Living among the Maya



Living Among the Maya

The best two years of my life were spent volunteering in the Toledo District of Belize in Central America. I worked with deaf children and their families.

The area often called the Mayan Mountains are inhabited mostly with native Kekchi and Mopan Maya speakers. Mayans make up about 10% of Belize population. While Belize is often considered a “kriol talkin”, Caribbean Nation down south is the land of the Maya.

I had the privilege of living in San Antonio the second largest town in Toledo with a population of about 1,000 inhabitants. It’s made up of thatch roof houses and tangled vegetation. It can be hard to get permission to build or move into these villages because everything has to go thru the Alcalde or village mayor. Fortunately I had friends there, who let me stay with them, in their simple board house.

The Mayas depend heavily on agriculture and typically live isolated from outside society. A “small” family is less than 12 children and a “large” family is over 18. If you ask a Maya child what their favorite animal is the typical answer is a pig or chicken. I’m not sure why. Culturally, even though there are dogs everywhere, they are very looked down on. Calling someone a “Pek” or dog is a very strong insult, which I learned accidentally when teasing a friend one day.


Santa Cruz, a typical Mayan village.
Santa Cruz, a typical Mayan village.


While poor, Mayas are extremely generous, warm-hearted, community dwellers. They must depend on each other to survive, which includes thatching each other houses, and harvesting each other crops. In spite of having access to simple ingredients their food is amazing. Their main stable is corn from which they make tortillas, dukunu, tamales, and corn lob a type of drink. They grow cacao, which they sun, roast, grind, and then serve in calabash bowls with allspice and cinnamon. caldos are soups made with local grown chicken and achiote or annatto. My favorite dish is cohune heart cabbage seasoned with yellow ginger or turmeric. Making this actually invokes going into the jungle finding a 10-year-old tree that’s the right size cohune palm and cutting out the “pith” or heart which is the last 4′ of the tree near the branches or top. Once removed one “heart” can serve 15-20 people.


Cacao in a calabash bowl.


I would feel safe being lost in jungle with a Maya. They know how to live off the land. With a kind of old world education I will never fully be able to understand. Often, however, their secular education is very low. With very little written literature in Mopan, they have a very oral, story telling culture. Most children don’t learn English until entering school. Mayans are typically a very humble, trusting culture. often assuming outsiders know more than them. For example if you can show something from bible they will believe it as gods word no further explanation required.

Cons of Living in a Maya Village

Alcoholism runs high in Mayan villages and along with it child and spouse abuse. Villages aren’t safe to walk about in after dark, on Fahina* (village cleanup), or other holidays. In a village where everyone has a machete or cutlass there are a lot of drunken fights where someone gets “chopped” and sent to the clinic.

It’s an extremely “macho” culture, where most grown women are attached to a man. For years arranged marriages were the norm and are still routinely practiced to this day. Many girls start having children at 15. It is also common for the man to be at least 10 years older since they need to have an established farm and dwelling to support a family. Belize has made it illegal for people to get married before 18, but common law marriages with underage girls is still incredibly common. I found out that one of my friends husbands who is also her uncle spent time in jail for statutory rape because she ‘went with him’ when she was 12 and he was 30. At 27 her oldest daughter was 14. Why did she move in with him so young? Because her step father kept trying to molest her.

It was not uncommon for drunk men to come pounding on my door asking for me to open. Upset that they heard I had ‘gone with another man’ and not with them (I was never in a relationship with any of the local villagers). Or drunk men would come into the yard and steal our coconuts. Mayan women usually travel in pairs for safety. You will usually get cat calls, whistles, and hisses if you go out far alone, as many men feel you are asking for attention by traveling alone. Taking even a small child along with you makes all this attention stop. Also red lipstick, bright nail polish, and eyeliner are signals of prostitution. Short hair on women is a sign of rebelliousness. Also hugging a man in public means you’ve had sex with him.

People with disabilities are treated with great shame and it is not uncommon for them to be locked up. With their families trying both to protect and hide them. That’s where I would come in next weeks blog will be about educating the deaf and their families and helping them to integrate better into society.

*Fahina or village cleanup is a mandatory gathering for all men over the age of 18, since no propriety taxes are collected this is how the village stays maintained. all the bush growing along the roads is cut back to make sure there is no place for snakes or other animals to hide.

I apologize for any misspelled words. Many local terms I heard called by name, but never saw them written down.



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