Contemporary Theatre in Mayan Mexico

[ Theater/Drama ]

Contemporary Theatre in Mayan Mexico

Death-Defying Acts

By Tamara L. Underiner

Tamara Underiner draws on fieldwork with theatre groups in Chiapas, Tabasco, and Yucatán to observe the Maya peoples in the process of defining themselves through theatrical performance.



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6 x 9 | 203 pp. | 21 illustrations, 1 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-70250-9

From the dramatization of local legends to the staging of plays by Shakespeare and other canonical playwrights to the exploration of contemporary sociopolitical problems and their effects on women and children, Mayan theatre is a flourishing cultural institution in southern Mexico. Part of a larger movement to define Mayan self-identity and reclaim a Mayan cultural heritage, theatre in Mayan languages has both reflected on and contributed to a growing awareness of Mayans as contemporary cultural and political players in Mexico and on the world's stage.

In this book, Tamara Underiner draws on fieldwork with theatre groups in Chiapas, Tabasco, and Yucatán to observe the Maya peoples in the process of defining themselves through theatrical performance. She looks at the activities of four theatre groups or networks, focusing on their operating strategies and on close analyses of selected dramatic texts. She shows that while each group works under the rubric of Mayan or indigenous theatre, their works are also in constant dialogue, confrontation, and collaboration with the wider, non-Mayan world. Her observations thus reveal not only how theatre is an agent of cultural self-definition and community-building but also how theatre negotiates complex relations among indigenous communities in Mayan Mexico, state governments, and non-Mayan artists and researchers.

  • Prologue: Incidents of Theatre in Chiapas, Tabasco, and Yucatán
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Indigenous Bodies, Contested Texts
  • 2. "Más que una noticia . . . ": Mayan Theatre in Chiapas
  • 3. Transculturation in the Work of Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena
  • 4. Theatre and Community on the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Epilogue: Routes and Returns
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Until recently, my husband, Chris, worked in an independent bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota. One day one of his colleagues asked him about the kind of work I do. "Research on contemporary Mayan theatre," my husband replied. Another colleague, overhearing them, joined in. "Oh, she should talk to my daughter," she said. "She's a professional mime."

It is not unusual for people to mishear the subject of my work. To the U.S. ear, the words "Mayan" and "theatre" don't go together as smoothly or as familiarly as do the words "theatre" and "mime." This is partly a function of critical and historical oversight, for when "Mayan" is understood, most people say, "I had no idea there was such a thing"; some have assumed that the Maya themselves no longer exist. But the confusion has also to do, I think, with my identity as producer of this research: an American woman for whom Spanish is a loved but distant second language and to whom the Mayan tongues are unfamiliar. Friends, family, colleagues, and students, therefore, often ask me how and why I became interested in such theatre. If we have time, I tell them some stories about my hometown.

I grew up in the rural outskirts of the small town of Beaver, Pennsylvania. The received wisdom about this town was that it had been named after the Delaware chief "King Beaver." (In fact, this chief took his name from the Delaware word for the beavers populating the local stream, "Amockwi," now called the Beaver River.) In that part of western Pennsylvania, many place-names record the memory and language (if sometimes in Anglicized form) of its former residents: Seneca and Chippewa Townships, Tuscarawas Road, Blackhawk School District, the village of Sewickley. When I was very young, the huge white barn in the field adjacent to our backyard housed the Chippewa Playhouse, its name oddly contrapuntal to the Broadway musical fare whose melodies wafted across the pasture on long-lit summer evenings. Perhaps, in the peculiar paths of childhood logic, some connection between theatre and Native America was thereby forged in my unfolding awareness.

Sometimes my own "origin stories" take a more literary vein, and I cite the 1963 children's book Kitten Nell, whose title character was "a different kitten, a different kind of cat, who longed to be an Indian and wear a feathered hat." Crossing the ocean from her native Europe to America's shores, Nell gets her wish. A monkey greets her and the natives warmly welcome her: "The chief took off his bonnet and popped it on Nell's head. Nell's white, white fur changed almost into a blushy-red."

If Kitten Nell's frankly unreflexive curiosity and desire to "go native" evinced an invitation to me to pursue similar quests, it was my brothers who were best able to actually do so in the imaginary of their childhoods. They belonged to the Indian Guides, a father-son organization sponsored by the YMCA, whose monthly meetings were role-playing extravaganzas in which my father ("Big Tomahawk") and two of my brothers ("Little Tomahawk" and "Tiny Tomahawk") could pretend to be natives of North America as, attired in suede and feathers, they learned these peoples' crafts and survival skills. When it was my family's turn to host the meeting, I would spy on them from the darkness of our hallway to see, as I then supposed, what girls weren't allowed to see.

I believe these kinds of experiences—typical of the childhoods of white U.S. Americans of my forty-something generation and participating in lamentable and gender-inflected practices that helped to recast the myth of the Native American as extinct noble savage—helped to set the stage for what would later become an academic pursuit south of our geopolitical border. These experiences were the peculiar manifestations in one little girl's life of her country's complicated relationship with its Native American roots—roots that cannot be ignored because they persist, in place-names and commercial appropriations of native material, but whose power must be channeled through operations of selective celebration and erasure. While official policies regarding Native Americans in the United States have differed from those of Mexico, in both countries European colonization effectively removed natives from their ancestral lands into isolated communities, which have subsequently been fragmented by a variety of social, economic, and political forces. One result is that today, Native Americans in both countries are widely construed as relics of the past, by their compatriots and by visitors from other countries as well. This attitude erects a significant obstacle to truly mutual encounter, an obstacle that the theatre I discuss here exists, in part, to dismantle.

