Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Maya Community Profiles

Alma, Alberto, Judy and Maria live in the Bay Area and are of Mayan heritage from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. In Yucatan, more than 30 percent of the population speak Mayan and most indigenous people and their descendants are of Mayan ethnicity. There isn’t a formal census of Mayan people in the Bay Area but it is thought there are around 15,000 Mayans in San Francisco, another 15,000 in Marin, and approximately 1,500 in El Granada.

Yucatan has 106 municipalities most with Mayan names. San Francisco and the Bay Area have Mayans who are from two main municipalities Peto and Oxkutzcab. Mayans who live in San Rafael and Santa Rosa are usually from Peto and Mayans who live in San Francisco are from Oxkutzcab. Peto means moon’s shine or moon’s crown, and Oxkutzcab means “place of the three wild turkeys.

Alma Pech, 39, was born and raised in Peto and used to be an accountant there. Ten years ago she moved to San Anselmo to join her sister who was already living there. Now she works as part-time babysitter while taking care of her eight-year-old daughter Valeria. Her husband Gilberto works two jobs as a busboy. They both speak Mayan and Spanish to Valeria who, now in third grade, speaks the two languages in addition to English. Pech feels bad because not speaking English stops her from helping Valeria with homework.

Pech loves dancing, the Jarana music because it is a reminder of her Mayan culture. In 2003 she decided to form in San Rafael the Chan Kahal dance group, that means small town, to keep her Mayan roots alive and to teach her daughter about their traditions. Chan Kahal means small town.

When she lived in Peto Pech couldn’t afford to own the dancing costume called Terno that normally costs about $700. Now she buys the embroidered pieces, the most expensive part of the outfit, and she sews the whole outfit to save money. She owns several Ternos in different colors. Her dancing group members are all Mayan and their work is volunteered.

Alberto Perez, 36, was born in Oxkutzcab but as a little boy he and his family moved to Mexico City. Even though at home they lived the ways of the Mayan culture, Perez was not encouraged to speak Mayan. He remembers hearing from his dad, “I don’t want you to suffer the way I did for speaking Mayan.” Unfortunately regardless of its Mayan population in Yucatan, Mayero is a derogatory name for those who speak Mayan.

In spite of not speaking Mayan, Perez’ Spanish was mixed with Mayan words that got him in trouble at school. At age 6 when he started first grade his Spanish-speaking teacher did not understand him when Perez used words like sabucan instead of bag or xanap instead of shoe. Even with the discrimination related to speaking Maya Perez said, “My dad is a Yucatecan orthodox,” who, even though he has lived 30 years in Mexico City, has not changed his Mayan traditions. In Mexico City Perez met his wife Noemi, an American, and after a couple of years they moved to San Francisco. In 2002 Perez and a handful of friends decided to form Asociacion Mayab as a response to help Yucatecan people in Mexico after Hurricane Isidoro devastated the area; as well as to help with the paper work to bring a dead friend to Mexico. Everyone in the group is a volunteer.

Judy Cocom, 32, grew up speaking only Mayan. It was in elementary school where she learned Spanish. She was very poor. At 6-years-old, along with her younger sister and her mom, she used to work the fields cultivating oranges and tangerines while her dad Carlos worked and lived most of the time in the U.S. The first time Cocom met her dad she was 6, the second time she was 15 and the third one at 18, she was already a mom. “My mom was mom and dad for us,” she said.

Thirteen years ago her mom and her sister moved to San Francisco to join her dad. Ten years later she and her family decided to move in. “Sometimes people change and they don’t want to know anything about their culture,” she said. But to her dancing is keeping her memories and her culture alive. As a little girl she learned how to dance by watching her cousin. Now in San Francisco she is part of the Asociacion Mayab dance group that performs during festivals and special occasions. A year ago Cocom became a widow. Her husband Carlos Canul, 33, who used to dance with her, had a heart attack while working in a construction site. To support herself and her 13-year-old son Carlos, she works in a laundromat every day resting every Sunday afternoon. Her son Carlos now in 8th grade, speaks English, Spanish and Mayan. “He is proud to be Yucatecan,” said Cocom.

