The Modern Maya: A Culture in Transition.

By: Macduff Everton.
Edited by Ulrich Keller and Charles Demangate with essays by Ulrich Keller and Dorie Reents-Budet.
University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
( 259 pp., 195 b/w photographs, 2 b/w photographs not numbered.)

Reviewed  in
Museum Anthropology, Vol. 17, No. 1,1993.
 American Anthropological Association, Arlington,  Virginia.


Lawrence G. Desmond
Research Fellow
Department of Anthropology
Campus Box 233
University of Colorado
Boulder, Colorado 80309


James M. Callaghan
Instituto de Cultura Maya
Universidad del Mayab
Apartado Postal 96, Cordemex
97310 Merida, Yucatan, Mexico


     In his book The Modern Maya, Macduff Everton gives a personal vision of the Maya people of Yucatan, Mexico.  Everton's black-and-white photos are presented along with his personal experiences, and combined they deepen our awareness of the social and economic status of the rural Yucatec Maya.  It is a credit to the University of New Mexico Press that Everton's expressive and carefully printed photographs are beautifully reproduced and presented in this well designed book.

     The Introduction by Ulrich Keller is divided into two essays: "Anthropology, Photography and Society;" and "Macduff Everton, Narrative Photographer."

     "Anthropology, Photography and Society" has a negative tone rooted in a rather dubious list of those who Keller believes to have wrongly represented the Maya.  Had Keller's essay taken a more balanced direction we might have gotten a broad historical perspective in which to place Everton's work and compare it with a wide range of Europeans, Mexicans and other North Americans who before him represented the Maya.

     In "Macduff Everton, Narrative Photographer," the second essay of the Introduction, Keller appears reluctant to explain Everton's work.  He does give us an off handed snapshot of what Everton might be about when he says, "the photo-essay format provided by Life magazine since the 1930s offered a model of persuasive narrative reporting after which his planned book could be fashioned" (p. 12).  Keller goes on to say that a very useful concept to him was the "photo story devoted to a person, or two or three, persons who were representative of a whole community..." (p. 12).

     In his essay Keller often distances Everton, not an anthropologist, from how he thinks anthropologists do their fieldwork.  But the day-to-day struggle faced by anyone doing fieldwork does not jibe with Keller's statement, "[Everton] is close to those he photographs; he is permitted to see them in very personal, sometimes tender and intimate situations; clearly he and they are friends, and it is no wonder that from this very privileged perspective he is able to articulate things which are off limits to professional anthropologists..." (p. 14).  On the other hand Keller seems to have an admiration for anthropology when he states "Perhaps, Everton comes closest to professional anthropological work in those sometimes quite extensive and painstakingly accumulated picture series which he devoted to the elaborate ritual operations accentuating significant moments and passages in the life of a traditional Maya community" (p. 15).  After reading Keller's essays one has the feeling that he is working very hard to obscure Everton's photographic method in order to prevent its being categorized.  While pigeonholing Everton's work might be counter-productive, we can gain a great deal from a critical examination of photography through its individual components.

     In an important essay which follows the introduction, "Maya Civilization Prior to European Contact," Dorie Reents-Budet gives us a succinct and well-written summary of pre-Columbian Maya philosophy, history, religion, political organization and mathematics.  And, contrary to the title of the essay she brings us through the colonial period into the present world of the Yucatec Maya.  By relating ancient practices to present ones this essay greatly enlarges upon Everton's more personal narrative and helps to deepen our understanding of the world of the Yucatec Maya.  For example, she gives us insights into the social system of the Cruzob Maya (represented by Everton in Chapter 5) which is a direct reflection of two thousand years of Maya history.  She states, "We see the survival of the pre-Columbian social system that was based on divine sanction and the merging of spiritual and political offices" (p. 31).  Reents-Budet goes on to explain, whereas in the face of important indigenous languages in Highland Mexico, Spanish alone is taught; but in Yucatan both Maya and Spanish are taught because "with their numerical superiority, the Maya prevailed during the Colonial era as the few Spaniards were absorbed into the new emerging Yucatecan culture" (p. 32).  In this essay there is a sense of cultural strength and continuity among the Maya, and that "pre-Columbian greatness is preserved by the present-day Maya" (p. 32).