For the Maya, this perspective received a particularly strong charge in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1841 a U.S. diplomat named John L. Stephens wrote a book titled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Like his Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, which followed two years later, the book was filled with colorful descriptions, maps of the regions, and speculative sketches, by Frederick Catherwood, about ancient Mayan life. Stephens and Catherwood's work introduced—some would say invented—Mayan civilization to the modern world. Their books fired the imagination of readers in the United States and Europe, inspiring an interest in Mayan culture—at least as it once was—that continues to be fueled by international tourism.

As the title of this prologue suggests, the relationship between Stephens and Catherwood's books and my study here is both close and complicated. Their work and all the subsequent discourses that it has generated have, directly and indirectly, determined the course of my own interest in Mayan culture and its expressions. When I first came to this study in the 1970s, most anthropological accounts followed one of two themes: continuity or change. In the first, the goal was to detect lines of continuity between contemporary Mayan life and its pre-Columbian origins. In such accounts, ancient secrets, guarded in stone in a code whose key was long ago destroyed, revealed themselves slowly, reluctantly, to patient researchers in the "Mexican Egypt." Some anthropologists and art historians turned to living Maya for clues, but the focus was often less on the contemporary people themselves than on what they and their customs could reveal about the ancient Mayan past. In a corrective vein, a second line of inquiry then came to focus on the impact of change—including the changes brought by tourism—on contemporary Mayan communities. Despite the efforts of such writing to expose contemporary conditions, often what remained was the subtle implication that something static existed to be influenced: if it weren't for contact with the modern world, there would have been no change, no cultural dynamic, and something authentic might have been preserved. This view, of course, has been significantly challenged in recent years, but I am referring to an earlier strain of thought that had a great influence on my own in the 1970s.

The search for authenticity and the "quest for the Other," to borrow Pierre van den Berghe's coinage, remains prevalent in travel accounts and other forms of popular media. Many newspaper articles, National Geographic photo-essays, New Age self-help books, and PBS documentaries invite readers or viewers to muse over the "lost civilization" of the ancient, prophetic, and bloodthirsty Maya. Consider the opening sentences of one recent book on Mayan prophesy: "Lost in the jungles of Central America are the remains of a most mysterious people; the Maya. Who were they? Where did they come from? What message, if any, did they leave for our own times?" Like many popular accounts, this one conflates the ruins in the jungle with the Maya as a people, its consistent use of the past tense leading the reader to conclude that the people, like the pyramids, are a kind of "remains." Similarly, in other accounts, even when contemporary Maya are mentioned, they are portrayed as the scattered descendants of their glorious progenitors—living clues to ancient mysteries—or as the suppliers of collectible handicrafts produced according to age-old traditions. Rarely is the current social, political, and economic situation considered in invocations of these peoples, who are situated squarely within—and interactive with—capitalist systems on a global scale.

In Mexico, the tourist industry in the region is happy to capitalize on the allure of the past; the internationally promoted Ruta Maya (Mayan Route or Way) is a recent incarnation of this appeal. Traversing the archaeological wonders of southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador, it has since 1989 provided travelers of all stripes with an intimate look at the ancient "Mundo Maya."

It was along the Ruta Maya that my dual identities, tourist and researcher, came to intersect, and when people ask me about the origins of my interest in Mayan theatre, this is usually the story I tell. In June 1993 Chris and I were honeymooning on the Yucatán Peninsula, a popular stop along the Ruta Maya, for the express purpose of climbing the pyramids there. Climbing the pyramids was something I had wanted to do since I was a teenager, when I had first learned about the astronomical achievements of the ancient Maya—from a high school anthropology teacher, Harold Howarth, whose interest in and teaching of Mesoamerican civilizations was inspired and inspirational. My first climb, up the great pyramid at Chichén Itzá, turned out to be my only one: gripped by a vertigo I was wholly unprepared for, I had to be helped back down by my husband and a Chilean woman named Yolanda who whispered, "Pobrecita, pobrecita" (Poor little thing, poor little thing), all the way down. An ironic and fitting end to the pursuit of my Kitten Nellish dream: wanting the chance to glimpse the world through the eyes of the ancient Maya, I instead had my own squeezed shut in a mortifying backward crawl down the pyramid's unforgiving spine.

A couple of days later, at the great ceremonial center of Uxmal, I stayed below while my husband made the climb alone. Passing the time in the welcome shadow of its enormous central pyramid, I asked our guide if there was such a thing as "ancient Mayan drama." He told me about the Rabinal Achí, a dance drama from Guatemala that predated contact with the conquistadores and that was part of a long tradition of performance that had pretty much ended with the arrival of the Spaniards. Having just finished up my master's degree in theatre, I wondered why I had not encountered this before.

On the way back to the hotel, our Volkswagen bus took us through tiny hamlets of grass and adobe huts, all eerily glowing with the blue light of television sets. I began to wonder about the trajectory of indigenous theatre in Mexico, and about how messages broadcast far and wide, both from its urban center and from the United States, have intersected that course. This book is an attempt to follow that trajectory.

From my current perspective, almost a decade after my literal and metaphorical honeymoon in the Mundo Maya, my initial question—Was there such a thing as ancient Mayan theatre?—seems naive, wrapped up in a bundle of romance and privilege. But if my interest sprang originally from the conjunction of several interrelated discourses, many of them the product of unreflexive (neo)colonialism, it continues for at least two reasons: first, because I would like to try to tip the balance away from the Anglo- and Eurocentrism that still consigns the critical study of this performance to the margins of academic inquiry; and second, because of personal relationships I now have with actors, directors, and writers who mean much to me, whose work I respect and wish to make known to more people.

