This Issue

Winter 2011 - Feature

Shayne Rasay Trip to Mexico

By Shayne Rasay

Every year, a Spanish Honor Society chapter nominates one junior student for the Bertie Green Junior Scholarship Travel Award. This year, twenty four students from across the nation received an all expense paid trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. When I was notified that I was one of the lucky winners of the travel award, I knew it would be like no other experience I had ever had. While I enjoyed the pristine beaches, the delicious and authentic Mexican food, and the breathtaking natural wonders of the country, what left the most profound impact for me was the rich history of Mexico that persisted not only in its physical ruins, but also in the hearts and minds of the Mexicans.

From the four archaeological sites that we visited (Ek Balam, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulum), I gained a greater admiration for the Mayan culture. But what surprised me the most was that the history of the Mayans was by no means confined within the boundaries of the ruins. Regardless of your travel destination, the touristic cities of Cancún and Playa del Carmen or the more colonial towns of Valladolid and Mérida, you will find that the Mayan traditions are still very much alive.

While my friends and I were enjoying our lunch at a small café near the Plaza Mayor in the charming colonial town of Mérida, a vendor approached our table, shared with us some images of a Mayan ritual he had participated in, and fondly recounted a number of stories about the Mayan life in Mexico today. It was obvious that while he lived in a modernized city, the traditions and customs of the Mayan culture still formed an important part of his life. Amidst the malls, restaurants, and other modern luxuries that abound in Mérida, a myriad of colonial buildings and historic architecture lends its captivating beauty to the dynamic culture that is Mérida. While traveling through the Paseo de Montejo in a horse-drawn carriage one night, we passed by the “Monumento a la Patria” or “Monument to the Motherland” which was completely carved in Mayan stone. Along the same street, we saw the Regional Museum of Anthropology at the Canton Palace where we marveled at and took pictures of the many artifacts that depicted Mayan life. A bustling cultural center during the day or during the night, Mérida was indubitably one of the best cities I had visited on the trip.

Shayne with her group at Chichen Itza
While Mérida gave me a wonderful view of the Mayan influence in Mexico, I was even more amazed by what I saw at the spectacular night show at Xcaret Eco Park and the brilliant Sound and Light Show at Uxmal. From the famous “juego de pelota”, the momentous invasion of the conquistadores, to the colorful chronology of the traditional and contemporary dances of Mexico, the “Xcaret México Espectacular” was a beautiful fusion between the old and the new, the past and the present. Likewise, using the ancient structures as the backdrop, the Sound and Light Show at Uxmal transformed an archaeological site into a modern theater that recounted the Mayan legends of the past. From the enthusiastic cheers that erupted from the audience at the conclusion of each show, it was clear that the citizens of Mexico lacked neither pride nor enthusiasm for a national past filled with Mayan influences.

But, behind all the beautiful representation of the Mayan history and culture lies an ugly truth that likens the Mayan community of Mexico to the other indigenous peoples around the world who continue to suffer unrelenting threats to their unique way of life. During our visit to Chichén Itzá, our guide introduced us to one of his good friends who sell pieces of his Mayan heritage in order to survive. Currently suffering from harsh prejudice and the lack of support and understanding from the Mexican government, the Mayans are compelled to sell components of their beautiful culture in tourist sites like Chichén Itzá. Throughout the site, countless vendors sold Mayan sculptures, tiny replicas of the pyramids, and handmade clothing, all of which had designs that represented the Mayan culture.

It was disheartening to see a community of people, whose effervescent culture significantly contributes to the beauty and economy of the country live as impoverished victims of the same nation that they call home. As one of the first highly advanced civilizations of the world, the Mayans deserve the same respect and recognition as any other community. I hope that someday the Mayans can live devoid of the external threats of assimilation and can be fully appreciated for their many contributions to the vitality of Mexican culture and history.
Many things in the world do not fit neatly into rigid categories and this trip was no different. Despite the disturbing discovery that I made, the trip was nevertheless a superb opportunity to explore and appreciate another country’s culture, lifestyle, and history. I had met so many wonderful people, seen and experience so many different things, and most of all gained a better appreciation and love for the Spanish language and the Mexican culture. I will never forget such an incredible experience.