New Gibson movie in Mayan, with subtitles

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Dec 5 21:29:12 UTC 2006

Mayans Excited, Unsure on 'Apocalypto'

Published: December 5, 2006
Filed at 3:55 p.m. ET

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Scenes of enslaved Maya Indians building temples for a
violent, decadent culture in Mel Gibson's new film ''Apocalypto'' may ring
true for many of today's Mayas, who earn meager wages in construction
camps, building huge tourist resorts on land they once owned. Some Mayas
are excited at the prospect of the first feature film made in their native
tongue, Yucatec Maya. But others among the 800,000 surviving Mayans are
worried that Gibson's hyper-violent, apocalyptic film could be just the
latest misreading of their culture by outsiders. ''There has been a lot of
concern among Mayan groups from Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, because we
don't know what his treatment or take on this is going to be,'' said
Amadeo Cool May of the Indian defense group ''Mayaon,'' or ''We are

''This could be an attempt to merchandize or sell the image of a culture,
or its people, that often differs from what that people needs, or wants,''
Cool May said. Gibson employed Mayas, most of whom live on Mexico's
Yucatan peninsula, in the filming of the movie, and says he wants to make
the Mayan language ''cool'' again, and encourage young people ''to speak
it with pride.'' The film has been screened for some U.S. Indians, who
praised the use of Indian actors. The Mayas haven't seen it yet, but like
Indians north of the border, they have seen others co-opt their culture,
as in high-class Caribbean resorts like the Maya Coast and the Maya

But Indians are largely absent from those beach resorts, where vacationers
tour mock Mayan Villages or watch culturally inaccurate mishmashes with
''Mayan Dancers'' performing in feather headdresses and facepaint. ''The
owners are often foreigners who buy up the land at ridiculously low
prices, build tourism resorts and the Mayas in reality are often just the
construction workers for the hotels or, at best, are employed as chamber
maids,'' said Cool May. ''Apocalypto'' also portrays Mayan civilization at
a low moment, just before the Spaniards arrived, when declining,
quarreling Mayan groups were focused more on war and human sacrifice than
on the calendars and writing system of the civilization's bloody but
brilliant classical period.

Outsiders' views of the Maya have long been subject to changing
intellectual fashions. Until the 1950s, academics often depicted the
ancient Mayas as an idyllic, peaceful culture devoted to astronomy and
mathematics. Evidence has since emerged that, even at their height, the
Mayas fought bloody and sometimes apocalyptic wars among themselves,
lending somewhat more credence to Gibson's approach. Warrior-kings and
priests directed periodic wars among the ancient Maya aimed at capturing
slaves or prisoners for labor or human sacrifice.  Entire cities were
destroyed by the wars, and whole forests cut down to build the temples.
The latest trendy theory is a largely Internet-based rumor that the Mayan
long-count calendar predicts a global calamity on Dec. 22, 2012. Some have
woven that together with prophecies from the Bible.

Mauricio Amuy, a non-Maya actor who participated in the filming of
Apocalypto, says the production staff discussed the theory on the set.
''We know the Bible talks about prophecies, and that the Mayas spoke of a
change of energy on Dec. 22, 2012, and it (the movie) is somewhat focused
on that,'' Amuy said. ''People should perhaps take that theory and
reflect, and not do these things that are destroying humanity.'' While
they resisted the Spanish conquest longer than most Indians -- the Mayas'
last rebellion, the War of the Castes, lasted until 1901 -- many were
virtually enslaved until the early 1900s on plantations growing sisal,
used for rope-making, or in the jungle, tapping gum trees.
Discrimination and poverty are probably their greatest enemies today.

Just as Gibson's use of Aramaic in ''The Passion of Christ'' sparked a
burst of interest in that language, some Maya are hoping ''Apocalypto''
will do the same for their tongue. ''I think it is a good chance to
integrate the Mayan language ... for people to hear it in movies, on
television, everywhere,'' said Hilaria Maas, a Maya who teaches the
language at Yucatan's state university. Mass, 65, recalls that children
were once prohibited from speaking Maya in school. There is still little
bilingual education, and many of those who speak Maya can't read it.

One sign of progress is Yucatan radio station XEPET, ''The Voice of the
Mayas,'' which began broadcasting in the Indian language in 1982. While it
began with a mixed Spanish-Maya patois, it now broadcasts in 90 percent
pure Maya. The station is trying to purge words borrowed from Spanish and
revive a purer form of Maya. It broadcasts all sorts of music -- from rock
to rap to reggae -- with Mayan lyrics. Still, the percentage of Maya
speakers in Yucatan state fell from 37 percent in 2000 to 33.9 percent by
2005. Paradoxically, for a state that advertises the glories of the Mayan
culture for tourists, it is having a hard time keeping the present-day
Maya there; many are migrating to the United States.

''For tourists that's what sells ... what catches their attention are the
archaeological sites,'' said Diana Canto, director of the Yucatan
Institute for the Development of Maya Culture. ''We are trying to sell
them on the living Mayas too, so that people get to know their cultural
richness.'' Today's Maya are known mainly for their elaborate rhyming
jokes, a cuisine based on pumpkin and achiote seeds, and loose embroidered
white clothing.  They're largely peaceful farmers and masons who carry
their goods on ubiquitous three-wheeled bicycles over table-flat Yucatan.
Interestingly, some Mayas reach much the same conclusion as Gibson's
movie, which focuses on one man's struggle to save his family as a
metaphor for saving the future of a people.

''Our culture hasn't been destroyed, because the family is the base of
it,'' says Maas. ''Perhaps some material things have been destroyed, but
the real basis of the culture is what a family teaches their children, and
that survives, and has survived.''


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