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Tourism "Wars" in the Yucatán

Quetzil E Castañeda
The Open School of Ethnography and Anthropology

Pushing up in your face a seven year old girl without shoes pleads for you to buy a rudimentary “carved” block of concrete that she offers as you descend the final steps from the main pyramid of K’uk’ulcan. “One dollar! One dollar, lady!”

On New Year’s Eve 2004 I returned to Pisté, Yuca-tán, México, where I have been doing ethnographic research since 1985. Some close friends were anxious to fill me in on the latest and most important gossip: the artesanos (artisans) had reinvadieron (re-invaded) the archaeological zone of the famous ancient Maya city and tourist destination of Chichén Itzá.

Invading la Zona
The invasion (the local term for the illegal presence) of handicraft producers and vendors selling inside la zona, or the legally defined archaeological zone, has a long history. It is the third invasion that can be traced to an ongoing 23 year-old problem. Since 1983, in response to an increased flow of tourists related to the emergence of Cancun resorts in the late 1970s, there has been a meteoric rise of participation in the informal sector of handicraft production and petty entrepreneurship in Pisté, only 3 kilometers from Chichén. From some 20 Pisté vendedores (vendors) and artisans in 1982, the number grew to 200 in 1983 to cap at 300 in 1984 up through the present. Organized in factional groups, these vendors and artisans petitioned the state and federal governments to create adequate market venues. Because these petitions were alternatively ignored or betrayed, the invasion of the heritage zone became the choice expression of their unresolved, ongoing petition—interpellation—of the government to respond to the needs of the community—to act as good government.

Complicating the invasion were some 20 employees of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) whose families worked and lived inside Chichén as park custodios (wardens) from 1923 to 1983. From their homes inside the zone, custodios had a monopoly on the sale of food, information and artisan sales until this dramatic rise of vendors. In 1983, however, the state mandated that the custodios evacuate la zona. In recompense for the loss of homes, these custodios were granted rights of concession to sell products at two venues inside the zone in small open-air constructions called palapas.

The crux of the problem is that these INAH heritage workers were thus given a monopoly while hundreds from the same town of Pisté were disenfranchised from selling inside the zone and forced to marginal locations. In protest of this monopoly and in petition of the government to create adequate marketing venues for them, vendedores and artesanos invaded the zone. Further, the archaeological zone, while legally defined as heritage, the land of heritage is owned as both communal property by Pisté ejidatarios under Mexican ejido law and as private property by the Barbachano family, one of the most powerful of Yucatán’s oligarchy. Only the ruins per se—piles of carved rocks, shards, fragments of paint, and stone chips—on top of the land are patrimonio cultural (federally-owned heritage). These ambiguities began to be exploited by the Barbachano’s in the latter 1990s with covert tactics that ultimately led to the expulsion of the INAH custodios from the palapas and their complete takeover by the Barbachanos at the end of 2004. Once again in protest of the monopoly sale of tourist products inside the zone and nine years after the last invasion, the vendedores re-entered la zona. In this year of hardball party politics and election campaigning in México, there will be no military or police repression until at least the end of the summer or just prior to the high season of July–August. The invaders will remain entrenched for most of this year.

At my request this vendor, a friend from Pisté, posed his transcultural pun: che’ means “wood” and poolche’ means “wood carving” in Maya. In the background the equinox phenomenon at Chichén begins to appear in the form of two isosceles triangles of light on the balustrade of the north staircase of the pyramid of K’uk’ulcan. Photo by Quetzil E Castañeda

The first (1983–87) and second (1993–96) invasions were periods of intense factional politics not only across but also within the different interest groups of private capital, state agencies, tour guides, vendedores and artesanos. These vendors and producers, in their struggles, have never waited for the tourist dollar to “trickle-down,” but have instead found ingenious ways to cause persistent holes and “leaks” in the tourism “plumbing” whose profits are primarily pumped to more powerful economic and political interests. These tourism “wars” are always waged with an ideology and according to a privileged valorization of the “good” image of México, the Maya and the Yucatán, an image that tourists should consume. The politics of economic struggles is, in other words, aestheticized and conducted as a striving for a better aesthetic commodity “to give the tourist” for them “to take back with them.”

