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Letter from Mexico: Gods of Yucatan Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
by Colleen P. Popson

How the Maya adapted to the religion of their Spanish conquerors

[image]The church in Tihosuco was dynamited by treasure hunters in the early twentieth century. (Jonathan Smith) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the simmering heat of a Yucatán afternoon, the imposing sixteenth-century Franciscan monastery and church of San Miguel at Maní looms over an empty plaza, its congregants taking refuge from the sun in their tidy cement-block homes and businesses. Once an important Maya and Franciscan center, Maní is now a humble hamlet, and its once-thriving monastery looks lonely and out of place.

Officially closed when I arrive, the church is undergoing restoration. I find an open side door and walk in, surprised to hear orchestral music from the film Titanic, a score the young restorers resting in the pews probably chose for its solemn air--a fitting, if unorthodox, accompaniment to the serious work of exposing long-hidden religious frescoes.

[image]The 1999 mural in the church at Tihosuco depicts cherubs and Virgins that appear more Indian than Spanish. (Jonathan Smith) [LARGER IMAGE]

Maní's mission church was built in 1554, and the town, a Maya pilgrimage site, maintained its sacred status after the conquest but in Catholic guise. When rumors circulated that some Maya in the area kept idols of their former faith, Maní became the center of a provincewide inquisition. Over the course of three months in 1562, Bishop Landa ordered the arrest and torture in Maní's village square of some 4,500 Maya for owning and worshiping pagan idols. Suspended from ropes tied around their wrists, the accused were lashed until they confessed. Vestiges of their former religion, including precious codices, bark-paper books written using Maya glyphs, were gathered up and burned.

The churches in Yucatán are products of a tumultuous history. By the seventeenth century, the Franciscans were losing their grip on the Church. Secular, as opposed to monastic, clergy, culled from the families of the Yucatán elite, were taking over many of the old mission churches like the one at Maní and embellishing them or building new ones in a more ornate style. During the Caste War of the nineteenth century--in which the indigenous population rose up against the white and mestizo ruling class, or Yucatecans, to stage the hemisphere's most successful native rebellion--some churches served as places of refuge from the Maya onslaught, and were sacked and burned. Many works of sacred art were destroyed or were sent by Yucatecans to the United States in exchange for munitions. In the first decades of the twentieth century, anarchist zealots of the Mexican Revolution stripped other churches of their early art, and in some cases burned and even dynamited the churches themselves.

Efforts to restore these churches in the last century have been hampered by poor planning, lack of money, and little interest from Mexico City officials, to whom Yucatán remains a cultural backwater.

[image]Dressed in death shrouds, talking crosses are common in the east. (Jonathan Smith) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the past decade, however, the tide has turned, and the churches and sacred art of Yucatán are finally receiving long overdue attention. While resources and support remain scant, the Church and governmental and nongovernmental organizations are now united in their efforts to protect this important provincial heritage.

Maní was one of many towns I visited during a recent journey across the Yucatán Peninsula, an area best known for its great prehispanic Maya sites like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulum. A route from the colonial heartland around Mérida in the northwestern corner of the peninsula to Felipe Carrillo Puerto in the southeast took me historically from the sixteenth-century center of conquest and conversion to the heartland of nineteenth-century Maya insurgency. Curious to see how the indigenous people had navigated these wrenching changes, I focused on the region's churches, the spiritual centers of village activity where the past is selectively remembered. A vibrant but rigid Catholicism in the northwest, born of early indoctrination and forced conversion, contrasts with a religious faith in the southeast that melds prehispanic traditions with Catholicism and Caste War symbolism.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the coercive tactics of conversion, Catholicism had mostly vanquished native faith in the northwest. On a circuitous route from Maní to Izamal's Monastery of San Miguel, the largest of Yucatán's Franciscan mission centers, I drove desolate back roads, slicing through fields of smoky blue henequen, dense scrub jungle, and clusters of yellow butterflies. I passed through dozens of towns, spaced about ten miles apart, and marveled each time I spotted, from miles away, the belfries of another grand church punctuating the jungle horizon.

[image]The church in Felipe Carrillo Puerto was once a Maya temple built by non-Indian prisoners during the Caste War to house the Talking Cross. (Jonathan Smith) [LARGER IMAGE]

The history of their treatment at the hands of the Spanish has often dictated how the Maya adapted to Catholicism. "The Maya in the east were free people. The Maya in the west were not," says Bretos. "The eastern part of Yucatán is more Mayan and there is a pride in identity. The people carry on traditions from the Caste War and earlier. Whereas in the west, the Maya have been much more assimilated into the Spanish Mexican culture." Despite their differences, all the churches have stories to tell. Hopefully Bretos' nickname for them, "The Great Forgottens," will slowly lose its meaning as restoration efforts pick up and as more visitors to the peninsula explore its varied and colorful sacred landscape.

Colleen P. Popson, associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY, would like to thank Edelman PR Worldwide and the Convention and Visitors Bureaus of Yucatán and Cancun.

Further Reading
   For more on the historic churches of Yucatán, see M Bretos' Iglesias de Yucatán (Mérida: Editorial Dante, 1992) and the comprehensive guide, Maya Missions (Santa Barbara: Espadaña Press, 2001), by R. Perry. An online version of Perry's book with special features can be found at www.colonial-mexico.com/Yucatan/maya.htm. S. Edgerton's Theaters of Conversion is a beautifully illustrated volume that tackles the topic of syncretism of ancient religion and Catholicism represented in the religious art and architecture of colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001). Perhaps the most readable and engrossing history of the period immediately following the conquest of Yucatán is I. Clendinnen's Ambivalent Conquests (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). A. Tozzer's translation of Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 18, Harvard University, 1941) has abundant secondary annotation that makes this an essential source. N. Reed's The Caste War of Yucatán (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001) provides an excellent general history of the Caste War, while D. Dumond's The Machete and the Cross (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997) delves more deeply into the historic details of the people and events of the war.

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