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Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp.

353368, 2003
2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved
Printed in Great Britain
Tourism and Maya Identity
Laurie Kroshus Medina
Michigan State University, USA
Abstract: This ethnographic study examined how the commoditization of culture for tour-
ism affected traditional practices in a formerly Maya village adjacent to the most-visited
Mayan ruins in Belize. Though the majority of villagers had abandoned this indigenous ident-
ity, they responded to the tourism demand for representations of an essentialized Mayan
culture by utilizing new channels to access traditions they could no longer learn through
old ways: they turned to the publications of archaeologists and epigraphers who study the
ancient Maya. As villagers developed expertise in the cultural traditions of their ancestors,
they remained ambivalent about whether or not their unconventional acquisition of this
knowledge provided sufcient basis for reclaiming Maya identities. Keywords: culture, com-
moditization, identity, Maya, Belize. 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Resume: La marchandisation de la culture:tourisme et identite maya. Cette etude ethnogra-
phique examine comment la marchandisation de la culture pour le tourisme a affecte les
usages traditionnels dans un ancien village maya qui se trouve a` cote des ruines mayas les
plus visitees du Belize. Bien que la majorite des villageois avaient abandonne leur identite
indige`ne, ils ont repondu a` la demande du tourisme pour des representations des caracteris-
tiques essentielles de la culture maya en utilisant de nouvelles voies dacce`s aux traditions
quils ne pouvaient plus apprendre de la vieille facon; ils se sont donc servis des publications
des archeologues et des epigraphistes qui etudient les Mayas des temps anciens. Tout en
developpant leur expertise dans les traditions culturelles de leurs ancetres, les villageois
netaient pas surs que leur acquisition de ces connaissances constituat une base sufsante
pour la recuperation de leur identite maya. Mots-cles: culture, marchandisation, identite,
Maya, Belize. 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
One school of thought in tourism studies has argued that the com-
moditization of culture for consumption renders the resulting prac-
tices inauthentic. This position distinguishes between traditions which
persist in relative isolation from market forces, and practices elabor-
ated specically for the tourism market. Against this perspective, other
scholars have asserted that such transactions between tourists and tou-
rees generate new cultural congurations which are both meaningful
Laurie Kroshus Medina is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Michi-
gan State University (East Lansing MI 48824-1118, USA. Email <medina@msu.edu>). Her
current research explores the efforts of Maya communities in Belize to integrate themselves
into tourism development initiatives; the economic impact of their integration into the indus-
try; and the role it plays in Maya struggles with the Belizean state around issues of culture,
collective identity, and land.
and authentic to their participants. Advocates of this argument reject
both the distinction drawn by the rst group of scholars between more
and less authentic cultural forms and the notions of culture and auth-
enticity on which that distinction rests. The second school of thought
instead portrays culture as dynamic and emergent. This paper intro-
duces a third alternative in this debate: the commoditization of culture
for tourism may involve the utilization of new channels to access cultural
traditions of great antiquity. Posing this possibility for a formerly Maya
village in western Belize, this paper engages two sets of debates in the
social sciences: it explores how the debate in tourism studies sketched
above intersects with contemporary ones in the eld of Maya studies,
where constructivists cast Maya culture as a (relatively recent) social
construction, while essentialists dene it in terms of continuities that
have persisted across centuries from pre-colonial times into the
Early studies suggested that touristic commoditizationthe offering
of cultural products and practices for moneyresults in the emerg-
ence of a culture distinct from the traditional practice of tourees
and less authentic by virtue of being both staged and a commodity.
MacCannell (1976) suggests that tourists are largely motivated by a
quest for authenticity, which is fundamentally a search for cultural
difference. Tourists interpret such difference as an indicator of less
contamination by contemporary capitalism and thus greater authen-
ticity in relations among people and between people and nature. How-
ever, MacCannell asserts that toureesthe host population confronted
with the arrival of tourists in their midstprotect and insulate their
culture by dividing their lives into backstage areas, where they con-
tinue meaningful traditions away from the gaze of tourists, and
frontstage areas, where they perform a limited range of activities for
a tourist audience. This makes available portions of host culture for
guest consumption, while it protects other parts from commoditiz-
ation. Such an argument assumes that touristic cultural performance,
which MacCannell calls staged authenticity, is less authentic than
practices not performed for tourists or for cash. Greenwood (1977)
also engages this assumption by asserting that commoditization
changes the meaning of cultural products and practices to such a
degree that they eventually become meaningless for their producers.
The conclusion drawn is that the staged authenticity of commodit-
ized culture is not authentic at all. Ryan (1996), focusing away from
concerns with authenticity, suggests that a tourist culture distinct
from the everyday cultures of either tourists or tourees emerges from
their inter- (or trans-) actions; however, he builds on the same assump-
tion that tourism leads to the emergence of a culture different from
the original one of the tourees.
