Grains of Resistance: Celebrating Rituals, Bodies and Food in the Yucatán Peninsula and Belize

 Photo: Genner Llanes-Ortiz, 2012.
Photo: Genner Llanes-Ortiz, 2012.

The following chapter analyzes the most salient characteristics of three different Maya festivals. These events have also been captured in an equal number of short ethnographic films. In this chapter, clips of these documentaries are used to illustrate specific points. However, they can also be watched in their entire form, here:

  1. Fiesta of maize in Yucatán.
  2. Feria of native seeds in Quintana Roo.
  3. Maya Day in Belize.


During the last decade, Maya peoples in the Yucatán Peninsula and Belize have been articulating new resistance strategies to oppression and marginalization through fiestas and festivals. Although all of these groups of activists self-identify as Maya, they speak different languages and have distinct cultural traditions. Their collective celebrations—and the ideas, messages, and values that performance genres reproduce within them—also need to be understood with attention to distinctive political contexts and histories.

In Yucatán, Maya activists struggle to reinforce and renovate despised and displaced indigenous epistemologies, particularly those expressed in agricultural practices and in locally developed and preserved varieties of corn, beans, pumpkins, roots, and creepers. In fiestas or ferias, these seeds are discursively and performatically re-inscribed as a focus of resistance to neoliberal policies, specifically to the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) such as transgenic maize and soybeans. Performatic practices (following Taylor 2003) take the form of renewed spiritual ceremonies, as well as community theater, storytelling, political declarations, songs, and poetry.

The Belizean Maya face a national context in which they had been denied the status of indigenous peoples. Until recently, Belizean authorities used to depict the Yukatek, Q’eqchi’, and Mopan Maya linguistic communities as recent immigrants from either Mexico or Guatemala. This portrayal has hindered the Maya’s access to and exercise of basic territorial, political, and cultural rights and has inhibited the will of the younger generation to identify as Maya. Unsurprisingly, it has also resulted in the symbolic invisibilization of the Maya within the historic narrative of Belize. Thus, national public holidays that celebrate the social and cultural contributions of other ethnic groups have failed to acknowledge the importance of Maya peoples for the nation. Resisting invisibilization, Maya resilience and dynamism are the central performance themes of the Maya Day festival. The performatic strategies employed are games and competitions, traditional and contemporary music and dance performances, and spiritual ceremonies.

In this essay I will argue that while the Maya of Yucatán resist the neoliberal assault on their epistemologies and spiritualities by zealously protecting their local grains, Maya bodies and their practices in Belize can also be understood as grains of resistance to invisibilization and marginalization.

Ferias for the Exchange of Seeds, Fiestas of Resistance

Over the last decade, groups of Maya and non-Maya activists have gathered every year in different parts of the Yucatán Peninsula to celebrate Maya culture and identity in a renewed way. They come together to barter, sell, and buy seeds of various local varieties of edible and cultivable plants, the most important of which is maize. Although seed exchanges have long been happening in Yucatán, these collectively organized affairs began soon after hurricane Isidore struck the region in 2002. Isidore caused the destruction of important crops, like maize and beans, and the subsequent loss of seeds for the next agricultural cycle. With the support of NGOs and other activists working closely with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), a project was quickly set up to bring together Maya community groups to exchange the seeds that they had saved from the hurricane’s wreckage.

The first exchanges were simple affairs. Maya peasant activists, who worked closely with NGOs in their communities, would bring maize seeds of different varieties, all of them native or adapted to the Yucatecan conditions, diverse in color, length of cycle, and thickness. They would also exchange seeds of different native varieties of legumes, cucurbits, root crops, vegetables, fruits, and leaves.

Fiesta of Maize (Yucatán): Exchange of Seeds.
Feria of Native Seeds (Quintana Roo): Exchange of Seeds.

A research project financed by UNDP and other agencies helped to document the great diversity of local plants that Maya peasantry have maintained and developed over decades (if not centuries) as part of their diversified and highly adaptable mode of production, the milpa (Teran and Rasmussen 1995).

