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Performance and Mayan Identity on the Yucatan Peninsula
Tamara Underiner

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Siete momentos en la vida maya:
Performance, Tourism, and Mayan Identity on the Yucatán Peninsula

by Tamara Underiner

Abstract en español

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As late as the summer of 2004, travelers on the Mérida-Cancun highway about 21 kilometers southeast of the Yucatecan capital, on their way to and from the resorts or the archaeological sites at Chichén Itza, would see a large billboard announcing:

Teatro Indígena:
472 Actores
Ticopó -->
Yucatán

The billboard featured three women dressed in huipiles – the gorgeous embroidered white cotton dresses worn by older Mayan women in both city and countryside, and by younger ones on formal occasions – and a little boy dressed in his own formal attire of guyabera and white cotton pants. The four look off the highway toward the site of the performance; one is dancing, one is clapping, while the other two are engaged by what they are seeing off the stage of the billboard, but presumably on the stage of the teatro it advertised. They are ambiguous figures: are they the performers? Or the targeted audience members for it? Because they are dressed rather formally (read: "traditionally"), to many passers-by—especially tourists primed by the pervasive sight of huipiles for sale in the zócalo, or on the bodies of young women dancing with bottles on their heads in the plaza and in the dinner-theatre in Chichén Itzá's restaurant—the figures on the billboard belong to the general tourist scenario that situates all locals as performers of a sort. They are part of what travelers come to "look at," in both theatricalized representations and, even better, in everyday life. And after all, the logo on the billboard proclaims the event's sponsorship by the Yucatán State Department of Tourism, and its accompanying website for its tourist guide, Yucatán Today, promises "an inside glimpse into the lives of the Mayan people." (1) On the other hand, the figures don't return the gaze of the traveler in an inviting way; they are not positioned as objects of that gaze (2). Instead, they entice through a different rhetoric: they see something the traveler doesn't, and the billboard invites the traveler to come, share the view. Thus, "we" and "you," "self" and "other," in this image and in the event itself, become curiously conflated.

Keeping this destabilization of subject positions in mind, I wish to explore the performance event heralded by the billboard as one example of how tourism can arrange (and rearrange) relationships between the self and other; between the local and international; among theatre, ritual, and fiesta; between authenticity and invention. When I speak of "tourism" in this way, English grammar assigns it an agential role, but I see it more as an important grounding condition in which many of these relationships are increasingly articulated, especially in areas like the Yucatán peninsula where tourism provides an important economic base. Equally important and perhaps also emblematic of other geopolitical contexts, tourism in Yucatán occurs within a larger national context in which the relationship between nation-building and ethnic pluralism is still working itself out, often violently. Here, pressures toward nationalizing a Mexican identity based on the homogenizing myth of the mestizo, the great rhetorical hero-product of the Mexican Revolution, are still operative, if largely ineffective (as illustrated by the ongoing Zapatista conflict). In other words, to achieve its Revolutionary (and now, neo-liberal economic) ends, Mexico needs the Indians, as such, to disappear. At the same time, however, Mexico needs its Indians to be visible in certain sanctioned ways, not only to attract tourist money, but also to comfort itself with this apparent accommodation to the plurality demanded by so many. Thus, indigenous visibility is very much circumscribed by two prevalent discourses: that of rebellion on the one hand, and of the more "innocent" ostentations of the tourist trade on the other. Especially in the Yucatán Peninsula, where support for the Zapatistas is weaker than it is in other, poorer parts of Mexico, many have opted for the latter kind of visibility as being better than the former—and certainly better than nothing.

Siete momentos en la vida maya was an attempt to increase the cultural visibility of contemporary Mayans via a tourist show that was, on the surface, the kind of folkloric performance Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett rightly links to centuries of ethnographic displays that, throughout time, have participated in the "reciprocity of disappearance and exhibition." (3) In her survey of the many forms ethnographic display may take—ranging from objects to people, in contexts as diverse as museums, fairs, galleries, folk festivals, national theatres, and so on—she notes the uncomfortable frequency with which such displays occurred precisely when the ethnographic "objects" were on the verge of consignment to oblivion by the dominant culture who was the targeted audience for the display. If this was more common in earlier centuries, even in ours there are dangers enough—even and especially when, as is true of Siete momentos, the performance is offered as an aesthetic experience and not an un-spiced slice of village life: "Similarly, by aestheticizing 'folklore'—no matter what is gained by the all-inclusive definition of folklore as the arts of everyday life—we are in danger of depoliticizing what we present by valorizing an aesthetics of marginalization." (4) However, I hope to show that the contemporary social complexity of touristic enterprises—given that "traditional" people increasingly occupy both stage and spectator positions, and in a growing number of cases exercise more creative and financial control over both process and product—the reciprocal relationship between disappearance and display may work itself out differently.

The agents involved in negotiations that result in cultural performances for tourists are multiple; they include performers, producers, spectators, sponsors at the local, state, national and sometimes international level, and researchers like myself—who, along with the figures on the billboard and the others in the list, embody several roles at once, not least of which are traveler and tourist as well. The relative power that each holds is also difficult fully to trace: within the single example of a particular staging like this "teatro indígena," with its 472 actors and hundreds of spectators, there is no one-way or even two-way flow of power in the representational or performative economy. Defining who maintained the "cultural control" of this performance, to borrow from Guillermo Bonfil Batalla's work, is complicated by the fact that cultural identifications tend to shift among all the players here and decision-making never rested in any one pair of hands. The results, depending on one's own subject position and which element of the event one wishes to focus on, register at once a performance of cultural autonomy, an appropriation of non-indigenous elements by the indigenous performers, and the potential folkloricization of some indigenous elements. Further, the event's touristic frame of reference could be interpreted as a material imposition of elements external to the "traditional" lifeways of the performers (the tourists themselves), but so long since naturalized by the tourist trade there as to become a part of local culture (5).

Nor is there a transcendent position outside of this economy from which to write about it here. On the contrary, my perspective is an embedded one, due to growing professional and personal relationships with its producers and some of the performers. In my earlier work, I have focused more on the performances as instances of communal theatrical expression than on the touristic field in which many of them operated (6). In the course of my study of such theatre, I have become increasingly interested in the ways touristic spectacle works not only as a species of theatre, but also as a register of tourism's increasing role in the production of ethnic identities for all the players involved. The goal of this examination is not, as tourist researcher Robert E. Wood warns against, to pronounce a normative judgment on whether this example was "good or bad," or whether its "benefits outweigh[ed] its costs." (7) Instead, I hope to show how the touristic context for this one event worked to circumscribe its own aesthetic and representational possibilities, such that it could not sustain itself as such, but nevertheless provided a significant site for the re-valoration of local culture and new opportunities for self-expression within those communities.

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