I believe in serendipity—all we have is our own personal vision and sharing it is how all thought and discoveries end up coming about.
Linda Schele, Maya epigrapher, 1987

The Maya have a particularly strong claim to the alliterative epithet of “mysterious” that has been applied to them. Even more than the cause of Maya decline, scholars have puzzled over the questions of how this civilization ever existed in the first place, and how, by implication, it could have lasted as long as it did. Most especially they have pondered the question of how it could have existed where it did.
Nancy Farriss, Maya Society under Colonial Rule

An account of the modern Maya: incidents of travel and friendship in Yucatán and how I met Charles Demangeat and Hilario Hiler; this book project now extends over four decades and includes important chapters in the lives of the Maya

It was near midnight on a rainy September night in 1967 when I boarded the train in Chiapas bound for Yucatán. When it came to a stop the next morning in the middle of the jungle, I walked to the vestibule at the end of the Pullman car and looked out through the open upper half of the door. Dark storm clouds gathered overhead; puddles, opaque in the flat light, were proof that it had been raining hard. The forest crowded the tracks. What had been lumps of greenery as we sped past in the train now took on individual identities and shapes. The air was sweet with rot and fecund growth.

Up near the locomotive the train crew was deep in conversation. A few minutes later the conductor came into our car and announced that because of Hurricane Beulah the next several kilometers of railroad track bed were too soggy for our train to proceed. However, he continued, the train from Mérida was stuck on the other side, so we would all simply switch places with the passengers on that train and resume our trip. What I hadn’t seen was the maintenance crew that had flagged us down. They’d arrived on pushcarts. Once they cleared off their equipment and some railroad ties, they started to ferry passengers and baggage between trains.

So I first came to Yucatán on a handcart, with two crew members pumping the handles up and down, propelling us through the Maya Forest. It took hours to transfer everyone. Then the train from Mérida backed its way home. By the time we got to Campeche there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was hot. I got off and walked to the bus station so I could visit the ruins of Uxmal, which I could only reach by road. Pedestrians packed Campeche’s narrow colonial streets. The pastel walls of the buildings reflected the heat; it was like walking inside an oven. I drank five Pepsis waiting for the bus to leave—in 1967 bottled water was rare.

The road to Uxmal, which then continued to Mérida, was a narrow strip of highway without any shoulders running through the scrub forest jungle. We stopped for passengers all along the way—anyone who stood on the road and waved down the bus. At this hour it was mostly Maya men returning home from work in their milpas. They all wore blue denim pants, blue denim shirts, sandals, and palm-leaf sombreros. Most carried a rifle or a shotgun along with a machete, and they handled them as tools rather than weapons. The women dressed in huipiles (commodious garments in the form of a billowing “T,” brightened by an embroidered bouquet of flowers and designs across the bodice and hem).

The bus driver and his conductor traded jokes with each new passenger; soon we all assumed the camaraderie, much like high-spirited, confident fans on their way to the big game. I was sitting near the front, grateful that I was included in the fun. We all put our windows down, and the rushing air cooled us. We passed through small villages with streets lined with neat dry-stone walls in front of rectangular houses with clean-edged thatched roofs. The stone houses and walls were whitewashed with lime, and gardens of flowers and kitchen herbs made them look tidy and pretty. The villages had exotic names, such as Boxol, Suc Tuc, and Macampixoy, that were pretty to say (the x in Mayan is soft, pronounced sh).

Passengers got on and off not only in villages but along the road wherever a marker—for instance, a soft drink bottle on a pole—indicated a path back into the forest where a family lived. We climbed low hills and dropped into jungle hollows: we would hurry up to slow down. Shadows lengthened, and we entered fresh pockets of cool air.

We stopped for a hunter carrying a deer and several great curassows (k’aambuul in Mayan, Crax rubra). The bus driver and conductor jumped down to load the deer into the baggage compartment and immediately asked the hunter to sell them one of his birds. He said no, so for the next fifteen kilometers they regaled him with a description of how they would prepare the pheasant-like bird if only they had one, who might come to dinner, and how they would serve it. The hunter was shy and embarrassed, which the other passengers found entertaining. When the driver complimented him on his marksmanship, suggesting that it was probably an indication of his sexual prowess, the hunter finally agreed to sell them both birds and was left in peace.