Some of these artists also desire this; others don't really care. In Yucatán, for example, actor-director William May Itzá asked me to tell people in my country that his group, Constelación, "is there and is doing good work." In Chiapas, when my husband expressed admiration for a Mayan poet's published work, telling him that people in our country are eager to know more about it, he received a different kind of response: "That's fine, but we don't care whether you know it or not. We do it for ourselves."

In Chapter 1, I devote a great deal of critical energy to the missionary impulse that fostered much theatre in both the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries. I find I cannot deny something of the same impulse in my own work; I wish to widen the spaces for the inclusion of contemporary Mayan theatre in the scholarly discourse of theatre studies. Taken seriously as art and as action, theatre in Mayan Mexico—an area of cultural contestation, contradiction, and collaboration—can be seen as emblematic of ongoing struggles indigenous artists face in neocolonial contexts everywhere.

I hope that this study will serve others as well, particularly those Mayan theatre practitioners who collaborated so generously with me on its preparation. Many of them still don't quite understand the fascination this gringa has for their work. Some, aware of the uses to which some kinds of scholarly interest in local cultures have in the past been put, are a little suspicious of it. But I offer it in a spirit of collaboration and gratitude. It celebrates their successes and, from one point of view north of our increasingly porous border, acknowledges their ongoing challenges. I look forward to following their history-in-the-making of continued encounter and exchange.

—Puebla, Mexico; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Phoenix, Arizona 1997-2002

The beginning of the twenty-first century is a turbid time to be writing about culture, cultural identity, or any scheme by which human beings and our endeavors come to be categorized in some way. We emerge into this millennium accompanied by a cacophony of voices that echo from the street level "up" to the halls of academe, engaged in continuing debates over the nature of human affiliation and how to translate these debates into social and political policy at both the local and the global level.

For example, I call this a book about "contemporary Mayan theatre," but each of the terms in this phrase is, ultimately, both unspecifiable and ungeneralizable within the great diversity of these debates. Each registers my adoption of personal and collective assumptions regarding such ideologically embedded concepts as time, space, and action—themselves central components of any dramatic endeavor. "Contemporary" suggests a togetherness in time of the events discussed and the reader's experience of the current historical moment, but this moment has no precise beginning or end; nor is the term meant to suggest a notion of time proceeding in linear fashion—which, as both the ancient Maya and the more recent philosophers and scientists tell us, is only one way of thinking about and experiencing time. "Mayan" itself is a charged designation in time, geopolitical space, and different spheres of social action, adopted and adapted in a variety of circumstances to a variety of ends. And "theatre" is a word I used at the beginning of my research to distinguish my object of inquiry from both ritual and everyday performances, imagining I could fill a comfortable and familiar role as audience member, my presence sanctioned by the public nature of performances denoted by the term. But neither comfort nor familiarity characterized my numerous research trips to Mexico, and I found it impossible to completely isolate theatrical performance from the other kinds either in my experiences or in my subsequent thinking about them.

Rather than resolve these dilemmas, this book explores many of the contradictions and impasses I encountered along the way. No grand theory organizes it; instead, it crosses several methodological and disciplinary terrains, drawing from cultural studies, history, performance studies, anthropology, and literary theory to explore the relationship between certain types of cultural performance (named "theatre" by the participants, audiences, and critics) and complex cultural identifications in Mayan Mexico.

Performance, Identity, and Transculturality

The Indigenous Photo Archive of San Cristóbal de las Casas houses a photograph that illustrates the multilayered relationship between performance and cultural identification. It was taken by a young Chamulan woman, its subject her younger sister, shown wearing a jaguar mask and adopting a threatening posture as if about to pounce. It is not a moment of formal theatre, but it registers something of its impulse, recalling Aristotle's insight that imitation motivates human learning and is also at the heart of formal drama.

The girl wears a mask of an animal that is sacred to Mayan mythology and that signifies Mayan cultural identity throughout Mexico, but the mask itself is mass-produced, signaling one kind of negotiation between tradition and modernity. I am most enchanted by her hands, however: drawn up in claws to represent a jaguar on the attack, they remind me of what my young daughter does when she plays monster. I recognize the posture, I can hear the growly sounds that would accompany it, and for a moment I begin to believe that human beings can share more than a pulse. My daughter mimics monsters generated by her culture's collective nightmares, which she accesses mostly by exposure to Scooby Doo and his animated kin. For the young Chamulan actor, the source is rooted in oral and graphic traditions that establish the jaguar as an icon in multiple ways, few of which include commercial cartoons. To my eyes, though the models are different for these two young actors, their individual copies are remarkably the same. This observation trips my utopistic triggers and tempts me to look toward rosy metaphors of performance as the key to world peace and universal understanding. Underneath it all, says my internal eternal optimist, we may be not the same but incommensurably different; still, through performance we can recognize ourselves and find a link to other selves.

In many ways, this has been my experience while gathering the material for this book: I believe theatre and performance have world-changing potential. At the same time, I am aware of the dangers of dwelling too comfortably in such a position, especially as it might add to already intense pressures to homogenize culture across artistic, educational, and geopolitical borders. Thus, this book attempts to situate certain moments of theatrical activity in certain times and places, toward complicating available models of self, other, theatre, performance, culture, tradition, and change. It is especially meant to deessentialize notions of "Mayan theatre" still operative north of the U.S.-Mexico border. At the same time, it addresses the scholarly suspicion of essentialism, which at its extreme can "undermine the concept of culture itself." It explores in specific cases how theatrical performances negotiate these problematics.