Other social scientists reject both this assumption and the distinction
MacCannell and Greenwood draw between a pristine, authentic cul-
ture and an inauthentic or less authentic form performed for tourists.
For example, Cohen argues that commoditization may actually pre-
serve traditions by generating demand for or attributing value to them:
One has to bear in mind that commoditization often hits a culture
not when it is ourishing, but when it is actually already in decline,
owing to the impingement of outside forces preceding tourism. Under
such circumstances, the emergence of a tourist market frequently
facilitates the preservation of a cultural tradition which would other-
wise perish. It enables its bearers to maintain a meaningful local or
ethnic identity which they might otherwise have lost. This is parti-
cularly the case in the sphere of folk arts and crafts, many of which
are in decline in Third World countries owing to the penetration of
industrial goods and Western consumer tastes, but some of which have
been salvaged or revived through demand by the tourist market
But Cohen takes his argument even further: his concept of emergent
authenticity proposes that products invented for the purpose of tour-
ism may over time become incorporated into and perceived as manifes-
tations of local culture (1988:380). In other words, tourees may come
to perceive such commoditiesartifacts or performancesas auth-
entic aspects of their culture. This position clearly rejects the notion
that authentic culture consists only of pure traditions of great time
depth not performed for cash; here, culture appears dynamic and ex-
Adams extends such an approach by dening culture and authen-
ticity as products jointly constructed by tourists and tourees through
their interactions. However, unlike Ryan, she rejects the notion that
some more authentic culture exists beyond or behind touristic encoun-
ters. Instead, Adams locates both culture and authenticity not in tou-
rees sui generis, but in the relationships they have with others: both
the content of tourees culture and evaluations of its authenticity
emerge from interactions between the host and guest groups, in which
tourees attempt to mirror tourists desires and vice versa (1996:11).
However, parenthetically, while Adams views culture as emergent and
negotiated, the subjects of her study do not. Instead, they understand
the culture they construct together as rooted in ancient patterns of
thought and practice.
A debate with overlapping dimensions characterizes the eld of con-
temporary Maya studies, pitting a set of approaches sometimes lumped
together as essentialist against those dened as constructivist.
Essentialist work denes Maya culture in terms of continuities that have
persisted over centuries. Early scholars working in this vein portrayed
a folk culture kept alive and intact in rural communities isolated
from the more uid cultural elds of urban areas (Redeld 1941).
More recent work in this vein seeks continuities over time and space,
without suggesting stasis (Carlsen 1997; Fariss 1984; Fischer 1999; Rax-
che 1996). Instead, these scholars posit a cultural core to Mayaness
that is cosmological in nature, consisting of normative constructs that
link nature, humans, and cosmic forces in cyclical relationships of
death, transformation, and regeneration (Carlsen 1997; Fischer 1999).
This cosmological paradigm entails a sacred covenant between
humans and divine forces, which is maintained through rituals of sacri-
cial giving that link humans to larger cosmic processes and perpetu-
ate the grand cycle of cosmic and terrestrial existence (Fischer
1999:476). Religious specialists play an important role in maintaining
this covenant. Essentialist scholars dene this cosmological core as
generative; its logic shaped the new patterns that emerged as Mayas
confronted colonialism and more recent impositions (Farriss 1984:8;
Fischer 1999). Thus, this core has constituted Mayaness across both
time and space, across centuries and across the whole Maya region
(Carlsen 1997:62).
