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Whose Dawn?

January 14th, 2013

What by way of inertia we here came to call the end of the world, the Mayan apocalypse, I spent in Guatemala, the center of the Mayan world.

Now that the grand tidal wave of misinformation has crashed and the world didn’t end, I’ve had trouble figuring out what name to give that strange night’s vigil. “The end of the world” doesn’t work anymore. “Winter solstice” doesn’t quite cover it. The Mayans, both ancient and modern, called it 13 Baktun, or Oxlajuj Baktun, meaning simply that it represented, depending on how you want to count, either the beginning or the end of the thirteenth unit of 144,000 days since they started keeping track in 3114 BC. The Guatemalan tourism department’s propaganda machine has been calling it “the new dawn of the Maya”, plastering the words all over posters and websites like they’re a catchphrase for the latest summer popcorn doomsday movie—meaning, depending who you ask, either that it’s the dawn of a new golden age for the Maya, their culture will regain and even surpass what it achieved at its peak, its people will be respected again etc…or else that it’s merely the dawn of a new age the Maya happen to have predicted, but which is really up for grabs in terms of whose new dawn it will actually turn out to be.


Temple 3, Iximche archaeological site, Tecpán, Guatemala, half an hour before sunset, December 20th, 2012.


Temple 3 again, with ghost, wind and Orion, sometime after midnight on the 21st.

I’m not sure if anybody actually believes in the former interpretation. Certainly a lot of people are hoping for it, many of whom I heard speak or sing or pray at the ruins of Iximche in the cold, windy hours from the afternoon of the 20th through the morning of the 21st, as the sun’s last rays slipped from the surface of the altar, the moon and the constellations of the Feathered Serpent and the Seven Hundred Boys rose and set. When it came my turn to throw my candle on the sacred fire and light up the ceremonial cigar graciously provided for me by the Ministry of Sports and Culture, I prayed for that too. But I’m not holding my breath.

Smart money, sadly, must lie with the latter interpretation, which has been taken to heart by every one of Guatemala’s 28 political parties and pretty much everybody with a soap box or a chunk of rubble to lift them half a head above the crowd. A few days earlier, I happened to show up at the ruins of Zaculeu at the same moment as “next president of Guatemala” Manuel Baldizón (I strongly advise you not click that link without first turning down your computer volume), mid promo tour, solidifying his position as prophesied leader of the new era acclaimed by several local beauty queens and a half dozen white guys dressed in rented monkey and jaguar costumes. Surrounded by late Classic temples half-assedly “restored” with concrete in 1947 by the United Fruit Company, he somehow managed to keep a straight face as he promised to represent all Guatemalans, not just robber baron industrialists in geek-rimmed glasses like himself, but Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel, even Garifuna, and to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity blah blah blah blah facepalm.


Baldizón at Zaculeu (nerd glasses, center right) with beauty queens and monkey man. Click for full size.

In case the above hasn’t made it obvious, nobody I met in Guatemala thought the world was ending. Nobody even brought it up—with the notable exception of a Korean 24-hour news reporter who interviewed me on the morning after. He asked what I was planning to do if the world actually ended. I disappointed him; I had absolutely no plans for that contingency. Hadn’t even considered it. Funny: I know exactly, down to the letter, what I’m going to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse—but the Mayan apocalypse would have caught me unawares. Good thing it didn’t happen.

He asked what I was doing there.

“I’m here,” I told him, “to find out what the real Maya think.”

Because I didn’t know. For all my research, for all the ranting I’ve done for years on this very subject, all my information has come from outsiders—white people, mostly—the kind who’ve spent decades sitting in jungle mud puzzling out fanciful interpretations of crumbling reliefs left behind by a decadent, brilliant civilization disappeared these thousand years without once looking up at the quiet, calm-eyed guide who led them here and wondering how or even if the one could have engendered the other.