In limited Spanish Maria Cocom, 56, said “I’m a healer.” She grew up speaking Mayan. Cocom doesn’t know how to read and she learned Spanish at age 13. In Oxkutzcab she worked in the fields harvesting oranges, “We used to live in so much poverty,” Cocom said, “We worked like men.” Her grandmother was a doula. From her she learned how to massage pregnant women to avoid miscarriage by a dangerous breech birth. She learned how to use herbs to cure sore throats and stomachaches. On her own she learned how to heal bone injuries by massaging them and putting them back into place.

In San Francisco she lives in a small room with her husband Carlos but she is happier here than in Oxkutzcab, her life is better. She works part-time as a babysitter and sometimes as a healer helping not only Latino people but also some Indian and Americans.

Maya Community

It has been 4000 years and the Mayans are still here. The Maya civilization once encompassed the regions of Guatemala, southeastern Mexico, Belize, Salvador and northwestern Honduras. Its pinnacle was about 900 AD during the classic period, thriving for six centuries until the arrival of the Spanish. It was one of the most densely populated civilizations with 500 people per square mile in rural areas, and more than 2000 people per square mile in the cities. It was a culturally dynamic civilization with a fully developed written language, art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems.

The majestic world that the Mayans once created, with its beautiful and splendid cathedral cities, fine arts of sculpture and painting, hieroglyphic script, literature, handicraft and trade, all expressions of its cultural and economic rise, is long gone. Today the Yucatecan-Mayan people struggle to survive in their homeland as well as in foreign lands.

Lack of jobs in a struggling Mexican economy, inability to compete with low-priced agricultural produce because of the North American Free Trade Agreement and devastating natural disasters like Hurricane Gilberto in 1988 and Hurricane Isidoro in 1994 have contributed to destroy agriculture and tourism in Yucatàn Mexico, causing the biggest immigration wave during the late 1990s; the most significant in the last 10 years and perhaps the largest group ever to migrate to the north. The amnesties of 1986 and 1994 contributed to secure their permanence in the United States.

The first flow of Yucatecan-Mayan immigrants in San Francisco arrived in themid-1960s. Despite been a small group, people like Tomas Bermejo, Olegario Cocom, and Juanita Quintero established the initial Mayan roots in the city. Now over 40 years later, 15,000 Mayans live in San Francisco, another 15,000 in Marin and some 1,500 in El Granada, California.

Today Mayan people in San Francisco and the Bay Area keep their culture alive through their traditions. Dance, festivals, food, language, and baseball are the activities that bond them to continue their heritage and identity.


According to Asociacion Mayab, San Francisco City College students did a poll in 2003 reporting that 95 percent of Yucatecan Mayan in this area speaks the Mayan language. Living in the United States has helped Mayan people become proud of their language. Because in the Yucatan discrimination is common, shame toward their culture has caused some people to not want to marry those with a Mayan last name. But in the United States they have learned to appreciate their roots and find a new pride. Organizations like Asociacion Mayab in San Francisco provide Maya language lessons during the year, sometimes drawing in whole families.

There are many variations of Mayan language. According to linguist Joseph Greenberg the Mayan language is categorized as Amerindian language, one of the indigenous language of the American Continent.

Alfredo Barrera Vàsquez in his dictionary Maya-Español/Español-Maya claims Yucatec Maya has its roots on some Asian language. After the nàhuatl language, around 800,000 speak Yucatecan Mayan making it the second most used language in Mexico.

Yucatecan Mayan distinguishes between short vowels and long vowels - indicated by single versus double letters (ii ee aa oo uu) - and between high- and low-tone long vowels.