We proceeded through more villages and then passed through the Maya ruins of Kabah, which straddled both sides of the road. Stone masks covering a long building built of limestone smoldered in the last rays of the sun, with shadows casting relief. Soon afterward I saw a pyramid rise above the forest and knew we’d come to my stop.

There is no town or village at the ruins of Uxmal. The driver let me off in front of the elegant Hacienda Uxmal, at that time the only hotel. Across the highway was the entrance to the archaeological site, already closed for the evening. It took a few minutes to say good-bye to everyone on the bus.

The hotel let me hang my hammock in an outbuilding which no longer exists. With no place to eat other than the hotel, which was beyond my means, I had to make do with a couple of oranges I’d bought at the bus station.

At dawn I walked into the ruins. I didn’t meet anyone. A low mist obscured the ground, and the ruins emerged in a haze of golden light; the long white limestone House of the Governor appeared to glow. All around me flocks of birds provided a polyphonic concert. As I listened I picked out a bird song that I’d heard before on a movie soundtrack when the director wanted the audience to know that they were in a jungle. As the sun burned off the ground fog, I climbed up the narrow steep steps of the Pyramid of the Magician, a massive, thick structure. I began to understand the layout of the city and saw buildings that I wanted to visit, many with stonework adornments that appeared similar to the cross-stitched, intricate patterns on the Maya women’s huipiles. Vegetation hid many buildings but also acted like the setting for a precious jewel.

Around 9 A.M. big, puffy clouds formed and began to float quickly across the sky, providing shadow and depth for the shots. I didn’t have much film, so I waited for hours to frame images and capture the best light. I kept working until a guard interrupted my concentration and told me they were closing the ruins. I hadn’t even had breakfast, and it was already dinnertime. I finished off my stash of oranges.

I’d been in Yucatán only a day and was enchanted. I’d come to Mexico at nineteen and had already photographed in central Mexico, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, on my way to South America to record archaeological sites and make ethnographic studies for an educational film company that had provided me a huge itinerary and a miniscule budget. They’d offered me the job because I knew how to travel cheaply, having worked my way around the world when I’d left home at seventeen. I’d picked up a camera in Europe and sold my first photo stories when I reached Japan. I was learning photography by doing it every day. I was also learning to become an ethnographer while becoming a photographer. Because I’d seen devotees worshipping at ancient living temples in India, Ceylon, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, I could visualize the American archaeological sites as active temples.

Although I was just learning Spanish, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, even as my first impression of Yucatán was that I didn’t like the flatness and the forest felt claustrophobic. I tried to overcome this by climbing the pyramids. But Yucatán immediately entered my dreams and my imagination. Arriving in Mérida, the first colonial capital of the peninsula, I felt that I had entered a chapter of a history book when I took a horse-drawn carriage taxi down cobblestone streets between colonial buildings nearly 500 years old.

I traveled east from Mérida by bus, passing through henequen (sisal) fields first planted in the nineteenth century and villages built around haciendas from that period. A couple of hours later I arrived at the ruins of Chichén Itzá. At that time the road ran right through the middle of the ruins and the bus stop was beneath El Castillo, the largest pyramid.

Continuing across the peninsula, I discovered that Yucatán was a land of empty spaces, especially on contemporary maps, where huge areas remained unmarked. I entered these blank spaces when I walked from Chemax through the jungle to the ruins of Cobá. Afterward I traveled to the Caribbean coast to Puerto Juárez (near present-day Cancún), which was neither a city nor much of a port but merely a few buildings and a wooden wharf with a passenger ferry over to nearby Isla Mujeres. South of Puerto Juárez, at Puerto Morelos, I caught the ferry to the island of Cozumel, twelve miles off the coast. I saw so many different hues of blue in the Caribbean that I needed to redefine the color. I’d already been around the world, but this was the first time I’d seen blues the color of my dreams.

Something else made an impression on me. Even though I was a stranger, the Maya invited me into their homes and made me comfortable and welcome. I felt that Yucatán’s real treasure was its people. I decided that I wanted to work on a book project portraying the living Maya.

