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Why all the excitement?: "Hbaatab kaaswelah," a yukatek Maya oral history of the end of the world.

As the "end" of the Maya calendar approaches, a peculiar sort of "Maya fever" has gripped many in the Western media. While it would be impossible to disassociate the recent spate of Maya-themed movies like Apocalypto and The Ruins from a general Western fascination with Maya cultures, these films nonetheless represent a cinematographic and artistic trend that distorts Native American cultures, histories, and knowledges in ways that are easily accommodated to Western ways of knowing. This trend has recently culminated in the film 2012 and the genre of "Mayathemed" books spawned by the intersection of Western popular culture's fascination with Maya cultures and the "end" of the Maya calendar. The slight-of-hand through which these works achieve their signifying power resides in their alienation of indigenous cultural elements, situations in which "aunque los elementos culturales siguen siendo [indigenas], la decision sobre ellos es expropiada" (Bonfil Batalla 52). Indeed, these representations are an avenue through which dominant societies discursively assume control over indigenous cultures, using them as primary material to stage a variety of ideological fantasies.

Assessing how Mayas must respond to these images, the Jakaltek Maya Victor Montejo asserts, "the Maya must now focus their attention on the construction of texts (autohistory) that could destroy the negative images that are embedded in the minds of the ladino (non-Maya) population of Guatemala" (62). This article considers Montejo's dictum within the context of the Yukatek Maya oral literature in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Rather than focusing on how contemporary authors construct such texts, this article focuses on the production of such autohistories in a story from the region's archeological Golden Age in the mid-twentieth century, the oral story "Hbaatab kaaswelah" 'Village Chief Cazuela' (recorded 1930; published 2000). This article explores how both the story and its narrative situation address issues of cultural control that are no less relevant during the current "Maya fever" than they were when the story was told.


Any approach to a text like "Hbaatab kaaswelah" must begin with an emphasis on the text's orality. That is, although one may now encounter the story in written form, the text of "Hbaatab kaaswelah" is the transcription of a story told by the Yukatek Maya Lazaro Poot to the U.S.-based researcher Manuel J. Andrade in 1930. Poot's performance of the story comes out of Yukatek Maya oral literary tradition and cannot be confused with Andrade's recording. (1) Recognizing this story's orality does not fetishize the "overall model of an oral America" that Gordon Brotherston has found in many works dealing with oral literatures and histories (40-5), but rather provides a context for understanding the agency that Poot exercises with regard to Maya culture in telling this particular story in this particular way.

Coincidentally, and as I will explore later in this article, cultural control is at the heart of "Hbaatab kaaswelah." The position of "hbaatab" or 'village chief' dates to pre-colonial Yucatan and after the Conquest it became a person who, by the nineteenth century, was first and foremost a tax collector (Rugeley 12). Terry Rugeley claims not only that "The importance of the batabs' crumbling status cannot be overestimated in tracing the origins of [Yucatan's] Caste War [1847-1912]," but also that "The backbone of revolutionary instigation was a conspiracy among the batabs of a string of eastern communities" (185). As Poot opens the story, he says that one of the batab Cazuela's two daughters has married a foreigner, in Yukatek referring to the man as both "huntuul naachil kaahil" 'someone from a distant town' and "ts'uul," a word connoting someone with white skin, someone with a good deal of wealth, or a foreigner (Poot 275; 278).2 Interestingly, this question of foreignness plays a pivotal role in another Yukatek Maya text, the Chilam Balam of Chumayel (comp. 1800s), in which Others are both Mesoamerican (the Itza) and European (the Spanish). This antecedent points towards both a longstanding preoccupation with Maya ethnogenesis and the role literature has played in maintaining Others' non-Maya status.

Since Cazuela does not like the marriage, he asks his daughter to return a magic ring he had given her, which she does. However, the sonin-law soon tries to retrieve the ring. Arriving in Cazuela's town, the son-in-law and those accompanying him are led through the house where the batab keeps his "uuchben ba'alo'obo'," literally 'old things,' and then taken to where Cazuela stores his money (Poot 277). During this tour Cazuela's servants point out the feathered serpents that guard the batab and his possessions, claiming these creatures will devour anyone who wishes to harm the batab or steal from him. In the second of these houses a servant turns to a "maasewal" 'indigenous commoner' who has accompanied the son-in-law and invites him to take all the money he desires. He does so, filling his hat with money. The servants then extend the same invitation to the son-in-law, who is devoured by one of the batab's feathered serpents the moment he enters.

