Who were the Maya?
Not the people in 'Apocalypto'
By PATRICIO G. BALONA
The Mayas were savages and needed to be straightened out.
That is the message Mel Gibson's movie "Apocalypto" conveyed to me when it contrasted savage bloodthirsty pagans meeting with arriving Europeans carrying the symbol of the cross.
But we are not savages.
Spanish invaders who arrived among the Maya in the 16th century depicted natives as barbaric people dedicated to devil worship in order to justify brutality and conquest. We all know native peoples didn't fare well under Christianity; some cultures were completely lost. Coincidentally, Christianity is the foundation of Gibson's belief and spirituality.
But a more serious massacre -- that of the Yukatek language -- begins early in the movie. The non-Maya actors of North American Indian heritage pronouncing their rehearsed Yukatek lines sounded like Hollywood Western stereotypes saying: "How! Me Tonto, this Painted Horse."
Although I was born a Yukatek Maya and raised in a Yukatek village, speaking Yukatek as the first of four languages I know, I had to glance at the subtitles to figure out what the actors were trying to say.
It was slightly refreshing that Gibson cast an elder, a storyteller, who spoke the language without pauses, with such musical flow and accuracy that for a moment I thought I was in my village listening to my own elders. But, sad to say, the only other significant part in the movie where the power of the Yukatek language was genuinely demonstrated is when the tiny village girl talks about the prophecy of the jaguar ending the evil and vile ways of the devil people.
The film is full of violence, floods of blood, throat-slitting, beheadings, heads rolling down the steps of temples and hearts being wrenched out of gaping holes in upper abdomens.
I had to turn to my friend, Robert Sitler, a Latin American studies professor at Stetson University, to ask for his reaction.
"Sadly, 'Apocalypto' will leave mainstream American moviegoers seeing Maya as heartless savages," Sitler said after the movie.
He said the movie "unwittingly reinforces a long-standing tradition of virulent racism against the Maya among white Europeans and their Spanish-speaking descendents."
The film falls short of Gibson's intention -- which, remotely, appears to be telling the story of Jaguar Paw, the hero played by Rudy Youngblood, and the prophecy of his rise to power. The film fails for two reasons.
First, Gibson bogs down the plot with his craze for blood and death. Second, just as Jaguar Paw appears to be achieving success, he runs into ships anchored in the bay with boats rowing ashore carrying grim-faced conquistadors bearing the symbols of the cross.
I am not certain which Jaguar Paw Gibson tried to portray in his movie. There were several famous Jaguar Paws in Maya hieroglyphics, including one who became king of the great Maya city of Calakmul in 686 and was long gone when the Spaniards arrived 806 years later. There were no glorious Maya cities, simply small communities scattered throughout the Maya world.
And Mr. Gibson, that world is not only Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, as you defined it in promoting your movie. It also includes what is now Belize and El Salvador.
Unlike the sadistic and violent caricatures of Maya in "Apocalypto," real Maya intensely nurture their children and honor both their elders and ancestors, embracing human mortality in the context of a cultural heritage going back more than a hundred generations.
My only hope is that moviegoers would take the movie as a misleading and distorted Hollywood drama designed to entertain.
Perhaps Gibson could make a movie showing how the Mayas still are suffering discrimination, even to the point of being cheated out of our lands and displaced, because of the ships he showed arriving as the finale of "Apocalypto."