While most history chronicles the famous, this book is about the lives of ordinary people who are the soul of their culture. “Facts that go unreported do not exist,” writes the Italian reporter Tiziano Terzani. “If no one is there to see, to write, to take a photograph, it is as if these facts have never occurred, this suffering has no importance, no place in history. Because history exists only if someone relates it.”

When I first planned to tell their stories in the 1970s, none of us thought we’d still be working together nearly forty years later. I felt that I’d finished our project in 1991 when the University of New Mexico Press published The Modern Maya: A Culture in Transition. Since its publication, however, so many significant events have occurred on the peninsula and in the lives of my friends that we need to add another two decades to their stories. What happened?

First, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) put nearly 3 million Mexican farmers out of work. For the Maya, who had an agrarian culture, this had a devastating effect—so much of the knowledge that is in their culture is connected to the way they farm. When they stop farming, they lose the understanding of their relationship with the land that’s built into their farming system. If the young people of one generation aren’t learning in the field with their parents, that information is lost. Then there are the Evangelical sects who forbid their members from participating in most community activities in which the entire village had taken part. And tourism became the major industry, transforming the Caribbean coastline into some of the most valuable real estate in Mexico. Now the Maya are the masons who build the hotels and the maids, gardeners, janitors, bellboys, drivers, bartenders, and waiters and waitresses who serve the more than 10 million tourists who arrive each year to explore the Yucatán Peninsula, visit its archaeological sites, and relax on the white sand beaches along the Riviera Maya.


Cameras and photographs are ubiquitous in U.S. culture, and often snapshots define our memories. It’s hard to think of a world without a Kodak moment, but that’s exactly what I ran into when I first started photographing in Yucatán. No one in a village had a camera, so the few photographs that people possessed commemorated special events such as weddings and baptisms. Villagers went to the nearest city that had a photo studio. They stood at attention in front of the camera in their best clothes, stiff as soldiers, with nary a smile or twinkle. No one owned snapshots. We had no common background to explain the documentary work that I wanted to do. They’d never seen the “Day in a Life” photo essays that Life magazine had made famous. The idea of making a photographic recording of their lives didn’t make sense to them on several levels. Not only had they not seen anything like this among their family and friends, but they also had never seen Maya appear in movies, commercials, or advertisements.

When I went around with my camera, at first they treated me like the village idiot: tolerated, indulged, and humored. But being the village idiot was a great entrée into village life in many ways, because no one considered me a threat. So they let me photograph them. Everything changed when I came back and gave them photos. Over the years my friends became increasingly sophisticated in their critical appreciation of photography and began to understand what I was doing. They started to suggest photos. They would invite me to photograph not only ceremonies or special occasions but also daily occurrences. For my part, I learned that they were uncomfortable with silhouettes of themselves or with any photograph that made their skin color appear dark, so I tried to give them lighter prints.

I first photographed Fernando Puc Che in 1971. Several years later, in 1976, his mother died and was buried. In 1980, according to local custom, his family dug up her bones, freeing the cemetery plot for another burial—a common enough practice in areas of very rocky soil. The bones were put into a small white box to be kept in his father’s house. That evening there was a rezo, a service and celebration in remembrance of his mother, accompanied by ritual drinking. About 3 A.M. Nado (Fernando) and I were finishing off an umpteenth bottle of rum. He had been reluctant to let me photograph him years before. But as we drank in the jungle darkness outside of the house, he told me, “Macduff, you are one son of a bitch.” He passed me the bottle, and I waited to hear what he would say.

“Today we dug up my mother,” he continued, “and my children don't even remember her. But because of you, because of the photographs you took of me, my children—and their children, and their children's children—will know who I am, and what my life was like.” He reached for the rum, took a swallow, and raised the bottle in a toast. “You've made me immortal. People will remember me.”


Two other Americans became interested in my documentation at an early stage, and we became fast friends. Hilario Hiler and I first met in 1969 when I returned to the ruins of Palenque. He invited me to visit him in Chichimilá, Yucatán, where he was learning Mayan and doing research. When I arrived a year later, I found that he’d really immersed himself in village life—he’d already bought a house and married the woman next door. He graciously invited me to make his home my base. Soon afterward Hilario and I met Charles Demangeat when we stopped to help a broken-down circus truck on a lonely stretch of unpaved jungle road in Quintana Roo. He was an anthropology student from the University of California at Santa Cruz who had gone to see the Maya ruins and stayed, finding work traveling from village to village with El Circo Mágico Modelo, a regional Yucatecan family circus. Soon the circus provided me with another base for work.

