Although the Maya people we associate with the ancient ruins or the interpretation in the film "Apocalypto" may not exist as
they have been portrayed, the people themselves are far from gone. To say that the Maya civilization disappeared is not only
an inaccuracy, but a great disservice to more than 6 million Maya living today in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. While the
city-states of the Classic period lowlands may have been abandoned in the tenth century, the Maya people did not disappear
any more than the Italians when the Roman Empire fell.
Throughout hundreds of years of outside efforts to oppress and assimilate, the Maya people have
continued to hold on to their unique way of life. Do understand that many of the old ways dissapear as a new technology or
modern influence is introduced or forced upon them, as an old way is replaced with the new just as in any meliting pot city where the people
have totally lost their roots. The sad part is that the old ways are being lost forever to "snake oil salesmen" and governments
that force new ways upon the old. Modern Maya religion is a colorful hybrid of Catholicism and ancient Maya
beliefs and rituals. Their ancient gods have been replaced with statues of santos (and secret Maximns) but the stories of
these saints only remotely resemble those of their European counterparts. Today, devout Maya worship at mountain and cave
shrines, making offerings of chickens, candles and incense with a ritual alcoholic drink. Shaman/daykeepers keep count of
the 260 day ritual calendar and provide healing by identifying curses and offended ancestors, counting seeds and crystals in
their divinations, and performing curando rituals.
The Maya community has both secular and religious leaders. A man rises through the ranks of a
confraternity by assuming increasing financial responsibilities for religious feasts and processions, often near financial
ruin by the time he completes his obligations. Most Maya families are maize farmers and they still use the slash and burn
method for their milpas.
You can identify the community to which a Maya individual belongs by their dress. The women wear loose hand-woven or
embroidered huipiles (blouses) with distinctive patterns and colors for each community. Few men in the Guatemala highlands
wear the traditional traje as it could be dangerous to call attention to themselves as Maya.
During the 1980's the Kekchi Maya of Guatemala found themselves in the middle of a conflict
between leftist guerrillas and the government. The ladino guerrillas, based in the surrounding forests, demanded food and
shelter from the Maya. In retribution, Guatemalan death squads killed 150,000 people and disappeared another 40,000. Tens of
thousands of refugees fled to Mexico and the United States while those who remained were moved into "model" villages where all
men were required to enlist in civil patrols. To better understand this conflict go to the United States foreign policy story.
Today, in Chiapas, Mexico, the Maya people are once again caught between the Zapatistas rebels and the Mexican government. There seems to be no end to the threats to the Maya way of life. Fundamentalist missionaries are also responsible for destroying the Maya culture with a more insidious, though nonviolent, strategy. In the Lacandon forest, the harvesting of the great mahoganies is not only destroying the precious rainforest, but is also seriously jeopardizing the remote Lacandon Maya community.