“You look like you’re in love.”
Senior, Caitlyn Kovach, spoke these words to me as we slowly walked through one of the many monasteries on our itinerary.
I was in love. And so was everyone else.
Flagler College students made the most out of their very first week-long Spring Break this year. Travelling to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico for 6 days allowed them to experience a new culture, a new religion, new architecture, new food, a new language, and new people.
And, everyone fell in love with something.
A new culture:
While in the Yucatan, we were blessed with many opportunities to authentically experience Mayan culture.
In Merida, a family kindly offered to host us for lunch. They prepared chicken in a large metal pot underground and served it alongside rice, beans, and salad. The food was amazing and the experience was astoundingly unique. I mean who else gets to have lunch in a native home?
At the Palacio de Gobierno, the seat of the executive power of the state of Yucatan, located in Merida, we saw murals of the famous painter, Fernando Castro Panchecho. These emotional, contemporary pieces depcited episodes in the history of Yucatan. Some depicted the Mayan creation story, and others deeply described the reactions of the indigenous people to the Christian takeover. In the latter, the eye sockets of the Mayans were painted without eyes, I assume to show the emptiness which they felt. All of the art work in the building provided a window into a more hidden part of Mayan culture.
We simply experienced a new culture through the indigenous people in the Yucatan Peninsula. Despite the language barrier, every conversation was insightful. One conversation with an 8-year-old girl in a marketplace even led to her retelling an ancient myth that had been passed on for generations.
A new religion:
With Mexico came two distinct religions, the Mayan religion and Christianity. Then, there was a not so distinct religion, the fusion of Mayan and Christian together.
On our 2nd day, in Merida, we all experienced our first Shaman blessing. Don Pablo was a 5th generation Shaman and witch-doctor. Clad in white from head to toe he began the ceremony as we stood on top of a ruined Mayan temple. With incense blowing in the wind, Don Pablo prayed to the ancient Mayan gods and with the same breath, he prayed to the Holy Spirit.
Using green-leafed twigs, he then sprinkled us with boiled corn or “saka” (which is only used in sacred ceremonies to be offered to the gods) and “virgin water” (which is found deep inside caves where no women have ever been).
He blessed the rest of our trip and gave us an unquenchable taste of the Christian-Mayan fusion in this area.
Another encounter with this fusion came through our visit to the home of Don Hernan, a 70-something Mayan man who has lived in the same house for fifty plus years.
In his humble hut of a home he did not have much. Aside from the giant unoffensively fuchsia hammock hanging across the center of the room – his bed – and a certificate of recognition from the Smithsonian Institute hanging among a cluster of family photos, the main eye catcher was the comparatively ornate shrine standing off on the right side of the room.
See, in Mexico, shrines are found in nearly every home, both Christian and Mayan. But, the Mayan homes are different. Their shrines contain the statues of both Mayan and Christian deities.
The same shrines that contain 8 different Mayan gods also house Christ crucified and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
When asked, Don Hernan shared that he does not practice any Christian ritual. In fact, he has an altar used to celebrate Mayan rituals in his backyard. Yet, he recognizes both as “gods.”
The architecture of the Yucatan Peninsula was another clear sign of the religious fusion there. In Mani at the church of St. Michael the Archangel, we saw an Open-chapel or “Indian chapel” and a posa.
Both of these, now mostly demolished structures were built by the Franciscans as a way to evangelize the Mayans in a way that connected with their preexisting faith. The Mayan people had a deep reverence for nature and both of these sacred structures allowed Mayans to practice the Catholic faith outside.
We clearly experienced Mayan religion through visiting their sacred spaces. On our fifth day, we toured Mayan ruins at Uxmal. They were incredible.
It is no wonder why the Mayans had such a strong connection to nature and the cosmos. From the tops of the pyramids you can see all of Uxmal and at night, you are so close to the moon and the stars that it seems almost possible to touch them. (Yes, we did get to climb a pyramid at night).
Finally, we experienced the sacredness of Mayan space when we jumped into a Cenote which Mayans believed to be an entrance to the underworld. After a hot day exploring Chichen Itza (one of the 7 Wonders of the World), we cooled off in the most beautiful groundwater I have ever seen.
A new architecture.
During one of our days in Yucatan we embarked on “the Convent route.” This route is composed of several churches and convents built by their Franciscans when they first came as missionaries to the country. They were each built within one day’s walking distance from each other so by car, we were able to stop and see quite a few of them.
The architecture of each were quite similar, but vastly different from anything you might see in America.
The buildings themselves were monstrous, but the insides were surprisingly simple (to fit with the Franciscan model of simplicity).
As a side note, most of these churches were built either next to or on top of Mayan temples to prove their superiority.
The Yucatan Peninsula was the perfect location to study the question of Sacred Space. Despite all of our previous research and reading, nothing we learned about the Mayans could truly be grasped until we saw it with our own eyes. I know that we are all grateful for this experience and the ability to take what we are learning in the classroom and learn how to use it as a lens for viewing the rest of the world.
This entry was posted in 2016, Yucatan