En Lak Ech – You Are the Other Me

Once in 2001 while on a two-week speaking tour of schools, Boys & Girls clubs, colleges, and other venues in the state of Delaware, I heard a strange but familiar language. As I washed clothes at a local Laundromat in Georgetown, I noticed about a dozen dark-skinned indigenous men and women addressing themselves in a tongue I recognized as Mayan. It turned out that several hundred Mayan families from Guatemala had migrated here to work in produce, factory, and service jobs.

The following weekend after a church service, I addressed around 300 of these migrants who were then calling the area around Georgetown their home. In my travels as a writer, lecturer, and poet, I’ve met other Native Mexican and Native Central American migrants, including Nahuatl-speaking people from Puebla, Guerrero, Veracruz, and El Salvador; Mixtecos and Zapotecos from Oaxaca; and Yaquis, Huicholes, and Raramuris from northern and central Mexico. There are in fact millions of native-speaking people (many don’t speak Spanish very well) from south of the border now living and working in the United States.

One organization, EcoMaya Festivals based in Los Angeles, claims there are around two millions Mayans from Mexico and Central America in the greater LA area alone. I don’t have actual numbers, but I would say indigenous people from those countries now outnumber the official Native American population (currently at around 3 million people).

Among many Chicanos (US-born or raised persons of Mexican descent) there has been a long history of consciousness and connection to tribal/native roots. Today you see Aztec dance groups in Pow Wows and other community gatherings; Day of the Dead altars and processions sprouting around the country; and Nahuatl (known as the language the Aztecs and other tribal groups spoke, currently in use by 1.5 million people in Mexico) being taught in schools and community centers.

Many Chicanos have also linked with Native American communities and their ceremonies such as sweat lodges and the Sundance, including with the Lakota, Navajo, Hopis, Chumash, and Pueblos. In the US Southwest, intermarriages and alliances between Chicanos and Native Americans have been going on for generations.

Mayan sayings like En Lak Ech are being used by poets and in greetings – this particular expression means “you are the other me.” Implicit in this is what these native peoples carry over to this country – a fascinating and complicated, yet accessible, way of being, living and relating. Another cosmology.

As for me, I have spent about a dozen years linking to my own Native roots as well as studying and practicing indigenous spiritual traditions from the United States, Mexico, and Central America. My mother has family ties to the Raramuri from southern Chihuahua (also known as “Tarahumaras”). My father comes from a large Nahuatl-speaking area in Guerrero that also had significant numbers of former African slaves and Spanish ranchers. I’ve visited the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua where some 80,000 Raramuri people still live in relatively traditional ways, using their own languages and customs. My wife Trini and I also helped create sweat lodges in our present home community in the San Fernando Valley – and Tia Chucha’s Café & Bookstore has a large section on indigenous books, including Nahuatl-English dictionaries.

Around 10 years ago, a Navajo medicine man, Anthony Lee, and his wife Delores adopted our family; we’ve been driving to the Navajo Nation for ceremonies ever since. This month, Trini and I travel to Peru with some of our sweat lodge circle to partake in healing ceremonies with Native elders and medicine people.

Despite borders, differences in customs and tongues, we are all connected in more ways than one – there are linguistic ties, for example, between Aztecs, northern Mexican tribes, and US tribes such as the Hopis, Shoshone, Arapaho, and Utes. And according to my Purepecha/Chicano friend, Luis Ruan, there is a linguistic connection between Purepechas of Michoacan, Mexico and Quechua-speaking people in Peru.

Two weeks ago, Trini and I went to see “Apocalypto,” the Mel Gibson film about Mayans in the Yucatan a moment (according to Gibson) before the Spanish conquerors arrived to the so-called New World (in reality most Mayans had abandoned the thousands of structures in culturally advanced urban centers some 600 years before the Spanish ever set eyes on these shores).

Taking into account the license film makers have to change history, mix cultures and times, and generally distort whatever they want, I must say there is a deeply disturbing aspect to what is an otherwise visually-arresting and emotionally-wrenching motion picture.

Whatever authenticity in details Gibson claims he achieved in the film, he continues to promote some historically-destructive “Big Lies” that may be missed by those who aren’t as attuned to the subtexts, the messages beneath the messages, that some of us in this culture have had to deal with to orient and maneuver ourselves into the world.

The first one is about the “savagery” of the pre-Columbian peoples that supposedly required a civilized Christian world to overrun, tame and change them.

In the film, Mayans hunt down innocent villagers, they enslave women, they cut out still beating hearts, and pile hacked up bodies in mass graves. The salvation message got nailed at the end when the film’s protagonist runs to the beach, chased by two enemy warriors. After more than two hours of heart sacrifices, rapes, beheadings, and blood sports, there emerges a pristine image of Europeans coming to shore – a priest is among them holding a cross (we know now they came not for God, but for gold). Without words you feel a sense of relief – it’s about time somebody came to stop these brutal and lost cultures! Sure Gibson portrays the villagers on the periphery as nice, funny, loving (in other words, totally idealized), but at the core, in the main centers of art, life, ritual, and work, everything seemed rotten, ugly, despicable (another idealization).

Here’s the reality: There is no proof that Mayans ever practiced large-scale heart-removing human sacrifice, although they were known for blood-letting rituals. Yes, there were also wars between Native groups, brutality, subjugation, and any other drama and trauma that people have been capable of committing from time immemorial – they are human after all. But nothing about mass graves, mass sacrifices, or slave auctions (seen in the movie as if they were in the Deep South).

