Much’tal Jedz: Between Performance and Knowledge

Mural on a building Photo: Diana Taylor
“Subcomandante Marcos—Maíz” Zapatista mural. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Diana Taylor, 2015.


The commanders draft a letter to the King of Chichén Itzá.

A sweltering, breezeless night conceals a village in the depths of the “montaña,” the tall, dense jungle of the eastern and southern Yucatán Peninsula. The air is filled with the buzzing of cicadas, the chirping of crickets, and the varied noises and voices of nocturnal life. Women and children of the village move, barely visible, between the shadows and the dim glow of the candles. Silent bolts of lightning flash occasionally in the distant sky, while a small group of commanders gathers around a rustic table to reach an agreement and draft a letter, which will—even if they don’t propose it—bring great consequences for their people and for Mexico. A magnificent, bright gold earring in his left ear signals the leadership position of the young Commander Juan Bautista. The commanders Cayetano, Apolinar, and Cecilio—called “nojoch because of their age and experience—dominate the discussion with their ideas and strategies, which are carefully written down by Commander Juan Bautista.

Commander Juan Bautista reads the letter for its approval.

Some commanders observe from the shadows, while Commander Sixto proves himself so central to the discussion that the eldest nojoch, Commander Cayetano, names him courier of the letter. Once it is unanimously approved and signed by each of the commanders, it is handed over to Commander Sixto who is urged to hide it under his hat, “so that no one betrays us.” In this way, the commanders improvise a performance for the audiovisual installation Much’tal jedz [Agreements],a reconstruction of a 1930s incident and, at the same time, a “correction” of a previous event in 1847 that has been enduringly inscribed in the collective memory of the peninsular Maya until today.

After signing the letter, the commanders hand it to Commander Sixto.

Much’tal jedz [Agreements], is an intertextual work that interweaves contemporary Yucatec Maya historical memory with the epistolary communication between the independent Maya and the archeologist who was in charge of the reconstruction of the Mayan archeological site at Chichén Itzá in the 1930s, and between him and the project’s director at the Carnegie Institution. In this article, I focus on the preparation of one such letter, which is based on another that was written in 1934 but reimagined and improvised in 2007.  I explore how this performance, as well as other performatic practices, conforms to an ancestral strategy of resistance that the Maya people have deployed for almost 500 years in order to “rewrite” their past with a vision towards the future. In doing so, they (re)produce their own wisdom and their own historiography in order to confront the challenges of the present with greater sagacity and efficacy. In the first section, I examine the document with which the Spaniards justified their wars of conquest and, subsequently, the way in which this document shaped the epistolary correspondence between the colonial government in Mérida and the governors of the Itzá Maya Empire in what is today the Guatemalan Petén. Next, I trace the stylistic and rhetorical continuity of those letters with the epistolary exchanges carried out centuries later between the autonomous Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula and the Mexican governments of Mérida and Campeche. In the last section, I return to the performance described in the beginning of this article, in which the commanders of 2007 “reconstruct” an epistolary exchange from the 1930s between a group of autonomous Maya and the archaeologist in charge of the reconstruction of the archeological zone of Chichen Itzá. The article concludes with an analysis of the role these performances play in the construction, transmission, and actualization of a native historiography and of native systems of knowledge that do not depend upon either formal or informal archives of written documents.

A Theater of Courtship and Threats: the Requerimiento

Let us imagine, for a moment, the astonishing theatricality of the Requerimento: Spanish conquistadors publicly reading an act aloud after reaching the shores of Yucatán and encountering the region’s original inhabitants in the second decade of the 16th century. Some time earlier, Juan López Palacios Rubios, a jurist and advisor of the Catholic king Ferdinand V, drafted this document in order to placate the Spaniards’ guilt over the “detestable wars” they had conducted against “these peoples inhabiting their placid and peaceful lands” (quoted in Figueras Valles 2007, 375-83). Even though López de Palacios Rubios sought to respond to Fray Antonio Montesino’s critiques of—among other things—the legality of the wars of conquest and the titles of dominion, the Requerimiento was essentially a “ritualized declaration of war” employed to justify armed aggressions against the native people of the Americas and rewrite them as “just wars” (Suess 2002, 328).  However, the notion that this act could be understood by people who had never heard of the beliefs in which the document’s logical leaps were founded—which were then read in Spanish, a language they could not understand—seemed ridiculous even to the conquistadors, who listened to the reading of the act with “laughter and sarcasm” (Figueras Vallés 2007, 377). In fact, López de Palacios Rubios himself, the author of the act, enjoyed listening to accounts of the ill-fated attempts to fulfill the objectives of the Requerimiento (Herrera Montero 2007).

