Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Returning to Chan X-Cayil after Two Years

When I first visited the marginalized Maya community of Chan X-Cayil eight years ago it was only a 30 mile trip, but took three hours to get there from Valladolid, the closest city and economic hub of southeastern Yucatan state. A few years later a new highway was completed, replacing the old, limestone gravel road, reducing the trip less than an hour. Although for several years some of the villagers have been migrating to Merida, Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum to find work, most of the community still dedicated themselves to traditional corn farming and other agricultural pursuits. In the two past years, however, more highways have been improved thus connecting the community with the highway to the so called Maya Riviera making travel from Chan X-Cayil to the tourist boom town of Tulum a mere hour and a half. Just a few years ago a scattering of pothole filled gravel roads meandered through the jungle making the less direct trip to the Caribbean coast a much more time consuming ordeal.

Due to this, the family that has hosted me since 2000 has undergone many changes. Two years ago two of the sons graduated from secondary school and the next day they left to begin working in Tulum. Since then, most of the men of the family have also gone there to work mostly in construction. The oldest son Jaime, however, travels daily from Chan X-Cayil to work at the Grand Palladium Resort just north of Tulum where he makes beds and cleans rooms. As an unprecedented reach into that part of the countryside linking two completely different worlds, the resort provides transportation for its Maya workers. The bus leaves the nearby community of San Pedro daily at 5am, passing through several other Maya communities on the two hour journey to pick more up workers and bringing them back to their villages in the evening.

The result of this new mobility that facilitates a further integration into the tourism based economy and the income that it provides is seen by my host family as a very positive development. Most unskilled jobs pay about $100 USD a week, good pay compared to the few dollars they may have earned before by selling firewood or corn and mostly living in a traditional subsistence-agriculture based economy. In fact, this is the second year the family has stopped making the milpa, or the traditional Maya cornfield and the basis of subsistence. With such a large part of the family working in Tulum, they now buy corn and also now have the resources to adopt more Western items like cell phones with cameras and MP3 players, new hairstyles, clothes and fashions. Some of the sons and daughters are now speaking less Mayan among themselves as they oftentimes prefer to use Spanish, their second language.

Until my visit two weeks ago, I would have never thought I would witness such drastically rapid cultural change. The family is much better off economically, but the less they speak Maya and as the milpa lies permanently fallow, thousands of years of traditions come to an abrupt end, and not only for this family, but for thousands of others.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Visit to Playa del Carmen

In the past 10 years at least a dozen Xualtez families have moved to the booming tourist town of Playa del Carmen about an hour south of Cancun. Every year I make an effort to see them and keep up with the changes in their lives. As part of my ongoing photography of young people, this year I am making an effort to take photos of children I photographed years ago. By doing this I am documenting their own development, whether it be toddler to teenager or child to adult, and the changes they are experiencing as they grow older. One of my most well known pictures is of Ana Ku Cocom who now lives in Playa del Carmen with her grandparents. Below is a comparison between August, 1999 and August, 2008. Ana is 12 years old. You can also look at the most recent pictures in my “Portraits” album for more from Playa del Carmen.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Trip to New Communities

On Saturday I took my good friend Doña Felipa, a midwife and herbalist, back to her village, Tibolon. We left Xualtez early where she had spent the week in the clinic giving massages. We passed through Espita and headed south into a very marginalized zone. We went through the communities of Nacuche, Kunche and San Pedro Chenchela where the blacktop road ended. We traveled on four kilometers along a traditional, rural sac beh, or white road until we reached Santa Maria. There the road had recently been blacktopped and we headed on toward Tibolon passing Uayma, Tinum, Dzitas, Xocempich, Piste, Yodzonot, Libre Union, and Holca. We reached Tibolon where we ate and rested for a while. We then travelled south to the municipal head of Sotuta, town of the Maya chief Nachi Cocom. Doña Felipa took me to a house that also doubled as a motorcycle repair shop where in their backyard, a very nice family charged us the equivalent of 1USD to show use the cenote which they called Dzonot Miis, or Cat Cenote. They had discovered it when they dug a water well and noticed that there was a huge cave filled with water under their backyard. I took a few pictures of the family, along with Doña Felipa’s compadres across the street and we went on to Tabi.

