Published December 6, 2006
MEXICO CITY (AP) - Scenes of enslaved Maya Indians building temples for a violent, decadent culture in Mel Gibson's new film "Apocalypto" may ring true for many of today's Mayas, who earn meager wages in construction camps, building huge tourist resorts on land they once owned.
Some Mayas are excited at the prospect of the first feature film made in their native tongue, Yucatec Maya. But others among the 800,000 surviving Mayans are worried that Gibson's hyper-violent, apocalyptic film could be just the latest misreading of their culture by outsiders.
"There has been a lot of concern among Mayan groups from Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, because we don't know what his treatment or take on this is going to be," said Amadeo Cool May of the Indian defense group "Mayaon," or "We are Maya."
"This could be an attempt to merchandize or sell the image of a culture, or its people, that often differs from what that people needs, or wants," Cool May said.
Gibson employed Mayas, most of whom live on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, in the filming of the movie, and says he wants to make the Mayan language "cool" again, and encourage young people "to speak it with pride."
Just as Gibson's use of Aramaic in "The Passion of Christ" sparked a burst of interest in that language, some Maya are hoping "Apocalypto" will do the same for their tongue.
"I think it is a good chance to integrate the Mayan language ... for people to hear it in movies, on television, everywhere," said Hilaria Maas, a Maya who teaches the language at Yucatan's state university.
The film has been screened for some U.S. Indians, who praised the use of Indian actors. The Mayas haven't seen it yet, but like Indians north of the border, they have seen others co-opt their culture, as in high-class Caribbean resorts like the Maya Coast and the Maya Riviera.
But Indians are largely absent from those beach resorts, where vacationers tour mock Mayan Villages or watch culturally inaccurate mishmashes with "Mayan Dancers" performing in feather headdresses and facepaint.
Outsiders' views of the Maya have long been subject to changing intellectual fashions. Until the 1950s, academics often depicted the ancient Mayas as an idyllic, peaceful culture devoted to astronomy and mathematics. Evidence has since emerged that, even at their height, the Mayas fought bloody and sometimes apocalyptic wars among themselves, lending somewhat more credence to Gibson's approach.
Today's Maya are known mainly for their elaborate rhyming jokes, a cuisine based on pumpkin and achiote seeds, and loose embroidered white clothing. They're largely peaceful farmers and masons who carry their goods on ubiquitous three-wheeled bicycles over table-flat Yucatan.
"Our culture hasn't been destroyed, because the family is the base of it," says Maas. "Perhaps some material things have been destroyed, but the real basis of the culture is what a family teaches their children, and that survives, and has survived."