Writing about the relationship between performance and identity, John MacAloon suggests that cultural performances allow us to "reflect upon and define ourselves, dramatize our collective myths and history, present ourselves with alternatives, and eventually change in some ways while remaining the same in others." MacAloon's work is inflected by that of the social anthropologist Victor Turner, who assigns to formal theatre a special role in cultural coherence and change. For Turner, theatre is a particular kind of cultural performance that occupies a liminal time somewhere among the received past, the given present, and the possible future. It almost always occupies a liminal space as well, a space marked off for the special purpose of the performance—a space removed (or transformed) from everyday life but not quite resident in the realm of the divine. Finally, what occurs in that space and time provides, as MacAloon suggests, an opportunity for reflection and redefinition "as a culture or a society," an opportunity to reassert, reclaim, critique, and transform cultural traditions. A favorite professor of mine, whose field is comparative religion, once put it this way: "What theatre isn't about cultural identity?"

But the relationship between performance and personal or cultural identity is never simply tautological, and in the case of Mayan theatre in southern Mexico, the cultural identity being performed by various theatre groups can be quite a complicated matter. For example, a Mayan troupe in Chiapas develops its plays collectively but has relied on an urban Mexican playwright to shape them and on U.S. anthropologists and directors to stage them. A Mayan women's collective, also in Chiapas, has chosen to work selectively with non-Mayan women's groups, locally and internationally, to present its work. Another group, begun in Tabasco and with affiliates throughout Mexico, has built an international reputation by adapting the works of Shakespeare, García Lorca, and Mexican playwrights to suit the needs of its largely rural and marginalized urban community members. And several community theatre groups in the Yucatán Peninsula develop plays, based on playwriting strategies developed in training sessions with Mexico City theatre professionals, that reflect and valorize local life and custom. These are then presented in Yucatec Maya in their own communities and, until recently, in regional community theatre festivals. To varying degrees, each of these groups participates in and represents itself as part of a more general resurgence of ethnicity-based cultural activities in Mexico—they call what they do "Mayan" and "indigenous" theatre—a phenomenon that has been described by some U.S. observers as "the Mayan Renaissance."

Reflecting the way ethnicity has long been used in Mexico as one axis "around which cultural distinctions [are] organized," such labels tend to mask the reality, however, of interest from and conscious affiliation with nonindigenous people and artistic forms in the creation of this theatre. Ironically, then, the labels mark a moment of cultural reclamation and proclamation and in effect allow these troupes to use nonindigenous theatrical styles and techniques to become "more Mayan," or at least more visible as such.

At first glance, this agenda may seem suspect, given emerging understandings of culture as something that cannot be owned, of tradition as a matter of invention, and of authenticity as a nostalgic notion in a postmodern world. The poststructuralist critique of and within anthropology suggests that culture is something ethnographers write, not something that enjoys ontological status in its own right. In the 1980s, following the insights of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, culture tended to be viewed, therefore, as a "text" to be read and interpreted, a "historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which [people] communicate." In the field of theatre semiotics, and in recent work in cultural anthropology, this cultural text has come to be viewed more dynamically as a "performance text" whose meanings may never be fully interpretable. That is, in recognition of the myriad social exchanges that take place in a globalized environment (and of the fact that this process had already been going on for centuries), culture is seen as dynamic, active, infinitely mutable—and "performed" rather than "borne." Its meanings, therefore, do not reside comfortably within bounded domains of verbal and visual access; as the performance theorist Dwight Conquergood reminds us, these meanings can also be "masked, camouflaged, indirect, embedded, or hidden in context."

Today, in Mexico as elsewhere, local contexts are informed by an increasing globalism that compels mass movements of goods and people across all previously established borders. Thus, the anthropologist James Clifford has reconceived cultural identity as a matter of "routes" rather than of "roots," building on his insight that "twentieth-century identities no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performance from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols, and languages." And as John Kicza reminds us, in Latin America particularly, the exigencies of the marketplace and resultant patterns of migration and return have led many scholars to question the validity of designations such as "Indian community" at all: "As vast numbers of indigenous peoples have become well integrated into the market economies and dynamic cultures of their national societies, they have lost, willingly or not, most of the attributes that had distinguished them from peoples of European or mixed ancestry."

On the other hand, as the examples of pan-Maya activism in Guatemala and the Zapatistas in Mexico illustrate, the critique of essentialism generated by postmodern (often U.S.) theorists does not always serve the best interests of subaltern groups. In the Guatemalan context, as Kay Warren has explored in detail, such a criticism can and has been used to frustrate indigenous political organization, in effect to prevent collective action in service of a continuance of a national culture that excludes Mayan recognition and participation. In Mexico, the Zapatistas (discussed in more detail in the next chapter) have adopted both essentialist and antiessentialist strategies to link indigenous claims to nationalist rhetoric in a way that compels their political recognition as indigenous—for perhaps the first time in Mexico's post-Conquest history. As the Latin Americanist James Weil once characterized the early days of the Zapatista movement, "the Maya want their culture back."

But this reclamation project, in which theatre often plays a key part, is not a simple matter of retreating from the rest of the world into a precontact dream of isolated autonomy. Rather, it is a demand for a new kind of power within Mexico: the kind of power described by Carolyn Heilbrun as an acknowledgment of "the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter." In other words, it is a demand for recognition of Mayan and other indigenous contributions to Mexico's plurality in Mexico's emerging democracy and the right to shape that democracy as full participants. In a true democracy, such a demand would be unnecessary. But to articulate it in Mexico is to resist centuries of colonization, both external and internal.