Tabi has an open cenote in the center of the village. While looking at it a man was eager to tell me the history of his community. Doña Felipa knows several herbalists and healers that live there and we went to visit one, Don Florencio, who she had not seen since he suffered a stroke. I realized that it was 85 year-old Don Florencio who had done a ritualistic cleansing of me 8 years ago. He is regaining some strength on his right side and has begun to work again as a healer on occasion. The rain clouds started to build as we headed farther east to the town of Yaxcaba. There Doña Felipa introduced me to Don Juan Bautista, the healer in charge of the local Center for the Development of Traditional Indigenous Medicine. As a strong storm passed over us and his gardens of medicinal plants, he told me about his work and how he is teaching his grandchildren how to also heal with herbs. The rain passed and Doña Felipa and I left going back toward Tabi. We passed through the community and on the western edge we noticed women participating in a novena at a stone shrine adorned with wooden crosses, candles and flowers. Their singing and praying coincided with the Cha’a Chaak ceremony being held by the men a few hundred meters down the road where I was invited to take some pictures. There was a big difference in this ceremony and that of Tixbacab about which I posted a few weeks ago. The altar was much more traditional as you will be able to see in the album below made completely of materials from the forest. The same rain that passed over Yaxcaba, also passed over Tabi. I was told that this was a good sign because the rains have not been as consistent as they usually are prompting the people of Tabi to come together and hold the ceremony again after three years of not doing it. Doña Felipa and I left Tabi and visited her new grandson in Sotuta, one of 35 grandchildren. I took her back to Tibolon, and then arrived to Merida late after a day filled with visiting new communities, meeting new people and having experiences that I will never forget.

See the album below for photographs with captions describing these people and places.

Sotuta, Tabi, Yaxcaba


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

New Youth Photos

I am continually updating the “Youth Photography” album, so click on it to see some of the most recent and best pictures they have taken.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

New Portraits

Over the past few weeks I have added dozens of new photos. Just click on the “Portraits” and “Pets” albums to see the newest pictures.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A visit to Hacienda Regadio and Holca

While doing an internship 10 years ago, I briefly visited the abandoned sugarcane plantation of Regadio and the nearby community of Holca. On Sunday, July 20th some of my friends from Xualtez invited me visit the two places again. Holca is in the same municipality as Xualtez, and although it is closer to the much larger and mostly Spanish speaking municipal seat of Espita, the entire community speaks Maya. In Xualtez, where I am based, as well as in nearby Tusik, few people under 30 years old speak Maya. As part of my ongoing research about the rural youth of Yucatan and culture change, I have been conducting interviews this summer to determine the historical circumstances that account for the shift from speaking Maya to Spanish in Xualtez and Tuzik while the other communities in the same municipality are still composed of both young and old Maya speakers. One of the primary factors that accounts for this change is the opening of the community with roads and other forms of communication and trade that connect larger towns where Spanish is mostly spoken. Holca is more representative of the rest municipality because it lies several kilometers off the only road that connects the community to the principal highway between the larger municipality heads of Sucila and Espita. The fact that there is only one road to go in and out of Holca has helped keep it much more linguistically traditional. Below are a few of the pictures that I took while I was there and at the hacienda Regadio. You can see them full size by clicking on my “Portraits” album.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

