Glimpses of Maya Ways of Life in Tulum 2: Cancha Maya


This is part two of a series of glipses from my ethnographic eye. I choose to give you small unanalysed stories from my fieldwork that I find have something interesting about them. Remark that I write Maya Ways (plural). I want to underline that there are many ways to to be, feel or act Maya. Unlike what many believe, there is a flourishing culture of people who define themselves as Maya, and I find it important that we recognize their own explanations of Maya identity rather that putting them into a box of what we believe Mayas are supposed to be like. Feel free to comment below


When I arrived in Tulum with the purpose of doing ethnographic fieldwork about how tourism is percieved by locals, preferably Mayas, I had no clue about where to look for the Mayan population, but as I walked and biked about town and introduced my project and myself, I was advised to find the Cancha Maya. I had no idea about what or where the Cancha Maya was, but it turned out to be the square where the Mayan church is located.

Three men were relaxing in hammocks by the entrance to the church. One of them got up, and gave me and a friend of mine a guided tour of the church. I asked the guard if I could come to mass one day. He told me that the church was open for everyone, and then he gave me the schedule and told me to bring food and a candle. He asked me to come early to have the process of the service explained. When I told him about my project, the guard warned me that the Mayan community is a closed one.

The following day, I woke up at 5am to go to mass. I cut half a melon into peaces, and arranged them on a plate. Then I put a white candle in my purse. Outside the gekkoes sang in the darkness. The heat and humidity quickly made me sweat. A few people were already on the street, but it was quit besides from the a few barks from dogs. Close to the church two big busses with Mexican looking people passed me, and by the market several men seemed as if they were waiting on another buss. On the plaza where the church is located, a woman and a man were sweeping leaves away from the ground. the church looked closed. Two men sat on a bench in front of the church as I approached them I heard that they were speaking Maya. The clouds on the sky looked like they had been painted. Part of them were dark blue, part of them were white. They were beautiful. A woman In her late teens or start twenties passed by. She wore short that only covered part of a thighs, a T-shirt and a backpack. Another young woman who wore the same passed by few minutes later, and then a young man with a backpack, cap, cell phone in his hands.
At 6.10 a police officer came out of the gate to the church. Shortly after, the guard I talked to the day before came out. He commed his hair as he crossed the plaza. When he came back, I asked him if there would be a mass, and he told me that would in a little time, when el señor would arive. A few raindops fell on my skin, and the birds became noisy. People had talked about how a tornado forming in the Atlantic. The by 6.20 it wasalmost light. The rain stopped.

I asked the guard what he though about tourism in Tulum. He told me that the tourists bring a bit of money. According to the guard the ancestors have predicted that a time of change would come, and that the children would live in a time of wealth with cars and stuff. He told me that more changes will come.
He asked me what I had brought. I showed him the melon.I asked if it was good, and he extended his sí. Maybe that means no.

A man with a big nude belly came out to the gate of the church. He told me that I could enter, but that I was not allowed to take photos. He seemed very serious. I was the only one there besides from two guards. Apparently, I had misunderstood the schedule. I tried to tell them that they did not have to do the mass just for me, but they insisted. I placed my shoes by the entrance, and walked through a room only illuminated by the early rays of sun and some candles the guards had put on the alter at the 4am mass. The leading guard placed the melon I had brought on the alter. I lit my candle and placed it next to the others, as I was told to do, and sat down on a small wooden chair in front of the alter. The room was peaceful, almost magic. The leading guard did the prayers; the other stood in the doorway and showed me what to do. The one who did the prayers rang a small golden bell from time to time. He repeated the same verse over and over again while he touched a rosary. The sweat ran down my legs, and my back hurt from sitting on the stool. With time, I found it hard to concentrate. My eyes flickered, and I fought to not fall asleep due to the heat. A few times, I was given signs to stand up and to kneel, and so I did. The guard called on Jesus, Mother Mary and the Santa Cruzes in Spanish. The Santa Cruzes are worshiped in the Mayan religion la Cruz Parlante [The Talking Cross]. I thought to myself, “This is an excellent example of syncretism”. The last part of the service was in Maya language.

After mass, the guards asked for my opinion, and I told them that it had been beautiful, but a bit hot. They told me that it was hot for them as well. Caressed by the breeze in the entrance, we enjoyed chicha, a drink made of maize, served in a jicara, and some of the melon I had brought. Those were the two offerings of the morning. The guards asked if I would come back. I told them I would, and then I told them that I was an anthropologist interested in the changes that tourism had caused in Tulum. At first, they were quiet, but then they started to teach me a few words in Maya and to tell me about how another “nice Gringa” had married a Mayan man. “Gringa” is an emic term for a fair-skinned person.


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