Lacandón Maya: jungle dweller

The family grow their own poultry.

The family grow their own poultry.

What immediately struck me about Elias was his vitality, vivid eyes and cheerful and determined face. He is 46 years old and has always lived in the jungle settlement in the Lacandón jungle. His Maya name Chan Bor Yuk means 'Little Bee Deer' and he was given his name when he was 8 years old, as is their tradition. All children get a neutral name to start with: Chan Och (Little Fox/Possum). By the age of 8 his parents detected his main interests. Elias liked bees and that determined his name.

Lacandón Maya are jungle dwellers. They escaped the Spanish conquistadores from Yucatán and Guatemala (the latter was the case of Elias’ grandfather). They hid in the deep tropical Lacandón forest and they never came out. They were never captured by the Spanish conquerors. They deliberately remained in small, isolated groups in order to survive. 

They supported themselves as hunters and farmers (mainly through slash-and-burn agriculture, growing maize). They became almost extinct by 1943. In the north, in the villages of Najá and Metzabok, they continue their traditional religious practices, while in the south (where Elias lives), a yellow fever epidemic caused disruption, and finally around the 1950s they were Christianised. In the 1970s the Mexican government began paying them for the right to log timber in their forests and gave them ejidal (communal) land.

We were lucky to have Chan Bor Yuk as a guide at Bonampak ruins as he is very knowledgeable (he used to be the president of the Lacandón Jungle Tourist Association). Around Bonampak eco-tourism is a trend now, as it pays better than corn.

With Chan Bor Yuk in his home.

With Chan Bor Yuk in his home.

Maya hieroglyphs made by his daughter.

Maya hieroglyphs made by his daughter.

I felt honoured to be invited into Elias’ home when we visited Bonampak ruins in 2017. He lives in a wooden house with a polished concrete floor and corrugated iron roof. The family cooks on an open fire and they collect rainwater in barrels. They buy drinking water in large plastic bottles like the rest of Mexico and the house has electricity to run TV, fridge and a microwave. What I liked most was the drawings of his daughter on the wooden walls: Mayan hieroglyphs! Those are so rare to see. His children are now adult, one of them still at university. They all work in the tourist industry, either as tour guides or making and selling Maya jewellery made from jungle tree seeds and similar artefacts.

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Tzotzil street vendor of textiles in San Cristóbal.

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