     Chapter 1, "Milperos and Maize: The Foundation of a Culture," is the first of six chapters authored by Everton.  His photographs are compelling, and when combined with his sensitively written narrative they provide a unique and important perspective on Maya life in rural Yucatan.  In this chapter we learn about Everton and something of his photographic perspective from the straightforward story he tells of his initial days in Yucatan.  It is clear that Everton respects his friends in Yucatan and that through this book he wants us to know them and their life.  His honesty and respect for his Maya hosts resulted in their granting him permission to record the ancient Ch'a Chaak ceremony in which the Maya petition Chac for rain and a good harvest.  "My photographs were a contradiction of everything they [the Maya] knew about photography.  I treated every day as a special event, including their work, play, and rest, and photographed them laughing and smiling as well as looking serious" (p. 51).  The chapter also gives the reader historical background on the Yucatan peninsula and explains the current conflict facing the Yucatec Maya in terms of conservation of their culture and ecological setting in the face of development projects.

    Chapter 2, "Chicleros: A Season in the Jungle," gives us a glimpse of the life of people who gather chicle (an ingredient in chewing gum) in the forests of the state of Quintana Roo in the northeast of the Yucatan peninsula.  He tells us of the intense and hard life of his friends Diego and Margarita who work and live in the jungle but receive little monetary reward.  "[Diego] earned less than $41 for three month's work, which still left him in debt" (p. 112).  In desperation they finally quit gathering chicle and move with their daughter Maria to new land opened up by the Mexican government on the Rio Hondo near Belize in hopes that farming the land will bring a more secure life.

     In Chapter 3, "DoZa Veva and Alicia: The Changing Role of a Maya Woman,"  Everton describes how he participated in the important celebration of Alicia's coming of age in her fifteenth year.  At the time Genoveva Castro, her mother, operated a small stand in the center of the village of Chichimila and sold sodas, fruit drinks and snow cones, and her father Cornelio worked as a chiclero. According to Everton, "Alicia didn't have any role models in her family in her struggle to be a model student and to become more than a village housewife" (p. 139).  With great understanding, he tells us how Alicia realized her dream of becoming a teacher, of her caring and supportive marriage to Juan, and how after the death of her father, her mother's lack of money forced her to abandon her soda stand business and house and move in with Alicia and Juan.

     Chapter 4, "Henequen: The Decline of an Industry" tells us of the henequen industry and Everton's friendship with Don Chucho, a henequen worker from the village of Ake.  We are given the history of the henequen industry from the nineteenth century, when millions of pesos were made by ruthless landowners who controlled the industry, to its collapse in the 1930s.  (Little of the millions made by the few ended up with the Maya.)  Everton states, "Taken from their cornfields and forced to work in the henequen fields, the Maya had become dependent upon the landowner and were treated like slaves.  The working conditions were some of the most oppressive in the Mexican republic..." (p. 168).

     Today the henequen industry continues to be depressed because of synthetic substitutes and Don Chucho is forced by economic necessity to spend most of his life in the capital city of Merida working as a night watchman.  Constantly on the edge of total poverty, Don Chucho sees right through the smooth words of political leaders and he gives them a warning, "You read the paper and the politicians tell us the economy is faltering right now and it is necessary to tighten our belts.  Our belts have always been tight.  The village is dying of hunger, but the politicians are eating well.  If only our politicians will learn a lesson from Marcos..." (p. 177).

     Chapter 5, "Cowboys: Corn to Cattle."  This essay looks at the lives of three men associated with a cattle ranch in Yucatan: Don Humberto Centano who owns the cattle ranch; his playboy son Licho; and Maya ranch foreman Elutorio Noh Ceh.  Everton highlights the deep rooted prejudice and exploitation the Maya face daily from men like Licho who is of the "Valladolid gentry," and considers "friendship with the Maya to be beneath him."  Everton points out that "Licho believed the Maya could join the mainstream economy as his laborers but never his equal" (p. 202).

     Chapter 6, "The Cruzob: The Rebel Maya."  Everton states, "Of all the Maya of Yucatan," the Cruzob "are the most resistant to change" (p. 212).  In this chapter he describes life in the Cruzob villages of Tulum, Chumpon, X-Cacal Guardia, and Chancah Veracruz in the state of Quintana Roo.  Slowly the Maya of this region are being pressed by the alien culture of tourism, and religious leader Pablo Canche Balam worries, "I don't know how long we can exist in Tulum.  If things get worse we're prepared to move thirty kilometers deeper into the jungle" (p. 231).

     On the positive side Everton sees the Maya as proud of their culture, and predicts that the Maya Church could be accepted by even more Maya if external cultural pressures become a serious threat to their cultural integrity.  He sees "some marked improvements.  More Maya now enjoy better health care and education" (p. 245).  But when Everton looks at the lives of his Maya friends, government statistics to the contrary, he feels "it would be hard to say they are better off" (p. 245).

