The Mayas Today . . . a New Series
People of One Fire founding members, Ric Edwards and I, have had extensive interactions with several branches of an indigenous people in Mesoamerica that the Spanish collectively labeled “Maias” in the 16th century. Ric is part Maya and has traveled to the Yucatan several times, making friends there. I have lived in their homes,traveled through the jungles with them, eaten meals with them and danced with their daughters. We also have several POOF members who were or are married to members of one of the branches of the Mayas.
Unfortunately, most North Americans know very little factual knowledge about these fascinating peoples . . . that goes for the Mayas of the Pre-European past and those today. What little North Americans know today is from very brief descriptions of political events on the evening news or the occasional National Geographic article.
The real history of Mesoamerica is quite a bit different than what you were probably taught in high school. Public school history texts have been highly censored since the Cold War began after World War II so as not to appear “Anti-American” or anti-whatever political party is in power. The “dirty laundry” and atrocities associated with the intrigues of Spain, Great Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Soviet Union in that region are incalculable.
The People of One Fire hopes that by exposing readers to the complex history of the region, you will start your own journey toward greater understanding of the Mayas’ fascinating culture. You are in for many surprises. Here is the first one.
The Republic of Texas and la República de Yucatán had such close political relations that they were practically a confederacy. The leader of Yucatan’s fight for independence from Spain, Lorenzo de Zavala, was later the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas. He was born near the ruins of Mayapan, the Post Classic city, which gave the Mayas their modern name.
A Spanish Y is pronounced like an English Ē. Therefore the correct Spanish pronunciation of ethnic name, Maya, is Mä : ē : ä.
On his fourth voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus made contact with a seagoing trading boat from the Putan Province of Maiam on the northwest coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The Putan were consummate merchants, who traveled all over their known world. As was typical of the Spanish, they took the name of a small province and used it to label all the indigenous peoples of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan, Quintano Roo, Belize and Guatemala.
Mayapan is the Nahua translation of Maiam. Sixteenth Spanish explorers typically used Nahua-speaking guides from Central Mexico in their repeated invasions of the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala. Therefore, many place names today in that region are Nahua translations of the indigenous word.
Maiam means “Mai – place of” in the Putan (Chontal) Maya language that predominated around the periphery of the Gulf of Mexico. Mai is not a word used in any of the major contemporary Mayan languages. Ma means “no” in most Mayan languages.
However, Ma is a root verb in Totonac and Itza Maya associated with the verbs for trade or sell, tama and mapi. Therefore, in the extinct Putan language, Mai probably was a colloquial word approximately meaning “trade” while an “I” suffix indicated a capital town or principal center.* Therefore, Maiam could mean “Center of Trade.”
* This is why the chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition called a province in the Appalachians, Chiaha, but its capital, Ichiaha or Ychiaha. That was a “dead giveaway” that the people of Chiaha originally spoke Itza Maya. This prefix has been absorbed into the Creek languages. A town in Muskogee is tvlwa, but a capital town is itvlwa . . . the original of the name Etowah Mounds.
The 1984 movie, “Red Dawn” is best remembered today as the breakout roles for actors Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey. The following year, Thompson would star in the blockbuster, “Back to the Future.” Swayze and Grey would reunite three years after Red Dawn in Asheville, NC to star in another blockbuster, “Dirty Dancing,” whose music beloved to this day.
Culturally, though, Red Dawn represented the highwater mark of a paranoia in the Western United States during the latter half of the 20th century . . . namely, that an alliance of Cubans, Latin Americans and Native Americans was planning to conquer their region and take all their money away from them.
In the movie, the plausibility of a Marxist super-alliance being able to conquer much of Alaska, western Canada and the Western United States was based on the premise that Indigenous Alaskans, First Nations Canadians, Native Americans and Latin Americans in the military were moles for the Soviet Empire. When given the signal from Moscow, they so paralyzed defenses of Canada and he United States with acts of sabotage that their red-skinned brothers from Central America were able to seize a vast chunk of North America before White Patriots were able to form a defense that created a stalemate.
Entertainment as political propaganda
Most viewers of Red Dawn considered the film to be a fairy tale, but entertaining, if they liked violent “war movies.” The movie’s message was that (1) the Indians and poor mestizos of Latin America were a threat to the continued existence of the United States and (2) while the young people in urban areas of the United States were hedonistic and pansies, the wholesome white young folks of the rural west were patriots, who would put their lives on the line to defend their country.
The implications of this political propaganda were lost by most United State citizens because they had no clue what had been going on for several years in Central and South America and was now being bitterly debated in Congress. For that matter, virtually no national politician in the United States had ever had a clue about the real history of the region.
Before World War II, events in Latin America had been presented as humorous cartoons. After the Cold War began, politicians in Washington typically viewed any event in that part of the world as an extension of Soviet desire for world domination. The Soviets certainly would have loved to initiate Marxist revolutions throughout Latin America, but they failed because they knew even less about Latin America’s history than the folks in Washington.
After almost five centuries of mass killings, brutal destruction of their cultures and thefts of their lands, the indigenous peoples of Latin America hated anything Spanish. So what do the Russians do? They send in crioles blanquitos like Che Guevara, white skinned ideologues from upper class Spanish families, who told the camposinos that if they give up what few possessions they have remaining and submit completely to a police state, everything will get better.