The exchange of seeds begun in 2002 soon became, for those involved, a catalyst to reflect on the Maya peasant way of life, the importance of local agro-biodiversity, its relation to Maya history, culture, and spirituality, and some of the current threats to these epistemologies. By epistemologies, I refer here to particular ways of knowing that are sustained by the theories that different peoples uphold about the nature of knowledge, and how this is transmitted (Maffie 2006). Many of these theories are embedded in collective practices—which, according to Lave and Wenger, tend to configure “communities of practice” (1991). Sometimes these practices are clearly aimed at instructing and guiding, while others work to instill knowledge and enable learning.

Maya and non-Maya activists have thus created a space to exchange not only seeds, but also their own views and opinions, to raise awareness about the disastrous state of rural and indigenous communities, to join their voices in demanding support and attention to their problems, and, most importantly, to celebrate their agricultural spiritualities. This happens (as I will show) in different ways, yet one important practice is what I call here “(hi)story telling.” This consists in the reinterpretation of history and contemporary events in the telling of stories from a distinctly Maya perspective. This practice is based on tsikbal, a Yukatek Maya concept that can be roughly translated as “respectful conversation”. (Hi)story telling is more performative (based on and organized by discourse) than performatic (a predominantly embodied practice). Yet the act of telling demands several non-discursive skills like gesturing, rhythm, and iteration. 

Feria of Native Seeds (Quintana Roo): (Hi)story Telling by Bernardo.

Maya rural communities in Yucatán have experienced a drastic deterioration of their living standards, particularly since the introduction of neoliberal policies in the 1990s. Before this decade, subsistence agriculture was sustained by government subsidies that kept the cost of production low and guaranteed a basic price for maize and beans. In the 1980s, the government-led “Green Revolution” introduced the use of agro-chemicals, and “improved” varieties of seeds to the complex and multi-layered milpa logics. Although these changes were initially resisted by more traditionalist Maya peasants, the government ultimately “convinced” them by implementing subsidies, conditional loans, and other policies (Torres Flores 1997).

For centuries, milpa in Spanish, or kool in Yukatek Maya, has integrated different productive and extractive activities into a cycle that creates wealth, determines prestige, regulates communities, defines identities, and organizes collective and individual lifetimes. Maize and milpa define one of the most important of several Maya identities: the campesino milpero, koolkaab, or koolnáal [inhabitant of the milpa] (Gabbert 2001). Wealthy milperos would be acknowledged as legitimate decision-makers in town politics; their families would be those that people respect the most. Koolkaab life was considered for many years the life of a free person.

Feria of Native Seeds (Quintana Roo): (Hi)story Telling by Pedro.

Sudden and sustained transformations of the national and international context have brought about new challenges for koolkaab lifestyles. The liberalization of the food market in recent years means that most of the subsidies that supported the maintenance of a decent living standard no longer exist. The dependence on external agricultural inputs and the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have left a context in which production costs are high and local maize and other crops have to compete now with heavily subsidized produce from the US. More recently, powerful lobbying and political pressures from big agribusinesses have opened Mexico, the center of origin of maize, to the introduction of genetically modified varieties of corn. Many battles are being fought against the introduction of GMOs. Nationwide alliances have contested these neoliberal policies with different levels of success (Fitting 2011). Maya and non-Maya activists are part of this broad movement against GMOs, yet with a particular sense of historical and cultural depth.

Since 2006, meetings for the exchange of seeds have become known as either ferias (fairs) or fiestas. In Spanish, feria conveys the idea of an economically oriented event, a big market, whereas fiesta is open to more diverse interpretations. Fiesta can be a religious festival, a collective joyful occasion, and even a more solemn celebration. The different terms employed to describe these events speak of the diversity of perspectives of both organizers and participants. For some, the ferias serve a practical function in improving and expanding the variety of seeds that are available to Maya peasants, thus strengthening their self-reliance and lifestyle. For others, these events are fiestas of political and spiritual importance, opportunities to build on the everyday practices and beliefs of the rural participants to construct a broader identity as one people, the original inhabitants of the Maya peninsula.

Resisting Invisibilization: Maya Day Festival in Belize

The Maya of Belize experience a different situation to those of Guatemala and Yucatán, but one that is also marked by ethnic discrimination and political marginalization. One important difference is that their experience of colonialism has been defined by the British Empire. Belize was known as British Honduras until 1981, when it gained its independence. Maya struggles for legal recognition and protection of their ways of life later set them against a particular brand of nationalism that has challenged their status as the original peoples of Belize (Medina 1999). The Maya people are represented here by three different linguistic communities: the Yukatek, the Mopan, and the Q’eqchi’. In spite of the challenges to their “native” status, the Maya are considered one of the four main ethnic categories that form the Belizean nation; the other three are the Creoles, the Mestizo, and the Garifuna.