In this environment, indigenous activists and intellectuals are calling for a radical change of perspective, wherein cultural identity is not so much a moving target (to be fixed in the sights of political and academic weapon-bearers) as the act of taking aim. It is in this action, which occurs onstage in theatrical performance and offstage in civic life, that identifications are selected and made visible. Such a conception presumes that identification is a matter of relationship and direction, for the target often determines the stance and position of the one who takes aim, and the one who takes aim in turn has the power to make a point that, literally, sticks—and thereby changes the face of the target as well. Warren reports this happening in Guatemala, for example, when a critic of Mayan activism wrote a spoof on "Ladino [non-Mayan] identity." If it meant to mock Mayan identity politics, it also "helped fuel serious self-questioning among progressive Ladinos about their sense of identity and taken-for-granted entitlement to national culture." In Mexico, the widespread support for the Zapatistas expressed by intellectuals, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations, and, among my acquaintance, many lower- and middle-class Mexicans who find themselves increasingly disenfranchised from the centers of power, suggests a similar reconsideration under way there.

Thus, I am proposing a view of Mayan cultural identity that is transcultural from the start. In using the term "transcultural," I am following a specifically Latin American strain of critical thought, initiated in 1940 by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. He coined the term "transculturation" to describe the cultural changes generated in specific encounters and subsequent instances of cultural expression. For Ortiz,

the term transculturation better expresses the different phases in the transitive process from one culture to another, because this process does not only imply the acquisition of culture, as connoted by the Anglo-American term acculturation, but it also necessarily involves the loss or uprooting of one's preceding culture, what one could call a partial disculturation. Moreover, it signifies the subsequent creation of new cultural phenomena that one could call neoculturation.

Tracing the migration of this notion through Latin American literary thought and with an eye toward its application for theatre, Diana Taylor notes that transculturation provides three important gains in critical assessment. First, as suggested above, the term marks and maintains the memory of a cultural loss. Second, as it has been developed over time, the notion of transculturation prevents easy assumptions about the equality of exchange implicit in terms, like "syncretism," that suggest an equal coexistence of different cultural elements or systems. Finally, it allows for the possibility of mutual influence and reparticularization, even if that influence is not always immediately discernible. Such a conception of transculturation is particularly useful because, as Taylor writes,

[it] allows the "minor" culture (in the sense of the positionally marginalized) an impact on the dominant one, although the interactions are not strictly speaking "dialogic" or "dialectical." Transculturation suggests a shifting or circulating pattern of cultural transference. The measurable impact of the "minor" on the "major" can be a long time coming.

This potential for mutuality is nothing new to native speakers of the thirty-odd Mayan languages in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and other parts of Central America. These languages more easily embed notions of equality and reciprocity between what, in Indo-European languages, are acting subjects and acted-upon objects. For example, what I might think of as the object of an action initiated by a subject is conceived by Mayans, at least in some usages, as another subject existing in relationship to the first. Teresa Ortiz, an activist who works on behalf of Mayan communities in Chiapas struggling for political autonomy, puts it this way: "A Mayan wouldn't say, 'I am drinking this cup of coffee.' Instead, they'd say, 'I and this coffee are in a drinking relationship together.'"

To the extent that cultural identifications are produced through language, it is possible to view the question of ethnic or cultural identity in similar terms of a relationship, dependent on parties and circumstance, that is mutually influential—at least potentially. At the same time, in societies overdetermined by internal colonization, as Mexico has been, it is important to remember that some targets exert more control and resistance to change than others. Under such circumstances, identities tend to coalesce in response. For example, it has often been convenient for the Mexican government to view living Maya as backward peasants in need of a good dose of modernization, or as living artifacts of a glorious past, whose artisan production brings in tourist dollars. Thus, many indigenous groups have strategically adopted a collective identity in order to garner the alliance of international organizations in support of their claims against a government that still denies them full participation in Mexico's emergent democracy.

So, while it can be persuasively argued that "Mayan culture" is largely the result of discursive practices aimed at satisfying non-Mayan touristic desire or, later, constructing a postrevolutionary Mexican nation-state along U.S. and European models, it does not follow that the term is irrelevant for the people so designated. As J. Jorge Klor de Alva summarizes the dilemma, "Many 'organic' or 'native' intellectuals, swept up by the post-structuralist/postmodern tide, are struggling to promote ethnic unity and pride while paradoxically attempting to make out, in the transnational ethnoscapes of their respective communities, nonessentialized patterns of collective identity." "Nonessentialized patterns of collective identity" often find expression through performance, and the performance does not always conform to easy cultural distinctions. As the Argentine-Mexican anthropologist Néstor García Canclini puts it, "It cannot be ignored that even in the most direct and self-managed experiences there is action and acting, expression of what is one's own and constant reconstitution of what is understood by one's own in relation to the broader laws of social dramaturgy, as well as reproduction of the dominant order. Offstage as well as on, therefore, culture—"what is one's own," in relation to "broader laws"—is constituted in performance and in the ongoing negotiations between social groups.

Since 1996 I have been an audience member at more than a score of theatrical performances, dozens of rehearsals, and several ceremonies preparatory to performance and displays. I have had the opportunity to interview many of the actors, directors, and advisers involved and have enjoyed social time with some of them after their working hours. To a lesser degree, I have had the chance to mingle with other audience members to get a sense of the works' reception. This theatre works on multiple levels, both as an advancement of local culture and, in many cases, as a nonviolent response to the same kinds of pressures that have provoked armed responses among Mexico's indigenous and peasant populations. One play, in fact, was created a month after the Zapatista uprising and explores some of the roots of that uprising in land and environmental concerns; it ends with both a patriotic anthem and a call for the continued fight of indigenous peoples against injustice.

