A MODERN MAYAN COMMUNITY
Quintana Roo is the state where the most entrenched Mayan communities can be found, which preserve much of the traditions of their glorious ancestors. This story is about the Cahum Family in Laguna Chabela. I was able to meet this family through the sister, Cecilia Cahum. She is the only one in the family who, despite her strong roots, was able to study until college, where she has a degree in biology. She works during the week near Tulum on a conservation project to protect the Spider Monkey in the area. And on weekends, he visits his family in Laguna Chabela. Here, they receive small groups of tourists to give a "true Mayan experience" for $ 500 pesos per person, in which they take a walking tour through the jungle to the lagoon (which they preserve by not swimming in it and only entering the lagoon through a kayak to reach other parts of the jungle more easily). To cook afterwards a traditional Mayan meal; "Chicken Pibil in Pib", which is a chicken in a pot with onion, tomato and spices, cooked for several hours underground, covered with banana leaves, wood, rocks and soil.
During my visit, I found a jaguar's footprint which had passed through one of the paths between the brothers' houses. I got on the kayak to tour the lagoon, with a feeling of peace and presence at the time I was experiencing, while photographing the family. With great pride, they taught me how they lived, from inside their home, their orchards, their house for beekeeping, their pib oven, how they built Cecilia's house, how Grandma prepared the sauces and tortillas for food with her bare feet. Feet connected to the land where she has lived all her life. And this is what I understood from this family, about that connection with the earth and nature that we humans share. Which can help us understand that we are one with Mother Earth, that we need it to be grateful and respectful as an act of honor and love towards ourselves and other human beings.
The future of the "Modern Maya" is uncertain. According to "The Nature Conservancy" of Mexico; “One of the objectives of the cultural and tourist project of the Mayan World is precisely to give the heirs of a magnificent past, the possibility, with tourism, to maintain their millenary customs and, at the same time, allow them to reach a standard of living worthy of representatives of a culture that fills the nations where it flourished with pride.”
In Mexico, almost half of the forest areas belong to the communities. In the Mayan Jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula, this proportion increases to 61%, indicating that rural communities, whose livelihoods depend heavily on this diverse ecosystem, have the capacity to make decisions to define their destiny. However, they face numerous challenges. The effects of climate change, as well as an increase in touristic developments in the area, which, endanger this vulnerable landscape and people. In large part, the "Mayan Jungle" survives because it is still deeply connected with cultures and the productive practices of rural communities of indigenous descent.
I hope that with this small photographic exhibition, I can show Mexico and the world that the Mayan culture is not the past, but a present with validity that lives and beats in each of the members of that culture of Mexico today . In which they study, work and contribute their talent and effort to the development of their communities, the preservation of nature, their traditions, and the country.
*More on the story below.
**FULL SPANISH VERSION:
As a Mexican, honestly, I didn't know that there were still Maya communities in the Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche regions that still preserve a lifestyle as their ancestors lived, from that culture of the Mayan Empire. That they continue to speak the Mayan language, that they continue to live and cook as they traditionally did. Naively, I believed that the Mayan culture had disappeared, as it was with Aztecs with the conquest of the Spaniards in Tenochtitlán, the miscegenation and the introduction of a new culture, the European one. Thus creating Mexican culture, a fusion of diverse traditions, cultures and ways of life.
It was when I met Fabio Esteban Amador, an archaeologist and explorer of National Geographic. (Who was then a friend and partner of Ricardo Azarcoya with whom he works together on different projects). Fabio, studied for more than 10 years the Mayan culture in the region of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Working in constant contact with archeological sites, fellow archaeologists in the area, reading books on the subject, discovering unknown archeological sites, and constantly living with Maya communities still alive and present in our Mexico.
He told me stories and his knowledge about the Mayan culture. In broad strokes, he told me what they believed, how they lived today, what they ate and how important it was for them to preserve their culture today. Despite the influences of globalization and the growth of tourism developments in the jungles. For example; He told me that the Ceiba was for them a sacred tree since they believed that it is the symbol of Mayan life, where the first man was born. The height of this tree made the Mayans believe that their branches supported the heavens, while their deep roots were the means of communication between the world of the living and the Underworld; Xibalba I had never seen a Ceiba, nor had I been in contact with a Mayan community, knowing its traditions, and discovering more of our contemporary Mexico.
From this, I realized that everything Fabio lived and knew about the modern Maya communities in Quintana Roo, had not documented it in photographs. And I wanted to meet them, live an experience near them, and be able to photograph them and tell their story to those Mexicans who, like me, did not know about the current Mayan culture and how attached they are to what it was before. Because, normally, when they talk to you about the Mayan culture, all you think about is the great pyramids in Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche. In the Mayan calendar, in some dishes (such as the “Cochinita Pibil” or the “Poc Chuc” or the “Black Stuffing”), in the ball game, even in the human sacrifices they made as an offering to their gods. And I wanted to see how much of this remained in the culture of today's Maya communities, and how much had remained as a historical reference to what was once the Mayan empire.
It was so that I undertook a trip to Quintana Roo and because of fate of destiny, I met Cecilia Cahum; whose family (traditional Maya) lived in the “Laguna Chabela”. A lagoon, protected by the vast jungle near Tulum, where I found a true Mayan community. Here I met this ancestral culture through a family of 5 brothers who are the voice of their Mayan ancestors. His purpose as a Mayan family and community is to share his teachings on the importance of nature in everyone's life, while continuing to be faithful to his Maya roots. Although they speak Spanish, they still speak in the Mayan language. Living in the remote community of Punta Laguna (house of the spider monkey, the jaguar, the melipona bees and the puma). The Cahum family really wants to honor their roots by preserving their natural heritage in a sustainable way. By always putting first the well-being of nature, in which their needs are met in a sustainable way. They believe that being able to live in this area is something like a "loan" of nature, in which they pay for taking care of it for the next generations. They still live in Maya "Palapas" that are made in the traditional way, sleeping in handmade hammocks, eating only what they can grow or find inside the jungle. In general, in the Mayan culture, and by the region where they live, they have as their main economic activity that of agriculture. Whose base is the cultivation of corn, beans, chili, squash, jicama, sweet potato, cantaloupe, coffee, cocoa, onion, breeding of guajolotes and chickens, and beekeeping of melipona bee, from which they obtain honey to sell to other neighboring communities.