On the Yucatán peninsula, where many of the Maya of Mexico live, there is an often-told story about people like Mel Gibson, whose bloody movie in the Yucatecan Maya language, Apocalypto, will be released December 8. I first heard the story from Miguel Angel May May, a tall man among the Maya, handsome, now in his 40s, with a touch of gray in his hair. He speaks Yucatecan Maya so eloquently that when young people who have begun to lose their language and culture first hear him, they shed tears for what has been and what can be in the Yucatán.
May May tells the story with the kind of rage and pride that Gibson tried to portray with his Scottish heroes in Braveheart and postapocalyptic picaros in Mad Max: “A Maya, of the middle class, like me,” May May said, “went into a Ford dealership here in Mérida. He intended to buy a new pickup truck. He was well dressed, but clearly Maya. The dealer offered him ten pesos to wash a truck.” It is a common experience for people of color in a white world. The Yucatán is not entirely a white world, yet the Maya suffer the most severe prejudice of any large ethnic group in Mexico. In the language of prejudice in Mexico, the Maya are said to be people with big heads and no brains, too short, too dark and with a strange, laughable Spanish accent. Gibson accepted the stereotype and embellished it.
To grasp what a racist act Gibson has committed in the making of his new film, it is necessary to understand the world of the Maya as it exists today. Perhaps realizing what has been done to the Maya in the film, Gibson has been seeking allies among Latinos and American Indians. He even went so far as to tell Time magazine, “The fear mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.”
In fact, Gibson stepped into a delicate cultural situation and may have shattered much of what has been built by indigenous people, historians and linguists in recent years. Ethnic prejudice is as harsh in the Yucatán as anywhere in the Americas. I have seen it played out in the Maya villages as well as in the cities and on the beaches. When the Clemente Course, which educates indigenous people as well as the poor in seven countries, taught its first class in the Maya language and humanities in the small village of San Antonio Sihó, the students told me that when they took the bus to Mérida (a journey of more than fifty miles) they were afraid to speak Maya, because people would think them stupid Indians (Mayeros). After two years of study, José Chim Kú, the student leader of the class, said, “Now, when I ride on the bus, I speak only Maya.” It took two years for the faculty, including May May, to effect the change, for the Maya have internalized their recent history. And like all people who live in the violent mirror of racial and ethnic hatred, they suffer for their suffering. It is the bitterest irony of colonialism.
In the film Apocalypto, which Gibson claims will make the Maya language “cool again,” there are many major roles. The lead is a lithe, handsome young man, a dancer from Oklahoma named Rudy Youngblood. He has indigenous ancestors, but he is not Maya, and like most of the other featured players he is not a professional actor. None of the four other major parts went to Maya either. According to Gibson, they are played by people from the United States, and the other featured players are either from Mexico City or Oaxaca. Yet every word spoken in the film is in Yucatecan Maya, a difficult language to learn or even to mimic, because it is both tonal and accented.