It doesn’t matter that the narrow, dusty streets where my mother grew up lie thousands of miles to the south, or that Guaraní is not the same as Nahuatl, which is not the same as Mixteco or Maya. In the great glossing over and melting together that is special province of lost mixed up pochtecamericans, I am certain I am nearing my family’s past as I descend into the sulfurous brown veil that caps Mexico City.
I am as certain of this as the African-American begat from Congolese tribesmen is sure he is embracing his long-lost brothers when he arrives among the Yoruba of Nigeria on a Motherland package tour. It’s close enough, ¿pues qué? I’m ready to find out Where We All Came From and What Happens When We Come Back.
Technically, this isn’t my mission at all. I’ve been bribed, um, I mean invited, by the Mexican Tourism Board to enjoy a free trip to Chichen-Itza in the hopes I’ll write an article promoting the Mayan city as one of the new seven World Wonders (insert copyright symbol here.) The World Wonders thing is an internet contest, and I guess they’re figuring that Latinos in New York have more web access than Latinos in Mexico, so it’s worth them blowing $1000 on me.
But what I really want to do on the trip is connect dots.
I want to make thick ink lines linking the part of the coloring-book image that’s already been drawn in (us here now), jumping from black point to black point across oceans and time until the whole figure becomes clear.
I want to understand Chichen-Itza because we pochtecas/pochos don’t know where the hell we come from. We, all of us Spanglish speakers who grew up thinking the only Latino mero meros in the world were Ricardo Montalbán, and Erik Estrada. We, who think the Maya disappeared from the earth mysteriously, leaving behind only abandoned pyramids, destined for episodes of “Sightings” along with OVNIs and Atlantis.
All most of us know about the indigenous past comes from those velvet restaurant paintings of the Aztec dude carrying the passed-out lady. Our history begins at borders and airports. Our ancestors erase.
“Oye, ¿y qué chingaos pasó con los Mayas que se desaparecieron?” my boyfriend asks me the night before I leave to Mexico. “¿No te parece raro eso?”
It only takes one day in the Yucatán for me to answer that.
Our little crew of invitees has traveled from Mérida by air-conditioned van to Dzibilchaltun, “the city of writing on flat stones”, a Mayan urban center that was in continuous use for over 2,000 years. That’s more than four times as long as New York. When Paris was a fishing village, the Maya here were building observatories, predicting eclipses, and painting elaborate, colorful frescoes on giant temples — y matándose a to’ lo que da.
As we arrive at an archeological museum at Dzibilchaltun’s mouth, I expect to see nothing but foreign tourists in their ubiquitous Nikes and sloppy t-shirts. Instead, we find Mayas. Lots of them. Inside the museum, walking around among the molar-shaped stones of the ruins, swimming in the lily-pad-covered cenote. Sure, they are speaking Spanish, but their torsos are round-edged squares and their faces are the ones on the stelae — unmistakably Mayan.
How did we come to believe they had disappeared? I guess the same way we believe the Taino were extinguished from the Caribbean by Spanish pestilence and overwork. A recent University of Puerto Rico DNA study showed more than half of Puerto Ricans alive today have a Taino maternal ancestor. I have even seen Dominicans in Washington Heights who can pass for Arawak. Extinction is a myth. Mestizaje is real. As Richard Rodriguez says, the Indian has eaten the Spaniard, not the other way around.
In the heart of Dzibilchaltun, we climb onto a wide sacbe–a Mayan road–part of the extensive network of white-stone-paved highways on which the Maya walked from city to city in ancient times. Ahead some 150 yards lies the Temple of the Seven Dolls. The road is bald now, with patchy grass, but the temple’s face remains flush to the road as always. In a few days, at dawn on the equinox, the sun will shine perfectly through the building’s front windows, casting three long rays exactly where we are standing. Of course, Mayan architects achieved this feat without surveying instruments, without wheels, without compasses or beasts of burden—just lots of peasants they forced to carry heavy boulders in pouches they strapped around their foreheads.
