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Maya culture subsumed but not lost

What Spaniards "discovered' was a thriving civilization.

By Lucilo Pemz-Reynoro, published in the Palm Beach Post, October 11, 2000.

I did not celebrate Columbus Day this week. I had no reason to. I am a descendant of a proud civilization, the Maya people, who have been persecuted for centuries.

Our persecution began with the arrival of Columbus and the Spaniards, and we repudiate celebration of those events. Hispanics and other cultures mark this invasion with parades and folklore. To them, Columbus brought civilization. To the Maya people, the original inhabitants of the continent, Columbus and the Europeans brought destruction.

I come from Guatemala. When the Spaniards invaded Guatemala in 1524, an apocalyptic era began. The conquista dors called my ancestors barbaric and uncivilized to justify stealing nature's richness and their inventions. The Maya had already made many important contributions, particularlly in mathematics and science. Researchers credit the Maya people with inventing the zero and developing sophisticated mathematical calculations. The Maya's skill with astronomy enabled them to calculate with extraordinary precision the Earth's orbit.

My ancestors used glifos and hieroglyphics to relate the Maya experience with the cosmos. Even today, when you see a Maya woman dressed in her native clothing, you are not only experiencing a colorful dress but you are seeing a book that cannot be deciphered.

But what happened with the arrival of the Europeans? Everything changed.

A foreign culture was imposed. The invaders burned our sacred and scientific books in 1560. Our elders and guiders were hanged and burned alive, and our people enslaved. The Europeans cut down trees, killed animals and contaminated the air and rivers.

In the process, the delicate balance among people, Mother Nature, the Ajau (our term for God) and all living things was lost. The invaders profaned our ceremonial centers, and our cultural destruction began. It continues to this day.

In Guatemala, 80 percent of the 10 million people are Maya. We number about 25,000 in Palm Beach County. Most of us are refugees who fled civil war and genocide in Guatemala during the 1980s and '90s. For 36 years until peace came in 1996, the Maya people were caught between government and guerrilla military forces. None of these represented or fought for us but instead fought to control ideology, power and money -- in the name of democracy, or socialism, or the Cold War. More than 1 million refugees left the country, and 200,000 disappeared or were killed.

My father was one of them. He was murdered in 1980. My father developed several agricultural cooperatives during the 1970s. People owned the co-ops collectively, and they no longer had to work for the wealthy.

While many people here recognize and support our Mayan heritage, we have encountered resistance in the Hispanic/Latin community. We understand why. It is because they ignore or do not understand our culture. They wrongly assume we are Hispanics because some of us speak Spanish. Some of us speak. English, too, but we are not from the United States or England, and no one assumes we are. We may become U.S. citizens, but that doesn't mean our identity is lost to U.S. culture. It will always be Maya.

It's time the Hispanic community stops assuming that all natives of the hemisphere are Hispanics. I invite the Hispanic community to engage in a real discussion of cultures, so that a balance can be found in our human relations and with nature. We cannot engage in activities that negate our existence or in celebrations of attempts to destroy our heritage and identity.

One of our sacred books, called Pop Wuj, states that our ancestors will go..., but they will return. We are the 17th generation. We have been able to survive invasions, wars and attempts to destroy our culture. We are 8 million Maya people with 22 different languages in Guatemala alone.

We are a Maya Nation, without a state. For that nation to take its place in the world, our people must engage in all branches of government. Our sacred book summons us to see and live our past in the present and in the future - there we will find answers to cure some of the world's evils.

The world of the Maya, my ancestors, has many faces. Some of them are as ancient as those found carved in the towering temple of Tikal and others as modem as those of us who live in South Florida. We are the descendants of a mighty civilization.

We will celebrate that, but not Columbus or the Spaniards' arrival.

Lucio Perez-Reynozo came to Miami in 1989 and earned his law degree at the University of Miami. He moved to Palm Beach County in 1998. He is executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth.

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