While essentialists have focused on the persistence of a cosmological
core that has shaped Maya culture across time, constructivists have
argued that the culture of contemporary communities is not an artifact
of pre-Columbian times; rather, it is the product of their interactions
with powerful non-Maya forces. Anthropologists who hold this view
have focused on transformations that colonialism and subsequent
development efforts by Guatemalan and Mexican states imposed on
indigenous communities; while some cast these impositions as over-
whelming (Hawkins 1985), others emphasize Maya elaboration of cul-
tural responses in resistance to these impositions (Smith 1990; Wolf
More recently, some constructivists have adopted poststructuralist
approaches to explore the construction of the concept of culture itself
and of Maya culture more specically. These analyses begin with the
assumption that culture is a reication produced by anthropologists as
a means to describe and explain peoples lives in an orderly fashion,
rather than an entity that ordered the world prior to anthropologists
discovery of it (Wagner 1975). Thus, in addition to exploring the
actions of Maya peoples and the states to which they are subject, these
analyses incorporate the efforts of cultural anthropologists and archae-
ologists in constituting the entity Maya culture (Castan

eda 1996; War-

ren 1998). For example, Castaneda asserts that, over the course of the
century, archaeologists invented the Mayan Ruins of Chichen
Itza through excavations and reconstruction of the ancient city. Simul-
taneously, they gave birth to a narrative of ancient Maya culture
through their publications. These twin productsMayan ruins and
ancient Maya cultureattracted tourism to this region. Subsequently, a
range of other actors became involved in this collaborative production:
Archeologists read and write Maya culture in their practices of exca-
vation and restoration...The tour guides, for their part, read the arch-
eological texts, both books and the archeological zone, and write their
texts, that is, invent Maya culture, in the practice of the Tour...The
tourist also reads and writes Maya culture, over the shoulder of the
guides, as it were. The tourist, already familiarized with, if not steeped
in, the signs of Maya culture via the publicity campaigns and propa-
ganda associated with tour packages as well as travel and leisure litera-
ture, has a horizon of reading erected by the multinational promoters
of tourism in Mexico. The tourist reads guidebooks and reads the
explanatory tour of the tour guide, all in order to understand Maya
culture as represented by this life-size simulacrum...Artesanos [artes-
ans] and vendedores [vendors] read over the shoulder of the tourist,
reading the tour guide, who is, in turn, reading the archeologist read-
ing Maya culture. In this way, they get answers to the questions, What
is Ancient Maya Culture? How do you sell it? What of it is bought by
tourists? The artisans then provide their answer in the multiple
forms of handicrafts by which the tourist can signsign as in signature
and signalthe text of Maya culture that they invent (1996:128129).
In this analysis, a shared vision of Maya culture is continually pro-
duced and consumed through the actions of archaeologists, tourism
promoters, tourists, tour guides, artisans, and vendors of artisanal pro-
While North American researchers have lined up on both sides of
this debate, most Maya scholars have embraced essentialist positions,
rejecting arguments that cast their culture as a reaction to or reection
of colonizing forces. Maya continuity narratives focus on the persist-
ence across centuries of pre-Columbian beliefs and practices (Warren
1998:78,178). These scholars have focused especially on revaluing and
revitalizing cosmological principles and practices and Maya languages,
which they identify as the principal means through which Maya philo-
sophy and worldview are transmitted (England 1996:178; Raxche
Comparing the positions in these debates across tourism and Maya
studies, it appears that essentialists share a focus on cultural continuity
across time with the tourism school of thought launched by MacCan-
nell and Greenwood (though the two debates involve different degrees
of concern with purity, as contemporary Mayanists argue that the
cultural core that persists across time shapes cultural change). On the
other hand, Adams argument that both culture and authenticity are
collaborative social constructions generated in interactions between
tourists and tourees meshes with the strong constructivist approaches
in contemporary Maya studies. This paper applies perspectives from
these debates to processes associated with culture and tourism in the
village of San Jose Succotz, Belize, in order to consider the merits of
each perspective. Several questions will guide this exploration, includ-
ing whether there is a divergence between cultural production for cash
and uncommoditized cultural production in Succotz, what assump-
tions are made about Maya culture by its producers in Succotz, and
what constructivist and essentialist approaches contribute to this analy-
If there were such a thing as a typical Maya village San Jose Suc-
cotz would certainly not be it. A village of some 1,400 people in western
Belize, Succotz is linked to Mayaness in two ways: through proximity
to the ruins of an ancient Maya city that has become a popular tourism
attraction; and through the ancestry, culture, and identities of its con-
temporary residents. If the former connection provides an important
source of income for the village, the latter connection is characterized
by ambivalence and ambiguity.
This article is based on ethnographic research undertaken in Suc-
cotz during the summer of 1999, combined with archival sources. The
ethnographic research included a survey of 25% of the household, in
which an adult member of every fourth unit was surveyed, working up
and down both sides of each street in the village. This resulted in a
total of 73 surveys, which elicited information about household size
and composition, languages spoken in the household, their ethnic
afliations, factors considered by respondents in determining their
ethnic identications, and languages spoken by adult household mem-
bers parents. In addition, information about sources of household
income was elicited.
This survey was complemented by longer, semi-structured interviews
with 15 Succotzen

os employed in tourism. This sample, developed by

asking villagers to name individuals or families working in tourism,
included most tour guides (6), all pottery-making households (5), slate
carving households (2), and owners of tourist accommodations (2).
These interviews explored each individuals history in tourism work,
the development of the knowledge required for that work, their assess-
ments of what tourists want, their ethnic self-identications, and con-
nections between those identities and their work in tourism.
