Essay

From Faith to Folklore: Yucatan´s Banalization of Hanal Pixan

an essay by Fer de la Cruz

 

A fascinating non-Western tradition, Hanal Pixan (the week-long Mayan “Day of the Dead”) loses meaning when its “celebration” is imposed by the government to public schools and institutions throughout the State of Yucatan, in a reductionist version turned political. Indeed, the 20-year-old encouragement that not only public offices and schools but also private schools of all levels set up a Hanal Pixan altar is now a de facto mandate by the State Secretary of Education. Setting up altars is fun, yes, and pretty, but it´s also meaningless when institutionalized, when removed from its context as a private, religious observance in the family and turned into a display.

The argument is: Hanal Pixan is part of “our Mayan heritage” and it´s preferable to foreign traditions such as Halloween and the practice of central Mexico imports such as eating pan de muerto or sugar skulls. This assertion implies an outdated, essentialist definition of being Yucatecan, which is to be expected of any given populist, local regime. The contradiction is: How can the State tell a Yucatecan family of third generation Lebanese descent, for instance, that its roots are Mayan? The same goes true for Yucatecans of Korean or Chinese descent, or those from straight Spanish heritage who lack the honor of rightfully calling the ancient Maya their ancestors.

A plural entity, Yucatan is a “tossed salad” of various forms of Western and non-Western components. Many Latino (Western) Yucatecans grew up observing the Catholic rituals of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (Western imports) in the morning, while throwing Halloween private parties (another Western import), at night, having never been exposed to the Mayan observance of Hanal Pixan before the 1990s. Similarly, Yucatecans who are Mayan or of Mayan descent, many of them fully bicultural, many of them Catholic themselves, maintained the observance of Hanal Pixan in its full, meaningful beauty, by faith and to honor not only the memory but also the living souls of their beloved ones who passed away.

Another issue is that of the many Yucatecan families who belong to various denominations of Christianity, and find both Hanal Pixan rituals and Halloween parties equally conflicting with their religious faith. It is mandatory that all professors, without consideration of their religious belief, stay in the school during the Hanal Pixan activities, since they have to clock in and out. Failure to do so is retaliated by a deduction from their paycheck.

My call here is against the subtlety of an imposition under the false pretense of honoring a “minority”, while flying a banner of political correctness. My call is also against a politically motivated sentiment of regional pride that flirts with xenophobia. I sure enjoy eating the delicious Mucbilpollo (a large tamale traditionally baked underground during the season), which has been a cultural feature shared by Mayan and non-Mayan Yucatecans for generations. I also enjoy seeing the altars on display and have enjoyed setting them up, as a professor myself. But I do so for the mere like of it and because it doesn´t conflict with any personal religious belief or disbelief, not because I have to, by mandate. In addition to that, I also enjoy a good Halloween costume party which, as a Westerner, I can also call my

own, same as Carnaval, Easter, and Chirstmas. What I most celebrate of today´s Postmodern era is such diversity of Latino-Western, Anglo-Western, and Mayan as well as other non-Western cultural features, among the different manifestations of autumn traditions, in Yucatan´s ever growing plurality. No one can rightfully tell me that the Halloween parties I grew up attending, or that the bluejeans I grew up wearing, make me less of a Yucatecan, when even a Mayan Jmen priest will wear Western trousers and a baseball cap as everyday attire, without it making him less of anything.

Hanal Pixan has been distorted from an ancestral tradition carried on with a sense of honor and faith in the private homes of the Maya, to mere folklore imposed, along with a Melting pot-like sense of identity and roots that reveals blunt ignorance among Yucatan´s elected or appointed civil servants. One thing is to promote a cultural feature original to one´s native or chosen land; another, to impose it from above in support of a fabricated sense of pride. This distinction marks the difference between a thoughtful defense of a local tradition before an omnipresent globalitarism and a reactionary embrace of totalitarian tactics, a constant danger in a country whose public universities have their presidents imposed from the State Governor´s office.