This book began as the effort of three young friends who thought we could finish our project within a year or two, drawing from our collected experiences.

On my early journeys to Yucatán I traveled with my son Robert (I married in 1968 and my wife left me in 1970, but she also left her five-year-old son with me: the finest farewell gift I’ve ever received). We invited neighborhood children to join us, and several indeed visited. Traveling with children can be the most wonderful way to see a country. They ask questions that adults forget to ask, so their experiences informed my views. Furthermore, a single man traveling with a child or children is not threatening, which inevitably led to invitations that I wouldn’t have received otherwise.

Andy Johnson accompanied me first as a child and later as an adult. Bonnie Bishop, another University of California student and artist, visited for two extended periods. The artist Dale Davis traveled with me. The artist Mary Heebner and I explored Yucatán before we were married in 1988 and several times afterward, including an extended trip with her daughter Sienna. In the 1990s I traveled and worked with Linda Schele, Peter Matthews, and Justin Kerr on The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs. Charles, Hilario, and I, along with archaeologist Dorie Reents-Budet, led a class for the University of California at Santa Barbara. My parents visited. My son and I toured Yucatán again after he grew up and wanted to rediscover his memories. Once I started working as an editorial photographer for publications such as Condé Nast Traveler, Life, Time, New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Islands, National Geographic Traveler, and others, I was often able to return to Yucatán and concurrently work on the project. I mention this because after a while traveling to Yucatán was like returning home.


Mark Twain points out that travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness. By traveling we begin to realize how many of the things we take for granted aren’t the universal truths we once were led to believe. So much of our reality is shaped by our culture. At the start of this project I attempted to be objective but found it impossible to look at another culture objectively. Once I realized the futility, I was not only able to appreciate the differences between our cultures but able to immerse myself in Maya culture and document it.

I quickly realized that I was observing a culture in transition. Until just a few years before I arrived, Yucatán had long been separate from the rest of Mexico both culturally and geographically. Swamps and jungle cut off the peninsula and made it feel as isolated as an island. The primary way to reach Yucatán had been by boat and in the twentieth century, for those that could afford it, by airplane. Yucatán was connected to Mexico by rail only in 1950 and by a paved highway only in 1961. Road building increased dramatically in Yucatán in the early 1970s, nearly tripling in the first few years after we arrived. Remote areas suddenly had roads and bus service, with electricity and potable water not far behind. At the same time the government started building Cancún. Yucatán ceased being a backwater and soon would become a primary destination. That is when everything really started to change.

By the mid-twentieth century Yucatecans were either dzules (Mayan for foreigners) or mestizos. Dzules included the upper class, those descended from the Spanish, and people of mixed blood who were Mexican in outlook and spoke Spanish—and, of course, any foreigner. The term mestizo in Mexico usually denotes a person of mixed blood rather than an Indian; however, in Yucatán it is rather confusingly used to describe the traditional Maya who live and dress as rural Maya. The Mayan word is mazehual (plural mazehual’ob), originally a Nahuatl word for “the people,” which in Yucatán now means the Maya, the people of the land.

The Maya were composed of three main geographic and social groups—those long acculturated to Spanish and Western influences, those recently acculturated, and those just starting to experience acculturation. Generally speaking, the first category included the Maya in the northwest, especially around the capital of Mérida and other larger towns. The second category included people in villages recently reached by roads. The last group lived in areas that had been ignored, especially the rebel Maya zone in Quintana Roo, descendants of the Maya who had fought in the Caste War of Yucatán.

We wanted the Maya to become real for the reader rather than pretty pictures, so I decided to do a series of stories on individuals engaged in different types of work and to shoot in black-and-white rather than color. These individuals became my friends, and you will meet them and their families in this book. Here, then, are my friends’ stories. For reasons of privacy, I’ve had to change some people’s names.