There are, to me, three distinct cultures in the Yucatan:
Cancun, the new development, the shiny, glossy bright stuff, which I almost know nothing about nor care too much about.
The Spanish / Hispanic culture that came to Yucatan roughly 475 years ago.
The Mayan culture, which has been here for perhaps 2,000 or 3,000 years.
The glitzy part doesn’t mingle with the other parts very much.
I live in Valladolid. It is a Mayan city with a colonial overlay. I really like the mixture and the juxtaposition. When I go to the food market in the morning, almost everybody in the market speaks Mayan. They can speak Spanish as well, but to each other they speak Mayan. I know maybe 20 words of Mayan now. Every time I use a Mayan word they think it is really cute, but it makes me feel a little bit more part of the environment and the culture.
The Spanish part of Valladolid is the political part of it, and is based on the Spanish. In this town, I have never seen a picture of a mayor or met a mayor who is not fairly European looking. He may have Mayans working for him, but he’s almost always northern Spain or European in look. If you go to smaller towns, those people of European descent do not exist there, so everybody is Mayan, which means that they’re usually fairly short, brown, with black hair.
Valladolid was settled around 1543, on what became the ruins of a Mayan town. The Spaniards took apart the Mayan town or temples or whatever was here, and used them to start building the Spanish buildings. Within two years, the Mayans had the first revolt here in town, which was a regular thing up until the War of the Caste in the 1840s, when the Mayans, throughout the whole peninsula, rose against the Spanish because it was essentially an economy very much like Southern USA. The Mayans were not slaves, but they were indentured servants who bought things at the company store and had debt that they had to keep trying to pay off. As a result, there was a lot of resentment. They were treated as second-class citizens. They still are to a certain extent.
The War of the Caste lasted over 60 years. The peace treaty was signed either in the early 1910s, but there were still armed insurrection in Southern Campeche, near Belize, up until late 1930s.
The first time I went into some villages, I would get hard-looking stares from people because I was obviously an outsider coming into their town. Now, I don’t resent that as much as I used to. I understand it better why they’re looking at me that way. I’ve never had a problem, never felt threatened or anything like that. And once you get to know a Mayan, it just opens the world to you, and you only have to know one in the village, which opens that door.
We do a fair amount of what we call “food dispensas” every year, which is buying roughly $50 worth of food basics and household supplies, roughly a two-week supply for a family. My staff live in five different villages in Valladolid, so, depending on how many dispensas we have, they find two or three families in their town that are in need. They can be anyone from older people, people with medical problems, widows, or incapacitated people in one way or another. It has never been an issue or a problem to find somebody in need. And then we take the food and deliver it to them, along with Carlos who drives for me and speaks Mayan, because most of these people don’t speak Spanish or if they do, it is even worse than mine. So now in some villages they recognize car, the Carlos, and me. Now, people would rather wave at us than give us that look.
One of the nicest things I find about living in a town this size is when I go the market, and anywhere I go in town, I run into people I know. At the market this morning, we must have run into at least ten people who we greeted. A lot of people know me by my name: I’m Don Dennis. “Don” is an honorific, but it is not the same as being called “mister.” It has a lot more value than just being called mister; it is a sign of respect if they use that.
So I know that the chicken guy knows who I am, the pork guy knows who I am, the beef guy knows who I am, the fruit ladies know who I am, and the vegetable ladies know who I am. We talk and joke every time we go and it just feels good. It is probably very inefficient, shopping that way, but at the same time it keeps me in tuned with the people here and what’s happening and gives me fresh fruit.
(Guests from Casa Hamaca with Mayan villager for whom they have donated two weeks worth of food, pictured.)