In other plays, the rescue of local traditions and lore is the focus, with the aim of preserving and valorizing Mayan cultural identity in the face of increasing cultural and economic globalization. A play from the Yucatán Peninsula treats this theme quite literally: when a young man sells a pair of local religious objects to a tourist, who thinks they are souvenir dolls, the dangers of local complicity in cultural commodification are clear. In still others, the performances seem motivated by the joy of making theatre—in plays filled with verbal and physical alacrity and high theatricality, received by audiences so enthusiastic they made my playwright husband envious.

Over the course of my research, I have become increasingly interested in the ways this theatre intervenes in, or participates with, other discursive practices aimed at the production of Mayan identities and alterities. In this study I suggest that the theatre created by contemporary Mayan troupes enacts many of these tensions between identity and identification, authenticity and hybridity. Further, I argue that as a result it is often as "intercultural" as it is "indigenous"—not to essentialize either category but to suggest that nowadays (and to varying degrees this has been true historically as well) both categories are bound up with each other in complex ways.

It may be true that in an ideal world nobody "owns" culture; but in the world Mayans share with non-Mayans, intercultural borrowings and exchanges are frequently informed by inequitable power flows, uneven access to important cultural resources, and differentially charged social interactions. As a result, I find useful the insights of Michel de Certeau, who calls for analyses of "local histories" and "micro-revolutions," and Gayatri Spivak's notion of "strategic essentialism," which allows for the provisional recuperation and construction of cohesive identities in response to pressures from without to assimilate to dominant cultural paradigms. But in the Latin American context generally and Mexico's particularly, the region's world-historical significance cannot be neatly accounted for in postcolonial theories that proceed from Franco-and Anglophone knowledge centers. Therefore, I find the Mexican social anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz's insights useful and aim, in this book, to answer his call for "grounded theory"—"a kind of theory that flies more like a chicken than a hawk." That is, I hope to show that the "incidents of theatre in Chiapas and Yucatán" that I examine herein merit their own analyses, in all their glorious and messy specificity.

These analyses owe a debt to the work of the Mexican social anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, who was concerned to introduce ethnicity into previously class-based models of Mexican social analysis. Specifically, I find useful as a starting point his "theory of cultural control," for its contributions to assessing the ways power can flow in intercultural encounters.

For Bonfil Batalla, given circumstances of cultural production can be understood by looking at who maintains control over the decisions relating to the cultural elements in play—the production and reproduction of material, the organizational, knowledge-related, symbolic, and emotive elements that belong either to one's own group or to an outside group. Thus, in a specific situation of cultural interaction, what is important is who gets to decide which elements are adopted, imposed, and transformed. From the point of view of a given group, there are four possible outcomes to this interaction:

  1. Autonomy—the group retains control over both decisions and elements.
  2. Appropriation—the group makes the decisions about whether to adopt another group's cultural elements.
  3. Alienation—an outside agency maintains control over the group's own cultural elements, such as occurs in the staging of folkloric dances for tourist consumption; and
  4. Imposition—the group has control over neither the elements nor the decisions about how they are used, but the results come to be part of the group's culture.

In the case of indigenous and campesino theatre in Mexico, Bonfil Batalla's framework helps us to assess the degree of cultural control exercised by the indigenous performers over their final staged productions, and it is useful in some circumstances for its ability to specify the power dynamics in intercultural exchange. However, the model's rigidly "inside-outside" binary is problematic in a world in which the boundaries between groups are not always clearly maintained; nor does it take into account intragroup power dynamics, some of which are distinctly gender inflected, or strategic alliances with outside groups.

To accommodate these other kinds of social relations, I turn to the insights of Lawrence Grossberg, who uses recent work in spatial historiography to animate inquiry into contemporary cultural politics. He draws on Deleuze and Guattari's notion of culture as emerging "rhizomatically" (here and there, often unexpectedly) rather than vertically (up through a root system to a single, predetermined trunk). "The tree is filiation," they write, "but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb 'to be,' but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction 'and... and... and...'"

A rhizomatic view of cultural transactions thus provides a theoretical move away from persistent notions of the "linear, irreversible and unrepeatable" nature of modern time and toward a spatial logic examining the ways different cultural apparatuses "produce the specific spaces, configurations, and circulations of power. These spaces, configurations, and circulations constitute not only the specific conjuncture or social formation but also the relations between the local and the global." Grossberg also calls for a shift in emphasis from the two available models that Bonfil Batalla's itself seems to draw from—the "colonial model" (oppressors vs. oppressed) and the "transgression model" (oppression and resistance)—toward what he calls "a model of articulation or 'transformative practice.'" According to Grossberg,

both models of oppression not only seem inappropriate to the contemporary relations of power but also incapable of creating alliances because they cannot tell us how to interpellate fractions of the "empowered" into the struggle for change in something other than a masochistic (guilt-ridden) way.

Grossberg's reconfiguration offers two important gains. One is that a shift from the temporal to the spatial provides a way out of the time warp imposed on indigenous communities by both their supporters, who wish to privilege a premodern difference from the increasingly modernized world, and their detractors, who assert a Western telos of progress, and equate difference with all that is backward. That this time warp still operates is evident in a variety of images that are initially—and sometimes deliberately—discordant. It is becoming more and more common to see, for example, visual images of indigenous people using technology—a photo in Mexico's National Anthropological Museum of contemporary Mayans using computers; a bookstore logotype that features an ancient hieroglyph of an indigenous writer, his writing instrument redrawn to become a laptop; early press coverage of the Zapatista uprising barely concealing surprise that the Indians were using the Internet as a communicative tool. But these images somehow continue—and are meant—to jar; they record the traces of nostalgia for a past uncontaminated with this modern paraphernalia.

