To say that the Maya civilization disappeared is not only an inaccuracy, but a great disservice to more than 6 million Maya living today in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. While the city-states of the Classic period lowlands may have been abandoned in the tenth century, the Maya people did not disappear any more than the Italians when the Roman Empire fell.
Throughout hundreds of years of outside efforts to oppress and assimilate, the Maya people have continued to hold on to their unique way of life. Modern Maya religion is a colorful hybrid of Catholicism and ancient Maya beliefs and rituals. Their ancient gods have been replaced with statues of santos (and secret Maximóns) but the stories of these saints only remotely resemble those of their European counterparts. Today, devout Maya worship at mountain and cave shrines, making offerings of chickens, candles and incense with a ritual alcoholic drink. Shaman/daykeepers keep count of the 260 day ritual calendar and provide healing by identifying curses and offended ancestors, counting seeds and crystals in their divinations, and performing curando rituals.
The Maya community has both secular and religious leaders. A man rises through the ranks of a confraternity by assuming increasing financial responsibilities for religious feasts and processions, often near financial ruin by the time he completes his obligations. Most Maya families are maize farmers and they still use the slash and burn method for their milpas.
You can identify the community to which a Maya individual belongs by their dress. The women wear loose hand-woven or embroidered huipiles (blouses) with distinctive patterns and colors for each community. Few men in the Guatemala highlands wear the traditionaltraje as it could be dangerous to call attention to themselves as Maya. Click here to see some photos by Bonnie Meyer of beautiful Maya weaving.
During the 1980's the Kekchi Maya of Guatemala found themselves in the middle of a conflict between leftist guerrillas and the government. The ladino guerrillas, based in the surrounding forests, demanded food and shelter from the Maya. In retribution, Guatemalan death squads killed 150,000 people and disappeared another 40,000. Tens of thousands of refugees fled to Mexico and the United States while those who remained were moved into "model" villages were all men were required to enlist in civil patrols.
Today, in Chiapas, Mexico, the Maya people are once again caught between the Zapatistas rebels and the Mexican government. There seems to be no end to the threats to the Maya way of life. Fundamentalist missionaries are also responsible for destroying the Maya culture with a more insidious, though nonviolent, strategy. In the Lacandon forest, the harvesting of the great mahoganies is not only destroying the precious rainforest, but is also seriously jeopardizing the remote Lacandon Maya community.
Old Chan Kin, the spiritual leader of the Lancandon Maya, once predicted that when the last Maya dies, the world will end. Chan kin died in December 1996 at over 100 years old. Let us hope that his prophecy never comes to pass.