Although colonial and nationalist historians agree that the Maya were present before other ethnic groups in Belize, many Belizeans still believe that the contemporary Maya are in fact recent immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. The Creoles, or Kriols, are the descendants of former African slaves and British woodcutters who founded Belize City, the center of British colonial authority. They became the dominant ethnic group after independence and have since established themselves as the true Belizean “natives.” They sustain the idea that Belize is not just territory, but rather “a culturally unique place in Central America” which is “black and Anglo-Caribbean in orientation.” In the last two decades, due to changing migration patterns, the Kriols have been outnumbered by the Mestizo population, who call themselves Spanish despite the fact that they also have Amerindian heritage.

The Maya in Belize these days face an increasing encroachment of their territories by other groups. In defending their rights, the Maya have been strategic about their way of (re)presenting themselves before the Belizean state and society. Because the linguistic identities of the Mopan and the Q’eqchi’ are associated with Guatemalan immigration, these communities have decided to advance their claims as a unified Maya people. Since 1978, different local authorities and activist groups have been committed to “developing a shared Maya identity and mobilizing cooperatively to protect Q’eqchi’ and Mopan culture and languages and expand their land base” (Medina 1999, 151). In order to substantiate their claims, the Maya have had to render explicit their use of the land and “materialize” their practices of dwelling. “[T]he Maya struggle for a homeland in Belize participates in a larger trend in which everyday cultural practices are becoming increasingly objectified as cultural practices” (Medina 1999, 153). In this active production of “lived relationships” with the land, ritual and other types of performance play an important role.

Ecological and cultural tourism have become crucial stages on which to perform indigeneity and at the same time to continue challenging the state over claims of “nativeness.” In the process of reconstructing ritual performances and traditions, Maya activists have resorted to alternative ways of transferring traditional knowledge. At the grassroots level, however, a strong sense about what constitutes proper Maya rituals and traditions still exists (Medina 2003). This sense is reflected in the ways the Maya Day organizers have decided to display embodied cultural practices. These performances of indigeneity are making a significant impact upon the ways Belizean Maya represent their cultural dynamics vis-a-vis predominant national prejudices (see Wainwright 2008). A popular conception is that the young Maya are losing their cultural heritage because they abandon their traditional costumes, music, and dances.

Working with young Maya people is what Tumul K’in Center of Learning set out to do at the beginning of the 21st century. This educational project has been described by some scholars as an experiment in postcolonial pedagogy (Wainwright 2008). The name of the center means “new day” in the Mopan language. Tumul K’in caters to the educational needs of Mopan and Q’eqchi’ young people in the Toledo district. Tumul K’in assumes that its work continues the struggle for the recognition of Maya rights and culture initiated in the 1990s, and it has supported the work of other Belizean Maya organizations.

In 2002, Maya teachers from Cayo district convinced the Belizean government to allow them to occupy the abandoned facilities of a failed development program in Blue Creek. This school is the only secondary education institution in the country that teaches Mayan languages as part of its curriculum. Students still have to follow the national plan of education, but they can also focus on subjects such as agriculture and agro-processing, ecotourism, and natural resources management. It is also the only school in Belize that teaches Maya values, spirituality, and arts. Tumul K’in’s educational practice actively encourages students to learn different performance skills during what they call “special days.” Teachers believe this encourages students to pursue a sense of identity in the exploration of “tradition” (through marimba and harp playing, and traditional dances), as well as in the reconstruction of long-lost performing arts. An example of the latter is the reintroduction of stilt dancing, a performance practice described in one passage of the Popol Vuh, the ancient book of the Kiche’ Maya.

Maya Day (Belize): Stilt Dancing.

