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Ancient Maya Awaits Death With Stories, Wives and Cigars

June 23, 1996|Victor Perera | Victor Perera, who teaches at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey" (Knopf), and co-author, with Robert D. Bruce, of "The Last Lords of Palenque" (U.C. Press

NAHA, MEXICO — In the last four years, one calamity after another has befallen the Maya elder Chan K'in in his Lacandon forest home. In December 1994, a close friend, the Swiss explorer and photographer Gertrude Duby Blom, died. A week later, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation declared war on the Mexican government, and its followers threatened to seize the Lacandon community's lands.

The 500 surviving Lacandon Mayas are the last unbroken link to a 3,500-year-old Olmec-Maya tradition. In the '70s, Protestant missionaries converted the southern Lacandones of Lacanja Chan Sayab; Seventh Day Adventists later converted many northern Lacandones of neighboring Mensabak. But Chan K'in and the 200 Lacandones of Naha fended off the evangelicals and remained unbaptized and unconquered. In 1979, the Mexican forestry department completed a road to Naha and logged 400 hardwood trees, plunging the community into a precipitous decline.

Chan K'in, who is at least 100 years old, is bent and twisted with acute arthritis, confined to his thatch-roofed hut in the village of Naha. "My younger brothers are dead; my sight and hearing are failing; I cannot swing a machete, but our lord Hachakyum won't let me die," he says sadly. And he still enjoys a good cigar. "Mi vitamina," he declares with a grin, clutching a White Owl I brought him in his gnarled hands. Chan K'in has only a few gray hairs in his shoulder-length mane, and although he leans on a staff to move around the hut, he is lovingly cared for by his two surviving wives, who mothered 22 of his 24 living children.

I asked Chan K'in about Harvard professor Alfred Tozzer, who, in 1902 and 1904, was the first outsider to take part in Lacandon religious ceremonies.

"Ah yes, 'Don Alpelo,' as we used to call him. He was a nice man, and my father invited him to witness our incense-burner-renewal ceremony. I was the age of--" he points to his youngest son, a 12-year-old albino. "But my father did not know how far to trust him. So he told him some things that were true; some that were not true, and some that were half-true and half not-true. But when Don Alpelo wrote them down in his little notebook, they all became true."

Chan K'in breaks out in a broad grin. He sees no point in writing down or tape-recording the old Mayan stories, if you can't remember them in your heart.

These days, Chan K'in tells his stories only to the occasional foreigners who undertake the four-hour drive from Palenque on tortuous dirt roads. His children and grandchildren have no interests in the old jaguar tales, or how the gods created the world. To them, the xu'tan, or end of the world Chan K'in has been predicting for decades, has already taken place: the Lacandon universe of powerful werejaguars and corn deities has disappeared and been replaced by Toyota vans, satellite dishes and Levi's, which most young men now wear, instead of the knee-length white tunics they originally made from tree bark.

"What the men of the city do not realize is that the roots of all living things are tied together," Chan K'in taught his children inside the palm-thatched "god house" when I first visited Naha in 1977. Smoke curled skyward from three of the 15 incense burners molded into Lacandon deities as we sat on mahogany stools and drank bark beer out of gourd shells. "When a mighty tree is felled in the forest," Chan K'in expounded, "a star falls from the sky. That is why, before you cut down a mahogany, you must ask permission of the keeper of the forest, and you must ask permission of the keeper of the stars."

After their trees were felled by Mexican loggers, the sky fell in on the Lacandones. Chan K'in's elder sons spent the money earned from logging on pickups and TVs; and neither they nor Chan K'in's grandchildren have paid attention to his stories since.

To Chan K'in--who had anticipated the loss of the forest cover and his sons' abandonment of the ancient traditions and transformation into "liars, drunkards and thieves"--all these calamities represent the workings of the xu'tan. As the Lacandon solar deities wane, the cold in the world makes its way into the roots of all living things, plants and animal alike, so they all wish to die. You must not oppose the xu'tan, but give in to it, even conspire with it, Chan K'in believes, for the sooner the xu'tan is over and done with, the sooner the new world will be born. Like his ancestors who built the magnificent temples of Palenque and Yaxchilan, Chan K'in believes in a cyclical universe of continuous deaths and rebirths.

When the French investigator Jacques Soustelle visited the Lacandones in the mid-1930s, Chan K'in was already known as an elder. More than 100 books and monographs about Chan K'in and his community have appeared since Tozzer's "Comparative Study of the Mayas and the Lacandones" came out in 1907, and yet this forest King Lear, reduced to squinting at his vanishing world with bemused irony, remains oddly unsullied and unknown.

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