If at Chichen-Itza we saw one of the most awe-inspiring places in the Yucatán, the next day we saw the saddest one.
On a wide grass lawn in front of the convent of Maní, 445 years ago, a Spanish bishop named Diego de Landa destroyed at least 27 Mayan sacred texts, 5,000 statues, and 13 altars, among other treasures. That day came after he had ordered the torture of over 4,000 local Maya and the killings of more than 100, attempting to force from them confessions of idolatry.
Bishop de Landa destroyed so many parchments that only four codices survived, leaving the Maya written language only partially decoded.
Within just a few generations, no person alive knew how to write the Maya’s glyphs. Their history became obscured. In the dirt and rocks beneath that convent field lie the huesos of a great civilization.
What does it mean to have your culture eradicated? To have to adjust to foreign rules while still in your own skin? Which things survive, under the radar, like the lullabies still sung in African tongues by the descendants of slaves in the South Carolina sea islands?
History books tell us that in the time of the conquista, indigenous nobles viewed mestizaje not as adding a culture, but as losing both. According to Don Humberto, when Mayan dogs mixed with Spanish ones to create a new breed, they were called malix, raceless. Even today, when a child behaves poorly, a Mayan mother might say, “Don’t be malix, hijo.”
We know that when Spanish conquest came, some of the remaining Maya killed themselves in anguish. Farther north, the generation born of Spanish and Aztec parents—the nepantli—were treated as outcasts and also became suicidal. Could it be coincidence that today Latina teens in the USA have the highest suicide attempt rate of any group?
There is something inherently uncomfortable about being in between, about having to invent a third culture, woven of the frayed threads of inheritance and present reality.
Eventually, in unpredictable ways, it happens. Purists, again, will lament the result as chueco, feo, impossible, immoral. They will drive past 108th and Roosevelt or 181st and Broadway and hate all the reggaetón and the skinny jeans on fat legs and the bachata-soul and the cumbia-rock and our Mexican mohawks and our Dominican cornrows. They will say we are hideous, malix. My Mexican-born boyfriend calls us “all the same, without respect, without educación.” But mezclaje means survival. Culture cannot remain stagnant. If it weren’t for us ugly pochos, bachata and corridos would die and so would Spanish.
As we drive through the towns surrounding Mani, we can see that Maya life continues. There are traditional, thatched-roof houses wedged between the typical pan-Latin American, stucco-and-cement buildings. There are corn-masa papadzules being eaten inside schools painted with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Somewhere, in one of these towns, there is still a woman who knows how to heal cataracts with an herbal concoction. There are hueseros. The people are still wearing huipil-style dresses. And yet their children move to the city and sometimes north and come back with foreign music and shocking ideas.
And then, it all gets digested.
“The Indian stands in the same relationship to modernity as she did to Spain—willing to marry, to breed, to disappear, in order to ensure her inclusion in time…. [T]he Indian has chosen to survive,” writes Richard Rodriguez.
Across the street from the convent of Mani, a family sits on their stoop. I want to ask them what they think, looking at this horrible place from their windows every day. But perhaps they don’t think about it at all. They are sitting on their stoop listening to norteño music and salsa. I think I catch them discussing plans for a quinceañera.
Another point for Chichen-Itza: Someone tried to eradicate it and everything it stood for…and couldn’t.
Finally at night, we are set free to roam Mérida. The city looks like nostalgia come to life; it is all arched doorways and colonial shutters, raucous birds flitting from tree to tree above the plaza, Beny Moré and Celia Cruz and sidewalk cafes and high watt light-bulbs burning above taco carts and the long exhale of warm evenings. People say it reminds them of Havana before the revolution, a place classically Latin American.
But pochismo’s long arms reach here too—there are girls with knockoff Ray-Bans and American skateboards in the plaza; there are boys in Vans and boys who publish a rockero fanzine (which includes discussions of gay sex, paint-ball, and local rock groups, among other topics.)
I meet one such teenager, Fernando, in the Parque de las Madres. He owns a rockero clothes store around the corner and tells me right away he hates gringos. “I don’t mean you, of course,” he adds. He will never move to the United States because the life there is empty, he says. “All gringos care about is money. Not you, of course.” But all the clothes in his store are American and every band he names sounds like one American group or another. We talk for some thirty minutes, interrupted constantly by our cell phones.
In New York, we grow up listening to our parents’ lies that over here, wherever here is, the teenagers are respectful and iron their camisas. They don’t grow their hair wild. They yearn for their confirmation day in church.
We pochos get blamed for overthrowing an entire culture with our chueco ways. But I think that culture was thirsty for something new anyway.
Mérida would be a relic if electrónica didn’t pulse from the bars of its boutique hotels, if there were no flyers advertising a graffiti convention or underground punk. We’ve provided an idiom for Latin America’s youth to express themselves. They in turn have taken our alienation, made it feel Latino again, and reflected back at us a youth culture that’s tremendously relieving of our in-between-ness. Don’t you remember that hearing Maldita Vecindad the first time was a revelation? Fernando, as beautiful as trova music is, wouldn’t you feel a little lost without our pocho influence?
The last day of the tour, we climb the temple stairs at Ek Balam, the Mayan city of the Black Jaguar. Descending is slow work, so I focus my eyes on my feet. There, I can see dozens of fossils of shells imprinted into the rock.