Tíich’ in Your Face
In all three invasions, the majority of invaders were from the Maya community of Pisté while a minority came from villages and rancherias in Pisté’s periphery. The invasion was an unruly presence of hundreds of vendors, including wild hordes of children and nearly monolingual Maya abuelas (grandmothers). Tourists typically experience an overwhelming swarm of obviously poor, dark skinned Indians aggressively hawking handicrafts carved in ancient iconography, shouting in the tourists’ faces, “One dollar! One dollar, lady!” This practice, most commonly and aggressively used by children from neighboring villages that are more humilde (“poor,” “underclass,” “un-educated”) did not have a proper name in Maya in the 1980s and 90s, even though it had always been a topic of heated debate. The custodios, press and even “civilized,” “disciplined” Pisté vendors argue the practice gives the quintessential “bad image” of local heritage to tourists. This year, however, I learned a new Maya word for the practice: tíich’ (“to offer,” “to extend forward in offering”), which is now everywhere used to discuss the problem of the unruly Maya presentation of heritage “in your face.” This Maya word has already even been hispanicized, since vendedores now go hacer tíich’ or tíich’ear between the hours of 9am and 5pm at Chichén.

Unlike the vendors who do tíich’, these vendors lay out their merchandise on the paths. Here they pack up their goods at the end of the day.Photo by Quetzil E Castañeda

In conditions when the ownership of cultural patrimony, specifically archaeological heritage, is nominally owned by the state but de facto controlled and regulated by private interests, the Maya presentation of heritage gets reduced to this tactical gesture deployed in fleeting moments of opportunity: tíich’ in your face. Further, the heritage that these mayeros (Yucatecan speakers of the Maya language) fight to control becomes reduced to cheap, makeshift simulacra of the traditions of ancient Maya art. We call it “indigenous art,” “folkloric art,” “típica,” even “artesanía” and “handicrafts” to mask an even more profound and radical expropriation of cultural ownership, control and property rights over Maya heritage by diverse agents of the state, anthropology, art worlds and tourism.

Nonetheless, those who serve tourism, such as in Pisté, often ingeniously and creatively appropriate the pervasive and ostentatious romanticization, exoticism and othering of the Maya that is often accomplished through anthropological sciences, art institutions and tourism. Some “handicraft producers” are such skilled and creative artists that their work could sell in Soho galleries or be displayed in museums like the new Smithsonian or Art Institute of Chicago. Yet the tourism market of handicrafts punishes these artists and these works of art to make it almost impossible for the artists to develop their creative genius, to attain adequate pricing and to find appropriate venues—not only high-end “art” venues but mid-range/middle class “traditional-ethnic art” markets. When the appropriation of the Western desire of a romantic “Maya” image blossoms into a dynamic re-appropriation of their own Maya heritage—that is, a sui generis reinvention of their own belonging in and through the leftover fragments and ruins of the Maya civilization that has been legitimated by the state and anthropology—then diverse forms of repression are wrought onto those who dare to break and remake the hydraulics of tourism.

Doing tíich’ to tourists at Chichén Itzá. The elder woman, from the rancheria (jungle village) of San Francisco, has worked Pisté streets selling embroidered handkerchiefs since the early 1980s. After negotiating prices, this tourist bought two pieces from this vendedor. Photo by Quetzil E Castañeda

In mid-February the Barbachano family paid for the detachment of 20 municipal police to scare the vendedores. Most just shrugged this off as silly because a force of at least 600 riot police or military soldiers is necessary to dislodge the vendors. Yet everyone waits anxiously in the calm of this year’s party politics for the next military maneuver to be orchestrated by private capital and conducted by the state. At the same time, the vendors, the INAH and the Barbachano family assert their claims to use and control archaeological heritage as a basic human right, as a federal mandate to protect national heritage, and as the right of private property. Thus, the “war” of tourism continues in the press, in the courts and in the secret corners of corruption in preparation for the next episode of violence. Talking with my friends we all wonder, who in México City and in Mérida (state capital of Yucatán)— in positions of authority in the INAH and in the state government—have already been bought off? Who among the vendedores will sell themselves for a fistful of dollars when faced with individualized threats of violence? Meanwhile, in the shade of a palapa at Chichén, tourists guzzle water sold at US $3 a liter and chat about the bothersome vendedores who tíich’ heritage in their face. One dollar, lady.

Quetzil E Castañeda is an affiliate assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and the founding director and professor of The Open School of Anthropology and Ethnography.




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