From 1514 to 1542, the period during which the Requerimiento was in force, the document was tailored in accordance with successive mandates and signatories, but the dispositive section of the act, which elaborated the so-called “facts” upon which the religious-juridical argument was founded, remained virtually unchanged, maintaining the same structure and content—a mixture of courtship and threats—with only minute variations. The first part, or preamble, of the act sought to establish the legitimacy and legality of the Spanish crown’s usurpation of American lands. It began, thus, with (a) the formulation of the notion of one God, creator of everything, in order to argue that the natives of the Americas, just as much as the Spaniards, were subject to the same divine law. In this way, the Requerimiento affirmed that (b) God had granted the Roman Pontifex—the Pope—the power to “donate” American territories to the king and queen, as well as their successors. Additionally, this legitimacy was ratified with the argument that (c) other peoples had already accepted the authority of the crown.

The second part, the body of the act, defined the requests (or rather, demands) that the crown made of the natives, and it was drafted with a language of courtship and love combined with both veiled and open threats. Therefore, it followed with (d) an exhortation to reflect on its pronouncement in order to “take the time that shall be necessary to understand and deliberate upon it” and accept the conditions imposed. Immediately below, the text promised (e) “privileges,” “exemptions,” and “mercies,” as well as promising to receive the natives “in all love and charity” if they surrendered immediately. If they did not, the Requerimiento promised (f) to “make war against [them] in all ways and manners,” to “enslave them,” and to “mete out terror and destruction” of all that was theirs. Finally, the text affirmed that the “deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are [the natives’] fault, and not that of their Highnesses, nor ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”

Even if we were to assume that this argumentation was compelling for the Spaniards, for the natives it lacked any logic. According to the conquistador Martín Fernández de Enciso, upon reading the Requerimiento to three caciques, they responded by saying that “they thought it correct” that only one God exists who “governs the sky and the earth and is lord of everything.” In fact, they said, “It should be so.” However:

Regarding what it said about the pope being the lord of all the Universe, in the place of God, and that he had entrusted that land to the king of Castile, they said the pope must have been drunk when he did so, because he was granting what was not his, and that the king who asked and received the title must have been insane, because he asked to be given what belonged to others… (de las Casas 1986, 230).

Bartolomé de las Casas suspected that a portion of this story was a “fictional fable” to better justify the “thievery and violence [Enciso] would inflict” on the inhabitants of the place, because he didn’t know a word of the indigenous language and could not have learned it in the space of a half hour. Nevertheless, the story underlines the natives’ rejection of the Catholic logic deployed to usurp lands, a rejection we shall see again later in the case of the Maya Requerimiento drafted three centuries later.

We don’t know how the Itzá Maya reacted to Hernán Cortés’ reading of the Requerimiento during his audience with King Canek in the fall of 1524. Cortés was on his way to Honduras when he stumbled upon Tayasal, the island capital of the Itzá kingdom, located in the Petén Itzá lake (currently in Flores, Petén, Guatemala). Unlike Enciso, Cortés did not face the same linguistic barriers because good translators accompanied him, including Doña Marina, also known as La Malinche (Cortés [1526] 1868, 54). Cortés, however, did not want to take the risk of visiting the island of Tayasal so he sent an envoy with an invitation to the king, who agreed to an audience after some days of deliberation. Cortés claims he welcomed Canek when he reached his encampment “with a great display of affection,” after which he proceeded to either read or describe the Requerimiento to him (53).

It is unlikely that King Canek reacted as the characters portrayed by Enciso did because, Cortés claims, Canek was a person of great serenity and composure and proved himself a generous host several days later, sharing with Cortés “the rest of a pleasurable day” (56). Nevertheless, his answer to the first sections of the Requerimiento was that “he had never, until then, recognized a superior, nor had he been informed that one existed whom he was bound to obey” (53-54). It is possible that Cortés did not consider it convenient to threaten King Canek with “making war against [him] in all ways and manners possible,” or enslaving his “people, women, and children,” as the Requerimiento established. In his fifth letter to Charles V, he only recounts entrusting Doña Marina with the task of explaining to Canek the part of the Requerimiento about his previous conquests and the submission of other peoples. According to Cortés, upon hearing these words, “the chief showed his satisfaction and said that he was ready to become a subject and vassal to his Majesty, and that he considered himself fortunate to obey a prince as powerful as I had rendered the figure of his Highness” (54).

