Everywhere you go at the major tourist sites on the peninsula, you see vendors of all kinds of handicrafts — some complete kitsch, some mass-produced but authentic-seeming items, and some undoubtedly authentic artisanal products. But what is striking is how many of these vendors you see around. Not much seems to be made of them — they are just there, and there seems to be neither enthusiasm for nor rejection of them by those in charge.
Or so it seems. What happens if these vendors threaten someone’s commercial interests, particularly someone in the elite stratum of society? The highest density of these vendors by far was at the site of Chichen Itza. Who might care about this? The more commercial interests whose profits might be threatened by all that competition (e.g., (the large hotel where we stayed; the large gift store at the official entrance to the site).
We picked up a free copy of a locally produced bilingual tourist guide, and upon turning to the section on Chichen Itza were shocked to see the following in English:
“Inside the zone you will see many vendors. We specifically recommend you do not purchase anything from them. They are pirates saying they are Mayas. The outdoor market was built specifically for them with bathrooms and electricity and they don’t use it.”
But that’s not all. The Spanish version of this text, on the same page, says all of the above but also inserts the following:
“. . . Dicen que son Mayas y que tienen derecho de vender alli aunque en realidad la mayoria no son gente Maya.”
“. . . They say they are Mayas and that they have the right to sell things on the site, but in reality they are not Maya.”
None of us are experts on Mayan ethnicity, but the vast majority of these vendors appear to be entirely of Mayan descent. Who owns the Maya? It depends to whom they are providing a benefit. When their image and their mythology helps sell a product or a service, they are put on a pedestal (sometimes literally). When they are competition for tourist dollars, they are called pirates, or worse, un-Mayan.