I start to feel a little angry. I remember spending all of 5th grade gifted-and-talented class constructing dioramas of Greek cities. Why did our teachers never tell us ni coco about the Maya? The Maya were the first in the world to understand the concept of zero. Their religion was at least as complex as that of the ancient Romans. They could play basketball with their hips, por Dios.
Yet somewhere, in some curriculum meeting, someone decided we didn’t need to know about them or anything else from Latin America. We had come from nowhere.
I think about all the homeboys draped around the corners of my old block idle and aimless, as immobile as the telephone poles, waiting for something that doesn’t happen. They seem anchorless. Maybe I’m being idealistic, but I become convinced they’d feel more ánimo if they could see Dzibilchaltun…or Machu Picchu, or el Yunque. I want them to know that where their parents came from lies greatness, and it’s a part of them…and by the way, their cousins are still alive.
So, here’s reason number one why we should vote for Chichen-Itza as a new world wonder: Latino kids need to know the Maya were really, really chingón.
Monday March 18th is not the official equinox, but it’s a state holiday, so it’s our big day to see the snake god Kukulkan’s giant shadow undulate across Chichen-Itza’s templo mayor–that world-famous phenomenon of luz y sombra that happens every equinox, drawing thousands of tourists.
As we stand in front of the imposing pillars of an ancient marketplace, Don Humberto, our elegant, unflappable guide, explains that around 600 A.D., several noble families packed up and left Chichen-Itza to move west and mingle with the Nahuatl-speaking Toltecas. When they came back hundreds of years later, they returned with a different culture: they imported a hybrid architecture and a more aggressive world-view with an afan for sacrifice and conquest, and they may have popularized Kukulkan, a Maya version of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.
The loudspeakers crackle in six or more languages. The seven triangles of Kukulkan’s shadow form one by one. A peaceful crowd stares up at the pyramid, disrupted only by annoying snapshot hogs in Abercrombie t-shirts who keep standing up to take endless pictures of themselves with the majestic temple behind them.
As the last triangle appears and the shadow has joined the earth with the pyramid’s flat top, a group of American women dressed in white begin chanting and raising their arms to the heavens. They make motions to pull the “bad energy” from a woman in the center of the circle. They talk about charging themselves with positive energy as they step lightly in their Keds around a pile of Target-ty looking purses.
The next day, Mexican newspapers will make snotty comments about these “esotéricos,” pointing out that no one has proved the Maya charged themselves with positive energy on the equinox. In fact, they were rather more likely — especially as the centuries went on — to carry out bloody, painful rites, such as pulling a studded rope through their tongues, peeling off captives’ fingernails, throwing children into Chichen-Itza’s holy cenote… ya te imaginas.
They are easy targets, these American women. After all, they’ve brashly created their own rituals which really have no root in history, in a place that has thick roots as gnarled and extensive as those of the Mayas’ sacred ceiba tree.
It took thousands of generations of humans to discover where the Gods dwell and how to please them. It took centuries of observation to understand the relationship between the stars and agriculture, to figure out how to orient this temple so that the shadow would fall just right on the right days.
Yet these women have decided they can make up a religion on the spot. They say, there’s no need to observe; just do what you feel. Is it insulting? Disrespectful?
Perhaps, but being a pochota I can’t help but feel some kind of sympathy for them. Maybe they grew up lost, somewhere where forgetting had happened too fast. Cultural purity is practically dead, if it ever existed. We probably shouldn’t insist on it.
Coming here makes middle-aged gabachas happy. And why shouldn’t they come and spend their tourist dollars, and prance around with old skirts on their heads, if it makes them happy?
..to be continued, Part II coming next week.
Photos by Franziska Castillo
1-the mero mero castillo at Chichen Itza
2- The snake made of shadows (look at the left side of the picture), which honored the God Kukulkan on the equinox.
3-Mayan wall frieze depicting the decapitation of the ball game’s winners.
4-Middle aged gringas “charging themselves with energy”
5-Soy yo, at the top of Ek-Balam’s tallest templo.
To vote for Chichen Itza in the New Seven World Wonders contest: www.new7wonders.com/ Winners are announced July 7 (7-7-7, get it?).