Tumul K’in is the main organization behind the celebration of Maya Day. This is a festival that involves different types of ritual, athletic, and artistic performances. The festival started in 2004, as an “open day” to showcase the work of Maya students to their parents and other people from the villages. Because this first celebration was a success and people enjoyed the cultural and artistic performances on display, the school and the parents decided to continue it. From that initial moment, many elements that are still part of the festival came into the framework of Maya cultural celebration, like traditional dances (the Deer Dance, for example), music, and food. However, the celebration of Maya Day can also be seen as a symbolic gesture that defies the invisibilization of the Maya as legitimate members of the Belizean nation. Since the government only observes national holidays that celebrate the heritage of the Kriols (St George’s Caye Day, and Commonwealth Day) and the Garifuna (Garifuna Settlement Day), the Maya decided to organize for themselves a public celebration to extol the contribution and continuous presence of the Yukatek, the Mopan, and the Q’eqchi’ in Belizean territory. 

Maya Day (Belize): Performance–––Deer Dance

Celebrating rituals

Among these Maya activists, there is a common interest in relocating Maya ritual performances as a central element of their Maya identity. By acting in this way they are reclaiming forms of epistemology that have long been displaced or abandoned due to the sustained attacks of colonialism and so-called modernity. The spiritual practices that these groups try to promote have been condemned in the past as pagan and demonic by different representatives of Christianity. Among these performances are fire ceremonies that invoke the nawal, or spiritual energy of the day, as well as ritual engagements with the supernatural entities that roam the forest and protect the milpa. In these celebrations, however, ritual practices have been reinterpreted in ways that rearticulate and connect old and new cosmologies. In the ferias de semillas, blessing ceremonies are the main performatic activities that begin the day’s events. In Buena Fe, Quintana Roo, one member of the organizing committee performed the ceremony during the feria. In order to perform this ritual, the organizers built an altar with traditional materials taken from the forest. The altar was erected as a four-legged, precarious table made of staffs and sticks, on top of which they formed two arches with vines and leaves. These arches were decorated with bright colored flowers. The altar was orientated according to the four cardinal points. The arches ran from opposing cardinal points and crossed above the table, in the middle. On the eastern side of the altar, a cross was attached to a long staff.

Feria of Native Seeds (Quintana Roo): Blessing of the Seeds.

An aspect of the blessing of the seeds ritual during the Feria de Buena Fe, Quintana Roo, 2012. Video capture by Genner Llanes-Ortiz.

The officiant stood, facing east, on the western side of the table. Up to 13 gourds containing a special maize beverage (known as sakab) were placed on the table. In the four corners of the altar they hung an equal number of gourds. This is the most common structure of the Maya altar in Yucatán. All the seeds and other produce (such as plastic bottles containing honey) that people brought to the feria were accommodated on and around the altar.

The structure of the invocation followed in this case is a simple pattern. It consisted of a series of callings to God, the four winds, and other supernatural beings. The prayer opened and closed in quick sequence. First, there was a moment of prayer when the officiant called the spirits to approach the table and receive the offerings. After a long pause, the summoner asked the spirits to return to the places where they belonged, be they the skies, the forest, or below the ground. Don Antonio, the officiant of the day, would later confess to me that when he was performing the second part of this ceremony, kneeling in front of the altar, before a crowd of nearly 100 people, he felt he nearly fainted. He attributed this sensation to the power of the spirits and blamed his reaction on his own inexperience performing. He later reflected that there was something he must have missed in the performance, which led to a sudden loss of control over the spiritual energies that the shaman, the professional officiant, is expected to command.

An altogether different performance was the one that happened in Kambul, Yucatán, during the fiesta del maíz. Here an experienced, elderly shaman was in charge of the blessing of the seeds. He and another prominent Maya activist introduced a remarkable innovation to this Maya ritualistic tradition. This consisted in the construction of a round altar on the ground, rather than on a square table. For this, they used the leaves of the ja’abin tree, forming a big circle in the center of a basketball court. Another novel element was the utilization of corncobs of different colors to mark the four cardinal points, using red maize for the east, white maize for the north, purple maize for the west, and yellow maize for the south. On each direction they also placed fruits, flowers, and foods of similar color. Finally, they finished the altar with colored candles and gourds containing “virgin water” (from a sinkhole in the forest) and the sakab beverage. If the altar had been radically transformed for this ceremony, the prayer style was rather conventional (for further reading on this, refer to Hanks 1984). The invocation involved a long litany delivered at a sustained, monotonous pace, marked by regular inflections but composed of long phrases in which God, the Virgin Mary, and a large number of supernatural spirits, the winds or iik’o’ob, were called upon to feed on the offerings. This was a highly demanding performance, especially for the 84-year old shaman. The blessing ceremony was composed of three different sequences, each one lasting between 15 and 20 minutes. Besides praying, the shaman moved around and into the altar, first sprinkling virgin water to the four cardinal points with a small leaf, then later brandishing a bundle of leaves of the sipche’ tree to spray seed bags, ornamental plants, wicker baskets, and people attending the ceremony with the same water. The shaman’s path always followed the same pattern: a reverse clockwise movement spiraling from west to south to east to north to the center of the altar. 

