Walking with the Maya Culture: These descendants of ancient rulers are found throughout Central America. But they move almost invisibly, trying to meld with the modern world while maintaining ties to their past.


February 02, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

UXMAL, Mexico -- The iguana clings to the temple wall. It is a spare building, called the House of Turtles, and its only resident is the iguana.

The temple obeys the Greek architectural strictures about size, proportion and ornamentation, though the building was created by a people unlearned in these. Uxmal is one of many sites uncovered throughout the nation of the Maya, encompassing more than 3 million people and extending through at least five modern republics. The Maya built 20,000 cities in the jungles of Central America and the riverless forests of Yucatan.

Atop the Mountain of Muna, the only natural elevation in the flatiron peninsula of the Yucatan, Braulio Rosales Dias, our driver, indicates a range of what appear to be sharp natural hills in the distance. "Ninety percent of those are covered temples," he says.

"There's much work to do here."

But, still, the iguana is worth considering, for its ability to hide in plain sight. It is there in front of you and, yet, not seen. It disappears into its stillness. It is as unmoving as the stones of Uxmal. In this it is like the Maya: They are everywhere, in every city and village.

The men stare out through dark eyes seemingly without pupils. The women, always busier, go about in their chemises, trimmed in embroidery. Their language is thick in the air. Yet, they are not seen, not really. Many of them want it that way, though not all.

Years ago, in Guatemala, a Mayan woman told of the birth of male children often being concealed from the state's census takers. They were cocooned within the village to avoid conscription into Guatemala's army. The Maya, besieged, enslaved, feudalized and lately marginalized in the 400 years since the Spanish conquest, have always survived by adhering determinedly to old ways.

This has had two results: It has given them cohesion, the comfort of historical coherence; but it has also removed them from the rest of their countrymen. In more ways than one, they don't speak the same language.

The story of the ancient Maya is a mystery still unfolding. Modern men and women work assiduously at sites like Uxmal to uncover every clue. They pick up the fallen stones and put them back into place, virtually raising the thousand-year-old temples anew.

They read the steles. The stones of Uxmal, Chichen-Itza, Tikal, Kabah -- the edifices so magisterial and enormous, yet owing to the luminous limestone of their construction, seeming to float upon the undisturbed sea of the forest -- these are the codexes of their history. War and struggle always was a condition of the Mayan existence and remains so.

The world at large did not take much note of the formal end of the civil war in Guatemala. A peace accord was signed Dec. 29. The war had ground through the mountains and valleys for 36 years. More than 150,000 people died, almost three times the number of Americans lost in Vietnam, and this in a country of only 11 million people. Most of the victims were Mayan.

Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel peace laureate, led thousands of Indians into Guatemala City to celebrate the peace. Guerrillas descended from the Lacandon Volcano in Quetzaltenago. The 36,000 refugees began to stir in their camps in Mexico and prepare to move back to the highlands of Guatemala, where their roots had sprouted before Rome was founded. It was a promising new year.

The same could not be said of the Maya in Mexico's Chiapas state. No peace treaty illuminated the day. Three years ago, an army of angry peasants emerged from the forest to make war on the Mexican state. The political establishment was shocked in far off Mexico City, stock markets in a dozen countries trembled.

The questions came quickly, as the creaky Mexican Army was mobilized. Who are these people? Where did they come from? The answers followed: They are the Maya. They have always been there, if not always seen.

Carlos Montemayor, at the national university in Mexico City, wrote in Proceso magazine of the "national schizophrenia" toward the Indians. From the end of the 16th century to the end of the 20th century, Mexico has tried to integrate these people into the national society by two means, he said: forcing them to cease living like Indians and recruiting them into the underclass, to hew the wood and draw the water for the modern state.

Those Mexicans of pure Spanish blood and the majority mestizos are more receptive to the idea of the Indian than to the Indian in the flesh, Montemayor wrote. They are proud of pre-Hispanic grandeur, but not so charmed by the heirs of those civilizations who live among them.

Today, the rebellion in Chiapas is arrested, but little has been done to ameliorate its causes. Such may be beyond the capability of a government as corrupt as Mexico's. There is no war in Chiapas; neither is there a confident peace.

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