When first I mentioned our guide Marcos at the ruins of Palenqué, I did not give his real name. That was because, thinking he could build a better life for his family, he had entered the US illegally when he was younger.
In the desert, he said, the border between Mexico and Texas was virtually unguarded. There was an official crossing on the road, but for miles around, there was nothing. No one expected anyone to cross there. To do so was widely regarded as a death sentence. You had to walk for two days through the desert: the blinding sun and searing heat of the day, and the freezing cold of the night. There was no water or food to be had. Many had tried to enter the US this way, but almost no one made it.
“I had only a bottle of water like this one,” he told us, holding up a two-litre plastic container. “It was all I carried. It was incredibly hard. But I made it.
“I walked all the way through Texas and then I kept walking. In the end, I walked all the way to Nashville.”
He had come all that way to find work and make money. He thought he was doing it for his wife and two young children.
He had been thinking about the journey for some time. Growing up on his parents’ farm, his father had tried to persuade him to take the path of the Maya: live a simple life, don’t desire too much. Life had been good on the farm, but it didn’t seem so to him at the time. People could make a good living from farming or from selling handicrafts to the tourists. But, as he described it, he fell into the trap of wanting more.
His stay in the US had been a successful one. He made a good deal of money and became a part of consumer society. He sent for his wife and children. But after a time, his wife became desperately unhappy.
“She told me, ‘You work so hard, but you never see your children. You never have time to go out with me and enjoy a nice dinner. You are always working and you never have time for us.'” Eventually, she left and took the children back to Mexico.
“I lost everything,” he said. “I lost my family.” It made him realize that his father had been right. He returned to Mexico. “And now I have them back. My father was right all along.”
His tale of the clash between traditional and consumerist values is one that he says plays out every day in his community.
“Why do I need a 60-inch TV? Why do I need a new car when I can have one for two hundred dollars? What good is this if I lose my family?”
The anti-consumerist attitude of the traditional Maya helps to preserve their culture. Marcos told us the Maya artisans can make enough with their art that many of them do not even bother with school. And this, for him, guarantees happiness.
The Maya have an ancient system of life that is governed by the cycles of nature and the plants and animals of the rainforest, which provide them with everything they need. They resist, as they always have, the incursions of modern life.
In order to be accepted, Christianity adapted itself to the Maya ways. Even today, Marcos claimed, there are churches around San Cristobal de las Cases (where we are heading as I write this on the bus) where animal sacrifices still take place. The Maya never accepted the belief that Christ died for humanity’s sins. They never believed one person could assume the sins of the world. Blood sacrifice still makes the earth fertile and the corn crop grow.
I’m not saying their outlook is right for everyone. But it explains a lot about the indigenous people in these parts.