The son-in-law's men are allowed to leave, and they encounter a group of sixty foreigners on the outskirts of the town. Hearing that the son-in-law's men were able to enter the batab Cazuela's house these men try to gain entrance to the town. They spend eight days trying to dig under the town's walls until finally one of Cazuela's servants comes to ask what they want. At first they claim that they want to talk but eventually reveal that they desire the ring the batab had taken from his daughter. The servant replies "Ma' taan u paahtal u ts'akte'ex tumen utia'al" 'It can't be given to you because it is his' (Poot 283). The men insist on entering only to turn and run upon seeing several members of their group devoured by Cazuela's feathered serpents.

When this group of men returns to their town they find that the batab's recently widowed daughter has remarried another foreigner. This second son-in-law confronts the men about the ring and, after being told they failed to obtain it, he travels to Cazuela's town. Instead of going into the town, however, he waits for Cazuela to leave. After several days someone informs him that the batab has no intention of ever leaving again. The son-in-law replies, "He said he was my father-in-law but I think that's no longer the case. Tell him that from now on whenever I see one of his indigenous descendents I'll kill him" (Poot 285). At this point Poot the storyteller intervenes in the story, saying "And this was the beginning of the foreigners' persecution of the indigenous people" (285-7).

On hearing about this persecution the batab Cazuela leaves the town. He waits beside the road for his son-in-law to pass by and, when he finally does, one of the batab's feathered serpents devours him. Widowed for a second time, the batab's daughter tries to make her living as a mendicant seller of goods but is eventually thrown out of the town of Chichen Itza because the people blame her for Cazuela's departure. Addressing the townspeople one last time, the batab Cazuela tells them that he will return at the end of the world "when his teeth have grown in number" (Poot 287).

Poot closes the story by saying the batab Cazuela went away because "he didn't like seeing all of the atrocities committed against his peoples by the foreigners, nor did he like that the foreigners had taken over Chichen Itza" (289). "But," Poot tells us, "the batab Cazuela said he would come back to exterminate all foreigners that had made him leave the town of Chichen Itza" (289).


Before exploring how the circumstances of Poot's narration shape the signification of his telling we should first examine the ideology of the story itself, an ideology that is unapologetically pro-Maya and Maya-centric. Here "story" refers to "the presentation of phenomena which occurred at a certain moment of time without the intervention on the part of the speaker in the story" (Benveniste, qtd. in Todorov 25). The central conflict in "Hbaatab kaaswelah" arises through the very situation that, in national literatures, constitutes a strategy, in Doris Sommer's words, "to contain the racial, regional, economic, and gender conflicts that threatened the development of new Latin American nations" (29). Marriage functions as a means through which authors can reimagine their respective nations as constituted by a single unified people, thus producing the symbolic resolution of myriad real-world conflicts that would threaten such unity. In the particular case of Mexico these literary marriages often re-found the origin of the country's mestizo national subject within the context of the bourgeois family unit, a reimagining of Mexican origins that stands in direct opposition to that posited by Octavio Paz in his El laberinto de la soledad (72-97) and comfortably accommodates Jose Vasconcelos's vision of the mestizo Mexican national subject as the raza cosmica.

Poot's textualization of the relationship between the batab Cazuela, his daughter, and her two foreign husbands, in "Hbaatab kaaswelah" explicitly rejects mestizaje and/or cultural mixing. We are told from the outset that "ma' ma'alob tu yilahih yuum ahawi'" '[the batab] was not happy with the marriage,' and that this marriage is the reason for the batab's taking back the magic ring he had given his daughter (Poot 275). We are thus confronted by a situation in which marriage does not resolve conflicts of race, ethnicity, or class, but rather exacerbates them. At issue here is not so much the ring itself but the cultural inheritance that the ring symbolizes. As far as the story is concerned, since Cazuela's daughter has married a "non-Maya" she no longer produces and reproduces Maya culture. On the one hand, this articulation of gender relations maintains a male-dominated society in which patriarchal figures like the batab Cazuela protect their honor and the honor of their communities via the honor of the women in their families. Recalling the passage from Rugeley that correlates the decline in the power of the batabs with the genesis of Yucatan's Caste War, we find that this story attributes this decline in prestige to conflicts originating from within Maya communities and not to something as vulgar as tax collection. The batab Cazuela thus emerges as a hero who has never worked in the service of non-Maya, "foreign" governments.

