Yucatán is one of the five Mexican states that were once inhabited by the ancient Maya.
Despite the common narratives which imply that the Maya world collapsed after the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century, and that the indigenous people inhabiting the lands are all that remains of a glorious civilization,
in reality, the Maya living there today are owners of a vibrant culture that is part of our times and is in continuous dialogue with the modern world.
Map of Yucatán by GMP teamBritish Museum
Far from the folklorist image offered by tourist brochures and certain sectors of the population...
...the Maya of Yucatán (and also in other areas of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) have their own creative way of relating with their present, past, and future; relationships that are expressed in many ways.
Let’s explore a few of these ways, as we learn about some of the initiatives that reaffirm Maya culture in Yucatán today.
Tixkokob by GMP teamBritish Museum
Maaya t’aan: vindication of their language
Today, approximately 30% of the population of Yucatán speaks Maaya t’aan, also known as Yukatec Maya.
However, this number is the result of a notable decrease over the last centuries due to the discrimination that this language and its speakers suffered.
Fortunately, several initiatives seek to defend the value of Maaya t’aan.
Mexican constitution in Yukatec Maya by GMP teamBritish Museum
As part of this assertion of the language, some of the media in Yucatán have started publishing and broadcasting in Yukatec Maya.
The proliferation and defence of the language is a major objective of Radio Yúuyum, an online radio station that broadcasts in Maya.
A group of approximately 10 volunteers go on air every Monday evening, offering a varied programme: from Maya language classes and music (in Maya and other languages), to the relevant news of the different Maya communities.
Let’s hear about what they do in their own voice!
Radio Yúuyum broadcasting by GMP teamBritish Museum
In Merida, the Yucatec CEBA School of Creating Writing (Escuela de Creacion Literaria CEBA de Yucatán) offers two certifications, one in Spanish and one in Yukatec Maya. The aim of this three year course is to train future Maya writers, maintaining and promoting the existence of Mayan literature.
Throughout the cities and towns of Yucatan a creative generation of people is producing powerful modern art, expressed in different forms.
These artistic expressions rely on the experience of Maya culture, but are also influenced by the current artistic movement and fashions from other parts of the world.
Cedar panel by José Alfredo Caamal BalamBritish Museum
Music in Yukatec Maya is one of the ways that contemporary Maya express themselves. While some singers are reproducing more traditional types of music, others use modern genres such as rap, hip hop or rock.
Authors like Feliciano Sánchez Chan, Pedro Uc, Israel Carrillo Can, or María Elisa Chavarrea use Maaya t’aan for expressing themselves, leading the path of current Maya literature.
Pedro Uc’s poetry, for instance, is a mirror of his political visions.
X Bakal Ook by Pedro UcBritish Museum
The everyday world of the Maya is also visualized in the work of graffiti artists in Yucatán, more quotidian motifs having been introduced in their modern street art, like in this graffiti by Datoer.
Yukatec Street Art by DatoerBritish Museum
Relationships with the past
For the modern Maya the Prehispanic and Colonial periods do not only belong to the past. They are establishing diverse relationships with those worlds that are meaningful for them in the present.
This is the case in community museums, for example, such as the initiative carried out in Tiholop, Yaxcabá. The “Jacinto Canek” museum is a community-based project led by Lázaro Hilario Tuz Chi and Mariza Carrillo Góngora. This small museum does not only include Prehispanic objects in its collections and exhibitions, but also takes a look at the history of the community, which is closely associated with the uprising of Jacinto Canek in 1761.
In the case of Yaxunah, Yaxcabá, the community museum is part of a larger cultural centre that offers a variety of services to the members of the community: it has a library and provides computer and internet access. It also offers different courses and workshops and has spaces for larger gatherings and events. Run by the younger generations of Yaxunah, it relates the community to its modern artistic creations, its traditions, and to the close archaeological site of Yaxunah.
Today, there are also initiatives revitalising the ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing system and adapting it to contemporary requirements and uses.
The aim of the Ch’okwoj Maaya Ts’íib association is to teach epigraphy (the study and understanding of writing systems) to the younger generations of different Maya communities.
Maya hieroglyphs workshop with children by Ch'okwoj Maaya Ts'íib associationBritish Museum
Engaging with communities and their future
Several initiatives also aim to support the local Maya communities looking towards a better future.
Yaxunah community mockup by GMP teamBritish Museum
For example, in the Municipality of Chankom, Ángel Castillo Cime is trying to promote the development of the community through sustainable tourism, offering a close look at the traditional knowledge kept by the locals, as well as the way in which they relate to their environment.
Plants for construction purposes by GMP teamBritish Museum
In southern Yucatán, an organisation called Ko’one’ex Tuklik Múul Kuxtal collaborates with Tumben Tuukul, a group aimed at young people, to arrange different activities for children and teenagers to give them abilities helpful to their future:
they have their own radio/podcast transmissions and they are also creating a series of short video documentaries.
Tuklik's organisation event by Tuklik organisationBritish Museum
Múuch’ Xíinbal is an association of shareholders of community land from different Yucatec towns that fights for the defense of their land, as much of it has been appropriated by large renewable energy corporations in recent years.
Múuch' Xíinbal's logo by Múuch' Xíinbal associationBritish Museum
The future of Maya communities relies on their own people. Initiatives and activities like these will hopefully contribute to creating a prosperous time ahead.
Maya house by GMP teamBritish Museum
All images ©Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise marked
Text, video, and image selection: Ana Somohano Eres, Project Curator: Americas; Claudia Zehrt, Project Curator: Americas.
Special acknowledgements to the staff in El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, Merida (especially Abraham Guerrero and Ana Méndez Petterson), without whom this online exhibit would have never been conceived. We also want to thank the members of Radio Yúuyum, the Yucatec School of Creative Writing, Pedro Uc, Datoer, Lázaro Hilario Tuz Chi, Mariza Carrillo Góngora, Elias Alcocer Puerto, the collaborators of the Yaxunah Community Museum, Ángel Castillo Cime, and Manuel Rabasa Guevara for their time and contributions.