Sometimes we move forward by looking to the past. Currently, there is a movement of preservation and rediscovery being celebrated by the Maya people of Belize who are looking to their past to reawaken their traditional practices and spiritual beliefs. Connecting the modern world with age-old practices has created a thread that has allowed the Maya to rediscover the very roots of their culture.
With Mayan archaeological sites dotting the country, many of which are only partially excavated (while others have yet to be discovered), it’s hard to ignore the influence the Maya have long had in Belize, which for centuries has been one of the civilization’s centers. The earliest records put the Maya in Belize as far back as 2500 B.C.E. with the civilization reaching its height between 250 and 1000 C.E.
Visiting sites such as Xunantunich and Caracol, I felt the centuries of history in the ancient stones as an almost palpable presence. Traversing Barton Creek Cave was like being let in on a sacred secret as we wound through turquoise waters via canoe, shining a light into the darkness of the cave, revealing Mayan artifacts lodged between stalagmites and stalactites.
With all this unearthing and discovery of richness, I wondered if past traditions were alive within present-day Mayan culture. How much was passed down and how much has been lost to time?
Modern Maya Ernesto and Aurora Saqui head up a cultural center, located on the way to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, that focuses on and celebrates “rediscovering ourselves and our past,” from the Mayan perspective. Ernesto, a conservationist and spiritual leader, and his wife, Aurora, who is a natural healer have created a space to both honor their culture and religion as well as teach others about their customs and beliefs. Over a hot bowl of escabeche, (a Belizean soup favorite), we discussed the beauty of ritual and ceremony as well as the challenges of being a modern Maya.
The resurgence of the Mayan language, now openly being spoken in schools and homes, is the core of preserving Mayan culture and identity. Though Mayan and its different dialects long suffered from a certain stigma, modern Maya are now proudly speaking the languages of their ancestors.
While contemporary life continues to present certain challenges, Ernesto is confident that the younger generation will continue to embrace the revival of the Mayan culture. Whether it takes the form of speaking Mayan, donning traditional Mayan clothes, or taking part in daily rituals at a Mayan altar, he hopes that moving forward the Maya will continue to be curious about their culture, history, and language.
Since 2012, Mayan ceremonies, which sit at the heart of their religion, can be practiced at ancient sites, further closing the gap between past and present. I am struck by the fact that it’s only through the excavations of the last hundred years or so that this window on Mayan life has been opened. Perhaps the Maya of today are closer than ever to their past as the physical unearthing of ancient plazas and palaces has helped give rise to a cultural and spiritual renaissance.
Authored by Marianna Jamadi