My first Cha’a Chaak Ceremony

On Sunday, July 13 leaving the community of Tixbacab for Tuzik to watch a youth soccer championship, I noticed several men in on the edge of the road. I went back to where they had cut a small area out of the jungle and set up an altar for the Cha’a Chaak rain ceremony. In a pit where they had dug out the rich, red earth they were just finishing cooking several sets of large tortillas for offerings. I talked to some of the men about the ceremony since I had never witnessed one before, but I knew it was done more often in the traditional corn growing regions to the south as opposed to this northern cattle ranching area. One man told me that it had been four years since they had done it in Tixbacab and that it was a dying tradition. I told him I knew that they had not done it in the other communities where I spent most of my time and he said that it is because so many people don’t believe in it anymore. This ceremony is significant because it is one of the very few that has not mixed to the same degree with Catholicism as most other ceremonies, so it remains more traditionally Maya. I returned to Tuzik, and then on to Xualtez under darkening skies that a few minutes later opened up for a three hour downpour. Click below for a few photos.
Cha'a Chaak


Monday, July 14, 2008

Excursion to Ek Balam

On July 6 I took my group of photographers to the ruins of Ek Balam. I wanted to give them a chance to travel out of their village, learn more about Maya archeology, take pictures and just have fun. Once there, we explored the reconstructed ruins and climbed the main structure measuring 96 feet in height and got a wonderful view of the rest of the ruins and the surrounding forest. On the right you can click on the “Ek Balam” slideshow to see pictures that both I and my group took. Below you can click on the short video that I made from the excursion.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Viewing Photo Albums

When you click on one of the slideshows to the right and it takes you to the album, I suggest you click the button above the small versions of the pictures that says “Slideshow” with a little green arrow. This will give you a fuller screen view with a non-distracting black background and you will see larger versions of the pictures. Click on the X when you want to back to the regular album view.

I have spent very little time in areas with internet access so I have only been able to get the pictures posted and I apologize for not having captions for them. If you have questions about them please feel free to email me and although it may take a while, I will answer your questions.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Youth Photo Exhibit a Success

Over a span of about an hour and a half some 100 people came out on July 2 to see the youth photo exhibit where we displayed 24 pictures at Xualtez’s town hall. The parents of the young people who exhibited their photos, along with dozens of other community members, came to enjoy their artwork. Below you can see a picture from the event and to see more you can click on the slideshow on the right called “Xualtez Photography Project” In the same album you can see them preparing their pictures for the exhibit. There is also an album called “Youth Photography” that contains photos they have recently taken, some of which will be used for a future exhibit.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Uncontacted Tribe of the Amazon Recently Photographed

While the majority of indigenous peoples' cultures and languages have been decimated, it is great to see stories like this that educate the public about the existence of a handful of uncontacted and autonomous peoples relatively free of the forces of Westernization and globalization even after 500 years of colonization. This is our chance to learn about the complex issues of politics and globalization like when governments struggle to curb illegal logging, oil drilling and other activities that will eventually expose that remaining peoples to the path of cultural destruction. This story appeared on various mainstream media sources, both online and on television. I only hope that this exposure opens Westerners' eyes to the importance of protecting these uncontacted peoples and does not have the opposite effect of claims that, "I can't believe people still live like that in 2008. We need to spread to them the wonderful material things that we enjoy." This is an extremely ethnocentric view that assumes that they would want to adopt our ways and that homogenization and the loss of their culture is acceptable, assuming that our culture and technology is better anyway. The study of anthropology is one way to expose ideas such as cultural relativism, which provides a different kind of view by judging cultures on their own terms. After all, who are we to say that the way we live and think is the best? Sounds a little arrogant to me. See the whole story here: http://www.survival-international.org/news/3340. Survival International and Cultural Survival are the two main non-profit organizations working to protect indigenous peoples' rights.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

New Photos

New Photos

I have added several photos to my “Portraits” album including ones from both the primary and secondary schools. Classes are winding down and students are mostly practicing their dance routines for their graduation ceremonies.

