Mayans Ancient and Modern
A Travel Story
The Mayan people and their two thousand years of civilization still speak to the imagination. Their society collapsed several times over the centuries but always re-established itself. In the footsteps of nineteenth-century explorers, Dik van der Meulen and Marta Durán de Huerta travelled on mules and open trucks to the furthest corners of south-eastern Mexico, searching for the last vestiges of a culture that has survived almost unchanged.
Their plan to write Mayans Ancient and Modern dates back to shortly after 1 January 1994, the day the Mayans with a heartfelt Ya Basta – ‘we’ve had enough’ – rose in revolt against large-scale land ownership and the country’s corrupt administration. Rebel leader Marcos, who quickly became an icon of the anti-globalist movement, marched out of the jungle with his army and occupied several towns in the state of Chiapas.
A few days after the revolution began, sociologist and journalist Marta Durán de Huerta, along with several friends and colleagues, arrived in the area to support the Mayan resistance movement. Historian Dik van der Meulen followed events from a distance but with more interest than most: he had visited Chiapas several times and had been fascinated by the Mayans for years.
This report of their exhausting journey through the jungle region controlled by the Zapatistas ten years after the revolution is gripping. Durán de Huerta’s contacts enabled them to penetrate into the heart of rebel territory and return with unique impressions. They celebrated the tenth anniversary of the revolution surrounded by Zapatistas in the legendary rebel village of La Realidad. For all their sympathy for the rebels, however, the authors have a sharp eye for the misjudgements and absurdities that are part of the story of the freedom struggle.
Mayans Ancient and Modern is not just an exciting contemporary story. The authors give voice, quite literally, to the past. They resurrect an old Mayan king, ruler of the city of Palenque in its heyday, by seeking an audience and having him tell his story. It is a brilliant literary-historical device.
In Chiapas the authors also get to know the Lacandones, Mayans known for their primeval customs and seen by many as the last real Mayan tribe. Here too, the authors show, reality is more complicated than enchanted tourists who idolize the noble savage’ would like to think. True, these Mayans often look just as they do in old photographs, and they know the jungle like the backs of their hands, but jeans and satellite television are steadily making inroads.