Written Weds., Feb 13.
This morning I rode my bike from Panajachel to the village of San Andres, an elevation gain of about 1300 feet, in the ballpark of Council Crest in Portland.  I was the only gringo on the streets of San Andres.  I sat down in a restaurant for lunch, and there was a TV playing MTV-type videos.  The people in the videos were not from my planet, never mind the people in the village. So that’s a cultural message in itself.  

At the same time I was looking out through the door and windows at a steady stream of young mothers walking their little children to school.  Some of the mothers were carrying babies on their backs, and some were pregnant.  Some looked like they were in their teens, so they were young enough to have gone to school themselves, but they’re still wearing colorful hand-woven clothing and carrying their babies in fabric slings.  Many of the children were carrying manufactured school backpacks with cartoon characters on them.  So these kids are going to be instructed in Spanish, and learn skills that will enable them to assimilate more into non-Mayan society.  They will learn nothing of their own history, culture, or language.

Is that a good thing?  Would I like to see the Mayan cultures and languages preserved so that teenage mothers, themselves stunted from poor nutrition, can be always pregnant and carrying babies around?  Would I like to see their culture and language destroyed and their lives improved so they can emulate the values in music video I was seeing?  Last week I went to a talk by an anthropologist who mentioned that some of the more remote villages refuse to accept government aid such as health care and education because they see the government as their enemy, and they expect that the reign of the European conquerors will be temporary.

A few days ago, Bear took me on a hike and we walked among onion and corn fields on hillside terraces, irrigated by an elaborate system of water ditches. People were working in the fields and didn’t seem to object to a couple of gringos walking through. Bear said they have probably been using ditches like that in that place for over 1000 years. It was like a green oasis, beautiful to see.

Would it be possible to preserve something of the indigenous cultures while improving their health and sanitation and nutrition?  Is it possible to decide what’s “good” about a culture and worth preserving, and then be able to preserve that while relieving the poverty? Would it be possible to offer that kind of improvements in a way that does not invade and destroy the culture itself?  These are not just people who happen to be poor, they are embedded in a system that took away their land, oppressed and enslaved them, and is fundamentally corrupt.  It’s corrupt in a different way from how ours in the U. S. is fundamentally corrupt.  Back in the pre-Columbian days, the Mayan culture may have been fundamentally corrupt in yet a different way, who knows?

In any case, when we look at a bunch of short people in colorful clothing who speak 25 languages and grow corn, we’re not talking about an intact culture to be “preserved.”  Their civilization was devastated and demolished in pre-columbian times, probably by climate change.  Then the Spanish conquest enslaved them and confiscated their land, and brought them malaria, which wiped most of them out, and the inquisition systematically eliminated their leadership. Then in recent times there were 40 years of civil war and genocide, and again the leaders were systematically eliminated.  Now we have globalization and technology.  I can’t begin to understand this culture.  I don’t know anything about it, let alone what about it might be preserved.

Friday, 2/15, in the airport:
A couple of linguistic tidbits  my driver told me (driving from pana to guate).  This guy is a Quiche Mayan.  He said his first 2 languages were Mayan languages, plus he knows a little bit of two more Mayan languages, and his fifth language is Spanish.  He said “tu” is only used to address women – you always address men as “usted.”  And yet he pretty consistently used the “tu” conjugation in talking to me, as in “De donde eres?”

He also was definite about the distinction between the words lengua and idioma.  To him, a lengua is the language you first learn at home as a baby, such as Quiche or Caqchiquel.  An idioma is an international language, such as English or Spanish.  Actually, Yiddish has a parallel to that. In Yiddish, Yiddish is said to be the mamaloshn, the mother tongue.

I’m sad to be ending this trip.  I’m looking forward to coming back.  Don’t know when that will be.  My trip ended with a marathon recording session.  Cush, Tania, and I spent most of the day yesterday and into the evening recording the three songs we had performed.  Unfortunately, Cush did not have a CD in the house to give me.  I went to two different internet stores, but neither one had a CD to sell me.  So Cush will have to send me mp3 files electronically from an internet store. (He has a recording studio in one of the two rooms in his house, but he doesn’t have a computer).  These recordings will be Uncle Yascha’s best to date.  Cush and Tania are real musicians, and Bay Mir Bist du Sheyn with accordion, marimba, and vocal solos has to be one of a kind.

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