In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Contemporary Maya

  • Introduction
  • Childbirth and Childhood
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Tourism and Heritage
  • Migration
  • Literary and Performance Studies

Latin American Studies The Contemporary Maya
Paul Eiss
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0049


Any consideration of the subject of the “contemporary Maya” must begin by recognizing that the people grouped under that rubric are remarkably diverse, including speakers of various Maya languages, from several countries of origin (Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize), and characterized by different ways of life, occupations, and religions. While some within that group self-identify as ethnically or culturally “Mayan,” many others do not label themselves as such, identifying themselves more strongly by locality, language, nationality, class, or other ethnic categories—even, in some cases, specifically rejecting the notion that they are “Mayan” or “indigenous.” Notwithstanding such cautions, though, “contemporary Maya” is a useful term as a political and social descriptor. In political terms, the term evokes late 20th- and early 21st-century experiences and movements that not only provide a basis of comparison of distinct Maya-speaking groups but have also led to an increasing sense of Mayanness as a meaningful form of cultural and political identity. In social terms, “contemporary Maya” also serves as a marker for the ways in which throughout the Maya region, and in a far-flung Mayan diaspora, Maya-speaking and Maya-descended populations confront challenges—economic, social, political, and cultural—generally associated with globalization. This bibliography attends to the wide scope of differences that fall within the term “contemporary Maya” by highlighting the regional and linguistic differences between contemporary Maya-speaking or Maya-descended groups. Historical background is emphasized as well, both as a corrective to any tendency to posit an essential “traditional Maya” society and as a necessary element in understanding experiences and movements that have emerged over time and reflected explicit engagements with history as well as responses to contemporary conditions. On this basis, we shall consider examples of scholarship pertaining to several aspects of contemporary Mayan experience: for example, politics, work, ethnicity and gender, religion, language, and heritage; also covered are social movements such as the pan-Mayan movement in Guatemala and Mexican Zapatismo, as well as the movements of large numbers of contemporary Maya as migrants both within and beyond their countries of origin. In addition there are studies on global debates over human rights and the role of NGOs to transnational political organizing by, or in connection to, the Maya. Finally, we shall consider the testimonial literature authored by Maya speakers and its importance for literary studies.

Historical Background

There is an extensive body of historical scholarship on the entire Maya area in all historical periods. Social and political historians have provided important regional studies of the transformations of state and society from the independence period forward, with particular emphasis on the implications of civil war and liberalism in the early and mid-19th century, the rise of export-oriented agricultural production and the consolidation of oligarchical capitalist states in the late 19th century, and social mobilizations, revolutionary and reform movements, and state repression in the 20th century. Ethnohistorians and anthropologically informed historians have explored the implications of such large-scale processes for Mayan populations at the community level, emphasizing transformations in ethnic relations, communal organization, and the particular strategies and quandaries of indigenous workers and indigenous community leaders and elites.

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