The Mayan noun generally functions much like the English noun. Except that it has no article per se. For example:

Le peka this dog

Le peko that dog

Le peke that dog over there (usually out of sight)

The plural form usually adding –oob as a suffix to the noun if it ends in a consonant and –ob if it ends in a vowel:

Pek (dog) pekoob (dogs)

Tzimin (horse) tzimnoob (horses)

Chich (bird) chichoob (birds)

Be (road) beob (roads)


In Yucatan Mayans celebrate two main festivals La Primicia (novelty) and Las Rogativas (rogations).

For La Primicia or Hua’hcol special dishes are prepared as food offerings to the Gods asking for rain or a good corn harvest. An underground oven specially built for the occasion is used to cook food wrapped in xbob leaves. A soup is made with chicken feet and pibes or tamales broken in small pieces. The festival is celebrated at a big farm and lasts all day long. A Shaman performs the blessings at a special altar. Only men are allowed. Although women are not allowed to be present during the ceremony, they prepare the food and participate in the celebration after the rite is over.

Las Rogativas is a series of nine prayers asking for rain. A simple dish called saca’k, made of chile and diluted corn-paste in water, is the only food served. The outdoor ceremony has to be performed at noon and the altar or kanche is a table particularly made for the ritual. Curiously even though there is no catholic aspect to it, despite their purely Mayan meaning, the Catholic Church organizes these celebrations. Mayans tend to not celebrate these traditions in the United States because of their different life style here. Although they continue to follow traditions like the Jes-mek, a type of baptism where three-months-old girls joined by a group of women celebrate a ritual using kitchen utensils to wish her a good life, as a good cook, mother and wife. And four-months-old boys have a similar ritual where a group of men wishes him well by waiving working tools, books and pencils so that he’ll be a good worker and support the family.

The festivities in the United States are rather Catholic than Mayan. The Day of the Dead is celebrated with altars, food, and prayers. In December Las Posadas (shelters) celebrated days before Christmas, are festivities that include the enactment of Joseph and Mary as pilgrims looking for a place where Mary can give birth.

During the year several Vaquerias gatherings are celebrated with traditional food and dancing. In Yucatan each pueblo traditionally celebrates its own holidays with Vaquerias the first two days of a week of festivities.


The traditional Mayan music is called Jarana (merriment) Yucateca a mix of Mayan and Spanish dance and rhythm. Although some argue it might come from several Spanish rythms like sonecitos, tonadillas, fandango and jota aragonesa. It became popular during the Vaquerias, parties organized by cowboys during the cattle’s inventory.

A special characteristic of the Jarana is the reciting of improvised and humorous verses by crying out Bomba sometimes double-meaninged or picaresque, by a declamador or reciter.The Jarana music is played by an orchestra specialized in this kind of music. During the Vaquerias the Jarana is the customary music. One of Jarana dances stages the woman as the “torero” and the man as the bull. The Jarana music has several rhythms from slow to fast pace.A leisure pace song is Los Aires Yucatecos, and La Andaripola, a faster pace is El Chinito Koyh.


During the Jarana dances men wear a simple outfit of white shirt and white pants. The shirt is called guayabera or filipina, and the sandals are called alpargatas. A panama hat and a red handkerchief called paliacate give the last touch to their outfit. Women wear a two-piece outfit called terno with wide colorfully embroidered borders. The embroidery is a special handmade stitch called punto de cruz or cross-stitch.

The cross is a special symbol to the Mayan culture, the shape is engraved on the Mayan ruins and it was meaningful in the old times. The cross icon has been known to be present in the Mesoamerican region since pre-Columbian times and is believed to have symbolically represented cosmological centrality. The symbol depicts the axis mundi or world tree; is believed the axis had been traversed by souls of those deceased, and used by religious specialists through ritual. Sometimes the cross was represented as an anthropomorphic maize plant. It signified the tree of life and its symbol was used during prayers to get rain in times of draught and during sacrifice ceremonies.

Women who embroider the ternos do not know how to read and write. However to stitch the figures they must count the number of stitches, somehow they figure it out. Along with the terno women wear specially embroidered shoes that match the ternos’, as well as shawls in vibrant colors, rosaries as necklaces, six to seven bracelets, earrings and flowers in their hair.


