Mayan Identity: Past and Present

Stone Carved Maya Sculpture

Maya Identity — From the Inside-out.

Maya cultural identity is complicated and difficult to define. To the extent that a Maya cultural identity exists, it has continuously transformed itself in response to external historical, political, cultural and economic factors.

In pre-conquest times Maya peoples considered themselves first as members of different extended families, corporate groups, and political domains ruled by divine kings. Although they undoubtedly recognized that they shared cultural practices and a basic worldview with members of other polities, there was no sense that they had a common identity with Maya-speaking peoples of distant regions. At the time of the conquest, Yucatán was divided into at least sixteen independently governed provinces, and some were further subdivided at the village level. This not only made conquering the northern Maya region difficult for the Spaniards, but it also meant that a shared sense of “Maya” identity did not exist among the residents of the different provinces in Yucatán.

 After the conquest, Maya peoples were subject to harsh domination that suppressed native religious beliefs and forced them to work to pay tribute to Spanish landowners, and to relocate to towns where they could be controlled by Spanish authorities and converted to the Catholic faith. Colonial life witnessed the growth of various forms of new "hybrid" Maya cultures and syncretistic religious practices. Aspects of a rural peasant economy were preserved, with families living in houses built of relatively perishable materials, and wearing “traditional” clothing that was a mix of European and indigenous garments and decorative designs. 

In more recent times, increasing global contacts and economic ties have had a profound impact on Maya society and culture. This is particularly true in Yucatán, which since the late 1960s has been shifting from being an agriculturally-centered economy to one more heavily based on tourism and service industries, along with light manufacturing in small maquiladora factories. This has intensified migration from rural areas to metropolitan and tourist centers as individuals search for higher paying jobs. Such migration has redefined what it means to be “Maya” among those from rural communities. More family members are away from home for extended periods of time, lessening ties to traditional milpa (cornfield) agriculture, thatch-roof houses, clothing styles, and cultural practices. On the what many local Maya consider a positive side, these changes have provided electrification, more modern appliances, and opportunities to interact with a wider world.

Maya-speaking groups from various regions have different conceptions of and emphasize disparate aspects of their ethnic identity. Many of those living in Yucatán simultaneously consider themselves and/or their neighbors “Maya”, yet view this as only one aspect of their broader personal, social, and national identity. They also generally recognize that a clear distinction exists between themselves and their ancient “Maya” predecessors. Any emphasis on celebrating the achievements of pre-conquest Maya cultures, and awareness of striving to preserve the “traditional” aspects of the “folk” culture in Yucatán, is limited.  While external pressures have led to some grassroots activities in Yucatán related to “cultural preservation”  (related to the type of “pan-Maya” cultural reclamation more prevalent in Guatemala), they do not represent a widespread trend among the broad spectrum of Maya-speaking peoples living in Yucatán today.

Following this discourse, a number of scholars have argued that identity among Maya peoples in Yucatán is a self-conscious designation and exists at a more localized community level. They observe that it is typically defined by region and is dependent upon the local traditions and belief systems that a community shares. Variations in these same cultural markers can be found in the Puuc region, and they are what distinguish the Maya of Yucatán from the Maya of other areas and communities in the Maya region. 

From a historical perspective, some scholars argue that the nature of political organization among the Yucatec Maya prior to the Spanish conquest has affected Maya identity politics ever since, at least in the sense that all Maya in Yucatán necessarily shared a common identity. Instead, Maya cultural identity in Yucatán was, and to some degree still is, rooted in local place, family and community, and the experiences that are part of one’s personal history. Of course, these experiences are now being shaped by the encroaching external forces associated with globalization and modernization.  Such forces also affect notions of Maya identity as individuals respond to and adopt aspects of the modern world. Yet despite the infiltration of external cultural, technological, economic and political forces, some traditional Maya customs, language and beliefs are maintained, and it is this type of internal preservation and purposeful adaptation that largely determines what is “Maya” and what is not.

Each year thousands of tourists visit ancient Maya sites like Uxmal, Yucatán, whose so-called Nunnery Quadrangle is shown here. Drawn to such sites by the allure of the past, impressive architectural remains (often restored to spruce them up for the visitors’ view), and bringing with them a notion that the greatest accomplishments of “Maya Civilization” lie in the past, they often know little about the lives of present-day Maya-speaking peoples still living in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.

Mayan Mask carved by
Wilbert Vasquez

Tourist Concepts of the Maya.

