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Mayas Struggle With Poverty, Honoring Their Roots

The Mayan people of Mexico and Central America received quite a bit of attention this month thanks to a misinterpretation of their calendar. Word spread all over the globe that the ancient culture had predicted the world would end on Dec. 21.

The news attracted tens of thousands of tourists, who flocked to Mayan sites to await the prophecy. Since the world didn't end, the tourists went home. And now the modern-day Mayas go on with their lives marked by high rates of poverty and dependent on migration.

In the small Maya town of Tunkas in Mexico's Yucatan state, Paulino Ciau shuffles through his dirt yard tending to his pigs and chickens.

"Ever since I was 8 years old, the Maya priests would say the world is going to end. What end? I'm 78 and we are all still here," Ciau chuckles.

Ciau says he doesn't mind the attention lately his people have gotten, even though he says the benefits went to the business men catering to tourists. He says the people in Tunkas are used to toughing it out.

"We are farmers," Ciau says. "We work the land. If it rains, we eat. If it doesn't, we don't."

Ciau owns Tunkas' lone tortilla store. Most of his children left town years ago to work in the tourist resorts around Cancun or they went to the U.S.

There are about 5 million Mayas living in Mexico and Central America. Migration to the U.S. began only in the 1970s.

University of California, San Diego professor Wayne Cornelius, who studies the Mayas of Tunkas, says many came after a devastating hurricane hit the region.

"On balance most people who have migrated from this town have benefited," Cornelius says. "They have clearly raised their standard of living. They have diversified their sources of income, but the migrants have acquired some major health problems."

Cornelius says those living in the U.S. are twice as likely to be obese and suffer from hypertension. For the relatives left behind, depression is a major health problem. The No. 1 prescription in Tunkas is for antidepressants.

This is a fascinating case, Cornelius says. "We have an ancient civilization being slammed up against 20th century America."

That culture clash is loud and clear at Antonio Ciau's house in Inglewood, Calif. He lives right next to the 105 Freeway — smack under the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport.

Ciau, 49, left Tunkas when he was a teen and hasn't been back since.

"I miss it. I miss my town, you know 25 years. I haven't seen my mom in 25 years. I haven't seen my brothers in 25 years. I talked to them on the computer and all that but it is not the same," he adds.

Paulino, the tortilla maker in Tunkas, is his uncle.

Ciau, like most Mayas in the United States, came illegally and like most from the Yucatan, work at L.A. car washes. Ciau says he tried hard to teach his children, four of whom were born in the U.S., the ways of life back home.

"How to respect people and the Mayan way. How to talk to people. How my dad's parents taught him, he taught me. So I wanted to teach them the same way," Ciau says.

He says his children speak a few words in Maya, but it's been hard to keep the culture alive.

That's a lot of what motivated Manuel Nunez Canche to move his family back to Tunkas after living 11 years in Anaheim. Nunez says in Tunkas he has more control over his U.S.-born children, who had to learn Spanish when they came back. They don't speak Maya at all.

For Paulino Ciau, the retired tortilla maker, his biggest worry is how few in town speak the native language.

"The young here don't want to speak it, only the grandparents do," Ciau says. He says it won't happen right away but he worries that within a generation or two, no one in Tunkas will remember the Mayan words or its ways.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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