We do not know if Cortés aimed to invent a fable to impress Charles V or if he accurately recorded a diplomatic gesture made by King Canek, but it is clear that Cortés didn’t consider the incident important, since he continued his trip to Honduras and never returned. Meanwhile, the Itzá Empire under the Canek dynasty lasted for more than a century and a half without major modifications and without submitting to the Spanish Crown, either religiously or militarily. It was not, however, the last time that the Itzá would hear the Requerimiento.

In December 1695, the ambitious Martín de Urzúa y Arizmendi sent the equally ambitious Fray Andrés de Avendaño y Loyola to the capital of the Itzá in Tayasal for a new diplomatic mission with the hopes of convincing the then-reigning King Ah Canek to submit to the crown. Despite the fact that the Requerimiento was no longer in force, the “letter” that Ursúa sent with Avendaño was a close rendition of the act in its structure and content, with two noteworthy exceptions: it was written in Mayan, and, just as Cortés had been 173 years earlier, Ursúa was reticent to formulate open threats (Jones 1998, 198). Instead he substituted the original text with a less explicit one in which he assured Ah Canek that “it is not my desire to inflict harm, but to display my love to you.” However, if Ah Canek did not submit to the authority of the crown “…with the help of God and with all my power, I will resort to any measures ordered by our Highness, which I do not express in this letter, as it is not necessary to do so at this moment” (201).

Avendaño had to abandon his reading of the letter at some unknown point because the Itzá complained that they could not understand anything and appeared bored and restless (201). Nevertheless, this and the many other attempts to read the Requerimiento to the Maya inscribed its rhetorical structure in their collective memory, and 150 years later they turned the tables on the invaders in a series of events that laid the foundation for the performance with which we began this article.

The Maya Requerimiento

It all began on 30 July 1847, when Manuel Antonio Ay was executed by a firing squad in the town square of Santa Ana de Valladolid in Yucatán after a trial that “stank of fraud.” His corpse was transported seven kilometers to Chichimilá in a spectacle designed to dissuade any revolutionary impulse among the peninsular Maya (Dumond 2005, 139). The “incriminatory” evidence presented in his trial consisted of a “letter,” or rather, a piece of paper that had either fallen from his hat or been extracted from it by the town’s justice of the peace. He claimed that the letter outlined plans for a Maya uprising, but everything seems to indicate that the “original” letter presented as evidence during the trial was false, since it was written in Spanish, a language that the Maya authorities did not use to communicate among themselves at the time (140).

The trial and execution of Ay took place amidst a palpable climate of contempt and distrust towards the Maya population harbored by the peninsular elites who dominated political, religious, and economic life in Yucatán. These tensions had been festering for years, as Stephens, the American explorer, made manifest in his memoirs of 1841 (Stephens 2003, 509). Over the course of the previous decades, the elites had taken over large portions of traditionally Maya lands, which were recodified as state lands to enable the southward and eastward expansion of their sugar plantations and cattle ranches (Rugeley 1996, 125-185). Consequently, they had become increasingly dependent on Maya labor and taxes and saw insistent Maya autonomy as an obstacle to progress. For centuries, the large and relatively inaccessible territory of tall, dense jungle in the south and east regions of the peninsula, referred to by the Spanish with the generic name of montaña, had supplied the means for self-determination, free cultural reproduction, and self-subsistence autonomies, both for independent Maya and for colonial Maya who sought emancipation from peonage (Wammack Weber and Duarte 2012). Now, many of them were forced to work as peons in haciendas that had been established on their land, to fight as recruits for the armies and militias mobilized by the elites to resolve their political conflicts, or to migrate farther east or south.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the execution of Manuel Antonio Ay sparked a chain of events that has been imprinted in Maya collective memory until today. It unleashed an armed movement that recovered the fertile lands that had been invaded by the Yucatecan elite and halted the Mexican state’s expansion to the south and east of the Yucatán peninsula for more than 70 years. During this period, various Maya governments exploited agrarian and forestry resources to maintain their autonomy as a people and their sovereignty over the eastern part of the peninsula, with the exception of the town of Bacalar, which fell into the hands of the Yucatecan Army in 1849. Bacalar had functioned as an important military bastion and as the vanguard outpost for commerce between Belize and Yucatán during the colonial period and, subsequently, for the Maya government. Because of its strategic importance, the Maya army laid siege to it for the next nine years (Gamboa Gamboa).

