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.