On the other hand, the "marriage" between the batab's daughter and the nameless foreigners protects the phallocentric notion of this honor as well as indigenous agency. As far as we know the batab's daughter willingly marries the foreigners, even against her father's wishes, thus entering into a socially recognized non-violent relationship. This stands in stark contrast to how such sexual relations are usually portrayed as Europeans' raping of indigenous women and other coercive sexual practices have been a common literary subject in the Americas for over 500 years. Indeed, the need to write and rewrite the origins of the mestizo family in national literatures comes out of a context in which there were few mestizo families and "European men treated coercion as a normal part of the range of sexual relations" (Kellogg 59). Such works rearticulate the mestizo family unit to demonstrate that the mestizo is not always, in the words of Paz, "fruto de una violacion" (88). While the traumatic question of national origin has been widely examined in national literatures, less attention has been paid to indigenous texts that deal with sexual violence and its consequences. There is at least one other instance of an oral text in which a storyteller takes up this subject. In a story entitled "The Origin of the Ladinos" the Chamula Mateo Mendez Tzotzek explains that "the Ladinos had a dog for their father," and that this dog had sex with "a stinking Ladino woman" (127). By removing indigenous women and sexual violence from the equation, Mendez Tzotzek's text avoids an acknowledgement of such violence against these women and provides us with an ideological fantasy that explains "why Ladinos have no shame" (127).

As literary subterfuge, the marriages between the batab's daughter and the foreigners directly challenge the batab Cazuela's authority and imply the potential breakdown of the Maya community through the proliferation of such relationships. In other words, marriage may be legitimate legally but not culturally. This position would seem to be shared by both the batab Cazuela and his daughter insofar as when he goes to retrieve the ring she willingly returns it to him. Tellingly the non-Maya foreigners, the batab Cazuela's sons-in-law, are the ones who attempt to take back the ring despite the fact that, as one of the batab's servants reminds them, it isn't theirs for the taking.

Ultimately then, "Hbaatab kaaswelah" is a story that allegorizes cultural control, depicting Mayas' and foreigners' struggles to establish cultural hegemony materially and ideologically over Maya cultural elements. The batab's rejection of his daughter's marriages constitutes the explicit rejection of attempts to alienate Maya culture or to impose control over that culture from outside. Moreover, it contests the passage of control over Maya culture from traditional authorities that originate from within Maya communities to the mixed-race family unit of the daughter, her two husbands, and their potential offspring.


One must consider "Hbaatab kaaswelah" in the context of what Gerard Genette terms the text's narrating situation. A function of the narrator, the narrating situation is the relationship between "the narratee--present, absent, or implied--and the narrator," and "concerns the narrator's orientation toward the narratee" (Genette 255). While one must not conflate the storyteller of an oral text with its narrator any more than one would identify a well-known author with the narrator of one of the novels, storytellers nonetheless narrate oral texts in a given place and time. In the case of "Hbaatab kaaswelah," the Yukatek Maya Lazaro Poot narrates this story to the foreign researcher Manuel J. Andrade in Chichen Itza in 1930. As shall be made apparent, a consideration of the text's narrating situation enables us to better understand how, "segun sean las necesidades en el presente, de transformar un mito, este ira variando para acomodarse a las necesidades actuales" (Perez Taylor 35).

The year of narration is significant for two reasons. First, the date of Poot's telling is only eighteen years from the end of Yucatan's Caste War. Although one would be exaggerating the extent of hostilities to say that the war endured for almost seventy years, the fact nonetheless remains that the last capital of the Maya rebels, Chan Santa Cruz, did not fall until 1912 (Reed 229-49). Indeed, given the relative isolation of settlements in eastern Yucatan until the construction of the highway between Cancun and Chichen Itza in the 1970's, one could advance the thesis that the area was not fully under the influence of the Mexican nation-state until a much later date (Burns, "Pan-Maya" 378). Moreover, to this day the cultural memory of the Caste War's causes, effects, and traditions endures in towns like Xcacal Guardia (Sullivan). A story that ends with a prophecy of a batab returning to kill every white person on the peninsula corresponds to something that almost happened in the Caste War, thus fitting neatly within a narrative tradition that sustains the memory of that conflict. Not only is there a story about a hidden king who lives underground at Chichen Itza (Sullivan 163), but oral literature concerning the Caste War also remains an exciting topic of conversation among Yukatek Maya to this day (Burns, "Pan-Maya" 379; Burns, An Epoch 82-7).

Second, this story is told squarely within the Golden Age of the archeological excavations in the peninsula. Begun in 1924 under the supervision of Sylvanus Morley excavations at Chichen Itza were marked by controversy from the beginning. Within two years, the Mexican government had charged the U.S.-based archeologist Edward H. Thompson, the owner of the hacienda where the site was located, with illegally removing artifacts from the site and sending them to the United States. Although Thompson was eventually found not guilty, one would imagine that these events would have been fresh in the minds of those Maya living in and around the area. While these Maya may not have been aware of the legal proceedings against Thompson or their ultimate outcome, it is not difficult to imagine that many of them felt a profound ambivalence towards the foreigners in their midst as well as about these same foreigners' plundering of the ancient Maya city. Further research may reveal whether Poot witnessed the excavations or even participated in them as a Maya laborer, but for the moment it suffices to say that he tells his story during a time in which foreigners are, quite literally, stealing the Maya's cultural inheritance.

