At Work with Quetzil Castañeda
Born in the United States and raised in Bloomington, Ind., Quetzil Castañeda was always fascinated with the history of his ancestors in Mexico and Guatemala.
"Growing up in the era of Alex Haley's 'Roots,' I have always had a keen interest in my family and cultural background," said Castañeda, an anthropologist and lecturer in the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. The young scholar took advantage of IU's intellectual resources as a teen, "scavenging" the F1435 section of the Wells Library to search for books on Maya culture, mythology, history and civilization to help create an identity as a Latino growing up in Southern Indiana in the 1970s.
"I tried to read a bilingual Maya and English edition of the 'Chilam Balam of Chumayel,' a 16th-century Maya sacred book from Yucatán," he said. "I never imagined, as I tried my best to pronounce a language I had never heard spoken, that I would teach Maya language at Indiana University."
Castañeda recently participated in an extensive televised interview on the Al-Jazeera English talk show "The Stream," a combination of live TV (30 minutes) and an additional 15 minutes taped for the show's website. During the program, one of the hosts feeds tweets into the live show, including some short taped video from audience members who provide questions or comments to further stimulate the live dialogue. The segment, titled "Is the Mayan Prophecy Being Exploited for Profit?" focused on 2012-related tourism in southern Mexico and questions of appropriation, resistance and cultural resiliency among contemporary Maya peoples.
Castañeda has a long history of engagement with Maya populations in the Mexican state of Yucatán, where many of the most frequently visited Maya ruins are located. His role at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies is focused largely on running one of the only Yucatec Maya language programs in the country, with support from the U.S. Department of Education.
His research on the Maya initially led to archaeology, then to cultural anthropology -- which expanded his awareness of how other cultures are portrayed both in popular media and by scholars and academic disciplines.
Castañeda's doctoral work focuses on the ways in which archaeology and anthropological knowledge create an understanding of Maya culture that becomes consolidated as truths and truisms.
"This knowledge feeds tourism-industry representations and New Age religious interpretations of the Maya," he said, adding that while his early work now seems like common sense, at the time it was considered groundbreaking. "I tried to study the connections of what had been the forbidden zones between tourism and academic knowledge, between anthropological representation and nationalism or national identity formation."
By investigating these otherwise hidden interconnections at archaeological heritage and tourism sites such as Chichén Itzá, he said, his work has served as a pioneering force in the development of the anthropological study of archaeology or the field known as ethnographic archaeology.
He also studied the way New Age spiritualists appropriate images and beliefs from the Maya by basing themselves on anthropological interpretations and knowledge. In other words, he said, there is a feedback loop, a circular and insular way in which the representation of Maya peoples and cultures reproduces the same recycled images and ideas about the Maya as a mysterious civilization.
Castañeda teaches courses on contemporary Maya culture and society. For the second eight weeks of the spring 2012 semester, he'll be teaching a special undergraduate course titled "2012: The End of the World, Maya and the New Age."
The "circular feedback" between scholarly and popular knowledge about the Maya is at the heart of his courses on the Maya, particularly this spring course. In the fall, his class focused on understanding what in Maya culture has any correlation to the mass media hype about what "The Maya" believe. By reading sacred Maya books from Guatemala and Mexico, Castañeda says, researchers quickly discover there is actually very little relationship between what the Maya believe and the 2012 hype.
One of the first things Castañeda's students learn is how to quickly identify misinformation about the Maya. The dead give-away is the way the word "Mayan" is used incorrectly as the name of persons and people who are Maya and as an adjective to refer to things such as the Maya calendar, Maya culture and Maya ruins. Only the Mayan languages and Mayan language family of approximately 32 languages are correctly called Mayan.
Mayans refers to speakers of a Mayan language, but just as we do not generally refer to English speakers as Indo-Europeans or Germans Germanics, it is incorrect or awkward to call Maya a Mayan, Castañeda said.
"If you hear anyone or read anything about Mayan civilization and Mayan prophecy, then you know immediately that they do not know anything about what they pretend to be talking about," he said. Even "Mayan Doomsday Tourism" should be called Maya Doomsday -- or better, Maya 2012 tourism -- but Castañeda said he did not want to correct Al-Jazeera for fear it might adversely affect the volume of tourism to the Maya world.
"Students really enjoy reading Maya mythology and stories of the creation of the world," he said. "We read a lot about Gnosticism and heterodox Christianities in the 1st century and in the 21st century AD. We explore how is it that Christianities, both New Age and Orthodox, turn to the Maya as somehow having an answer to questions about the survival and redemption of humanity. 'Why are the Maya given so much importance as knowing the future fate of civilization?' These are the mysteries that we explore in my courses."