What’s missing in Gibson’s vision (he’s a known archconservative Catholic) is the fact that the Mayans, like the Aztecs (properly known as Mexikas), the Incas, and others like them were sophisticated, cultivated, spiritually-driven, and intellectually-grounded. At one point in the film, the people act as if they had never seen an eclipse, to be manipulated by blood-thirsty priests and rulers. Yet these cultures had achieved amazing astronomical advances, including devising some of the world’s most accurate calendar systems. The Mayans had a complex writing system, complicated mathematics, wondrous architecture, and advanced achievements in art, botany, zoology, and tools. They also developed sophisticated economic and political systems. They saw no separation between sciences and their spirituality – almost all their practices were tied to natural processes, energies, and events.

You wouldn’t know that from watching “Apocalypto” – or from hearing about or reading most popular accounts of pre-Columbian societies. This is precisely what Gibson is banking on – the public’s conception of what they don’t know or think they know about these people. Gibson, like many others before him, has filled in the missing narrative: Mayans, like other native peoples, were extremely violent and ungodly – they deserved to be destroyed.

Even LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan on December 8, 2006 wrote, “Given that penchant [for violence], it was only a matter of time until [Gibson] would find his way to a civilization that enthusiastically practiced human sacrifice.”

This is simply not true. That “Big Lie” was first expounded by Hernan Cortez and his Spanish invaders to justify the wanton destruction of the orderly and clean Mexika city of Mexiko-Tenochtitlan. Supposedly with a flint knife, priests were able to rapidly remove the heart while the victims watched it throbbing in the priest’s hand. In one account, thousands were thus slain in one day. Yet even today with modern tools, it takes around 15 to 20 minutes to open up the sternum and the surrounding tissues to reach the heart. But we’re supposed to believe a few priests could do this to hundreds, even thousands, in a few hours.

There is a very strong indigenous and academic movement in Mexico against large scale human sacrifice by any of the major indigenous cultures. They contend that most Western scholars studying these matters are wrong – except from a mythological viewpoint, since there is a strong mythological basis for sacrifice. But this is different than actual systematic human sacrifice. Supposedly sacrifices among the Maya involved Cenotes: deep water wells. Some may have occurred following ritual ball games. If they did exist, however, it was done ritually, not among captives or slaves, but among leaders, honored people, warriors in "flowery wars" (among the Mexikas), and considered an honored thing – you would reach the highest levels of the 13 heavens.

But again, most of this is mythology – very little evidence of this except in some skewed materials. For example, the finding of actual human blood on stones in the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, which scholars readily concluded was due to human sacrifices. It may have been blood letting or a result of mass slaughter during the seize of Tenochtitlan. There is nothing about heart sacrifices in any of the codices before the Spanish arrived. There are around 20 Meso-American codices in the world. Only three are pre-Columbian. The rest were done under the order and guidance of Spanish priests. Here human sacrifice, especially heart sacrifice, is greatly illustrated.

The first accounts ever of human heart sacrifice appeared in a letter from Cortez to the Spanish crown. Then there was a major account from one of Cortez's soldiers, Bernal Diaz de Castillo. Gibson is going beyond even the worse of these claims with “Apocalypto.” He even reportedly changed an image in one of the murals where a ruler is extending his hand in a gesture – Gibson had someone paint a heart there (this shows up in one of the scenes).

The Spanish used human sacrifice to justify their destruction. Even the Cathedral and other buildings were built from the very stones of Tenochtitlan’s pyramids. They killed off millions of Natives through war, slavery, and stake burnings (for those who refused to convert to Christianity). Many more were killed from the diseases the conquerors brought with them, such as small pox.

In fact, within 50 years of the Spanish arrival to the Valley of Mexico, the native population went from 25 million people to 2.5 million people. David E. Stannard in his classic 1992 Book, “American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World” (NYC: Oxford University Press) estimates that 95 to 98 percent of the people in the hemisphere perished by swords, guns, famine, slavery, conversion, and, most significantly, illness.

Whatever “human sacrifice” has been fantasized about the indigenous people of this land, the real human sacrifice that occurred after the European invasion is the most monstrous, still resonating hundreds of years later in our own damaged topography of land, culture, ideas, and interests. Remember that Guatemala Mayans were systematically killed, an estimated 140,000, including women and children, during the 36-year Civil War that ended in 1996 (where real mass graves of broken bodies existed).

Yet we are still here, us brown-red people. We are the two to five percent that survived, and are now revitalizing the political and social landscapes of Bolivia, Ecuador, Central America, Mexico (then as now, the country with more native peoples than any other), and parts of the United States and Canada.

Everything is now turned on its head – the brown-skinned native-rooted people among the Mexican and Central American migrants to the US, with roots to these lands as deep as anyone’s, are now the “foreigners,” “strangers,” and “illegals.” However, they also carry a new world view that is about balance (supposedly Gibson “real” message), cooperation, and restoration. There is much we can learn from these teachers who themselves are students of nature, relationships, the stars.

This cosmology is summarized in En Lak Ech, “you are the other me.” We are all related, all life, all being, all things, linked and unified and important. If only an amazing filmmaker could truly grasp the significance of this and find a means to portray it in such a vitally important public space. Instead, Gibson re-portrays the old lies to suit and benefit a worn-out and dangerous religious ideology.

Native people may have had their issues, conflicts, and mistakes, but they were sovereign, earth-connected, and free: Shame on Gibson for trying to correct the present roller coaster madness of war, ecological damage, and disaffection at the expense of the very people whose blood and bones became a major underpinning of this so-called civilization.

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