by Julio Saqui
I am a Maya teacher in my village. One of the things I teach is about our culture and traditions. Having been in the cultural field and a cultural enthusiast for decades, I now firmly believe that RELIGION is the most destructive force on our Maya culture in my lifetime.
Understand that I come from a family that valued our traditions and was proud of our culture. My grandfather taught my father, he taught me and my siblings, and we have tried to teach our children. It is a much more difficult task today than it was when I was a boy. But what does Maya culture mean? Our Tradition & Culture teaches our children Survival, Respect, Dignity, Appreciation, Love and Togetherness.
Maya culture is taught to us by our parents and elders, and it takes many years to fully understand our traditions. They include our attitude to our world, our village, the rain forest, our family, our community. It is our food, our marimba music and dance, our traditional dress and our celebrations. We have traditions for birth, marriage, raising children, looking after our elders and death. We have special ceremonies that ask our God for help and thank Him when he provides it. In those celebrations we pray and worship and learn to love and respect all of the gods that make up our GOD. All of our cultural practices are designed to ensure a peaceful life, free from hunger and fear. We have a system of restorative justice, known as alcalde, which keeps our villages in order and in peace. And historically that has been the life for Maya people, but not anymore….
How do we pass our culture from one generation to another? From a young age we are taken into the rainforest regularly to understand and learn about the birds, the trees, the plants – that are food or medicine and the ones that can hurt us. We are taught to hunt and to plant our crops in a sustainable way – we are taught when to harvest and how to show gratitude to the God who supplies everything we need. We are taught to respect everything in our world, from our families and neighbours to every living thing around us. We are taught respect – for our gods, our family, the nature that surrounds us and the community in which we live.
The Christians say their God is 3 in one. Ours is 10 in one and we share the same traditions of prayer and worship. So why have missionaries in Belize destroyed our culture? It began with European priests and pastors who came and taught our Maya people. Today most of the pastors are Maya, and they have learned the lessons of cultural imperialism well. They teach that our traditions are evil, our art and dance demonic. They say if we practice our culture that we will not enter the Kingdom of God. They give gifts of food and clothing that create dependency and laziness. And now, with the arrival of 4 denominations in our small village, they teach that adherents of the other religions do not follow the correct Way. They dismiss the essential traditions that teach us how to have strong marriages and families, by assuring us that God will take care of everything.
The result of these teachings is competition, criticism and strife within our village and our families. Without our cultural practices, we lose our pride and identity – we forget who we are. Our food, clothing, music and dance are what make us uniquely us and bind one generation to another. Our traditions of respect, are missing and so is the respect we used to have for all that is in our world. The idea that we only need trust in God has relieved many of their responsibilities and weakened or destroyed the family unit. Historically our marriage tradition forced us to consider and confess our weakness before we married, and to understand and accept the wise council that our families offered. Today that is missing and so are stable marriages in many cases.
Today we have single mothers who cannot support their children. Today we have men who do not provide for their families. Today we have people who worship no god and who neither pray, nor give thanks. Today we have people in our village who judge and criticize, rather than respect and honor. Today we have people who wait for church handouts rather than working for what they need. Furthermore, religion goes beyond the imaginable, by forcing their members not to talk to those that are not from the same religion, causing immediate family breakdown, creating a fertile opportunity to separate families, the heart of cultural survival. That is not the Maya Way!
Religion is a challenge to Living Cultures in Belize, a massive one. The little bit of cultural heritage surviving today is by those who believe in who they are. The time to save our culture is now, before we lose it all! So, is the mission of Religion to save or to destroy?
- Should we ensure cultural permanence in Belize by legal means?
- Should we dictate the respect Religion must give to Belize’s Cultural Practices?
- Should cultural practices be a part of their religious teachings and taught in schools too?
- Can we make this Law, with help of our Authorities to ensure cultural practices and continuity?
- Can we insist that Preachers be taught the difference between religion and culture? Can we insist that they understand how destructive Christianity has been to native cultures?
- Can we try to help our fallen brothers and sisters by teaching them Maya pride again?
These are the questions I ask you today.
Julio A. Saqui is a Mayan advocate who lives in Maya Center. He directs the Maya Center Mayan Museum and produces Che’il Mayan Chocolate. He also provides tours and educational sessions of the Maya Center region and the Cockscomb Jaguar Park.
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