Constructing a Maya Identity for the Western Viewer: Performance, Tradition, and Heritage at Tourist Sites in the Yucatan Peninsula

An actor at a recent performance of Pok Ta Pok.
An actor at a recent performance of Pok Ta Pok.

The CLACS Summer Research Grant is funding my current research in the Yucatán peninsula. I arrived in Mexico nearly 6 weeks ago with only a passing familiarity of conversational Spanish and a year of coursework in Maya language. I knew language was going to be a barrier and I expected to have, and have had, many difficulties along the way. Despite this obstacle, the fieldwork experience has been very fruitful. I can now confidently converse in Maya not only regarding everyday activities but also in relation to my research. I plan to continue to study Maya next year at IU with Dr. Castañeda.

My first goal for this summer has been to improve my ability to converse, read, and write in Maya. My second goal has been to locate performances and attend them to assess their potential applicability to my future research.

Last weekend, I traveled to Merida to watch one of their nightly tourist activities. Every Friday they have a recreation of the pre-Columbian ball game, Pok Ta Pok.  The performance of the game offers many avenues for research from the selection of costumes to the ceremonies and rituals conducted before, during, and after the game. A healthy audience was in attendance, ensuring a large number of informants to interact with. A study of the ball game has great potential for exploration of authenticity, appropriation, heritage, and tradition. When I arrived in Mexico, I fully expected that my proposed topic of performances at tourist sites would be the focus of my dissertation, however, for the moment, it is attracting less of my attention.

My Maya language instructor took me to see a performance by an indigenous theatre group near Valladolid. When we arrived, we discovered that the season had ended and the performances would not resume until later in the year. I was dismayed but while taking photos of the site, I spoke with an actress who worked at the theatre. I was able to conduct an impromptu interview with her, gaining valuable information about the theatre. I will be attending a performance when I return in March. The theatre is not a tourist destination, it is a theatre made by and for the community of Xocén and surrounding towns.

Sebastiana, an actress at Xocén, discusses the history of the theatre with me.
Sebastiana, an actress at Xocén, discusses the history of the theatre with me.

Last evening, I attended a performance by a community theatre group called La conjura de xinum. The work, which was performed in Tepich in association with the 168th anniversary of the outbreak of the Caste War in 1847, was heavily attended by the small community and, it seems, was very well-received. The actors were of all ages from the community of Tihosuco and I was able to speak with a few of them before the production and I am very excited by the work that this group is doing in their community of Tihosuco and other towns in Quintana Roo. I look forward to remaining in contact with the actors and directors of the theatre group as I continue to shape my future dissertation research project.

I would like to thank CLACS for their generous support of this fieldwork as well as the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance at Indiana University. This experience has been infinitely valuable for my developing my dissertation project.

Sarah Campbell is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance at IU.


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