Ambiguous Identities in Succotz
Succotz is located just across the Mopan River from Xunantunich,
the ruins of an ancient Mayan city that is now Belizes most-visited
archaeological site. Both Succotz and Xunantunich are adjacent to the
Western Highway, making them readily accessible to tourism. During
the year this research was conducted, 27,614 tourists visited Xunantun-
ich. However, because Xunantunich is primarily a day trip for tourists
staying at resorts throughout Belize or for cruiseship passengers, few
tourists stayed in the village. Of households surveyed in Succotz, 12%
reported earning income from tourism.
Beyond its proximity to the ruins, Succotz has a Mayan past of its
own: during the 19
and into the 20
century, the village was
described as an Indian community populated by Mopan and Yucatec
Maya with origins in the Guatemalan Peten and the Yucatan Peninsula
of Mexico. The earliest ethnographic research on Succotz reported
that primicias (traditional Maya rituals), formed an integral part of the
communitys agricultural cycle (Thompson 1930:114). These rituals
reected the core cosmological principles identied by essentialist
scholars that link people, nature, ancestors, and sacred forces. How-
ever, in contemporary Succotz, only 20% of the survey sample had land
for agriculture, and wage labor has become the dominant economic
activity. Village residents have been integrated into regional and
national economies, commuting to locations where work is more read-
ily available. Since Succotzenos are known for their skill in construction
work, 31% of the households surveyed had members working in that
eld. The relative decline of agricultural production in Succotz has
led to a consequent reduction in the practice of rituals associated with
traditional agricultural cycles.
By 1991, the national census revealed that 60% of residents dened
themselves as Mestizo (a Spanish term, implying mixed European and
indigenous ancestry, is the ofcial label attached to Spanish-speakers
in Belize), while only 38% identied as Mopan or Yucatec Maya. By
the 2000 census, 83.3% of the population self-identied as Mestizo,
and the number of self-identied Maya had fallen to 9.8%. While
migration into and out of Succotz over the last century may account
for part of this shift to Mestizo identities, the survey of village house-
holds suggests that additional forces are at work: the number of people
who described their parents as Maya was more than twice the number
who claimed that identity for themselves.
On the surface, this would appear to reect what anthropologists
have described as a shift from Maya to Mestizo identities among popu-
lations in northern and western Belize. For centuries the populations
of these regions have been subject to a hierarchy of identities imposed
by colonialism, in which Mestizo outranked Maya. Colonialism associa-
ted European identities with modernity, progress, and Christianity; it
attributed the opposite characteristics to indigenous identities. As a
result, the mixed populations that were the product of colonialism
in Central America have often embraced Mestizo identities and values
as a means to distance themselves from indigenous identities and move
upward in a racial-ethnic hierarchy of both local and global scope. The
anthropological literature on Belize suggests that Maya populations in
the north and west have opted for a similar identity shift over the last
few decades. As opportunities and land for cash crop production were
afforded to rural communities in northern Belize, farmers shifted from
production of basic domestic food crops to sugar production for
export. A boom in the latter boosted their cash incomes and enabled
them to acquire the accoutrements of modern living, such as tele-
vision, cars, and the like. This shift toward cash cropping also eroded
local social and economic traditions and the rituals and community
institutions that underpinned them (Wilk and Chapin 1990:11). As the
lifestyles of rural villagers shifted dramatically over the space of a few
decades, ethnographers in northern Belize pointed to a simultaneous
shift from Maya to Mestizo self-identities, a signicant part of which
involved abandoning the teaching of Yucatecan Maya to their children
in favor of Spanish (Birdwell-Pheasant 1985; Brockmann 1977; Jones
Although census gures for Succotz appear to reect a similar shift
from Maya to Mestizo identities, the issue of self-identities and cultural
afliations in this village is more complex. Beyond the census numbers
lies a deeper ambivalence concerning questions of identity that cannot
be captured adequately through counting exercises. Both this study
and Maurers research in the early 90s reveal the uncertainty of Suc-
cotzenos asked to place themselves in an ethnic identity category.
Maurer quotes a village resident debating with himself: Am I or am
I not Maya? I cant say no and I cant really say yes either, he answers.
I have a really difcult time guring out whether I should write Mes-
tizo or Maya when they force me to say. So sometimes I dont write
anything, because I cant really say whether Im that one or the other
one (Maurer 1997:2012). Two issues intersect to produce this ambiv-
alence: assessments of the relative value of Maya versus Mestizo ident-
ities and questions about the validity of individuals claims to Maya
identities. Succotzen

os are acutely aware of the centuries-long devalu-

ation of Maya or Indian identities in relation to European or Mestizo
ones. Thus, when residents of neighboring towns label them Indians,
they recognize that this label carries a pejorative charge. Such factors
have pushed Maya in northern Belize towards identication with the
Mestizo category. At the same time, Succotzenos question whether they
can legitimately claim Maya self-identities: they may not meet local
requirements for such claims.