Don Humberto (our guide) explains that ocean once covered all of the rocky terrain where we’re now standing. Later the Maya built palaces out of the sea’s skeletons. When they left, trees grew wild over the rocks. (There are still dozens of Mayan buildings hidden in the jungle, unexcavated.) Now, as their grandparents’ great palaces lie sleeping, modern Maya move north in search of work, returning to the cold their ancestors left behind hace millennia. They bring change to the big cities, there and here.
My path is the reverse: I’ve returned to the south from the north, while my family sought refuge from the south, where they’d earlier fled from the north. For the past century, each generation of us has spoken a different language. We’re nomads again.
Don Humberto says for a people to create great art and a cohesive culture, they must first become sedentary, like the Maya so many centuries back.
But this time, I think displacement feeds creativity. I think, like Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, that our backs are bridges. Both Latin America and the USA need us, just like the Aztecs and Spaniards needed their hybrid children to interpret one world for another.
So much for borders.
To vote for Chichen Itza in the New Seven World Wonders contest:
Winners are announced July 7th.
If you go to Chichen Itza or Merida:
TRANSPORT: I recommend Aeromexico over Delta…the azafatas are nicer, plus I like their JFK terminal more than Delta’s…much better food selection.
Once you get there, taxis in Merida are extremely safe, so you should feel free to take one anywhere, including from the airport into town.
LODGING: Mérida now has some fancy boutique hotels, like the Villa at Merida, where the rooms come stocked with organic snacks and there’s a super private jet-setty courtyard pool. But a room is minimum $235 a night there, so unless you are a huge fresota that needs everything to be bien hiclass, the Hotel Castellano is just fine. Rooms start at $81, and it’s just a few blocks from the Zocalo. The staff are incredibly nice and helpful, and there is a great trova trio that sings at breakfasts. Ask them to play la Peregrina, a true-story song about an American journalist who fell in love with el Yucatan’s governor but lost it all when he was executed by rivals.
If you’re on a budget, the Hotel Colon is cool too; it’s bien old school and romantic in a radio-era way. It’s also right next to the Zocalo. Rooms start at $48.
If you go to Valladolid, I definitely recommend staying at, or at least eating at, the gorgeous hotel El Meson del Marques . It’s an incredibly beautiful colonial-style hotel with a breezy open courtyard in the center that made the tense caffeinated New Yorker in me completely melt away. (And believe me, this is a feat. I have stress to compete with a Goldman Sachs i-banker.) Even the restaurant bathroom was dope and looked like it was out of a movie set. It’s right in the center of Valladolid, a town which, in places, resembles old Tina Modotti photographs. Plus the prices are really not bad at all: they range from $53 for a very decent double room to $168 for a super chingon master suite. Bonus: kids under 10 are free.
GUIDE: I recommend Don Humberto Gomez Rodriguez 1000 percent. He was really cool in his freshly-pressed guayaberas and only yelled at me once when I was taking too long to haggle with the market ladies in Valladolid. He is a living encyclopedia. Plus, he’s accurate: Unlike other guides I overheard, everything he said checked out with archeology and anthropology books. Ask him about the important archeological site he discovered when he was younger. Contact: email@example.com or call 927 15 30.
The best archeological sites to visit are: Chichen Itza, Mayapan (my favorite, for its semi-deserted feeling and wide open lawns), Dzibilchaltun (where there’s a museum also), and Ek-Balam (where you can climb a big temple—just be careful on the way down!)
You can get to any of these spots from Mérida by bus or even sometimes taxi. Ask your hotel to hook you up with up-to-date transportation info.
Within Merida, the Zocalo is the center of cool, where everyone from rockers to ancianos to campesinos to leftists to traveling hippie drummers hang out together. Sunday afternoons theres a baile folklorico show, and then in the night there’s a carnival viejito dance where a band plays Beny More and other old romantic music. Mondays there’s a reenactment of a boda mestiza which is awesome too. The best thing about the Zocalo is that despite these touristy events, there are very few tourists—it’s almost all locals who show up to see these spectacles.
A few blocks from the Zocalo, there’s also el Parque de las Madres, which besides having an excellent statue honoring motherhood, is the local rocker hangout.
If you can wake up early, I highly recommend the market behind the Parque Santiago for fresh juices and typical Yucatecan food like papadzules. The spice vendor here will hook you up with everything you need to cook authentic dishes back in NYC, and you can buy the same mesh market bags that sell in Brooklyn for $15, for 50 cents.
Within Merida, there are also a zillion art museums, theaters, galleries, cultural festivals and bookstores—an amazing amount considering the size of the city. Most are within walking distance of the Zocalo. We could bore you with descriptions of each, but it’s much more fun to walk around in the afternoons and discover them all.
There are also a ton of special events throughout the year. Especially cool are the Dia de los Muertos (done a bit differently from how we celebrate it in Puebla York), the Equinoxes, and the annual Xmatkuil fair in November, when tradition and pochismo intertwine for an extravaganza that includes DJ battles, skateboard competitions, rock concerts (last year, Maldita Vecindad played), alongside bailes folkloricos, cumbia, wrestling and a rodeo. I’m dreaming of returning for this already…