Honoring Tradition in the Yucatan: Remembering the Past Through Ceremony

Centuries After the Conquest, Mayan Families Across Southern Mexico Continue to Resist the Loss of Their Culture

Four men surround a metal tub over a charcoal fire, one routinely stirring its thick orange contents with a long stick. Another stands next to him, overseeing the process. Surrounding the tubs are colossal, verdant trees, dense bushes, pink and purple flowers and animated family members making preparations. The sun is beating down on the small farm, turkeys are yelping and bees are zipping past heads to burrow into their hives made of logs.

The center of the action is a small hut made of concrete pillars, a maize leaf roof and wooden support beams, the focal point of the structure being the ofrenda, or offering. Long, thick bamboo sticks form a triangle with the hives alongside them, and ears of corn and gourds hang from where the branches connect. Bowls that are filled to the brim with the orange paste sit underneath the sticks; tables are laden with bowls of cooked chicken feet, corn husks and bottles of a clear fermented drink.

The man stirring the mixture from earlier is making Col, a mixture of pumpkin, maize, butter and achiote, a red spice also known as annatto, which is primarily used for food coloring. Four tubs have been made so far, with more bowls placed at the ofrenda. There is a blend of tobacco, cacao and pumpkin swirling throughout the hut.

Children, grandparents, uncles and aunts gather within the hut to begin the ceremony. They sit in foldable chairs in front of the ofrenda as a man hurriedly speaks clipped Mayan and lights a candle, he then hands a cup of the fermented drink to the men sitting around him. They drink and pass cigarettes around, this being the first ritual of the ceremony, the sharing of tobacco. The men smoke while holding corn leaves under the cigarette to catch the ashes. Mayan culture regards tobacco as a plant carrying a holy essence; it’s burned for its strong fragrance, which is believed to spiritually connect people to deities and ancestors.

The Col is scooped into large bowls and placed around and underneath the branches of the ofrenda: where the offerings to Yuum Chaak, the entity of rain, are placed for the ceremony. The family are preparing to call upon Yuum Chaak to bring the seasonal rains, in the ceremony known as Cha’a’chaak.

A mid set, brow-furrowed man joints the congregation and watches intently. He is José Midel, the head of the Pat family, the owner of the farm and overseer of this ceremony.

Now this ceremony carries an even greater meaning for these communities. This practice bears significance in both agriculture history, the Cha’a’chaak ceremony – as well as other cosmological practices continued today – is a connection between the people of the present and the past, as well as to the beings in Maya cosmology.

The ceremony – and many others undertaken at key points of importance throughout the year – connects today’s Maya to their culture and history, in particular by celebrating a symbiosis with the land. It is this thread of environmental custodianship through milenia which continues to resonate to this day, continuing to be a keystone part of Maya life.

Ceremonies such as Cha’a’chaak unite people with their ancestors and beliefs. The Maya were subsistence farmers, being the first to domesticate corn, working traditional growing spaces called milpas, and rearing bees, for centuries. Many native communities in the present are still farming while keeping the same values in mind; Indigenous practices prioritize the wellbeing of the land – such as growth cycles, soil quality and biodiversity – and in turn, its people. Maya agriculture is intrinsically connected to the health of the environment; and ceremonies like Cha’a’chaak remind people of this relationship between people and nature. Remembering one’s heritage reminds people of who they are, which cannot be more important to a culture that is dying out.

Some estimates show that the peak of the Maya population reached ten million people, which has fallen to six million spread across the area now known as Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. This area has the largest concentration of Indigenous people north of Peru, even with these decreases. In Mexico the Yucatecs make the largest group at 300,000, then Tzozil at 120,000 and 80,000 Tzeltal people. In the 21st century the time has come again for the indigenous population to preserve their heritage from disappearance.

Maya languages are also dwindling over time; Mexican historian Antonio García Cubas estimated that 38% of Mexicans spoke an indigenous language in 1889. This fell to 60% in 1820, and subsequently 6% at the 20th century’s end. Now the number of native speakers is almost certain to be even lower with fewer people speaking Mayan every generation. As time passes, more and more elements of these indigenous cultures vanish.

This resistance to cultural loss is still exhibited nowadays through the continued practice of these ceremonies. Practicing traditions invoke the native people of today to remember who they are and why preserving their heritage is not only so important to them, but to the memory of their ancestors too. The Maya who lived centuries ago were nearly wiped out by colonization. Without their defiance hundreds of years ago, their culture might have faded with the conquistadors’ rule over Mexico.

With rituals showing gratitude to the crops provided by the land and rain, the ceremony holds environmental significance too. The Maya live off the land and profoundly respect it; and this age-old link isn’t solely shown in the way they grow food, but in the ceremonies practiced in its honor. Maize, pumpkin and cacao were staples for these first nations and continue to be. Every ritual in the ceremony is dedicated to one of these foods, highlighting their importance.

Resistance comes in many forms. For the Pat family, and many others in the peninsula, this is done by living, farming, and worshiping as their forefathers did. The Maya of the 21st century protect their culture from loss by embracing who they are and remembering the value of honoring their heritage.

Article and photos by Isla Barker.

The Yucatan Times

more recommended stories