Ancestry, Language and Cosmology
Succotzenos invoke three key dimensions that dene Mayaness:
ancestry, language, and ritual or cosmological knowledge. Respon-
dents most frequently cited ancestry as a determinant of ethnic ident-
ity. Of the 73 respondents, 42 (57.5%) cited the identity of their ances-
tors as a factor they considered in placing themselves in an ethnic
category. However, while only 15 (20.5%) classied themselves as
Maya, 32 (43.8%) dened their parents as Maya. Thus, Maya parentage
does not automatically confer this identity.
Community members also considered language a key aspect of ident-
ity. Seven respondents to the survey cited language as a factor to deter-
mine ethnic classication. In the semi-structured interviews with
people employed in tourism, those who spoke Mayan languages ident-
ied as such; conversely, others explained that they could not be Maya,
because they did not speak that language. For example, when asked
if she identied herself as Maya, one artisan replied, No. She
explained, The Maya were those who lived before, those who spoke
Mayan. Now the people here dont know Maya, only the oldest ones
(authors translation). Although all of this womans grandparents and
her father spoke Maya, her mother spoke only Spanish. Since her
mother had taught her only Spanish, she was not Maya. (While most
speakers of Mayan languages refer to the specic name of the language
they speak, the generic term Maya is commonly used by Yucatec Maya
from Mexico and their descendants in Belize).
Maurer conrms the connection drawn between language and ident-
ity. For example, she quotes a conversation about identity between two
Succotz men. The younger man identies himself as Mestizo, reason-
ing that a claim to Maya identity might subject him to queries about
whether or not he speaks Maya; admission that he does not speak the
language would delegitimize his identity claim. If the younger man is
Mestizo by default (because he cannot speak Maya), the older man
adamantly asserts that he is Maya because I speak Mayan. He adds,
however, that his daughter is not Maya, because he did not teach her
the language (1997:202,208). This last point is signicant: Mayan lang-
uages have not been taught to the majority of the last one or two
generations in Succotz. As a result, most Maya speakers in the com-
munity are elders, and Spanish has become the rst language of most
village residents. However, like ancestry, language facility also appears
to be an inconclusive indicator of Mayaness in Succotz: only two indi-
viduals in the household survey reported that they spoke a Mayan lang-
uage, while 15 identied themselves as Maya. Thus, most of the people
who claimed this identity do not speak a Mayan language. Further,
one of the two Maya-speaking respondents self-identied as Mestizo.
In addition to considerations of ancestry and language, some elders
in the village emphasize the role of the shaman/healer in sustaining
the communitys Mayaness. During Maurers study in the early 90s,
elders identied the local healer or curandero as the person who knew
the most about the culture: He knows. He knows about the Mayas.
He knows about the ancients. He knows about the ancestors (Maurer
1997:105). This knowledge is required for the effective practice of heal-
ing and other rituals such as primicias, which involve communication
with ancestors and cosmic forces in order to maintain the covenant
discussed previously. Succotzenos see the knowledge required for ritual
practice as intimately tied to language: they believe rituals are ineffec-
tual unless performed in Maya by someone who speaks and under-
stands it. Thus, the conceptualization of Maya culture held by Succotzs
elders resonates with essentialist conceptions of Mayaness, which focus
on a cosmological core that has persisted across centuries, that con-
tinues to link the living with their ancestors and divine forces, and that
is transmitted and activated through the use of Mayan languages.
However, in Succotz this cosmological core has become less and less
accessible through the channels by which it had been accessed in the
past. The last curandero died in 1996, without training anyone from the
community to continue his practice. He lamented that no younger
person had committed himself to mastering his knowledge, for with-
out a shaman successor, los antiguos [the ancients] would permanently
retreat (Maurer 1997:141). Thus, now that few people in Succotz
speak a Maya language, and the curanderothe last person who was
understood to really know about things Mayahas died, the cosmo-
logical worldview that elders share with Mayan communities elsewhere
is no longer very operative; as the curandero predicted, it is rapidly
receding from memory and practice.
Tourism and Maya Culture in Succotz
However, tourism may present new possibilities for Succotzenos to
claim or reclaim Maya identity and culture. Tourists visit to Succotz
specically to experience Xunantunich. As Castan

eda (1996) suggests,

the publications of Mayanist archaeologists (together with the publi-
cations of tourism promoters) have generated interest in the ancient
Maya among North Americans and Europeans. Archaeologists work at
Xunantunich has made this site available for tourism; simultaneously,
archaeologists enthusiasm for Mayan culture has generated increased
respect for the knowledge of the ancient Maya on the part of some
Succotzenos, especially those employed in excavations. Tourism to
Xunantunich has had a broader effect on local ethnic hierarchies: as
tourists demonstrate interest in ancient Maya culture by generating
demand for goods that reect that culture, positive value attaches to
the Maya label. Villagers are very cognizant of this fact; they often
mentioned the tremendous appreciation that tourists demonstrate for
things Mayan. For example, one tour guide explained that she used
both English and Mayan languages in her tour: I share what I can in
Mayan, because what the tourists are looking for is the genius of the
Maya (authors translation). Another guide recalled having little inter-
est in Maya culture when he began a job as a guide at a nearby resort.