Fiesta of Maize (Yucatán): Ritual–––Blessing of the Seeds.

Though equally important for the organizers, spiritual ceremonies seemed rather marginal to the celebration of Maya Day in Belize. Rituals were included as an auspicious start to the festival. The form that ritual performances took in this celebration was a Q’eqchi’ invocation and fire ceremony, led by a 25-year old Maya spiritual leader from Ak’ Tenamit, a school in Guatemala. Because of its performatic significance, I shall concentrate here on the fire ceremony. The altar for this ceremony was again laid on the ground. The number, nature, and significance of the elements were highly complex. The base of the altar was formed as a circle with a cross in the middle. This was made with dried round pieces of copal, an aromatic resin. Along with the copal they used other aromatic elements, such as barks from pine trees, blocks of resin, honey, and colored candles. The ceremony started with the lighting of the fire and with an explanation about its meaning and the intention behind it. It was said that the fire ceremony was aimed at invoking the nawal of the day: that is, the spiritual energy that that particular date has been assigned in the Maya timekeeping tradition. Every day has a nawal, a companion spirit, a purpose, and a potential. As part of the performance, the young spiritual leader recited long prayers in Q’eqchi’ while walking around the fire in a reverse clockwise direction. His prayers were dedicated to each one of the 20 days of the Q’eqchi’ calendar and their corresponding nawal. At the same time, his companions, a group of young apprentices from the same school, offered candles and small balls of copal to the attendants to the ceremony, inviting them to feed the fire and ask for particular favors to the nawals. The fire was lit in the middle of a field without trees, which made the performance a grueling experience for the officiant and his companions, who had to face the scorching heat and be near the fire at the same time.

Maya Day in Belize-Ritual: Invocation and Fire Ceremony.

In all these ritual performances, there is a repetition of key elements of Maya cosmology. One is the organization of the world in symmetric areas with different yet equally important values. Another element is the center as another cardinal point, represented by the colors green and blue. The world is represented in these rituals as an organized and luminous space that humanity inhabits along with other, supernatural, beings. The pauses and movements of the officiant reflect the passing of time and the cycles of nature. They speak not only of repetition, but also of progression, for the officiants move in a spiral. The notions of “center” and “balance” are key to Maya cosmologies and support the idea of humanity (all humanity, not just the Maya) needing to be firmly “planted” on earth. These views about time, humanity, and earthliness reflect worldviews present in the predominantly peasant Maya-speaking communities to which the majority (if not all) of these Maya activists belong.

Celebrating Bodies 

Some of the most anticipated performances of Maya Day are the competitions and games organized to celebrate Maya culture. These competitions go back to the first “open day” festival that Tumul K’in had in 2004. Parents of Tumul K’in students wanted to encourage their children to learn the work of the cornfield and to be more “traditional.” These are some of the main components of the Tumul K’in education program. Students labor incessantly in the field, in the kitchen, and in the classroom. The school board and the majority of Maya villagers believe that hard work is what will make these students Maya. This work does not exclude recreational activities. The teenagers are allowed free time after lunch, which some devote to learn marimba playing through a peer-to-peer dynamic and in a relaxed environment.

Competitions were initially thought of as forms of encouragement for the students. Through competitions they could demonstrate what they had learned in the school: not only mathematics, English, and history, but also how to labor effectively in the field and the forest. They would also compete to show how well they had learned the traditional Maya arts.

The number and nature of the competitions eventually grew in order to include other Maya villagers, both young and old. This was because the organizers of the festival wanted to make sure that people from the villages would get involved in the celebration. They thought that having these competitions would encourage Maya villagers to demonstrate their embodied skills and knowledge. Thus, these competitions contribute to promoting a notion of Maya culture that is embodied and, at the same time, performatic—because they are publicly displayed. In 2012, Maya Day organizers announced a list of competitions that included firewood splitting, palm knitting or braiding, corn grinding, tortilla making, corn husking and shelling, caldo eating, water carrying, conch blowing, fan making, and greasy pole climbing. I will focus on firewood splitting and corn grinding to exemplify the kind of embodied practices celebrated during Maya Day. 