On October 1852, in a gesture that invoked the encounter between Avendaño and Ah Canek 156 years before, Commander José María Tzuc, who was charged with commanding the siege, sent a letter to the commander of the Yucatecan forces, who lived in hiding in Bacalar. How are we to understand this letter, in which Commander Tzuc appropriated the language and argument of the Requerimiento? For Paul Sullivan, this and other letters express an essentially Maya tendency to employ a rhetoric of “threat and courtship,” though these elements were already present in the Requerimiento of 1513 (Sullivan 1991, 125-48). Other authors describe the Maya’s letters as “war-like” or “diatribes,” apparently overlooking the ease with which the Maya appropriated Spanish performative and rhetorical elements to convert them into forms of resistance, skillfully subverting the religious-juridical arguments of conquest and the amorous language of the missionaries.

As was the case with Ursúa’s, Tzuc’s letter did not literally duplicate the text of the 1513 Requerimiento. Ursúa’s letter was more faithful to the original structure, but was enriched by religious digressions and amorous expressions of courtship that were also incorporated into Tzuc’s letter a century and half later. And even though Tzuc’s letter was less faithful to the structure of the Requerimiento, it was clearly modeled after it. As in the colonial document, his letter began with a “mandate:” Tzuc informed the officer of the Yucatecan army in Bacalar that he had received a mandate to carry out a final assault. The letter continued with a greeting and a heading:

My most loved and venerated lord. This is the hour in which I am eager to write to you to manifest the high regard I have for you, in this world and in the presence of God. Do not think that I am only deceiving you, because even if you consider me an Indio… I am not accustomed to deceive my fellow man…

Following the argumentation of the Requerimiento, the authors of Tzuc’s letter reminded the officer that “Very well you know that one God alone has created us in this world,” but, in contrast to the colonial document, they emphatically rejected the existence of any divine law that could justify or require the subjection of the Maya to the Yucatecan army or any other foreign power:

Since surely you shall not place yourself above God, since it is not an order of God that the dzul [foreigner] defeat the Indian in this current war. Let the government of the dzul not think that we do not know God’s commandment, which he bequeathed on this earth…

Instead of speaking of other peoples that had accepted the authority of the crown, the authors of the letter explained that Tzuc loved his people and the foreigners equally, and that the foreigners themselves could bear witness to the fact that he appreciated them and did not mistreat or harm them:

Being that I love you with all my heart, as well as all the troops under your command that are deployed in this land, just so do I value all your fellow men—men who are used to talking to me. They themselves should tell you if I mistreat or harm any dzul. Just as I love my fellow mascehuales [natives of these lands], so do I love the dzules.

And, as in the Requerimiento, Tzuc’s letter implored the dzules to “place their heart where I am telling you: in the name of God, consider it,” assuring them that he did not intend to harm them and only required that they accept some conditions:

If you peacefully surrender your weapons, do not think that any harm will be done to you. Be sure to consider this idea in the depth of your heart—to present yourself before me in the name of love and all that is good—and no harm will be inflicted on this town. Do not make efforts to resist with all the arms and ammunitions you have in this town, or myriad misfortunes will befall you in the coming days. For the greater good, make sure that you hand over all the ammunitions and all the arms that exist there so that no harm is done inside this town. I would be aggrieved if some harm is done for no reason.

As we already saw, the 1513 Requerimiento promised “many privileges and exemptions” and many “mercies” in exchange for submission to the crown, while also affirming that the crown would “receive you with great love and charity.” Likewise, Tzuc’s letter described the privileges that those besieged in Bacalar would enjoy upon accepting the demands of the Maya army:

You shall always be able to remain in your homes. Do not think that your homes, which are your property, will be taken from you. They will not be acquired by means of labor or purchase, but will remain yours. And regarding justice, it will also be administered as it was ancestrally. No one will limit you or harm you. You can continue to commerce wherever you like. No one will deny that right. You will be able to sell your things. You will also be able to buy any things you need. 

And, as in the Requerimiento, Tzuc’s letter described the consequences of not accepting the imposed conditions, though the language’s bellicosity was toned down in comparison with the Spanish precursor:

And thus, my dear commander friend, if you do not believe what I say to you, if you do not want to obey my kind words that I address to you, the memory of this action will remain through the ages because nothing will save this town of Bacalar. If you begin to resist, you will lose all that is yours… If you surrender all the ammunitions in Bacalar in the name of love and all that is good—without anger—that will be enough. 