Grossberg's insights offer the possibility of micropolitical analysis of groups conceived as living in the same age but in different spaces characterized by differential access to important realms of social and political power. These insights open up a theoretical space for approaching strategic alliances within and across groups, to improve that access by "interpellating fractions of the empowered." To the extent that each of the theatre organizations I discuss collaborates to some degree with various non-Mayan artists, researchers, and financial go-betweens, their collaboration and alliance making need to be taken into serious consideration.

The adoption of a spatial, rhizomatic view of culture and cultural change also follows a certain strain of historiography practiced by Mayans themselves, at least at one time. Though much is made of the complexity of the Mayan calendar and the cyclical nature of time it records, one great text of mytho-history adopts a spatial orientation in its narration of historical and prehistorical events. That is the Popul Vuh, which tells a history of gods and humans in the Quiché region of what is now Guatemala. Although virtually all Mayan texts, sacred and profane, that could be destroyed were destroyed by the (literal) flames of Spanish missionary zeal, the Popul Vuh survives as a kind of literary hybrid of pre-Hispanic content and colonial form. Originally written in hieroglyphics but transcribed from memory into the Roman alphabet sometime between 1554 and 1558 at the request of Spanish missionaries, "Popul Vuh" translates to "Council Book"—and books were conceived by the ancient Maya as "place[s] to see." As Dennis Tedlock, who has translated the text into English, describes its organization, the events it describes

are presented in two different cycles, with the episodes divided between the cycles more on the basis of where they took place in space than when they took place in time. The first cycle deals entirely with adventures on the face of the earth, while the second, though it has two separate above-ground passages, deals mainly with adventures in the Mayan underworld, named Xibalba. If the events of these two cycles were combined in a single chronological sequence, the above-ground episodes would probably alternate with those below, with the heroes descending into the underworld, emerging on the earth again, and so forth. These sowing and dawning movements of the heroes, along with those of their supporting cast, prefigure the present-day movements of the sun, moon, planets, and stars.

Two things are especially interesting about this text and its provenance. First, the "sowing and dawning" movements of its heroes, while linked to the astronomical bodies that control the Mayan calendar, also act like Deleuzian "rhizomes" in their cropping up here and there on the surface, after periods spent underground. Second, the text comes to us in the Roman alphabet, a form that compels a left-to-right, linear progression of letters-into-words-into-sentences. Nevertheless, the events narrated in the Popul Vuh resist this formal linearity and, like its heroes, follow a more undulating pattern; it takes time and effort to force an alien chronology onto them. Thus the original structure, told in the spatial arrangement of hieroglyphs, survives palimpsestically in the version we have available to us. As Tedlock puts it, "Just as Mayan peoples learned to use the symbolism of Christian saints as a mask for ancient gods, so they learned to use the Roman alphabet as a mask for ancient texts." In an important way, then, these texts survive; they are not "lost forever" to a Mayan way of looking.

This insight can also be applied to an understanding of the history of the theatre in which Mayans and other indigenous players have participated. The labeling of contemporary Mayan theatre as a "Renaissance" by some researchers tends to replicate a "linear and irreversible" approach to that history; it suggests the end of a theatrical dark ages ushered in with the Conquest, and narrates Mayan theatre history as one of loss and recapture. I propose an alternate view—that many of the pre-Columbian performance traditions, while interrupted by Conquest, have been rhizomatically cropping up in some form or another, often mixed with or hybridized by other theatrical traditions, since the time of Conquest by the Spanish missionaries. And the forms they now take are neither a Renaissance nor a radically new departure for theatre as a social and artistic medium. Rather, they represent a complex engagement with a continuously changing notion of the relationship between indigenous and nonindigenous in contemporary Mexico.

Each of the troupes I discuss provides a different note in the register of this complexity. Within the microcosms of their own organizations, these troupes, like the revolutionary Zapatistas (whose spokesperson is, in fact, a non-Mayan Mexican intellectual), seek a brand of creative autonomy that does not equal marginalization from the rest of Mexican society and a kind of engagement with that society that does not equal complete assimilation.

Scope of Study

This study begins by situating indigenous Mexican theatre both over time and within various sociocultural spaces. That is, it outlines the long history of intercultural explorations, collaborations, and impositions experienced by native performers and audiences over time and within the rhetorical spaces created by Mexico's larger struggles for a national identity. Specifically, it focuses on how various nationalist rhetorics—notably those of mestizaje (an official view of Mexico as a country of mixed European and indigenous races) and indigenismo (policies developed to assimilate indigenous Mexicans into a homogenous national culture)—have been challenged by emergent indigenous rights movements, including zapatismo. I use the latter term to refer to the heightened consciousness of and mobilization for indigenous rights since the Zapatista uprising in 1994, which took its name from Emiliano Zapata, a key figure in the Mexican Revolution. (Although I use the term to describe the recent movement, it also can refer to the historical aims and followers of Zapata. As Lynn Stephen has recently shown, the ways the two senses of the term intersect and, more specifically, how they are used for purposes of political thinking and organizing differ among Mexico's various discursive communities, indigenous and nonindigenous.) This chapter also treats other sociopolitical forces that inform the ongoing negotiation of ethnic and Mexican national identities, particularly in Mayan Mexico, to provide contextualization for understanding some of the themes and challenges represented by and in the work of theatre artists there.