Guatemala, like the US, like every other nation in the Western Hemisphere, lives with the legacy of its colonial past: a disenfranchised indigenous population, descended from those who lived there before everybody else showed up, but lacking nearly any say in what’s done with land that was once theirs. Unlike the US or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere besides Bolivia and maybe Peru, Guatemala’s indigenous population, with dozens of unique cultural groups and even more distinct languages than there are political parties, is actually the majority, yet they have if possible even less of a voice in their government and the world, less recourse to combat the appropriation of their lands, resources, and yes, their culture. Guatemala has yet to issue its indigenous peoples any casinos, if you follow me.

Perhaps you heard how in advance of 13 Baktun, Mexico banned Maya peoples from performing ceremonies at their own ancestral temples. Perhaps you wondered, like I did, why the hell anyone would do that. It didn’t take long to figure out. What bigger soapbox could the modern Mayan people hope for than the summit of an ancient Mayan temple on the day the whole world is waiting for the not-apocalypse they never predicted? If you’ve spent decades, centuries marginalizing those people, you’re probably not going to be particularly interested in letting anybody hear what they have to say. Especially if you’ve made big plans to invite a bunch of foreigners and charge them a lot of money to see the same ancestral temples, especially if those foreigners have collectively deluded themselves into thinking the Mayans whose doomsday prophecy they’ve bought into have been dead for a thousand years and at the same time developed some not very complimentary opinions about the state of your democracy.

We’re talking about countries who put ancient, jewel-bedecked Maya kings on their money. Can you see how the sight of a bunch of poor, oppressed actual Mayans might be muddying the message?

Everywhere I went in Guatemala, I saw evidence of the (overwhelmingly non-indigenous, non-Maya) government appropriating Maya cultural icons to promote tourism, validate the regime and foster a sense of national identity. In Guatemala City there’s a giant chrome and glass mall designed to look like a Mayan temple. At Zaculeu there was Baldizón, riding the crest of a populist political campaign funded by the sale of mining rights to indigenous lands in El Petén. At Iximche, while the real Maya were quietly murmuring prayers around a fire, the government carted in truckload after truckload of armed police, a stage and sound system, a garishly-painted plywood ballcourt and a bunch of white guys dressed up in feathers and beaded loincloths to reenact the ballgame to the tinny sounds of recorded birdsongs and thumping synthesized bass. Granted, at least they let the Maya people be there and take part. But there were, very clearly delineated, the fake government-sponsored prayers and the real indigenous prayers. The fake ones (amplified, with backing vocals) talked about a bright future. The real ones talked about a harried, tortured present.

And given all the bullshit about apocalypse we’ve been telling ourselves for years out here in the rest of the world, it’s those real prayers we need to hear, to remind us what’s still at risk.


Protesters at Iximche. Translation: 13 Baktun is our time, the time of the people. No to the illegal development of electric power. No to the privatization of natural hot springs. No to the privatization of communal lands. Repeal of the General Mining Law.

So. I’ve got a soapbox here, a little one. And despite being well aware of the problems involved in my being the one to tell you this, I still think it’s better if I say it than nobody.

Here, as best I can remember and in paraphrase, from a seven-page manifesto I heard read aloud in Spanish and Mam at Iximche on the first morning of the new era by a pot-belied Mam gentleman in a straw hat and scraggly black beard, is what the real Maya think.

This isn’t your new dawn, it’s ours. Stop trying to take it from us. Stop trying to profit from our culture. Instead, listen to our ancestors for a change. If you don’t want there to be a real apocalypse, stop destroying the earth. Stop damming and poisoning our rivers. Stop dumping pollutants into Lake Atitlan. Stop bulldozing our forests. Stop mining for gold. Stop evicting us from our lands. Stop massacring our people. Stop pretending like it didn’t happen. Stop pretending like we don’t exist. Archaeologists: stop saying the Maya are extinct. Let us live and speak and teach our children and practice our culture and languages in peace, or else this new Baktun will be even worse than the last one.

Update 1/31/2013: I’ve been looking for the full, real version of the above massively abridged, painfully subjective recollection. El Nubo has a printed copy, which I hope she’ll eventually post over at Cultural Survival; in the meantime, here’s an earlier edition of the same manifesto: Second Declaration of Iximche (en Español).


Zaculeu Temple 1, with flowers and ashes.

   Altars, Angry, Environmentalism, Guatemala, Religion, Trees | 2 Comments »



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