart and “pure” and entirely unique?  Second of all, even though it seems that the Mayans are thrust into this subordinate position as mere market vendors whose days revolve around selling stuff to tourists in the unrelenting sun, do they not return to their homes at the end of the day, together again, speaking their dialect of Mayan?  Third of all, isn’t it also true that this commodification — the waiters in the hotel, the vendors at the historical site — allows them to make a decent living, and that without it they would likely find it much harder to make ends meet?  In other words, doesn’t the commodification of their culture actually allow them to remain out here in the countryside rather than migrating to the larger cities on the peninsula, where they would really be in danger of blending into a homogenous mix?  As an expert on the Maya told us just this morning, they rarely grow their own crops anymore in this part of the peninsula because the soils and the climate are so unforgiving.  Who am I to begrudge them a little bit of commerce?

I am not satisfied with either of these two poles.  It is entirely presumptuous of us to become outraged at what we see as a subservient or degraded societal position without knowing more background context, but it is equally arrogant to merely shrug it off under the guise of economic utilitarianism.  All I can really say after such a short period of exposure is that the situation is far more complicated on the ground than simple presumptions would have it.

A pub in Merida, a bustling city of 800,000 in the northwest section of the Yucatan Peninsula.

There is an interesting coda to this blog entry.  This morning we had breakfast with an American anthropologist who specializes in Mayan identity (more on that breakfast in a bit).  We were telling him about the beer-bottles-on-the-head dance that we had witnessed, sure in our dismissal of this as a kitschy song-and-dance routine for the tourists, when he informed us that this is in fact a traditional dance performed by the Maya in their villages and towns during local festivals.  The point is to hold their upper bodies as still as the sacred Kapok, or Ceiba tree while they dance with their lower bodies — a feat which they demonstrate by keeping a bottle of beer standing still on their heads the whole time.  So was that dance educational or entertainment after all?  The bottom line is, we can’t know, or presume to know, until we are more informed.

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