     "Afterword: A Family Portrait," is a short essay by Charles Demangate who worked as the "Human Torch" for the family circus Circo Magico Modelo when he first met Everton in 1971.  He tells us, "Macduff loved the circus.  He visited often, sometimes traveling days and weeks with us to towns and villages throughout the peninsula" p. 254).  And finally, we learn of Everton, "He was an artist--he worked with the circus!" (p. 254).

     Everton is an artist and because of that The Modern Maya succeeds.  His personal account of the Maya is given to us through his photographs and writing in direct response to the people he encountered in Yucatan.  Such a personal voice is important because it speaks to us as individuals and prepares us for the Maya in a world that knows little of them.  As Reents-Budet eloquently states, "Pre-Columbian greatness is preserved by the present-day Maya, who maintain strong attachments to home, family, land and religion, the latter of which includes their understanding of the cyclicity of human existence.  The Maya's sacred teachings speak of the rise, fall and inevitable return to greatness of all human groups, including themselves" (pp. 32-33).

Lawrence G. Desmond
University of Colorado


     It is good to see an attractive book on the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula available to the layman and scholar alike.  Macduff Everton's insights into the joys and frustrations of the individuals depicted in the chapters of The Modern Maya are reflected in his narration of the incidents and events in their lives over the two or more decades dedicated to documenting Yucatan.  Undoubtedly, it is Everton's interest in the people that leads him to touch upon issues of greater concern to the Yucatec  Maya community at large.  The rising cost of living that forces an increasing number of people to migrate to the largest urban centers of the peninsula in search of a more promising economic mainstay, an evergrowing lack of suitable land in which to practice their time-honored slash and burn agriculture, or discrimination by urban-based merchants and government bureaucrats, are among many factors that combine to influence the ongoing changes in the lifeways of the Maya-speaking people of the region.

     A culture in transition is an apt theme in which to place the realities facing the rural inhabitants of the peninsula.  The stories told by Everton depict yet one more chapter in the historic episodes of the struggle for survival of a people now at the mercy of a market economy whose headless actions force many into adopting new subsistence strategies, or finding pragmatic solutions that diverge significantly from their traditional cultural patterns.  A changing world economy is opening a new chapter for the Maya of the peninsula, as well as for other neighboring Maya communities in the highland regions of Mexico and Guatemala.  In Mexico, for example, a solution for economic problems is being sought by the development of a tri-lateral Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico, in the hope of bringing new prosperity to the country's 81 million inhabitants.  New and aggressive schemes are being developed to attract a greater portion of the tourist market into the Maya realm.  How all of this will ultimately benefit the living Maya is open to question.

     MacDuff Everton's narration and selected photographs guide the reader through various important ecological zones in the Peninsula, while recalling activities of his friends along the way.  Everton's personal observations and research notes combine to provide an enriched depiction of the events and processes that influence their lives, while providing the reader with a realistic glimpse of the people and their surroundings.  Dorie Reents-Budet's chapter on Maya Civilization, prior to European contact, provides the reader with an excellent introduction into the complexity of pre-Columbian Maya culture, linking certain universal principals of human conduct to show the reader how present day Maya are inexplicably tied to their past.  Reents-Budet introduces an important point that is not alluded to in the title of the book, nor clearly developed in Ulrich Keller's introduction: The book is about the Yucatec Maya, as opposed to any of the other Maya peoples living in regions of Mesoamerica today.  It is fair to point out that the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula are different from the highland Maya, or from other aboriginal American people throughout the continent today, for that matter.  Their distinctiveness is most certainly molded by the historical processes and environmental conditions of the Peninsula.  These factors have combined to reinforce the relevance of the physical and cultural survival of the Yucatec Maya (and other aboriginal Americans) who continue to maintain their identity in spite of a tendency toward cultural homogenization brought about  by accelerating technological development and its consequent consumer oriented dependence throughout the world.

     The story of the contemporary Maya as presented in The Modern Maya deserves our attention.  For it is through concerned readers interacting with the Maya that we will find understanding and ways for the Maya to preserve or change what they will in their culture as well as in the valuable biological diversity that surrounds them.  In this sense Everton and his colleagues have provided us with a timely appeal on behalf of the Yucatec Maya, and ultimately other surviving aboriginal American groups in similar situations.

James M. Callaghan
Instituto de Cultura Maya
Universidad del Mayab