Chapters 2 through 4 discuss the activities of four theatre groups or networks in Mayan Mexico, focusing on their operating strategies and on analyses of selected texts, each of which illustrates a different aspect of the authenticity/hybridity problematic. Chapter 2 discusses the activities of two rather well-known theatre troupes based in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, a key site of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. One, Lo'il Maxil (Monkey Business), was instigated by the desire of Mayan anthropological informants to "take back" their own stories and myths and to use theatre to improve Mayan-language literacy toward that end. These informants have chosen to work closely with U.S. and Mexican anthropologists in forming their organization and securing funding for it since 1983. Eventually, two of the actresses, frustrated by the limited participation it afforded women, decided to form an alternative company dedicated to the contemporary social concerns of Mayan women in rural and urban communities. This troupe, called La Fomma (an acronym standing for "Strength of the Mayan Woman"), has worked closely with the international feminist, academic, human rights, and theatre communities to establish an international reputation. Their very existence points to an interesting dilemma facing many Mayan communities in an increasingly global environment: how to maintain tradition when that tradition often serves to subjugate women and how to reinvent those traditions in order to incorporate new insights brought by a combination of factors, including international feminism.

In other parts of Mexico, a network of theatre troupes that began in Tabasco has established a controversial reputation for "indigenizing" the works of Shakespeare and other European and Mexican playwrights. Chapter 3 discusses this process, through an exploration of the work of Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena. This group's stagings of Romeo y Julieta and García Lorca's Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding) have appeared on stages as far away as Madrid, Spain, New York's Central Park, and the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. The troupe's founder is a non-Mayan Mexican director, who has been accused by many other directors and some Mexican political authorities of teaching her rural performers to forget their campesino roots. This criticism, although directed against cultural imperialism, masks a prevalent desire among many non-Mayan Mexicans to preserve an image of the Mayan peoples as rooted in the rural past rather than to see them as fully participating members of a geopolitical present.

A final example, discussed in Chapter 4, comes from the Yucatán Peninsula, where grassroots theatre flourished during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Although this theatre relies less on the involvement of non-Mayan personnel, it traces its originating impulse to earlier government-sponsored "cultural missions"—groups of urban performers who traveled through the countryside from the 1940s through the 1960s in an attempt to bring rural Mexico into a modernized, mestizized, postrevolutionary present. Later, groups led by local performers trained by these urban troupes would produce theatre in the Yucatec language, covering a variety of themes that include not only the recuperation of Mayan tradition but also its ongoing reinvention.

Finally, I return to the question of "roots" versus "routes" as it applies to the increasing globalization of the very notion of "Mayanness," which I argue has achieved status as a form of symbolic capital for non-Mayans. This representational economy has exacerbated tensions created on the one hand by the desire of the performers for recognition as heterogenous agents of their own history, and on the other by their awareness of the prevalent desire of many non-Mayans to fix this work, and any representational authority it may have achieved, within a tidier scheme of cultural authenticity.

A Note on Terminology and Translations

Maya, Mayan, Maya/n Culture, Maya/n Civilization

As the anthropologist Quetzil E. Castañeda notes, these categories "are not at all empty of meaning or reality," but are "fundamentally contested terms that have no essential entity outside of the complex histories of sociopolitical struggles." Following Castañeda, I use the terms in reference to "heterogenous peoples and societies that nonetheless shared certain religious, historical, aesthetic, social, and linguistic forms in a geopolitical space called Mesoamerica."

In southeastern Mexico, which is the focus of this study, there are regional differences in the ways the people so designated use the terms. In the Yucatán Peninsula, for example, Mayan speakers refer to their language and culture as "Mayan" but often refer to themselves in the present as "mestizo" (which elsewhere in Mexico, by contrast, usually refers to a nonindigenous-identified person). In Chiapas, the identification is first with the community, then the linguistic group (there are more than thirty Mayan languages, each related to one of two major roots, Yucatec and Quiché), and then the Maya. In Tabasco, linguistic group (Chol, Chontal) seems the primary term of identification. The Mexican government also designates ethnicity by first language spoken—a designation doomed to inaccuracy, no matter who makes it, due to historical pressure to speak the language of power, Spanish.

In the past thirty years, there have been efforts among Mayan intellectuals and activists, especially in Guatemala, to develop a "pan-Mayan" identity that spans geopolitical borders in order to achieve greater representation in matters affecting indigenous peoples. In Mexico, particularly since 1994, the call among such activists has been for a pan-indigenous (or indeed, pan-subaltern) sense of affiliation.

Indian, Indigenous, Native

To varying degrees, each of these terms is problematic and, on reflection, not very descriptive. However, they have all attained common usage to designate the descendants—by blood and/or cultural practice—of the peoples inhabiting Mesoamerica at the time Columbus landed and Cortés explored. Where possible, I adopt the designation chosen by the people I am discussing. For more general purposes, I prefer the term "indigenous" in contemporary contexts. I use "indigenous" and "native" interchangeably when discussing the first generation of Conquest. In Mexico, the Spanish equivalent of "Indian," indio, is usually very pejorative, comparable to the term "nigger" in U.S. usage, so I avoid use of the word "Indian" unless it appears in quoted material.

Everybody Else

There is no single label, except perhaps "nonindigenous," to describe those who are not descended from pre-Columbian Mexicans in any way, as regional differences abound, and the same term can be used by different people to designate quite different things. In Chiapas and Guatemala, the term ladino, which originally referred to the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain in the fifteenth century and has evolved over time to mean anyone not of indigenous descent, is now widely used in scholarship on the region to signify "nonindigenous." Again, I try to be as specific as the context demands and allows; otherwise, I place "indigenous" or "Mayan" at the center and mark everybody else as "nonindigenous" or "non-Mayan."


Unless indicated otherwise, all translations from Spanish are my own. The original text of translated material is presented in the notes.

By Tamara L. Underiner

Tamara L. Underiner is Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Culture Studies at Arizona State University.

"This is an exciting, highly original contribution to both Mayan studies and Mexican theatre studies. Each of the bodies of work examined is fascinating, extremely timely, and almost unstudied by scholars."
—Cynthia Steele, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Washington