by Andrew Marchev, staff wrtier
Warren Wilson College got a taste of Maya culture this month. Both renowned expert on the Maya, George E. Stuart, and performance troupe Palenque Rojo, came to visit Wilson Sept.7 and Sept. 10 respectively.
Stuart, invited to speak to the Introduction to Latin America class by Professor David Abernathy, worked as an archaeologist studying ancient Maya sites and at various positions with National Geographic magazine for over 40 years, retiring to Barnardsville, NC in 2000.
Stuart started off his talk by clearing any doubts regarding a particularly famous Maya contribution to world culture: the Maya Calendar.
“It does not mean the world is going to end,” he said, comparing the calendar to an odometer on a car reaching its limit and then starting back again at all zeroes. Stuart added, “It’s just a new cycle, a new beginning.”
He continued by questioning some of the ideas about the Maya that, he feels, many people have.
First among these is the tendency to speak of the Maya in the past tense. As Stuart pointed out, there are over 5 million people today who are speakers of Maya languages. A school in one of Asheville’s sister cities, Valladolid in Mexico, has programs that specialize in the teaching of Maya language, culture and history.
Stuart pointed to ethnocentrism as a possible reason for misconceived views of the Maya. “Most of us grow up in the Western tradition… looking back at Greece and Rome,” he explained.
The idea of the ancient Maya as “naked savages” Stuart says stems from some of the first interactions Europeans had with the Maya, stating that “they weren’t impressed, and were unable to be impressed, because of so many preconceptions.”
Despite those ideas, Maya civilization at the time of the arrival of Europeans to the area was very sophisticated with traditions in art, engineering, agriculture, military strategy, as well as social and political organization spanning back more than a thousand years.
Though a lot of the culture has changed or been destroyed since the Spanish conquest and later establishment of modern nation-states in the area, efforts to preserve and reinterpret Maya culture from the pre-Hispanic period are being undertaken by many people.
One of these efforts is “Palenque Rojo”, a dance theater performance by a troupe with the same name, from San Cristobal de las Casas. Asheville Sister Cities, a member of the Sisters Cities International organization, hosted the troupe, which gave performances in Asheville, at Western Carolina University, as well as at the Kittredge theater Sept. 10. A shorter version of the performance, at about half an hour, was shown at Wilson so that the performers, crew, director and the director of Asheville Sister cities could speak to the audience about the show.
The performance was described by the show’s director, Hernan Galindo, as putting together “history and mythology”.
Taking the glyphs from the walls at Maya ruins from the Classic period as inspiration, Galindo and the troupe set out to tell the story of a feud between the rulers of two city states, Palenque and Tonina. Infused into this story are events from the Popol Vuh, a holy text of the K’iche Maya, centering around the lives and afterlives of two characters known as the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. The show is performed completely in Mayan dialect, except for the Spanish place name, Palenque.
The version of the show at Wilson opened with two dancers dressed as the hero twins, playing a ball game.
Galindo says that Palenque Rojo has been a “special experience for me.”
This is in part because, “Five years ago none of our performers had any experience in theater or dance,” he said.
Galindo explained that the cast members were chosen in part for the promise they showed as performers, but also because of a passion they share for Mayan culture, acquired either through family or study.
After the show, the cast had a chance to speak to the audience.
Mario Chambor, who played king K’inich K’an Joy Chitam, said that “you have a beautiful place… where I live is 100% jungle. It makes me happy to see that people here are preserving the forest [as well].”
Others expressed happiness to share their culture, like Jorge Voz Hernandez who said, “we want to show you our culture, so you can feel it, so you can eat it.”