Maya Day (Belize): Competition––Palm Knitting.
Maya Day (Belize): Competition––Maya Greasy Pole.

The firewood splitting competition opened the day’s contests. Four contestants from different villages were told that in order to win they had to perform the activity exclusively in a traditional way. In order to accomplish this task as quickly as possible, they would have to use more than just force; in fact, they needed embodied skill to render the task easier. While they were concentrated on the task at hand, two emcees would alternatively encourage and tease them, pitting them against each other and jokingly encouraging rivalry between villages. The two emcees alternated among up to five different languages, sometimes speaking in Q’eqchi’, other times in Mopan, switching between English and Kriol, and even interspersing phrases in Spanish. One of them in particular would stress the physical challenge of the task by saying: “this is how hard the Maya man works.” When one of the competitors finished splitting the log and began transporting the pieces of wood to the finish line, he was told to do it properly by tying down the logs with a tree bark and carrying them on his back. Another competitor tried to rush through the task and did not tie the logs properly, which then fell several times. This prompted laughs and jokes from the audience. The emcees took advantage of this to caution against being too hasty when it came to working in the field. The competition was won by the competitor who was patient and knew how to perform the task properly.

The corn grinding competition during Maya Day festival in Blue Creek, Belize, 2012. Video capture by Genner Llanes-Ortiz.

The corn grinding competition came after several others had been completed. There were three female competitors in their mid-30s or early 40s, again from different villages, who were monolingual Q’eqchi’ speakers. This competition consisted in using the ka’ (stone rolling pin) to grind the corn. The task entailed disintegrating the grains and turning them into dough, trying to achieve the right balance between humidity and dryness. The judges would make a decision based on the texture of the dough. A female emcee reminded the competitors that not a single grain of corn should fall out of the grinding stone. A Kriol male emcee animated the competition with comments that stressed the particular ways in which the body was involved in the task, saying: “They are doing it, traditionally, culturally, and [they are] experts in their own way. […] Their bodies are moving up and down, in and out. The three of them are breathing kind of hard right now, but that is to be expected.” 

Maya Day in Belize: Competition––Firewood Splitting
Maya Day in Belize: Competition––Corn Grinding

Elderly women, who were called to serve as judges, would pass around the dough, touching and rolling it between their fingers to see if any of them had achieved the texture and thickness expected. After deciding on the first and second place, one of the winners took up the microphone to express her pride in still being able to perform this task at home. She commented that although there are now electric mills to grind corn, she finds it necessary to learn to do it in the traditional way.

Maya bodies are also praised and celebrated in the ferias de semillas in Yucatán. The praise is implicit in comments about how the Maya cope with adverse weather conditions. In Kambul, the organizers and the audience had to endure the peninsular humid heat and burning sunlight for most of the celebration. Confronted by this, people commented that they, as Maya and campesino, were not afraid of the sun or the rain because they are used to these conditions.

A more explicit celebration or, at least, preoccupation with Maya bodies was expressed in the community theater play presented in both Kambul and Buena Fe. Maya bodies were celebrated as fundamentally made of maize, and native varieties of maize for that matter. As one of the texts read during the Kambul fiesta put it, “Of white maize and yellow maize our flesh has been formed.” The play will be discussed in more detail in the next section. However, one of the main concerns of the playwright was to stress how the consumption of transgenic maize varieties was dangerous for the “Maya race.” In the play, the Maya body is presented as produced by the combination of qualities of four basic elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. The first human is represented as a slender and beautiful young man, who emerges from the ground dressed as a corncob. 

Fiesta of Maize (Yucatán): Public Discourse––Our Food.