 

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Fer de la Cruz is a Yucatecan poet born in 1971. He has received two national, two regional, and one state-wide poetry awards in Mexico and is a member of the founding faculty at the School of Creative Writing of the State Center of Fine Arts, in Mérida. He is also coordinator of the Historic Mérida branch of Centro de Idiomas del Sureste, where he was a teacher for 20 years. He holds an MA in Spanish from Ohio University and a BA in Philosophy. As an independent editor, writer, translator, and cultural promoter, he has participated in cultural festivals, conferences, and book fairs in Mexico, Cuba, France, and the United States. His poems appeared in the books “Redentora la voz” (Ayuntamiento de Mérida, 2010) and “Aliteletras. De la A a la que quieras” (Dante, 2011), as well as in the chapbooks “La cuenta regresiva. Radiografía urbana mesozoica” (El Drenaje, 2012) and “Seven Songs of Silent, Singing Fireflies” (JKPublishing, 2008): delacrux@hotmail.com.

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Samuel30

Artist Samuel Barrera

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Essay

The Mayans vs. the International Mayan Festival

an opinion by Fer de la Cruz

 

The idea of a Mayan festival in Yucatan would be in itself a reason for great rejoicing. The state government organized one in October. It was huge. A great amount of money must have been spent to bring Yanni, Filippa Giordano, Joan Manuel Serrat, Joaquín Sabina, and Deepak Chopra for such festival, yet there was nothing Maya about it except for its name. Once more the name of the living Maya was utilized for the sole benefit of non-Mayan, latino-Western politicians and business men.

Consequently, a large group of Mayan intellectuals and artists, all promoters of Mayan language and literature, organized their own Independent Mayan Festival Cha´anil Kaj (chaanilkaaj.org), which started on October 12, and carried on for two weeks, with more than 150 activities (theatre, conferences, debates, workshops, concerts, multilingual readings, presentations of books and documentaries, story tellers, traditional games…), on different urban and rural locations of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The state government tried to silence them: The local media were ordered not to attend their press conference, as some reporters informed them off the record. Only some gave them access, whereas the official festival was everywhere to be seen via billboards, huge displays on the newspapers, commercials on radio and TV, posters on the bus stops and on the buses, etc. The government even tried to buy off some of the members of Colectivo Cha´anil Kaj, and it is known to them that the mayors of some towns of the ruling political party were instructed not to facilitate locations for their activities.

Catchy though the title of this article may be, I admit it is misleading in one regard: The Cha´anil Kaj Independent Mayan Festival was not a confrontational event. Instead, it focused on being proactive. Only a small part of their effort was endeavored to denouncing their conscious and systematic exclusion from the official festival via letters to the editors of different newspapers—one made it national, as it was published in Proceso.

To legitimize their official festival, the state government did have one special Mayan guest: Rigoberta Menchú (Guatemalan K’iche’ Nobel Peace recipient, 1992) was granted a Doctorate Honoris Causa by a public university whose graduate program doesn´t even have a Master graduate yet. It might have been believed by someone that she would reject it to protest the government´s exclusion and sabotage of the Mayan artists and intellectuals, just as Ray Charles is known to have cancelled a concert in segregated Georgia. As was suspected by most organizers of Cha´anil Kaj, Ms. Menchú played along with the Yucatecan government, although it is hard to judge her.

The good news is that, as a community event, Cha´anil Kaj (the people´s fiesta) prevails in the lives of many who were part of it in two states, whereas the official, international “Mayan” festival was a great spectacle, certainly, which was already forgotten by the great masses seeking only to be entertained. What I make of all this is that Yucatan´s multicultural identity is still threatened by a government who believes in the fallacy of Western (Latino-white) supremacy, but that the average citizen can defy that in a peaceful, constructive, and effective way as was done by the members of Cha´anil Kaj.

 

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Fer de la Cruz is a Yucatecan poet born in 1971. He has received two national, two regional, and one state-wide poetry awards in Mexico and is a member of the founding faculty at the School of Creative Writing of the State Center of Fine Arts, in Mérida. He is also coordinator of the Historic Mérida branch of Centro de Idiomas del Sureste, where he was a teacher for 20 years. He holds an MA in Spanish from Ohio University and a BA in Philosophy. As an independent editor, writer, translator, and cultural promoter, he has participated in cultural festivals, conferences, and book fairs in Mexico, Cuba, France, and the United States. His poems appeared in the books “Redentora la voz” (Ayuntamiento de Mérida, 2010) and “Aliteletras. De la A a la que quieras” (Dante, 2011), as well as in the chapbooks “La cuenta regresiva. Radiografía urbana mesozoica” (El Drenaje, 2012) and “Seven Songs of Silent, Singing Fireflies” (JKPublishing, 2008): delacrux@hotmail.com.

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Samuel15

Artist Samuel Barrera

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Essay

Once there was something new: Café Poesía

a history by Fer de la Cruz

 

Café Poesía, a multilingual open mic for reading poetry in Mérida, just came to an end after five years. It was an important space in a Mérida whose artists grow more and more skeptic with anything that has to do with overpoliticized official cultural institutions and prefer to join—or create—independent alaternatives.

Lasting longer than a great many official projects, Café Poesía turns its last page for two reasons: 1) It already influenced upon the way public readings are done locally, by importing the concept of “micrófono abierto,” unknow to Mérida five years ago. Now it´s used in events organized by the Secretary of Education and by other independent groups, which is a great thing. And 2) I am tired.

I attended my first Open Mic at the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, Florida, in 1998, where I became a regular. They called it Poetry Jam and it was moderated by Jimmy Schmidt. It goes on to this date. Right on! Ten years later, as I returned to the States, I also became a regular at Donkey Café´s open mic poetry event called Designated Space, in Athens, Ohio, run by CJ Smith, who was also editor of JK Publishing. As I graduated from Ohio University, CJ suggested that we publish a chapbook with my recent poems (my first ones written in English) and that I open a branch of Designated Space in Mérida. Shortly after, both ideas were materialized. My book was called Seven Songs of Silent, Singing Fireflies (JK Publishing, 2008).

Back in Mérida, I found the perfect place for the project: A brand new restaurant-café called Café Chocolate that was also an antique shop and an art gallery, located in Centro, at an old house where once lived a great, local poet named Ernesto Albertos Tenorio. My friend Uziel Góngora created the logo, out of a nahuatl glyph that represented poetry, and came up with the name Café Poesía. The owner of Café Chocolate even came up with a cocktail based on the ingredients of White Russian (a personal favorite of mine). With time, Café Chocolate, the restaurant, was sold twice but Café Poesía readings kept rocking every Saturday since 7 p.m., in its lovely backyard, even when the chefs no longer made their own pastas or baked their own bread from scratch, when the Café Poesía cocktail vanished from the menu, and when I was no longer granted a complementary drink.

“There´s poetry for everyone,” I said over and over. Now, as I remember a great, local stage actress, Alejandra Argoytia, reading Segismundo´s second soliloquy in Calderón de la Barca´s La vida es sueño; Israel Lara reading Primo Levi in Italian; Ciprián Cabrera Jasso travelling to Mérida from Tabasco only to present his last collection of poems in Café Poesía before passing away; Agustín Monsreal reading a highly emotional poem about la lluvia, contained in his “Diccionario al Desnudo. No ilustrado;” Jonathan Harrington reading his English translations of Mayan poets; Lope Ávila reading my Spanish translation of Jonathan Harrington´s A Rain of Bicycles, so excited about how much he likes it; Yazmín Gaspar dramatizing Rosario Castellanos´ feminist poems; Balam Ricardo reading his poems about life in Mexico´s Southern borderlands; Cesar Love reading his poem Trespasser´s Shoes and myself thinking that I had to translate it into Spanish, which I did;

myself reading my Spanish versions of amazing poems by Don Cellini, Jeff Wright, and Crystal Tittey; and then someone doing spoken word, and someone else doing performance art and sound poetry… I just know that the readings themselves have proved me right on that, most certainly, hay poesía para todos.

