“2012” Movie Quiche Tastes Old
An abbreviated form of this article appeared in the Daytona Beach News-Journal on November 20, 2009.
Roland Emmerich's "2012" refers ominously to the calendar of the "quiche" Maya, mispronouncing the Hispanicized name of the "K'iche'" people such that it sounds instead like an exotic new egg dish on a brunch menu rather than the largest of some 30 contemporary Maya ethnic groups. This innocent error adds unintended levity to a film that inaccurately implies that millennial Maya prophecies foretold the end of the world in 2012. "2012"s flawed depiction of Maya tradition is innocent relative to that of Mel Gibson's 2006 Apocalypto, a visually engrossing film that depicted Maya as degenerate and blood-thirsty savages whose only hope for redemption arrived with European Christianity. Hollywood's under-informed approach in both films inadvertently contributes to a centuries-old tradition of misrepresenting the original inhabitants of Middle America and their ancient culture. For nearly 500 years, Spanish clerics, Indigenista novelists, and regional politicians have inaccurately described Maya according to their own narrowly limited understanding of Native ways, almost always to the detriment of the Maya. Generations of Hispanic elites in Guatemala and Mexico have portrayed Maya as demonic, brutish obstacles to progress, and as an ignorant people hopelessly lost in superstition.
In truth, Maya culture, like other ancient cultural traditions, has its original genius. Maya astronomical accomplishments reveal remarkably advanced tracking of celestial movements and sophisticated mathematics. Maya developed a brilliantly abstract artistic tradition that reveals an elaborate mythology and complex use of symbolism. The ancient Maya were one of the only truly literate societies of the New World, describing their own history and cosmology with esthetically intriguing hieroglyphs in poetic language. Maya built intricately carved temples resembling terraced limestone waterfalls and sacred mountains. They developed a profound and genuine respect for their holy grain, corn, the revered basis for human life.
The concept of catastrophic change has roots in Maya myth concerning cyclical creation as well as in their actual historical experience. Maya have, in fact, already endured several "apocalyptic" periods, including the "collapse" of their brilliant Classic Period civilization in the ninth century that saw surviving populations concentrating to the north in the Yucatan and further south in the volcanic highlands. The arrival of Spanish invaders in the early 1500s led to another societal cataclysm with European diseases and weapons reducing the total Maya population by as much as 90% in several generations. In the late 1800s, the Maya population in the Yucatan Peninsula was decimated by Mexican troops and American mercenaries during the so-called Caste War, with survivors of the genocide seeking refuge ever deeper into the forests. In the most recent Maya "apocalypse," Maya died by the tens of thousands when the Guatemalan military deliberately attacked hundreds of Maya villages in its suppression of a leftist guerrilla movement.
After collectively surviving these very real historical catastrophes, today's Maya are resilient and rightfully proud of their hard-earned traditions. They raise their babies with extraordinary nurturing, weave uncommonly tight community bonds, spontaneously revere their elders and ancestors, and live with experientially derived respect for the natural world. Even so, the perception of Maya by outsiders has often been shaped by violent racism or arrogant paternalism, both based upon profound ignorance of indigenous sensibilities. An unintentional form of such insensitivity appears in a brief scene in "2012" showing bodies strewn on the ground at an ancient ruins site in what resembles a Maya-style Jonestown group suicide. While few of today's Maya would recognize the cult suicide reference, many older Maya from the Guatemalan highlands would immediately recall in horror the very real scenes of scattered Maya bodies on the ground after the numerous massacres of civilians by government troops in the late 70s and early 80s. I hope this scene is removed from the Spanish language version.
The wounds from the civil war are still fresh but the pattern of abuse from foreigners is hundreds of years old. When Spain first invaded Maya lands in the early 1500s, Christian priests explicitly depicted Maya spiritual practices as works of the devil. Diego de Landa, Bishop of Mérida, went so far as to torture the Maya under his care to locate more of their sacred texts and burn them in inquisitional fires so as to rid his realm of what he viewed as their demonic contents. Early regional literature from Guatemala and Mexico included cartoonish, highly romanticized depictions of the Maya as well as ugly generalizations of them as violent alcoholics. Later works of fiction by internationally esteemed writers such as the Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and the much-admired Mexican Rosario Castellanos wrote novels such as Men of Corn and The Book of Lamentations that, while intending to promote better understanding and treatment of their Maya compatriots, severely maligned the Maya's nature-based spirituality as an misguided outgrowth of brutish ignorance and the psychological damage supposedly occurring in unloving Maya family environments.
Misrepresentation of Maya ways has now reached new extremes in what has become known as the 2012 phenomenon, the rapidly growing social movement surrounding the December 21, 2012 date on the Maya Long Count calendar. There are already several million on-line references to this much-anticipated date, a number that doubled after the "2012" film's release. This massive web presence complements a quickly expanding library of books on the topic. Even though most of these materials claim the Maya as their primary source, in fact, extremely little in the 2012 phenomenon has substantive basis in the diverse cultural traditions of the some eight million Maya living today. Extremely few contemporary Maya have even heard of the date although their oral traditions do, in fact, frequently refer to radical world change. I have made several trips to the Maya area especially to inquire about their prophetic traditions and have posted some of the results at a website dedicated exclusively to Maya perspectives.
I had read so many highly negative reviews about the "2012" movie that I was pleasantly surprised by the film when I finally saw it. I fell into childlike awe watching Santa Monica, California crack into large chunks and slide into the raging Pacific. Such over-the-top scenarios seem torn from the Biblical pages of Revelations. The captivating computer-generated apocalyptic images of this visually entertaining movie will no doubt draw even more public interest to this extraordinary date and may pique curiosity among some believers in Bible-driven "end of days" Christianity. But even if not a single televangelist embraces the date, the 2012 phenomenon still seems sure to exceed the dimensions of the earlier Y2K build-up.
Ironically, the film will only add to the confusing amalgam of misinformation concerning the date's significance. Those interested in the real Maya and their remarkable cultural traditions can learn more by consulting genuine Maya sources and the works of solid professional researchers. Q'anjob'al Maya novelist Gaspar González's book on 2012 entitled 13 Baktun: Maya Visions of 2012 and Beyond will soon be published by North Atlantic Books. Many consider Mr. González to be the first Maya novelist. His 2012 book will be the first work on the topic actually written by a Maya. As a Maya university professor, member of the Guatemalan Academy of Maya Languages and cultural attaché in Guatemala's Ministry of Culture, he has spent his entire adult life living, studying, teaching and writing about his own culture. Mr. González would never confuse his K'iche' Maya friends with quiche.
My own book, The Living Maya: Ancient Wisdom in the Era of 2012 is scheduled to come out in October, 2010, published by North Atlantic Books. Please see my website for more information.
Image by ramonbaile, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet