The Secret of Mayan Success

Mayan language preservation becomes especially compromised in the context of an international tourist destination, like the beach town of Tulum on the Yucatán peninsula 90 minutes south of Cancún. Tourists flock to Tulum for eco-friendly vacationing and a glimpse into pre-Columbian civilization with its Mayan ruins and sacred subterranean freshwater rivers called cenotes. Walking in Tulum, it becomes apparent that many of the restaurateurs and store owners are not Mexican, but Italian, English, German, Argentine, Brazilian, or from the U.S. The intersection of international tourism and the Mayan culture raises important questions about the state of Mayan language preservation in Tulum in specific, while opening to broader questions about preserving indigenous languages in places that favor the learning of foreign languages to cater to tourists. International tourism adds another layer to the post-colonial scenario of an indigenous community that has already survived colonialism (in this case, Mayans survived Spanish colonialism and the creation of the Mexican state) and the imposition of the Spanish language. Today, like many parts of the global south, Tulum is experiencing a cultural colonization as a result of international tourism. The culinary scenes in such places are a testament to the shift in cultural production, which serves international gastronomy, such as wood-fired pizza and paella, and not the regional cuisine; in Tulum dishes like cochinita pibil and relleno negro must be sought out.

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How does indigenous language preservation operate in the context of international tourism? In the case of Quintana Roo a multi-faceted movement including all levels of education and government are promoting the Mayan language. At the university level, there are Mayan language classes, but as Hilario Chi, author of La vitalidad del Maaya T’aan and professor at the Universidad de Quintana Roo in Chetumal points out, the university system is not the heart of the preservation movement.

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