Frustrated with the failures of the Che Guevara approach to fomenting insurrections among Indian peasants, the Soviet Union began funding sociopathic terrorists like Carlos “the Jackal” Sánchez. The campaign kicked off on September 5, 1972 with the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. I was there on the second day of the attack. There was a Soviet-funded Al Fatah terrorist cell in my apartment building in Landskrona, Sweden. The Russians managed to cause a lot of deaths and misery in their 18 year long terrorist campaign, but not one indigenous American’s life was improved by it.
Not to be outdone by the Soviet Union’s stupidity, Washington politicians viewed any popular demonstration against the continued theft of indigenous people’s lands as a Communist plot. A succession of American presidents furnished arms and military training to the very elements of Latin American societies, who were doing the stealing and bullying the camposinos. Invariably, the additional bullying made possible by US military support turned peaceful demonstrations into massacres and then into insurrections by outraged indigenous peoples in Latin America.
In January 1982, Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech in which he announced that “Southern frontiers of the United States are under grave threat from Communist terrorist attacks.” He had been secretly funding US military support for counterinsurgency operations in Central America and Mexico for a year, but that same month radically stepped up the funding. The result of these counterinsurgency operations was the murder of thousands of unarmed American Indians in that region. These squads were often used to clear lands of Indian peasants, so that rich white Latino families could establish ranches and plantations.
In early1984, the U.S. Congress approved $24 million in aid to Contra military units in Nicaragua. However, since the Contras failed to win widespread popular support or military victories within Nicaragua, opinion polls indicated that a majority of the U.S. public was not supportive of the expenditures.
Red Dawn was filmed during the height of the Contra controversy and released just as Congress was debating the Boland Amendment, which would have banned all financial aid to counter-insurgency operations in Central America. The states, whose Congressional votes were essential for blocking the Boland Amendment happened to be the same ones that were occupied by Latin American invaders in the film, Red Dawn.
It was also during this period that the National Security Council was given secret funding to operate a “Pro-Contra public relations” aka propaganda, campaign. It was authorized to spend millions of dollars to influence the news media and entertainment industry into supporting the Reagan Administrations covert programs. There is little doubt that Red Dawn was a major recipient of their “grants-in-aid” for public education.
By time that Soviet Union had officially collapsed in December 1991, Marxist intrigues in Latin America had ceased. Cuba was literally starving and the United States had shifted most of its military expenditures to the Middle East. Thousands of indigenous and mestizo peasants had died in hundreds of little publicized insurrections, without the quality of their lives being improved at all. At least there was peace.
The Zapatista Army of Liberation
This situation would change radically in 1994. The 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement contained an unpublicized provision that required Mexico to dissolve its communally owned lands, known as ejidos. In extreme southern Mexico, they functioned essentially as Maya tribal reserves. The Maya ejidos protected the Mexican Mayas from the type of land theft and suppression that terrorize their cousins in Guatemala and Honduras.
Military brutality at peaceful demonstrations resulted in the Zapatista Movement, named after the famous Mexican populist revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata. People in the United States were almost completely unaware that there was a civil war going on in southern Mexico. This time for the first time in 500 years, the Maya guerillas skillfully fought the Mexican army to a standoff.
When the Clinton Administration became aware that the Zapotistas were pro-democratic, pro-American and being financially backed by Mexican-American citizens in the United States, plus many Scandinavians, an official hands-off, news blackout approach was used.
It has been known for several decades that the Creeks, Seminoles and Miccosukees have a special knack for Latin American “goodwill” diplomacy. From the Kennedy Administration to the present the Miccosukees have had direct contacts with both indigenous Cubans in Cuba and the Mayas. In this situation, Creek “tourists” paid friendly visits within Zapatista held territory. The Zapatistas were assured that if they did not threaten American citizens or business interests, further violence in the region would be peacefully discouraged by the United States government.
To this day Maya guerillas administer an autonomous region in the Chiapas Highlands. Foreign tourists are welcomed and much safer than any other part of Mexico. The Maya Autonomous Zone is the only place in Mexico, where there is honest, efficient government. They have established complete equality for women and universal healthcare. The Scandinavian countries seem to be the model for their refreshing new style of Latin America government, but their agenda seems to also include a substantial level of Maya cultural tradition. Commerce crosses the borders each way, unhindered. There has also been an incredible renaissance in Maya art. Note the posters.
Normally, neither Mexican troops nor Zapatista guerillas harass each other. Most fighting stopped in 1996. Well, Maya teenage girls and single women frequently run up to Mexican soldiers on guard duty . . . briefly pull up their black ski masks and kiss the soldiers. I wouldn’t mind being harassed like that. It is the ultimate Mexican standoff.
Viva Zapata! Viva La Revolución!
Coming in Part Two – My first contacts with Mexican Maya political activists occurred on the eastern edge of Campeche State in early August 1970. I was shocked to learn that they were Pro-American, Pro-democracy, thought Jimmy Carter should be president and hated Spanish-speaking peoples.
Three weeks later, I would make contact with the Maya guerillas in the Guatemala Highlands. I had been apprehensive about this meeting, because I was told that they were Marxists, being supplied by Cuba.
They turned out to be populist and pro-American. Their weapons and munitions were being supplied by Roman Catholic missionaries . . . Marist Brothers and Marionite nuns. Well, I was also shocked to see lots of people, who looked like shorter versions of my mother’s family. The experience ignited a lifelong interest in finding out who exactly are the Mayas?