Lastly, and still following the model of the Requerimiento, the authors of Tzuc’s letter renounced any responsibility for the harm and damage that a just war could cause:

If any harm is done to you, is it not my fault, because I did not go there to fight, but instead I went there with good intentions. Without anything further. God grant you health for many years. I love you with all…

So concludes Commander Tzuc’s letter.

Between Performance and Knowledge

In spite of an ancient tradition of codices and the adoption of the Latin alphabet in the early colonial period, Maya culture in Yucatán has unfolded over the last 500 years without resort to documentary archives that preserve and protect the memory of the past (Bracamonte y Sosa 2001, 44-46). Instead of creating a division of labor—in which the labor of hmenes, midwifes, herbal medicine men, healers, rezadores [prayer leaders], and warriors, among others, is separated from other activities—the role of intellectuals, at least since the colonial period, has been inseparable from agrarian, alimentary, and healing practices that provide material sustenance for the culture. This does not mean that books and writing have not been important in Maya culture. On the contrary, they have been extremely important as markers of cultural identity and components of collective memory. And, as Bracamonte y Sosa points out, there are signs of continuity between hieroglyphic writing, the codices, and the early colonial texts (44-46). Notwithstanding this—and without intending to downplay the mass burning of sacred Maya texts, known as the Chilam Balam, which was overseen by Fray Diego de Landa in Maní in 1562—it is unlikely that the colonial texts were disseminated widely enough in the communities for them to act as a foundation of cultural, historical, and political memory. Yet, the continuity of Maya memory is evident in the letters and other documents used by independent Maya to carry out their epistolary correspondence with the governments of Campeche, Yucatán, and Belize, as well as with North American anthropologists between 1847 and the 1930s. They not only conserved the Requerimiento’s content and rhetorical structure in their memory in order to use it for their own purposes, as in Tzuc’s letter, but also safeguarded other contents and rhetorical forms—either autochthonous or appropriated—that appeared and reappeared in their letters in the space of 80 years.

More than forming an archive of documents in which history is safeguarded in the form of written texts—as in the case of libraries and state archives—I suggest that Maya writing, texts, and books are related to a heterogeneous performatic practice through which the Maya have been able to (re)produce their own collective historiography and their systems of knowledge through five centuries, enabling their resilience and resistance as a living people. The commanders’ performance with which we began this article fits directly into this problematic. Superficially, it is a “reconstruction” of an epistolary exchange between a group of independent Maya and the archaeologist in charge of the reconstruction of Chichen Itzá in the 1930s. On the basis of this “pre-text,” however, myriad relations—both in the discursive and the non-discursive fields are actualized (Taylor 2003, 6); the performance, then, expresses a set of forces and their relations, which overflow the cinematic form in which they are expressed. We are dealing, then, with a very different sort of performativity than the theatricality of the Requerimiento.

We have denominated this type of performance “much-tal jedz” because it consists of a meeting (much’tal in Mayan) whose function is to affirm, establish, solidify, fix, or settle (jedz in Mayan). It is an allusion to an “agreement,” but not in the sense of a pact or a resolution—rather, in the double sense of an assortment of performatic practices that harmonize forces and mark this harmony or “agreement” as an event and an effect. We will consider two examples of the much’tal jedz in which this audiovisual work is based, both of which are associated with the 11-day fiesta of the pueblo in which the work was created. The fiesta takes place every two years. Two or three months before it begins, the people host a convite [invitation], ostensibly to remind each cuch of his or her commitment to organize and finance one day of the fiesta. Therefore, the nojoch [the great ones], the rezadores, vaqueros, vaqueras, musicians, and others, gather in the house of each cuch. There, the musicians play jaranas, while the nojoch, the cuch, the rezadores, the vaqueros, and the toreros [those who will fight the bulls] gather around a table. The rezadores chant rhythmically and invoke a good number of saints and historical figures—allies in the struggle to resist the Spaniards, though resistance is never explicitly mentioned. The constant repetition of a word without meaning imparts a peculiar and rhythmic sonority to the prayers. A collective conversation follows in which everyone participates simultaneously, generating what sounds like a cacophony of voices. Suddenly, and apparently spontaneously, everyone extends their hand in a gesture of agreement and then cigarettes are distributed among the participants. The performance is repeated, more or less in the same way, in every cuch’s home.

The Convite.