The bodies celebrated in these events are those that show the greatest skill and resilience when facing everyday challenges. They are praised for what they know. This knowledge is not, however, perceived through what they can elaborate in discourse, but is rather evaluated for how well they can perform everyday tasks which are generally an undervalued form of knowledge. This epistemology, ingrained in the body, defines what it is to be a Maya man or woman. By performing in this way, Maya bodies escape the trap of what Wilk calls the political economy of beauty in Belize, one administered by the government and deeply embedded in processes of global commoditization of the body (1995). The display of hard work exhibited by Maya bodies indexes a moral discourse underscoring the legitimate presence and long-established dwelling of the Maya in the deep forests of the Belizean south. It thus confronts and resists the invisibilization and denial of nativeness implemented by the state. In stressing their resourcefulness and resilience, the Maya of Yucatán implicitly promote a moral discourse against the non-Maya, the rich, and the powerful, which is part of a social construction characterized as “ethnic class consciousness” by some scholars (Kray 2005).

Celebrating Food

“The Power of A Seed,” a play by the theater group Chan Ts’u’unun (Little Hummingbird).

In many ways, the celebration of food is where the spiritual and corporeal aspects of Mayaness converge. The sacred maize, the primordial substance from which the Maya and the whole of humanity were created, occupies central stage in the discourses and performances during the feria de semillas in both Buena Fe and Kambul. This is fundamentally what the community theater play tried to communicate in 2012. The play was inspired by the involvement of María Luisa Góngora, the playwright, with a group of Maya activists leading an anti-GMO campaign in the Yucatán. After finding out about the risks of the transgenic seeds, this renowned Maya playwright decided to create a new piece with her community group to address these issues. María Luisa decided to name her play: “The Power of A Seed.” The group, called Chan Ts’u’unun (Little Hummingbird), participates in a circuit of community theater, broader than the networks created by the ferias

Feria of Native Seeds (Quintana Roo): Poetry.
Fiesta of Maize (Yucatán): Public Discourse––Our Maize.
Feria of Native seeds (Quintana Roo): Performance––Hymn of Maize.
Fiesta of Maize (Yucatán): Theatre––The Power of A Seed.

The plotline was divided into different tableaux: one is a mythological scene, and the others represent rural life. In the first scene, a Maya adult is shelling corn in the traditional way, when a younger Maya approaches him to help him with the task. The older man warns him that he should not allow the grains of maize to fall on the ground, and if they do so, he must pick them up immediately, for it is not a good thing that they should be wasted. He talks about the importance of maize and the human-like nature and potency that the plant has. Initially the young Maya is not impressed, but later he becomes interested in the stories and asks the adult Maya to teach him more. The second scene takes place in a mythical time before the creation of humanity. Four characters appear, one by one, and, after positioning themselves in the four corners of the open stage, they converse about the urgency to create a new being that could “remember who his creators are.” It soon becomes clear that they represent the four basic elements: wind, water, fire and earth. In Kambul, the center of the stage was still occupied by the altar formed of leaves of the ja’abin tree. After the four elements said their lines, they turn to this center, where we notice somebody covered with a brownish cloth. The four elements command this character to emerge and reveal a young Maya man dressed as a corncob. This is a reimagining of the story narrated in the Popol Vuh about the creation of humanity from maize.

The next scene links the mythical time with the present. It presents a group of men talking while preparing an offering to the spirits of the forest. They compare their different approaches to maize cultivation. One man questions another about his excessive use of herbicides in the milpa; this man defends himself by saying that “this way is easier and faster.” An elderly man reminds them how milpa was done in the past. The man denounced for using too many chemicals ignores the warnings about their dangers. He says that if they continue harassing him he will not be participating in these ceremonies anymore. The following scene involves two women conversing about a child who has taken ill. The mother of this boy says she cannot participate in the rain petition ceremony because of this. The other woman asks her what is wrong with the child, and the mother responds that she doesn’t know, that her son eats well, and that the only thing he eats is junk food. This comment makes the audience laugh.

The storyline continues with more characters being added, some of them representing governmental officers and others businesspeople plotting to trick the Maya peasants into accepting the transgenic seeds. The final scene brings everybody together.  A death has been attributed to the ingestion of transgenic food, and there is news that the honey produced by Maya peasants in other regions of the peninsula has been rejected because it was found to be contaminated with transgenic pollen. While peasants and one governmental official discuss the reasons for the alleged contamination, we see in the background two characters dressed in green and hoisting maize stalks. One of the characters is the young maize man created in that previous mythical scene; the other is also young, but he has sparkling bits all over his dark green tunic. The latter represents the transgenic maize. They clash and push each other, while a mob of peasants interrupts the conversation and kicks the government representative and the transgenic maize out of the scene. Before “drawing the curtains,” all the actors show signs rejecting GMOs.