When tourists in his charge wanted to visit Xunantunich, he had hired
someone else to guide them through the ruins. However, little by little
he began to appreciate how tourists valued Mayan culture, and thus
he also became interested. When the opportunity arose, he enrolled
in a three-day class taught by an archaeologist who was excavating at
Xunantunich. He also began reading books on ancient Maya culture
and cosmology, either purchased or received as gifts from tourists or
archaeologists. Since tourists demonstrate little interest in Mestizo
identities and culture, they thus invert the local hierarchy that values
Mestizo over Maya (though the inversion involves the othering of
Mayas in a way that in some respects simultaneously preserves that
While tourism provides incentives for learning about Maya culture,
the work of servicing tourists who visit Xunantunich often involves
alternative ways of learning, performing, or afrming Mayaness for
Succotzenos who are unable to access traditional knowledge through
the channels of language and ritual practice used by their parents or
grandparents. As villagers who work in tourism have attempted to
acquire new, yet ancient, knowledge, they have drawn heavily on new
channels provided by Mayanist academics: ethnographers, archaeol-
ogists, and epigraphers.
For example, a number of Succotzenos have taken up stone carving,
producing relief sculptures in a style that echoes the images and
inscriptions carved into the buildings and stellae at Xunantunich and
other Mayan archaeological sites. Though images from Xunantunich
are especially popular with tourists, slate carvers also copy gures from
archaeology texts about the ancient Maya; some of those books are
gifts from archaeologists who have worked at Xunantunich. Some arti-
sans also use these texts to generate explanations of the names and
signicance of the images they carve, which they attach to the backs
of the stone slabs. In the process, the artisans learn something about
Maya history and cosmology, while renewing what some see as a
Maya tradition.
Similarly, a number of villagers have begun to produce ceramics for
the tourism market. The Xunantunich Organization, formed in 1980
to preserve Maya culture, initially focused on teaching traditional
dances to children. In the 90s, they began efforts to revive a local
ceramic tradition that Maurer suggests had collapsed with the city of
Xunantunich 1,000 years earlier (Maurer 1997:173). Hence, organiza-
tion members launched this revival by attending a workshop funded
by a Canadian agency and taught by Canadians. The workshop had
dual aims: to bring back a local ceramic tradition and to enable vil-
lagers to generate income through pottery sales to tourists who visit
Xunantunich. The two aims were linked through the assumption that
tourists would want to purchase pottery pieces that represent what they
have come to knowthrough academic literature or tourism market-
ing materialsas ancient Mayan culture (Evans-Pritchard 1993:12
13). Thus, the instructors focused on techniques for mass-producing
replicas of ancient Maya masks and vases for the tourism market
(Maurer 1909:176). Succotzenos decorated the ceramics they pro-
duced with designs they traced from the publications of epigraphers
that presented drawings, photographs, and analysis of glyphs from
ancient Mayan cities in Mexico and Guatemala. However, tourists
expressed greater interest in purchasing images from Xunantunich
itself. Thus, the groups director requested copies of the reports pro-
duced by an ongoing archaeological project and began to draw on
their illustrations. The projects ceramicist also met with the group to
provide information about ancient Maya techniques for mixing clay,
molding and ring the pots, making paints, and nishing the designs
(Maurer 1997:184185). The artisans found that the more they used
ancient Maya designs and colors on their pieces, the better they sold.
Further, by describing the Xunantunich Organization as an indigen-
ous project devoted to preserving Maya culture as well as income
generation for its members, it has attracted nancial support from the
development agencies of Canadian and Danish governments; inter-
national organizations such as UNICEF and the ILO; and indigenous
ones that operate transnationally, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Con-
ference, which represents Inuit from all across the polar region, and
Unaaq International, a community development corporation owned
by the Inuit of Canada (Maurer 1997:189). The support of these agenc-
ies and organizations, spurred in large part by transnational indigen-
ous rights activism, has also contributed to the revalorization of Maya
culture and identities in Belize, at the same time that it has enabled
members of the Xunantunich Organization to learn to make pottery.
