People talk about the Maya civilization as though it disappeared sometime in the 10th century CE. On the contrary, we, the Maya, are still here. We still inhabit the same mountains, rainforests, and plains where our ancestors built the beautiful cities that continue to amaze the world. We maintain our ancestral connection with the land and are just as diverse, complex, and dynamic as we were before the arrival of Europeans and the creation of independent states in our continent. We are a diverse group of people who speak more than 30 different languages and are citizens of at least six nations: Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and, increasingly, the United States.
The history of Maya civilization stretches across four millennia. Some of the greatest achievements of our past took place in what Western archaeologists call the Classic Maya period (approximately 250-900 CE). The common view is that Maya societies collapsed and disappeared after this age. However, new urban centers emerged and flourished during the so-called Post-Classic period (900-1500 CE). Maya societies later confronted Spanish and British invasions into their territories during the 16th century. Since then, colonization, assimilation, and resistance have continued to characterize Maya history, even after the creation of independent nation-states.
Now in the 21st century, we are still encountering colonization and exclusion, but we are also succeeding in dealing with these challenges, thanks to greater mobility, better communication, and a more complex understanding of history.
Frequent exchanges between Maya scholars, activists, and artists from Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize have allowed for previously undervalued, local knowledge to be shared across nations. This cultural heritage consists of, for example, ritual styles, time-keeping practices, and oral literatures. The need to defend ourselves against state violence (particularly during the 1980-1990 period in Guatemala) prompted Maya groups to re-interpret the universal framework of human rights to support the principles of community life, and also to promote changes in gender and intergenerational relations.
Re-centering Maya principles through human rights activism, engaged scholarship, and renewed ritual practice has produced forms of grassroots cosmopolitanism, which are visible in community celebrations, arts, and digital media. In this context, cosmopolitanism refers to an awareness of worldwide commonalities and diversity, rather than an exclusively local scope.
The first example of what I call ‘cos-Maya-politanism’ is the Fiestas or Fairs for the Exchange of Native Seeds in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. This social movement is promoted by a broad alliance of community groups and non-governmental organisations. It appropriately illustrates the ways in which multiple identities and influences converge in local Maya festivals. In these, traditional teachings, stories, and art forms address global concerns about food sovereignty, environmental protection, and sustainability. Interestingly, local Maya knowledge is deployed as the philosophical bedrock to explain and embrace global diversity.
These connections between ancient heritage and contemporary readings are also present in the artistic work of Sotz’il Jay, translated as the ‘House of the Bat’, who are a group of Maya Kaqchikel practitioners from Sololá, Guatemala. This group started experimenting with dance, theater, and music under the leadership of Lisandro Guarcax, whose tragic loss in 2010 brought together Maya artists from all over Guatemala in protest. The group has continued Lisandro’s mission of using Maya archaeology and history to uncover the artistic legacy lost to time and colonialism. Sotz’il Jay has embarked on this quest by carefully studying images depicting ancestral artists and musicians that have been found in murals, vases, and codices. They also play with the sounds produced by replicas of ancient musical instruments. Re-examining this ancient heritage and comparing it with current traditional dances and music has culminated in the creation of a contemporary dance theater. Here they recreate a Dance with Feathered Backracks, as it might have been performed in the Classic Maya period.
‘Uk’u’x Ulew’, or ‘The Essence of Earth’, is another performance created to commemorate the end of the 13th B’aktun of the Maya Calendar in 2012, and to reflect about global challenges provoked by the destruction of Nature and the contamination of the planet.
Cos-Maya-politan approaches can also be detected in the way young Maya people adopt global music genres to sing in their own languages. While quality and creativity varies greatly, new Maya songs contribute to make contemporary experiences more recognizable to the wider public — listen to this playlist to appreciate the musical variety.
Watch also the following music videos in different genres and languages: pop in Yucatec, folk in Kaqchikel, and rock in Tzotzil.
One of the most talented songwriters is Maya Tz’utuhil speaker, René Dionisio, aka MC Tz’utu Kan. Tz’utu’s style is both traditional and contemporary, combining modern beats with ritual forms to communicate Maya spiritual worldviews. His songs mirror poetic forms that have been part of Maya literary traditions for centuries, still used today by spiritual guides and other ritual specialists. Tz’utu performs not just in his native language but also in K’ichee’ and Kaqchikel. Although the three languages are part of the Mayan linguistic family, they still differ from each other.