The play was highly praised by the peasants and interpreted as an endorsement of the campaign that Maya activists are leading in the region. It highlights the need of preserving the native seeds not just as a way of maintaining the capacity for self-reliance, but also the integrity of the human body. At points, the play discussed food as a potential health hazard; especially junk food, which was said to be undermining the strength of the Maya people. Native maize and Maya humanity were thus presented as consubstantial and mutually dependent.

Maya Day is also a space where food is celebrated. Since its beginnings, the festival was thought as an opportunity to showcase traditional knowledge at risk of disappearing. In Belize, food has become a sign of the problematic construction of national identity (Wilk 1999). For the Maya Day organizers, food has also come to represent something that makes people Maya. Maya food, however, is often represented just as caldo, a spicy chicken and vegetable soup. During the preparations leading to Maya Day, much discussion took place among organizers about what else could represent Maya food. A long list of plants, palms, and wild animals found in the forest was compiled. One of the most important was the cohune palm (Attalea cohune), which grows naturally in the forest. Another important dish mentioned was the roasted ‘gibnut’ (Cuniculus paca), a giant rodent highly appreciated for the taste of its meat.

Even more important than the inventory of traditional Maya food was a competition that has become very popular among attendants to the festival: the caldo eating competition. Like the other contests, this one expresses important ideas about what it is to be Maya. Caldo is a very spicy soup, but its piquancy is not the most daunting challenge when trying to eat it quickly. Another complication lies in the balls of sour, boiled maize dough, or poch, accompanying the caldo. These are prepared specially in this manner because allowing the dough to ferment prevents its decomposition in the rainforest’s hot and humid environment. Eating caldo and poch, then, was something that only a true hard working Maya man or woman could do. Interestingly this was the only competition where men and women could compete against each other. Maya bodies and their food were thus presented, too, as consubstantial, closely tied by the hardships of the Maya rural lifestyle. 

Maya Day (Belize): Competition––Caldo Eating.

Conclusions: Celebrating Epistemologies and Corporealities 

In the mobilization of resistance strategies by these different Maya groups, a common trope that emerges is the embodiment of Maya notions of identity. This is expressed through the food their bodies ingest, the endurance their bodies exhibit, and the ritual and rhythmic language their bodies express. Grains, food, nature, and the sacred all come together in new forms, thus reproducing and transforming native epistemologies long persecuted or scorned, yet indexed in these performances as a distinctly contemporary understanding of indigeneity.

Ritual styles and cultural symbols are updated and adapted in order to connect traditional and contemporary worldviews. The new circumstances wherein the Maya find themselves are defined by increasing international connectivity. Among these activists, one notices the influence of the Guatemalan Pan-Maya movement and the neo-Zapatista uprising in the ways they attempt to transform the spiritual, aesthetic, and political aspects of Maya culture. Everyday rituals are adapted to Pan-Maya understandings of spirituality that appeal to both local and universal notions of humanity.

Competitions and representations of the Maya bodies work not only at recovering a sense of worth in relation to the dominant society, but also as a way to reevaluate embodied skills and knowledge that would otherwise be ignored. Belizean activists have found that by paying attention to the skills that Maya people exercise in their everyday life, this embodied notion of Maya culture activates other processes of recuperation of dignity and articulation of cultural and political agency.

Maya cultural activism often comes under severe scrutiny; accusations of being “backward-looking” (Gabbert 2001), fixated on tradition and on an imagined cultural continuity abound. Yet, as James Clifford reminds us: “Tradition [in some revitalization movements] is less about preservation than about transformative practice and the selective symbolization of continuity” (2000, 100). By stressing that which makes Maya people different from Mexican mestizos and Belizean kriols, these activists privilege ways of belonging through which they can make better sense of the interconnectedness of the world.

This becomes evident when we pay close attention to the metaphors employed to discuss the connection between maize and humanity. It was in Kambul that one fiesta organizer reflected on how the four colors of maize could be seen as representative of the main “colors” of the “human race:” white, yellow, black, and red. Implicit in this comment about the importance of diversity is the openness and willingness with which these Maya activists are involved in creating and implementing other, radically new ways of being Maya. 

Fiesta of Maize (Yucatán): Public Discourse––Maize and Humanity

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