In his role as narrator the storyteller Lazaro Poot actively engages in the interpretation of the Maya past, present, and future, exercising profound discursive control over Maya culture. Poot's narrative therefore constitutes the very kind of autohistory called for by Montejo, doing so during a time when the non-Maya foreigners excavating Chichen Itza are quite visibly appropriating Maya culture. His discourse can be read as reclaiming the ruins as a site for the elaboration of a Maya history, contesting these foreigners' appropriation of that history. The prophetic statement that the batab Cazuela will return to "biin u xu'uls ti' le ts'uulo'ob" 'exterminate the foreigners' frames the literary present of the narration as an interlude separating two periods of Maya cultural, economic, and political independence. Moreover, Poot's narrative claims the physical space of the ruins for a counter-hegemonic Maya history, in effect discursively reappropriating them for his own ideological and political purposes. The city is not a collection of Maya antiquities but the site to which the batab Cazuela will return to wreak his vengeance upon the foreigners, a scene as relevant to the present and future as it is to the past. Thus, it is ironic that a foreign researcher is Poot's narratee, and that the story he tells him deals with the grisly fate of foreigners who steal from or persecute the Maya. No doubt, given the ongoing excavations at Chichen Itza, it would be hard to read the story as anything other than a veiled threat aimed at those working on the excavations.


The tacit argument of "Hbaatab kaaswelah" thus undercuts the legitimacy of non-Maya ownership of the ruins and the Maya cultural artifacts found there as the story ultimately asserts that Mayas were once owners of the land and will be so again. The alienation from and need to reconnect with these monuments and cultural history are real, and one only needs to think of the recent controversy surrounding the presence of walking vendors in the archeological site to find a current example of these processes. During the campaign in which Chichen Itza's Castillo was voted one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Yucatan's press often railed against these vendors. For example, in an article entitled "A Sick Wonder," the Diario de Yucatan cited one local official who claimed the vendors "dan pie a problemas de drogadiccion, prostitucion y alcoholismo en la zona," as well as the manager of the Hotel Dolores del Alba, who said "Mis clientes siempre se quejan de los vendedores ambulantes que hay ahi, es necesario aplicar mano dura contra estos" ("Una maravilla enferma"). These articles seldom mention that many of these vendors are Yukatek Maya from surrounding towns, descendants of the very people who built this international symbol of Mexican pride in the first place (see Rodriguez Galaz, whose article on the topic is a notable exception).

Among these vendors, we can perhaps speculate, were the descendents of Lazaro Poot. One wonders how Poot's descendents might have continued to adapt this story over the years and, given recent cinematic and literary portrayals of Maya culture, we may ponder the extent to which they might have modified it to accommodate things like the Chichen Itza's international status or Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. Indeed, one also wonders if there would be such popular excitement over the end of the Maya calendar if non-Mayas understood this to mean not so much the end of the world, but rather the return of the batab Cazuela.



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Burns, Allan. An Epoch of Miracles: Oral Literature of the Yucatec Maya. Austin: U of Texas P, 1983.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1980.

Kellogg, Susan. Weaving the Past: A History of Latin America's Indigenous Women from the Prehispanic Period to the Present. United States: Oxford U P, 2005.

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Reed, Nelson. The Caste War of Yucatan. Stanford: Stanford U P, 1964.

Rodriguez Galaz, Yazmin. "Chichen Itza refrenda su estatus de maravilla." La Revista Peninsular. 14 July 2007. <http://www. larevista. com. mx/ ver_nota.php?id=3119>. 11 January 2010.

Rugeley, Terry. Yucatan's Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War. Austin: U of Texas P, 1996.

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Sullivan, Paul. Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners between Two Wars. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.

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"Una maravilla enferma." El Diario de Yucatan. 8 December 2007. <http://www.mayas.>. 23 February 2010.

Vasconcelos, Jose. La raza cosmica: A Bilingual Edition. Trans. Didier T. Jaen. Race in the Americas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1979.

(1) Recordings of an oral performance whether written or digital are nonetheless recordings of a performance, not the performance itself (Parker 80-100).

(2) I will follow the pagination in the Spanish translation of the story since I assume most people will read this story in Spanish. Although the orthography is non-standard, citations in Yukatek Maya reflect the published text. All translations from Yukatek Maya are my own.
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Author:Worley, Paul
Publication:Romance Notes
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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