In 2015, as part of the music crew known as Balam Ajpu (Jaguar Warrior), with hip hop artists M.C.H.E., Dr. Sativo, and Danilo Rodriguez, MC Tz’utu Kan released an album with the title Jun Winaq’ Rajawal Q’ij (Tribute to the 20 Nawals). The Nawals are qualities, animals, or elements (sometimes called ‘energies’) associated with twenty day signs that are still used in traditional Maya calendars kept for centuries by the Guatemalan Maya. The songs are as much a tribute to this ancient knowledge as they are of the cosmopolitan outlook that the crew has. For example, one of their songs, ‘Ajmaq’ begins with samples of traditional songs from Africa, China, and North America, whereas ‘Na’oj’ employs Andean instruments and melodies. Elsewhere, electronic beats are effortlessly mixed with marimbas, rattles, and hornpipes. Balam Ajpu’s album is a true cos-Maya-politan take on the hip hop genre.
A final example of ‘cos-Maya-politanism’ is the new Maya hieroglyphic writing. There was an important breakthrough in the decoding of ancient Maya writing in the 2000s, which benefited from collaborations between Western scholars and Maya speakers. This uncovered that glyphic writing consisted of both whole concepts and syllables. When reconstructing the ancient language of Maya hieroglyphic texts, a crucial step is to understand the underlying logic of contemporary Maya languages — and this process would be much more arduous without the participation of contemporary Maya speakers. This means that, in the last two decades, Mayas of all ages (but mostly young people) have re-appropriated the writing of our ancestors, and started to produce their own texts using the ancient script.
These contemporary Maya scribes are using glyphic writing for many purposes: to create visual identities for their own organisations, to erect new commemorative monuments (for example, in Iximche’, Guatemala, or Mani’, Mexico), to illustrate Maya literature and historical books, and even to deploy in political demonstrations against corrupt politicians. They are also using glyphic writing to decorate building walls and clothes with their own take on ‘graffiti’.
They do not just copy the aesthetics of the ancient writing but re-invent them, too. One of the most talented new scribes is the Maya Kaqchikel graphic designer Walter Paz Joj.
The glyphic text that accompanies the image of a monkey scribe reads “uk’aay Jun Chwen” (the song of One Artist/Artisan), and Walter offers his own explanation in Spanish about the relevance of this Classic patron god of arts and writing in the comments section: “His song is [made] with his voice and his hands”.
Furthermore, in a unique cos-Maya-politan way, contemporary Maya scribes are also using glyphic writing to comment on, and recreate, popular global TV shows. This is what the group Ch’okwoj Maaya Ts’íib (Young Maya Writing) has done with the famous HBO series Game of Thrones.
The illustration has adapted known representations of canines in precolonial codices to represent the wolf. Written in glyphs, it says, “ke’el ku náats’al”, which translates in Yucatec Maya as “extreme cold approaches” — a unique re-interpretation of House Stark’s motto in the show (“Winter is Coming”).
All of these examples of Maya intellectual production clearly show that we are far from having disappeared; we are as current as any other civilization in the world. The reconstruction and transformation of Maya science, arts, and history occurs in different spaces and through various strategies. Some of the most productive efforts are the result of transnational conversations between experts and practitioners from different corners of the Maya region and the world. These cosmopolitan interactions and translations have Maya political, historical, and spiritual tenets at their very core. This is why, rather than considering them merely Maya versions of 21st century cosmopolitanism, I believe they have a distinctive new quality. They are representative of Maya-centric strategies to rethink our contribution to the world. The Maya groups and individuals presented here are not just committed to rediscovering the past, but deliberately creating cos-Maya-politan futures from the ground up.
Words by Dr Genner Llanes-Ortiz, Maya anthropologist, Leiden University, The Netherlands.
Ch’okwoj Maaya Ts’íib is formed by archeologist Héctor Cauich Caamal, linguists (and siblings) Gregorio and Alfredo Hau Caamal, engineer Francisco Hau Caamal and architect Ulises Piña Morales.
Acknowledgements: This piece has benefitted from conversations and exchanges with Maya artists and scholars Yazmin Novelo, José K’oyok’ K’u, Margarita Noh, Bernardo Caamal, Pedro Uc, Antonio Mukul (+), Miguel Ventura Herrera, René Dionisio, Daniel Guarcax, Alicia Sen Sipac, Victorino Tejaxún, María Regina Firmino-Castillo, Ana Lucía Pérez Sebaquijay, Alejandro Garay Herrera, Esther Sánchez, Aurelio Sho, Anita Tzec, and David Mora-Marín. Their kind disposition to talk with me has enriched this article greatly. Any mistakes that this contains are, however, my own.