Mayan Culture Struggles in a TV World

Guatemala's peace allows for more cultural expression, but modern influences distract

In a tropical forest in northern Guatemala, steep, narrow stone steps lead up the pyramid-like tomb of an ancient Mayan ruler. The structure towers above the tall trees, physical evidence of a once-mighty culture.

Now, after centuries of repression by the Spanish, dictatorial governments, and a just-ended 36-year civil war, Guatemala's Mayan descendants may be poised once again to assert their culture, having finally won government recognition of their legal and cultural rights.

The peace accord dealing with Mayan rights was reached earlier, in March 1995. Since then, the number of books, radio programs, and newspapers in local Mayan languages has increased. In the fall of 1995, Rigoberto Keme, a Quiche Mayan was elected mayor of Quezaltenango, Guatemala's second-largest city. Several Mayans were elected to Congress in late 1996. And a number of Mayan cultural and political organizations have been formed.

The accord may be coming just in time. Interviews in various parts of the country indicate that just as the doors to greater expression of Mayan culture are swinging open, many Mayans, especially children, are losing their ability to speak their local language. And few adults show interest in traditional Mayan religious practices and healing methods.

"TV has ruined the country," says Carlos Rolando de Leon Valdes, a Guatemalan doctor in this busy, commercial city, and a scholar of the Mayan culture.

"We are in a new age," he says in his small office. "We have to think in a new way. My children don't think in Kakchikel [the original language of his Mayan wife]. They watch TV every day." And, he adds, his wife is not teaching them her Mayan language. "The peace accords will not bring change" in the Mayan culture in Guatemala, he contends.

While most Mayans cannot afford TV, antennas are sprouting widely, and often attract crowds who watch through a window.

Meanwhile, schools still teach in Spanish instead of one of the more than 20 Mayan languages. "A child enters school speaking his or her mother tongue, but in six years of primary education, leaves without being able to speak it and still not speaking good Spanish," says Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez, a Mayan author and scholar living in Guatemala City. Children learn their local language only in the family, and sometimes not even there.

Far to the north, in the jungle community of La Esmeralda, near the town of Dolores, in the Petn region, a Mayan priest has built a small temple of sticks on a hilltop. But "very few" of the residents in the settlement come to his ceremonies, says the priest, Martin Gutierrez. Barefoot, he is sitting in front of his small home among families who have returned from Mexico to start a new life. "Our god is nature: god is water, stars - everything," he says. A traditional Mayan healer in this city, he says few people seek his services.

THE peace accords can do little about the wide split between the often poor Mayans and the rest of the population, which gave rise to the war, says Hugh Byrne, a fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit policy study group. But they lay down a "blueprint" for a fairer society for the Mayans by recognizing the multiethnic and multilingual nature of Guatemala, he says.

"The peace accords offer the Mayan people of Guatemala an opening for services and assistance from the state," says Mr. Gonzalez. "But this will largely depend on the political will of the government, on international pressure, and the demands of the Mayans themselves."

The Mayan culture is an old one. It is generally assumed the people who became known as Mayans crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia to present-day Alaska thousands of years ago, settling in modern day southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.

The oldest excavated Maya settlement, Cuello, in Belize, dates to 2500 BC. Mayan culture flourished during the so-called Classic period from about AD 200 to 900, when hundreds of kings, considered divine, ruled city-states. About 1,000 years ago, the large Mayan cities, such as Tikal in present-day Guatemala, were abandoned, the result, experts speculate, of overpopulation, wars, lack of water, or worn-out soil.

During the Spanish conquest of the 1500s and 1600s, Mayans were nearly annihilated, many in battle, but most from Europeans' diseases. Today, the estimated Mayan population is 4 to 5 million, making it the "largest indigenous group in North and Central America," says Robert Sitler, a Spanish teacher and authority on Mayan culture at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. The Guatemalan government says 40 percent of the population is Mayan. Gonzalez claims the figure is probably closer to 60 percent.

Mayan culture also became a target in the 16th century. "Since the Spanish conquest, everything possible has been done to stamp it out, first by the Catholics, then the Protestants," Dr. Sitler says.

But culturally, much of what makes a Mayan Mayan has survived, he says. Cloth weaving, for which Mayans are famous, is only a "superficial" aspect of their culture, Sitler says. "They share an awareness of their unique way of interpreting life," he says, and are "one of the most spiritually oriented people I've been around."

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