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LAS AMERICAS Guarded Language BY MICHAEL ERARD It’s a couple of days after Mel Gibson’s Mayan fantasy Apocalypto opened in the United States, and my wife and I are following a young Mayan man, Agosto, through the Yucatan jungle. A tour guide and biologist, he’s showing us a group of spider monkeys that live on the Punta Laguna preserve run by his village. It’s late afternoon, and while rain clouds gather, Agosto offers to show us around so the other guides can go home. As we walk down the slippery paths, he tells us about the place in a Spanish that’s remarkably easy to understand, probably because, as for us, it’s his second language; his first language is Yucatec Maya, the language that’s notoriously used for what little dialogue there is in Gibson’s bloody confection. Yucatec Maya \(or simply “Maya” if million or so people on the peninsula, in Belize, and in northern Guatemala. As we travel, we notice it everywhere: in the markets, the hotels, even written on the plaques at Mayan ruins along with Spanish and English. \(In other parts of Mexico, the signs appear in Tseltal or Nahuatl, other local indiging for nearly a month, I figure wouldn’t it be cool to learn some words of Maya, to be able to bust it out while buying fruit or asking directions, not out of necessitywe can do everything we need in Spanishbut because of all the things one encounters as a traveler, language leads to some pure, real connections. Buying something? In my mind, handing over currency always reinforces who’s a tourist and who’s not, who has money and who doesn’t. Simple greetings and politenesses? That’s real, but anyone can do it. Kissing? Out of the questionthis is my honeymoon. I ask Agosto the Maya word for mon key; it’s something like maax \(pro”howler monkey,” and he says something else. Which is when I encounter the first of several difficulties in my adventure in Maya: I didn’t bring a notebook, and I have a memory like a sieve. Ten feet down the path I’ve forgotten the word for “howler monkey.” And if I did have a notebook, now’s not the time to whip it out, as wet limestone ridges and tree roots block the path we take with our eyes to the trees, hoping to see a monkey chuckle across the sky through the branches. A lot of the Apocalypto press describes Yucatec Maya as an “ancient” language, which isn’t accurate. Though it’s a descendant of the Classic Mayan spoken by the inhabitants of the empires whose ruins we admire, it’s a very contemporary language, beset by all the problems faced by indigenous languages in Mexico and elsewhere in the world: Young people opt to speak the dominant language; the government doesn’t support indigenous-language education; the indigenous language carries a stigma. This is the next set of obstacles I encounter in my Mayan learning plan: It’s not a language that native Mayan speakers seem to be happy to have outsiders speaking. At one museum bookstore, I found Maya For Travelers and Students, a remarkable book published in 1995 by the University of Texas Press and written by linguist Gary Bevington. When he describes how to learn Mayanot in classrooms, but in the field, where everyone’s a teacher and no one will cut you slackhe knows what he’s talking about. He set out over multiple sumlearn Yucatec Maya. The book is a lucid guide to the language itself, its grammar and its sounds, which include some interesting consonants pronounced with a popping sound. Because no Yucatec Maya word has a dominant stress on any syllable, speakers have a fluid, singsongy, swishing qualityit’s attractive sounding to my ears, a language you want to hear more of, not less. Culturally, Maya speakers tend not to go for big, empty promises, Bevington explains, unlike Mexicans or Americans do, so if you want to learn Maya, it’s not enough to say, “I’m really interested in the language.” You have to show people that you’re not just gawking. “Remember,” Bevington writes, “that from the native perspective you are an odd thing that dropped from the sky into the middle of their well-ordered and busy world. You are disruptive and confusing because people of your ilk are expected to be remote and generally disdainful of their world.” Even if we were planning to return to Punta Laguna, it turns out that we need much more experience in how invested a person is in his or her indigenousness, and what situations will call it forth. Bevington warns against trying to speak Maya with hotel help at tourist resorts, and “anyone who sees himself or herself as official or important or sophisticated” should always be addressed in Spanish. Because Agosto also speaks English and Italian, and works for an Italian primatologist, we assumed we were dealing with someone Western and metropolitan. Someone like us. A person, that is, who understands that pimping out one’s tourism with some words from the language poses no threat. But Punta Laguna didn’t make that so easy. It’s also an “alternatour” destination for ecotourists from Tulum and Cancun, who are attracted by monkeys, descriptions of ruins \(indeed, there’s the chance to see and meet real, live Mayas in their houses. One feature of the tour is talking to a Mayan shaman 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 26, 2007