If stone carving and ceramics production involve the revival of arti-
sanal forms and images associated with ancient Mayan sites, tour guid-
ing requires the richest understanding of the cosmological principles
attributed to Maya culture by Succotzeno elders and essentialist schol-
ars. Tour guides can increase their incomes by improving their knowl-
edge about ancient Maya cosmology and history, in order to elaborate
explanations of the inscriptions on the stellae and buildings at Xunan-
tunich. For example, under a section of reconstructed frieze on the
east side of the tallest structure at the site, which presents the most
striking set of images at Xunantunich, an interpretive sign provides
some basic information about the gures in the frieze:
The sculpture is divided into two horizontal sections. Symbols rep-
resenting twisted cord or plaited rope connect all the elements of the
Three monumental masks, located over three original doorways into
A-6-2nd, are found within the lower register. The masks on both ends
of the frieze seem to be identical and may represent the World Tree
or central axis of the Maya world. The central mask, now visible only
in the drawing, may represent Chac, an important Deity in the Maya
creation of the world. Between the masks are two U-shaped elements
which represent the moon.
This interpretive sign introduces concepts central to Maya cosmology,
but it does not explain how and why representations of Chac or the
World Tree would have been signicant to the sculptors who created
the frieze or the rulers who commissioned it. These omissions provide
openings for tour guides to offer information that can make the
inscriptions more meaningful to tourists. Accordingly, tour guides
from the village have researched the signicance of the World Tree
in Mayan cosmology, in order to contextualize and explain the relief
sculptures. For example, one guide linked the gures in the frieze to
characters and principles from the Maya creation story presented in
the Popul Vuh, a 17
century Kiche Maya text he had read about
in works published by epigraphers and archaeologists. Such detailed
explanation and contextualization heightens the signicance tourists
can derive from the ruins; guides hope that the value they add to tour-
ists experience will translate into handsome tips.
Expecting material rewards for their efforts, most guides have taken
advantage of a range of opportunities to develop their knowledge of
ancient Maya culture: working with an archaeological project excavat-
ing at Xunantunich; taking short courses from archaeologists who work
at the site; and reading books they purchase themselves, borrow from
one another, or receive as gifts from archaeologists or tourists. The
result is that they are acquiring the kind of knowledge about Maya
cosmological principles that the curandero had activated in rituals of
healing or thanksgiving.
Thus, tourism has revalued, in certain contexts, traditional Maya
knowledge that most young Succotzen

os lack. Unable to access this

knowledge by traditional methods, tourism workers have turned to
the writings of essentialist Mayanist scholars as an alternative means
for acquiring such essential cultural information. Fortunately, for
guides and artisans in Succotz, the conceptualization of Maya
embodied in these texts accords with tourists expectations of a gen-
eralizable culture that can be packaged and purchased through trans-
actions such as tours and the sale of artisanal products.
To return to the questions posed in the introduction, is there a diver-
gence between cultural production for cash and uncommoditized cul-
tural production in Succotz? Here, it is apparent that the cosmological
core Succotz elders position at the center of their notions of Maya
culture and identity is less and less available through lived experience
in Succotz, as Mayan languages and shamanic/ritual practice disap-
pear. However, tourism and the cash value it has accorded to knowl-
edge about that very cosmological core has motivated Succotzenos to
utilize new channels to access it. In order to satisfy tourists interest in
things Maya, tour guides, slate carvers, and ceramics producers in
Succotz are turning to the texts produced by Mayanist archaeologists
and epigraphers, which often rely on essentialist approaches, to learn
about Maya cosmology. Thus, in this case tourist servicing is not gener-
ating a new, emergent culture, per se. Nor is tourism generating a
commoditized culture that is distinct from an authentic or traditional
culture. Rather, servicing tourism has prompted Succotzenos to utilize
new channels to access traditions that may have persisted across cen-
turies. As Cohen (1988) argued, the commoditization of culture for
tourism may help to preserve cultural traditions by generating demand
for or attributing value to them; in this case, however, this knowledge
can no longer be accessed through traditional means.
In the introduction, this paper also posed questions about the
assumptions Succotzenos make about Maya culture and what each
approach to cultureconstructivist or essentialistoffers for analyzing
this case. This paper has deployed a constructivist approach in order
to theorize the important roles of academics and tourists in the pro-
duction of understandings of Maya culture in contemporary Succotz.
However, Succotzenos themselves conceptualize Maya culture and
Mayaness in ways that resonate more with the arguments of essentialist
ethnographers and activists, who discern a cosmological core to Maya
culture that has persisted over centuries and that is dependent on
Mayan languages for its transmission from generation to generation.
