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From Riches to Rags
January 27, 1999

Palenque Huge pyramids rise proudly out of the jungles in Palenque, Mexico. Temples inscribed with hieroglyphs (called stellas) stand tall and stately. Visitors from all over the world come here to see the structural remains of a once great civilization.

As one of the many sights along the "Ruta Maya" (a route of Mayan treasures laid out by archeologists), these temples and pyramids bring tourists and tourists' dollars into Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Buses unload Americans, Europeans, and Japanese tourists at the entrances of these great sights. The increased tourism helps preserve the ancient Mayan ruins.

Ancient cities
built by
ancient Mayas
slowly down
among the
Earth's descendants
of the
ancient Mayas
pots and blankets
to the
foreign tourists
with the
holy dollar
coming to
pay reverence
to the
ancient cities
built with
great precision
based on
Sun and Moon
and Stars
I wonder who
will buy
the Beanie Babies
and the
fax machines
my descendants
in the
future ruins
of the
modern cities
slowly Down
we're gone.


The walk from the bus to the front gate takes me past local families selling Cokes, Mayan trinkets, fresh coconuts, jewelry, hats, and blankets. The vendors speak only simple Spanish because for them, as for me, Spanish is a second language. They are the indigenous people, the Native Americans, the descendents of the Mayans who build these miraculous cities using highly advanced mathematics and astronomy over a thousand years ago. Ironically, only a small fraction of the money brought in by these sites makes it to the hands of the modern Mayans.

I can't help but wonder how such a strong, technologically advanced race came to be selling trinkets to tourists? What happened after their great cities came into decline? Where did the Mayans go?

Way back in high school history class, I was taught that European rule of the "New World" was overthrown by revolutionaries touting democracy and equality of all people. First the American colonists threw out the British in 1776, and then the Central Americans freed themselves from Spanish rule in 1821. The first order of business for the newly independent Central Americans was to write a constitution, which they based on the United States'.

But that history is not the history of the indigenous people of the Americas. As I prepare to meet Rigoberta Menchu Tum by reading her books, I am learning that little changed for the Native Americans with the switch from Spanish rule to local, self-rule. Mayans were still considered second class citizens; the constitution did not apply to them, any more than it did to women or blacks. George Washington in the United States and Miguel Hidalgo in Mexico may have freed their countries from colonial rule, but they kept the control of politics, the economy and the military in the hands of the upper classes with European blood.

Fortunately, the democratic ideals of these new constitutions survived, and have taken on their own power, moving beyond the limited scope that the culture in the 1800's allowed. However, indigenous people still have a long way to go to have their rights acknowledged and to see the treaties they signed with the government honored.

Making documents like the constitution and the treaties live out their inspiring promises is the work of Rigoberta Menchu. For years, she has worked with the United Nations to raise awareness of the issues around indigenous peoples' struggles. She speaks for native people in the U.S. (like the Lakotas), Central and South America (including Mayans and the Miskitos from Nicaragua), Bosnia, Israel, India, and Africa.

Palenque While in Guatemala (we leave tomorrow!), we will focus on issues of the indigenous people. Monica and I will be working with human rights organizations based in Guatemala City and Kavitha and Shawn will be living with indigenous families near Quetzaltenango. Stay tuned, and please share with us your thoughts and questions concerning this difficult topic.


Klaus - Climbing in the City of the Gods
Jamila - Mayan Mummies were Calling Me
Team -Heading Back in Time
Kavitha - Kids at Work
Kavitha - Pro-Zapatista Graffitti and More
Shawn - Consequences of Stripping the Land
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