I have also created a new "Pets” folder where you can see children with a variety of animals. This time of year it is easy to capture young, wild animals found while working on ranches, collecting firewood or while hunting. The Yucatan’s yellow-lored parrot is the most common wild animal that becomes a pet, however occasionally you will see families with white-tail deer and young coatis, or pizotes as they are known locally.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Tentative Dates for Exhibit and Excursion

On Wednesday I held a meeting with my group of young photographers to discuss their exhibit (see photo below). They decided to hold it on Wednesday, July 2. A few posts below you can see a preview of the photos they are going to exhibit. I also began letting them share my Canon SD750 digital point and shoot camera.

I also revealed to them that I was sponsoring a trip to take them to the ancient Maya ruins of Ek Balam a little over an hour from Xualtez. They set the date for July 6. I first took a group to Ek Balam in 1999 when the ruins had recently opened and archaeologists were still in the initial phases of uncovering and reconstructing the ruins. We were the only visitors there, but there were dozens of local men working on reconstruction. This time more ruins will have been reconstructed and there will certainly be more tourists. Few young people from Xualtez have even been to the famous ruins of Chichén Itza, at about an equal distance from their community, so this will be a new experience for everyone involved. Since Ek Balam is off the well-beaten tourist path between Merida and Cancun, less tourists visit, so we hope to not have our views blocked by mobs of people like you find at Chichén Itza.

August 1999 Group at Ek balam


Friday, June 27, 2008

Anthropology at AHS

While teaching Spanish Honors classes this, my first year at Athens High School, I proposed an anthropology class and it was accepted. So far I have only found one other school in the state to offer such a class. There has been a lot of interest and 42 students have signed up to take it. Like many high schools, AHS already offers sociology and psychology, but finally, the little-known field of anthropology will get exposure. This opportunity for students will give much needed publicity for a field that offers a more in depth look at the holistic context within which human nature exists. Anthropology’s unique scope will give students have a better understanding of the complexities of human nature—something that is absent from most high school curriculums.

Click here to see the article about the class that appeared in student newspaper earlier this year.


Monday, June 23, 2008

2008 Portraits

You can see some very recent portraits by clicking on the new slideshow to the right. I will be updating it from time to time.


Recent House Improvements

I first went to Xualtez in early 1998 while doing an internship as a student at OU. After returning several times, the community gave me a piece of land on the eastern side of the village on the edge of the jungle. In 2000, I hired a few men to build me a simple, traditional hut of wood and palm thatch. I tapped into the community water system fed from a tower a few blocks away and began having traditional stone fence built. Over the past eight years I have finished my stone fence, planted coconut, almond, banana, orange, lime and other trees in my yard along with some medicinal plants. I attached a small room to shower in, got the house wired for electricity and had a concrete floor poured.
Before arriving this year, I had a wooden gate built where the opening of my stone fence the goes to the street. I also had roof replaced with new palm—it took 1,500 palmetto leaves! Finally, I had my “shower room” sided with boards and the tarpaper roof replaced with a metal one that now extends to cover a small section just outside my back door forming a tiny porch area. Below are a few recent pictures.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Satellite Photos of Xualtez

In the past few months Google has updated a section of their satellite photographs on their online maps and on Google Earth. The new section now includes Xualtez, the community where I work and live. The color is not very accurate, but the detail is much better than surrounding areas. Here is a screen capture of a view from Google Earth:


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Youth Photo Exhibit Preview

These pictures, taken by children from Xualtez, are a sample of about two dozen that I will be organizing into an exhibit this summer. They range from the aftermath of hurricane Emily in 2005 to photos of relatives in 2007.

taken by Juan Osorio Chan

taken by Mariana Poot Osorio

taken by Grisel Cab Albornoz

taken by Gustavo Osorio Chan

taken by William Albornoz Uitzil

taken by William Albornoz Uitzil


Saturday, May 31, 2008

This summer...

...I will be returning to Yucatan as I have many times since the first time I came 11 years ago. This year I plan to visit friends, continue researching cultural change and cultural identity, do photography workshops and exhibits with young people, and work on my own photography projects. Since I will not have consistent Internet service to send out many emails I decided to start this blog. I hope to be able to post updates several times during the summer.