This reprises the distinction that characterizes Adams study, between
her constructivist approach to the collaborative production of culture
in negotiations between tourists and tourees and the essentialist under-
standings of this joint product held by its creators. Rather than suggest-
ing that one approach is right and the other wrong, this paper
calls attention to the consequences of each approach for evaluating the
authenticity of identity claims: Succotzenos, with their essentialist per-
spectives, have more stringent criteria for evaluating the authenticity
of claims to Mayaness than do constructivists. From a constructivist
perspective, consulting the texts of epigraphers or attending seminars
presented by archaeologists are not inauthentic methods of learning
Maya culture, just alternative routes. However, these are not necessarily
means of cultural learning valued as authentic by local elders.
In Succotz, interactions between tourists and locals tend to revalue
Mayaness, by according higher value to things Maya than to things
Mestizo. Moreover, tourism workers now possess cosmological knowl-
edge central to essentialist conceptions of Maya culture (which they
have acquired through books). Thus, tourist servicing may provide
both means and incentive for slate carvers, ceramics producers, and
tour guides to reevaluate their identity commitmentswhether or not
they speak a Mayan language, whether or not they have much lived
experience with Maya culture. At the same time, although tourism,
Mayanist academic scholarship, transnational indigenous mobilization,
and increased nancial support for indigenous groups from inter-
national agencies tend to elevate the standing of Maya culture and
identities in local hierarchies, forces beyond tourism continue to
devalue Maya identities relative to Mestizo ones. Will the forces that
tend to invert the Mestizo-Maya hierarchy be sufcient to provoke
desire on the part of young people in Succotz to lay claim to Maya
Some slate carvers and ceramics producers do embrace Maya self-
identities. The director of the Xunantunich Organization has explicitly
dened the group as indigenous and Maya, even though most of its
members do not speak Maya. Likewise, one member of the organiza-
tion who self-identied as Maya described the art of ceramic pro-
duction as an innate but latent manifestation of a Maya identity, some-
thing I had inside me. However, most members of the organization
did not dene themselves as Maya when interviewed. Similarly, only
two tour guides dened themselves as Maya. Both speak a Mayan langu-
age, and one uses the language as part of the content of her tour,
authenticating both her own identity claim and the accuracy of the
information she provides by repeating her tour in Mopan Maya after
rst narrating it in English. However, queries about whether they ident-
ied themselves as Maya elicited uncomfortable laughter and dis-
claimers from most other guides (including the son of one guide who
self-identied as Maya). Overall, interviews with tourism workers in
Succotz suggest that, although they seek knowledge about the central
tenets of the Maya culture their elders revere, most do so not as Maya
but rather as tour guides or artists. Many tourism workers remain
ambivalent about the relative prestige of Maya versus Mestizo identities,
weighing the positive charge imparted to Maya identities by such forces
as tourism and transnational indigenous organizing against the nega-
tive charge imposed by colonialism that endures into the present. Suc-
cotzenos who do not work in tourism must weigh these same forces in
deciding their identity commitments, without the incentive of receiv-
ing remuneration for their cultural expertise.
Further, the essentialist perspectives on Maya culture that predomi-
nate in Succotz might lead native tourism workersor their co-vil-
lagersto question the legitimacy of any claims to Maya identity that
tourism workers might make. The acquisition of cultural knowledge
through books may be seen as an insufcient basis for claiming a Maya
identity. Further, language is central to the essentialist views of culture
held by elders in Succotz: key cosmological knowledge can only be
activated through the use of Mayan languages. Thus, possession of that
knowledge without the language skills required by this model to acti-
vate it may not meet local criteria for Mayaness. In addition, some
villagers have criticized the revivals of artisanal traditions that have
occurred in Succotz. One critic argues that real traditions are those
that have been kept alive for centuries, not those that were lost and
had to be revived with outside help. Another village critic asserts that
the pottery produced in Succotz is tourist art, which is not sufcient
for cultural preservation (Maurer 1997:193). On the other hand, given
the number of respondents in the household survey who invoked the
signicance of ancestry in determining identities, it may also be poss-
ible for Succotzenos to claim Mayan identities on the basis of ancestry,
without concerning themselves with Maya culture.
At this point in time, the question of Succotzenos identity commit-
ments must remain open. This paper can offer no tidy conclusion, for
no such understanding exists in Succotz. Instead, this article demon-
strates the ongoing, open-ended nature of negotiations regarding
identities and their authenticity. These negotiations are shaped not
only by local forces, but also by broader forces that includebut are
not limited totourism.
AcknowledgementsThe author thanks Joseph Fridgen, whose comments helped to pos-
ition this paper in relation to tourism studies, and Lisa LeCount, who contributed valu-
able insights from the perspective of an archaeologist with long experience working
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Submitted 9 January 2002. Resubmitted 15 June 2002. Accepted 18 September 2002. Final
version 26 September 2002. Refereed anonymously. Coordinating Editor: Robert E. Wood