The Mayan People Of Today: How They Are Faring In These Modern Times

By Sheryl Eleazar | Last Updated March 15, 2013

The ancient Mayan civilization may now all be in ruins. Nonetheless, this never meant that the peoples were also completely wiped out when their society declined. Today, there are still living Mayans who deserve to be respected, recognized and given opportunities to live a good life.

Sheryl Eleazar

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Maya girls of varying ages

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.” –Rigoberta Mench’u Tum, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. 1  

The ancient Mayan civilization may now be long gone but this does not mean that the society has also ceased to exist. In fact, up to this day, there are approximately more than six million Maya people still thriving, living and surviving amidst the harshness of these contemporary days.  They are found in Belize, Mexico and Guatemala.   These modern Mayans still manage to integrate their old beliefs while living with modernized practices. Like most of us, these modern Mayans also struggle for survival; also fight for their rights; also aim to be given respect by others.

They Fell, They Struggled, They Rose Again

It was during the 16th century when the Mayan civilization was conquered by the Spaniards; an event that prompted the great society’s even faster decline. Mayan people were dispossessed of their lands and forced to work in indigo and cocoa plantations.  More than three centuries later, social movements rose in Guatemala insisting that Mayan highlanders be given fair wages as well as land that originally belonged to them.  Just like the other oppressed people, these Mayans were responded to by the government with coldness, harshness and cruelty. Thousands died and many more became refugees.

In the 1985 Guatemala Constitution, Article 66 recognized Mayan peoples and were provided their right to speak their native languages, wear their traditional dresses, practice their customs and implement their social organizations.  In Article 70 of the same Constitution, a law was called for in establishing regulations concerning indigenous issues. The necessary law was still not acted out even after 10 years. Moreover, in the electoral law, they were still not given the right of political organizations.  They continued to be belittled and ignored by the political elites of the nation until 1995. Despite this, Mayan organizations still flourished to fight for the Mayan people’s rights including land, education, cultural and civil rights.

A key symbol of the indigenous popular movement was the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize award to Mayan exile Rigoberta Menchú, which gave the entire Mayan issue increased international recognition and some local protection from military repression. 2  

Providentially, these movements and calls to action were not all worthless. All conflicting parties involved were forced to completely change their opinions and perceptions about the Mayans. These days, Mayan people live like many of us. They exert effort in order to survive and continue to exist in many aspects of life.

Religion

As far as religion goes the Maya continue to partake in activities as the old Maya did. This has been combined, however, with some Catholicism. 3  

To forget about old traditions of the olden times is synonymous to abandoning and being ungrateful to their heritage. Thus, even if they were converted by the Spanish into Catholicism, Mayans still participate in rituals, just as they were done in ancient Mayan world.  This, they did in conjunction with the Catholic Church’s rites. For example, catholic Mayans still make food and chicken offerings in some churches. There are also some of them who practice worshiping of deities like their corn god, to bestow them good harvests.

Source Of Living

Maya life was, and still is, intricately linked to the planting and harvesting of corn, a staple in the Guatemalan diet for thousands of years. 4  

Civilizations in America were believed to have developed through and with corn. This crop is also one of the major sources of income by the living Mayans. Another main crop is beans. They still prepare their field through cutting and then burning, just as it was done in the old days.  They cook and prepare corn in various ways such as making dough for tortillas. Other modern Mayans also make a living from tourism since many people from other parts of the world continue to visit the ancient Mayan ruins.

Language

A very important part of this culture is associated with the Mayan language. 5  

The ruling minority speaks the official language, Spanish, as it is the language used in church, trading and tourism. However, many of the Mayans still speak their native dialects. In fact, there are two dozen languages spoken by the Mayans, which belonged to the five major groups: Yucateca, Chol, Qanjobal, Mam and Quiché.

Observed Holidays

Due to Catholicism, modern Mayans are also observing holidays in the Christian calendar such as Christmas and Holy Week.  However, they also have some observances characteristic to those of their nature-worshiping ancestors.

Status In Society

During the last 500 years, the Maya have been an underclass…Fortunately, this situation has begun to change. 6  

As mentioned earlier, the battle fought by these Mayans in the past years have now produced bitter-sweet results. Although oppression in the society persists, there are now living Mayans who have become important members of the political structure in Guatemala. Over the years, many Mayans have been elected to political positions.

Jumping Out Of The Plane

Four men from various cultures are aboard a small plane when suddenly, the pilot announced that the plane is experiencing mechanical problems. In order to make it to the nearest airport, three of them must each make a sacrifice by jumping out into the open air. They men stood up to open the plane’s door and look below. The Englishman breathed deeply and shouted “God save the Queen!” before jumping.

From this, the Frenchman become inspired and he too shouted “Viva La France” before he also jumped. This also motivated the Texan. He shouted “Do Not Forget The Alamo”, grabbed the Mexican beside him and threw the man out of the airplane!

Clothing

Western clothing and traditional dresses are worn today by Mayans. The traditional garb is worn more often by the women.  They can usually be seen wearing embroidered or traditionally woven clothing, skirt and blouse or stylish dresses. Trousers and guayaberas (decorative tuck dress shirts worn instead of a jacket) or sport shirts are the men’s generally clothing.

Sports And Crafts

If ancient Mayans played the hip-ball (they use body parts other than feet, hands and head to keep a hard rubber ball in the air), living Mayans usually play soccer.  Mayan women are known to be excellent weavers, using hand-spun yarn colored with vegetable dyes. They used their ancestors’ back-strap loom to produce plain white and striped cloth, which is then made into children’s clothes, shirts and shawls. They still frequently use designs that are more than 1,200 years old. Other crafts include unglazed pottery, woven goods and wooden masks used in ceremonies.

Social Issues And Living Conditions

Just like in other societies, there are modern Mayans who may be living a good life while others suffer poor living conditions. The common issues faced by many of them are unemployment, poverty, low wages and political unrest.  They also experience ridicule from other inconsiderate individuals worldwide. These people of magnificent heritage are made fun of by others primarily due to the failed apocalypse last December 21, 2012, even when this interpretation of the dug-up part of their ancient calendar did not come from them. Their health is also compromised by inadequate diet. Many of them consume less than 500 calories per day, an amount that is only 1/5 of the minimum standard set by the United Nations. On average, life expectancy is only 44 years.

Photo credit:
By Stacy (Flickr: Mayan Girls)
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons




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