We also had Raúl Renán, Daniel Torres, Óscar Wong, Óscar Palacios, Brígido Redondo, Alice Jennings, and most local poets, some narrators, and some stage actors as feature readers in Café Poesía. Since people didn´t have to read works of their own, there were, on the other hand, many people facing poetry for the first time in their lives, or who had an exciting first-time experience reading in front of an audience. Some of the readers´ favorite canonical poets were Jaime Sabines, Pablo Neruda, Rubén Darío, Lorca, Sor Juana… Love poems weren´t among the reader´s favorites but there was at least one married couple who first met in Café Poesía.

Another pet phrase: “Café Poesía—as life itself—is what you make of it.” And I also meant that. I was ready to give it all up in August of 2012 but a number of readers decided to step forward and to volunteer with me as moderators. As talented, young writers who happened to be my students at the School of Creative Writing of the State Center of Fine Arts, and who also happened be literature students at Univesridad Autónoma de Yucatán, they incorporated other literary genres into Café Poesía: one came up with Café Narrativa, then Café Dramaturgia, and even Café Ensayo, to read literary essays. Unappealing though it may sound, they made it work—of course, one could always take the mic and read poetry on those Saturdays. Finally, maestro Lope Ávila had Café Poesía para niños on the last Saturday of every month, with children as feature poets. This whole initiative was wonderful and gave a new dimension to Café Poesía which became even more of a community event.

During its first couple of years, Café Poesía gained regional popularity. I was invited to write articles about it for different publications, such as UNAM´s Periódico de Poesía; I was interviewed by a few different radio stations and TV channels; Café Poesías facebook group reached over 850 members and people keep on joining it… It was just something different in town, a concept that was new here; and now it´s up to others to start new independent projects and, hopefully, to engage the audiences as active participants as was proved possible in Café Poesía without begging for public funds.

Yes, sometimes the designated moderator failed to show up. Sometimes the feature poet arrived late to her/his own reading. Sometimes I had to ask the manager to ask the chefs to turn down their radio, and there would be the occasional stage huggers. Indeed, sometimes the reader had to stop in mid poetry to wait for the red light outside to turn green, so that some loud car could ride away. It´s also true that I would stubbornly start at 7 (or at ten after) with only two people and that most readers would come after 8. The social construction that we call Mexico is also what one makes of it and many chose to make it like that. In part that´s why I´m tired. Yet, I sure will miss it.

Poetry will endure for, as another of Café Poesía´s pet phrases went, “where two or three gather in her name, there poetry is with them”. By the way, Café Poesía is where I met one of its most constant and punctual readers who shared many great poems and songs over the years: Cher Bibler, creator of In Other Words: Merida!

 

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Fer de la Cruz is a Yucatecan poet born in 1971. He has received two national, two regional, and one state-wide poetry awards in Mexico and is a member of the founding faculty at the School of Creative Writing of the State Center of Fine Arts, in Mérida. He is also coordinator of the Historic Mérida branch of Centro de Idiomas del Sureste, where he was a teacher for 20 years. He holds an MA in Spanish from Ohio University and a BA in Philosophy. As an independent editor, writer, translator, and cultural promoter, he has participated in cultural festivals, conferences, and book fairs in Mexico, Cuba, France, and the United States. His poems appeared in the books “Redentora la voz” (Ayuntamiento de Mérida, 2010) and “Aliteletras. De la A a la que quieras” (Dante, 2011), as well as in the chapbooks “La cuenta regresiva. Radiografía urbana mesozoica” (El Drenaje, 2012) and “Seven Songs of Silent, Singing Fireflies” (JKPublishing, 2008): delacrux@hotmail.com.

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Artist Nannette Guinto Amorado

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