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Mayan spirituality and culture

Posted on February 17th, 2011

Mexico/Guatemala 5This week our theme was Mayan spirituality and culture. We started out by hearing some of the history of the Mayans and how they’ve been influenced by Western ideas and practices. Even the people who do still practice Mayan spirituality have incorporated other doctrines and traditions. I never really knew much about Mayan spirituality, but something that stood out to me from what we learned was that they call their god Ukux Caj, meaning “heart of heaven” or “what is most important in all that there is.”

Later in the week, we visited the Mayan Language Institute, an organization that is working to preserve the 22 different Mayan languages spoken here in Guatemala. The man who presented there talked about how language is such an integral part of one’s worldview, but how many Mayans feel pressured to abandon their heritage and conform to the more prestigious ladino culture, including the use of Spanish. In some ways it reminds me of the legislation in my home state, Indiana, that is promoting the use of only English.

Ruth Maust and Suzanne Opel in front of Mayan ruins Over the weekend we took a trip to Chichicastenango, stopping to see some Mayan ruins along the way. The absolute peace of the ruins made it hard to imagine the war and conquest that once took place there. In Chichi, we stayed at the Ruth and Naomi Artisan Cooperative, one of the suppliers of absolutely beautiful bags and textiles to Ten Thousand Villages. We also visited a widows’ cooperative further out in the country where they weave and embroider scarves, traditional clothing, purses, belts, and so much more. The sheer amount of color was almost as amazing as the fact that these women have found a way to successfully support their community.

We wrapped up the week by attending a Catholic mass in Chichi. This was just one example of how Mayan culture has blended with other influences. Certain parts of the service are done in K’iche, the Mayan language of the region, and there are various altars around the church that have significance for Mayan believers. After church, we were set loose in the market. The colors, the maze of vendors, the persistent kids who followed us around, the people trying to shove through the crowd, and the bargaining made for a whole different experience. Each purchase felt like a victory, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder if the vendors were really getting a fair wage. After a full weekend, it was a relief to finally come back home.

-Ruth Maust