Yucatecan-Mayan food uses a wide variety of ingredients like pumpkin seeds, oregano, red onions, bitter orange, cilantro, epazote, and a variety of chiles, habanero, xcat and sweet chile. Some traditional dishes are Poc Chùuk, pork marinated with oranges and grilled, cochinita pibil pork marinated in achiote (annatto) and bitter orange, relleno blanco, ground beef with raisings, olives, and onions in a broth soup, and papazules a sort of taco with eggs, and a sauce of tomato and pumpkin seeds.

Two popular Yucatecan Mayan recipes are the cochinita pibil and the sopa de lima. The recipes are included after the next section.


Baseball is the number one sport in the Mayan culture. This sport contributes to keep the community together. In San Francisco the “Liga de Baseball Mayab” is organizes different teams that play every Sunday in several parks around the city. Some of the teams’ names are the Mayas, Mayab, Naranjeros and Indios.

Asociacion Mayab in San Francisco and Chan Kahal Asociacion Yucateca de Marin in San Rafael are groups that promote the Mayan culture.


Cochinita Pibil

(Baked Marinated Pork)

This dish is perhaps the most known Yucatecan dish; the annatto paste gives it its orange-reddish color and unique flavor. If you don’t have banana leaves, cover the dish with aluminum foil.


2 banana leaves, passed over flame to soften

4 lbs. pork leg

200 grams achiote/annatto paste

1 cup bitter orange juice, or half sweet orange juice and half vinegar

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon crumbled, dried oregano

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 large allspice berries, coarsely ground

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preparation: Line the bottom of a large baking dish with banana leaves, one lengthwise and one widthwise, letting them hang over the sides of the dish so that they may be folded over the pork. Place the pork on the leaves. Dissolve the achiote paste in the orange juice, add the remaining ingredients except the olive oil, and mix well. Pour the marinade over the pork, fold the banana leaves over all and place in the refrigerator to marinate, at least 8 hours and preferably overnight, turning once.

Fold back the banana leaves, drizzle the olive oil over the pork, fold the leaves back over the pork and cover all tightly with aluminum foil. (Do not drain the marinade; this dish gets cooked in it, making it steamed rather than roasted.) Place in a preheated 350º oven for 1½ hours, or until the meat is falling-apart tender. Remove the foil, fold back the banana leaves, and use two forks to pull the meat apart into shreds. Serve with red onion rings marinated in orange juice vinaigrette and plenty of hot corn tortillas to make tacos. Serves 8-10

Sopa de Lima

(Lime Soup)

This specialty of the Yucatan, although it comes from a warm climate, is great winter comfort food. The variety of lime called Citrus Limetta grows in abundance in the Yucatan, although other varieties of limes can be used in making this soup.


For the broth.

1 whole chicken, cut up, or 2 whole chicken breasts

10 cups water

2 sprigs of fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried

3 large garlic cloves, peeled and halved

1 medium white onion, quartered

4 whole allspice

salt to taste

For the soup:

2 tablespoons corn oil

1 medium white onion, peeled and chopped

2 large cloves garlic, roasted, then peeled and pureed

2 roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 serrano chiles, seeded and chopped, or 1 green bell pepper, chopped, for a milder taste

6 limes, sliced

6 corn tortillas, cut into Frito-size strips, fried and drained on paper towels

Preparation: Make the broth by placing the chicken in a large stockpot or saucepan with the water, oregano, garlic, onion, allspice and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, skim, and simmer, covered, 45 minutes. Cool, strain and set aside. Shred the chicken meat and set aside. In a medium-size saucepan, heat the oil and add the onion, roasted garlic, tomatoes and chiles or bell pepper and saute over medium heat until the vegetables are soft.

Add the strained broth and half the lime slices and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the lime slices and the shredded chicken. Serve immediately, accompanied by fried tortilla strips, to be added by each diner. Serves 6

For more information:

Alfredo Barrera Vásquez, mayista, Diccionario Maya-Español, Español-Maya Cordemex (1a. edición)1980