In Yucatán, as in other parts of the Maya region, the identity of a person who speaks Maya (typically as a bilingual Spanish-Maya speaker) is complex and formed from interweaving strands of family, community, national, and social identities rooted in history and shared culture. In this sense, talking about “Maya Identity” is an ongoing challenge. As local circumstances change, new self-conceptions arise, and being “Maya” means something different to Yucatec-speaking individuals living in more developed areas of northern Yucatán than it does for highland Maya peoples living in more rural sections of Guatemala or Chiapas.

Maya identity is thus not an inherent and unchanging ethnic “essence,” but is constructed and perceived differently by insiders and outsiders. This raises the issue of how Maya identity is represented by and for cultural outsiders, and the complex nexus that exists between the practice of archaeology (and the history of art) and popular media through which perceptions of Maya identity are transmitted to a broader public. These popular notions of “the Maya” are reinforced as state and private interests merge in the promotion of heritage tourism.

Many tourists who visit Yucatán have preconceived notions of Maya identity centered on visions of the distant past that have been presented to them by the media, the tourism industry, and some wide-reaching scholarly survey books. The Maya past is made visible by the impressive pre-Columbian buildings and sculptures at archaeological sites, as well as through the preservation of older traditional “folk” culture, which is displayed in touristic “contact zones” of cross-cultural encounter. These archaeological and touristic discourses portray Maya society and culture as having a timeless and unchanging quality, embodied by ancient sites and through the “survivals” of traditional clothing or religious practices.

Archaeological investigations have resulted in various conceptions of the pre-conquest Maya. These are organized around particular tropes, which can be characterized (in a shorthand manner) as a “lost civilization,” the “magnificent Maya,” and the “mysterious Maya.”

The “lost civilization” paradigm refers to the speculations about the origins of pre-Columbian societies and peoples during the colonial period and the “discovery” of lost cities in the jungle by nineteenth century explorer-archaeologists. The complementary “mysterious Maya” concept describes the wonderment that “civilization” could emerge from a tropical forest environment and then be swallowed up by it in the perplexing “collapse,” as well as to the “mystery” of the then unreadable hieroglyphic texts.

 The “magnificent Maya” vision of ancient Maya society and culture emerged as ethnographic and archaeological research in the early 20th century centered on the Maya civilization’s extraordinary practical, scientific, astronomical, and cultural achievements. The latter were exemplified by the remains of centers such as Tikal, Copan, Palenque, Yaxchilan, and other imposing archaeological sites whose visible structures and monuments defined the so-called Classic period (placed at A.D. 300 to 900). Further research in the 1960s and 1970s on hieroglyphic inscriptions and excavation of non-elite structures led to the recognition that the Maya were a complex and hierarchically stratified society and did not exist as an idyllic priestly society as previously thought. Rather, the Maya adapted and changed as they coped with internal pressures and challenges posed by growing populations. The new research revealed factional tensions, and inter-city and regional warfare, was well as captive sacrifice and elite bloodletting rituals that have entered mainstream media and given ancient Maya society a “militaristic” streak in popular consciousness.

As Quetzil Castañeda notes, these conceptions of “the Maya” are reinforced upon entering the tourist zone and archaeological sites through marketing strategies, including the deployment of texts, guides and guidebooks, tourist arts, and souvenirs. The tourism industry in Yucatán stresses the connection between ancient Maya past and Maya present while deemphasizing the discontinuities between pre-Hispanic and contemporary Maya people. These notions of continuity draw on essentialized and exoticized images of the historical and contemporary Maya that fulfill Western fantasies instead of focusing on the complex processes of cultural and historical change that social groups undergo through time.”

Yet, in addition to the tourism industry, local Yucatec Maya themselves sometimes promote these timeless and over-simplified notions of Maya culture and identity. They are embodied in much of the imagery seen in the wood sculptures in this exhibition. Why would local people choose to promote ideas and images that focus on the past and largely omit references to their present-day life and culture?  Part of the answer is that it is financially advantageous to do so. Such images cater to tourists who visit the archaeological sites of Yucatán in search of encounters with, “authentic” Maya culture they have seen in promotional brochures, the pages of popular archaeology magazines, on television, or in recent films. This state of affairs permits Maya artisans working at the archaeological zones to capitalize on one facet of their Maya identity and cultural heritage. However, as Nelson Graburn notes, if stereotypes that are perpetuated by cultural outsiders are not corrected or clarified by cultural insiders, there is a danger that members of the local group “may come to believe the same things about themselves or their past as the outside world does.”

Presenters will present a series of talks on these themes, accompanied by periods for questions and discussion.

The symposium is free and open to the public.

We encourage attendees to contact Connie Rhoton (, or 815-753-1474) to give us an idea of the audience size. Those who would like to purchase an on-site lunch, which will cost  $8.00, must pre-register by contacting Connie Rhoton.

Please report any site problems here.