The “auction” is carried out during the fiesta itself. After a bullfight, the vaqueros, carrying their ropes, flags, drums, and other utensils, head towards the house of the cuch in charge of the next day of the fiesta, where a nojoch welcomes them at the door. The nojoch asks every vaquero what he is selling, and the exchange of words during the ensuing auction combines a sense of relajo [jocularity] and mockery with political and historical elements. In the entrance of a cuch’s house, the nojoch asks a vaquero: “What are you selling?” The vaquero responds, “I’m selling a Mexican flag!” “You’re lying!” the nojoch exclaims. “This is not a Mexican flag, it is the flag of a revolutionary!” Another person calls, “they are guerrilleros, can’t you see how many there are?” Meanwhile, other voices invoke Sandino, Queen Victoria, and Subcomandante Marcos. This harmonization of forces, with its playful historical and political cartography, is sealed with a drink of aguardiente that the nojoch serves for the vaquero, and everything is repeated for every vaquero waiting in line. The following day, the whole performance is repeated in another cuch’s house.

The sale of the revolutionary flag during the auction.

The performance in which the commanders draft the letter shares many elements with the convite and the auction. The three actions begin with a pretext. In the convite, they confirm the cuch’s promise and remind him of his responsibilities. In the auction, it is the utensils of the bullfight that are sold to the cuch, who is in charge of overseeing the next day of the fiesta. In the commanders’ case, it is the elaboration of a letter. The three performances are improvised spontaneously without a script or a model according to certain highly flexible ritual guidelines. The three actions recapitulate and actualize collective bodies of knowledge based on a particular and collective experience: stories, oral history, promises, the collective preparation and offering of food, prayers, etc. In this way, each individual actualizes a set of forces that mobilize the entire collective body. The three actions are real; they are not representations or inventions or faked, as was Enciso’s story. There are no actors who intend to represent an Other. The much’tal jedz, therefore, exercise a collective body: they “settle” history, actualizing and correcting it if necessary. They also bring bodies of knowledge up to date.

When the commanders sat around the table that night for the production of an audiovisual work, they had already agreed to draft a letter as a pretext for the meeting; a pig had already been sacrificed and prepared; ritual foods had been offered and distributed; and the traditional dance had been performed to the tune of the traditional charanga jaranera. No one was assigned a specific role except for the Commander Juan Bautista. None of the commanders knew what he was going to say, but, as in the case of many much’tal jedz, each one participated by drawing from the richness of his experiences, knowledge, know-how, and wisdom accumulated throughout his life. With the exception of one commander from another pueblo, all of the performance’s participants continued to live in and cultivate the lands that their ancestors had recovered from the Yucatecan elites in the middle of the 19th century. As Commander Apolinar said, pointing toward the vestiges of a former hacienda’s walls, “formerly, we were slaves here; now these are our lands.”

The reading of the letter.

A thousand rifles, I ask of you, and their appurtenances. That is what I ask you in order to protect ourselves here,” wrote the commanders in 1934, in a ritualized repetition of other documents written in the 1850s. “We want our lands returned to us, because we are used to governing ourselves in this pueblo…” The commanders who redrafted this letter during that night in 2007 were not aware of its existence before participating in this audiovisual work because it was written by the commanders of another place. But its content resonated with their own pueblo’s history of resistance, which they easily drew upon—harmonizing their knowledge about political and military strategies with the history of Mayan resistance and their kings, much as they do in their prayers. Once each participant had signed the letter, Commander Juan Bautista handed it to Commander Sixto, who folded it and hid it under his hat. In the following scene, which they improvised by torchlight, they invoked the martyrdom of Manuel Antonio Ay from the neighboring pueblo by exchanging the letter in the dark, “in case someone might want to harm us or betray us.”

The commanders hand over the letter so no one knows where it is.

I do not want to suggest that these collective performances—the much’tal jedz—explain the collective memory inscribed in letters such as Tzuc’s or the one written by the commanders in 1934. Rather, I suggest that they form part of a much wider performatic practice that includes prophecies, prayers, fiestas, rites, stories, and oral histories, among many other practices. The much’tal jedz cannot replace particular abilities or talents, but they do harmonize forces, mobilize and exercise collective bodies, and facilitate the collective (re)production and actualization of historiographies and native systems of knowledge with which the challenges of the present can be confronted with greater sagacity and efficacy. To resist is not to react, but to seek a future on one’s own terms. The audiovisual work Much’tal Jedz began as a suggestion from Commander Apolinar, after which I and all the other participants joined the project. Just as in other manifestations of the much’tal jedz, its realization mobilized the collective body. As we saw in the case of the Requerimiento, the Maya have always had the ability to appropriate the other and turn to the past in order to live the present.

Works Cited

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