Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2008:
David Bolles

Maya Life in Kom Cħeen

The films in this collection were taken in the early to mid 1970's, at a time when Kom Cħeen was a fairly traditional Maya town. Now, however, Kom Cħeen is becoming a somewhat distant suburb of Mérida. To view a video click on the image.

There were people when I first went there who had never been to Mérida. This in part was because, with the exception of the early morning and late afternoon bus, to even get from the town to the main road to Progreso one had to walk which took about an hour. It wasn't long after we built our house that the road was built and local taxis started making the round trip to the main road where the Mérida-Progreso bus passed with moderate frequency. Now however there are buses and taxis which will get you from the center of Kom Cħeen to downtown Mérida in 1/2 hour (if the traffic is alright) which run all through the day.

The gremio (guild) march of the fiesta of the Immaculate Conception (second weekend of December I think). The procession starts at the gremio president's house, goes to the church (there is only one in the center of Kom Cħeen), and then (not shown) returns to the president's house. While this is taking place a number of people remain at the president's house making chilmole and tortillas for the gremio participants. The president of a gremio can be either male or female. It is a sort of coming out party for a family which has made enough money in order to put on the various functions which go into making the fiesta happen: the sewing of the cloths for statue of the Virgin Mary in the church, which is changed every year at this time to keep her looking fresh, the paying of the band for the march, the buying of fireworks for the march, the buying of the food for the feast, the hiring of the band to play at the dances given on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday after the bull fight, and other such expenses. There are charges at some of the events such as the dances and bullfight which helps recuperate some expenses, but in smaller towns such as Kom Cħeen it is expected that the income will not cover the expenses.

Various house styles, from modern (ours, begun in the late 1960's and finished in 1970) to traditional. Traditional houses are built around a stick framework, which is tied together. Thus, in Mayan, they say that they are "tying" their house (kax na). The roofs are made of either xaan (Sabal japa Wright) or zuuc (various varieties of grass). Xaan is considered to be the better material for roofing material, both because it lasts longer and because it is easier to install. However, there being a limited number of xaan palm trees near Kom Cħeen, it must be bought and brought in, mainly from Hunucma. Zuuc on the other hand is available out in the savanna between Kom Cħeen and Progreso, and can be cut and gathered without cost. The walls of most traditional houses in Kom Cħeen are made out of dry stone masonry, similar to the walls in the area, which are then covered on the inside with chinking and plaster to keep out the wind.
Modern houses of the mid-1900's are made out of stone walls laid up with mortar and chinking, usually about 35 cm thick, and then roofed with poured concrete and reinforcing bar. Starting about 1975 stones adequate for building the stone walls began to become scarce and blocks began to be used. Aside from poured concrete roofs, other type of roofs began to appear, from concrete block and beams, to corrugated metal or asphalt sheets over rails.
Kitchens for all of these types of houses are typically separate structures, and any combination of the above building techniques are used, although most people prefer to use the traditional type of structure with a thatched roof so that the smoke from the kitchen fire can escape through the roof.
At the end of the house segment is a quick view of the "Mayan washing machine".

Making tortillas for the noonday meal. Principal characters: Goya Ek de Poot, daughter Nicolasa, daughter-in-law X-Chula, and Alejandra Bolles. The first step is to make kuum, which is corn kernels of flint corn boiled in lye water. The corn then sits overnight and is thoroughly washed in the morning to get out all of the lye water and skin or hull from the corn. There being several mills in Kom Cħeen, the kuum is then taken to be ground. The resulting ground corn is called zacan from which the tortillas or uah are made by being patted out, now mostly on sheets of plastic, and then placed on the gridle to cook. The better-off families will buy tortillas already made from the tortilla making machines at the mills, but everyone says, and correctly so, that home-washed and hand-made tortillas taste better. There are two reasons for this: the process of washing the corn at home is more thorough so that there is less after-taste from the lye, and for some reason the tortilla machines can not reproduce the thickness and quality of the hand-made tortillas.

Bride and groom to-be, and around the bride's home. A note about clothing styles: During the 1970's Kom Cħeen was in a state of transition in terms of women's clothing styles. In some families the women from the youngest to the oldest wore the traditional uipil and are referred to as x-mestizas (meaning mulatto in Spanish). In other families, there was a progression from younger women and girls wearing western style clothes, and being called catrinas (meaning elegant in Spanish) to the older women still wearing the traditional clothing. And yet other families, although few, were completely catrinazadas at the time the film was taken. While uipils are still in evidence in Kom Cħeen of today, the majority of the women and girls now wear western style clothing.
One of the comments by Maya women about wearing uipils and the associated appearal is that it is much more expensive and/or time-consuming to be a mestiza. Both the making of an elegant uipil and the buying of the shaw (bocħ) means that much labor and expense is involved. The same comments are made by members of the highland Maya communities.
The men's clothing style has been ignored because almost all of the men by this time were wearing "standard issue" peasant clothing. However, there were still a few older men, one of which can be seen in the video of the fiesta of the Immaculate Conception, during the making of the feast tending the fires who was wearing the traditional mestizo clothes, most noticeably the wrap-around apron called uith in Mayan. And today, just like Guatemala and places in Africa the markets have been flooded with cheap second-hand clothing from the US, so children are looking more like trans-World people than like Mayas.
Another item of interest is that in the sequence of photos (the pdf linked below) showing the gathering of firewood the youngest boy Mauro is shown wearing unembroidered uipil-like clothing called by some bata. This piece of clothing is very similar to what the Lacandon of all ages, both male and female, used at that time. Mauro must have been one of the last boys to have worn such a thing in Kom Cħeen.
In the case of the bride and groom, the bride's family was almost completely catrinazada at the time the film was taken, whereas the groom's family was one of the more conservative families, with most everyone wearing uipils.

Henequen production. Principal characters: Emiliano Poot Chim and his sons Angel and Mauro. The day starts by the father picking up his allotment of tie ropes for tying up bundles of henequen leaves in bundles of 50 leaves each. First the leaves are cut and stacked. The father and the older son do the cutting while the younger son lays out the chords and stacks 50 leaves on each chord. The father and older son then tie up the bundles after which they have their keyem (corn gruel) break. The bundles are then taken out to the rail line and shipped to the defibrating plant where the green pulp is stripped off the leaves and the fiber hung up to dry. The final sequence shows the making of the rope used to tie the bundles.

Slash-and-burn garden. Principal characters: Emiliano Poot Chim and Lau Poot Chim. As the dry season begins people who plan on making a garden plot on the ejido (township) land choose an area which they believe will yield a good crop and cut down the trees and brush. After the slash dries, usually in March, the area is burned over. In preparation for the burn a bucket of zaca (corn gruel which has not been soaked in slake lime) is mixed for the forest spirits to refresh themselves while the burn is taking place. (I ran out of film at a critical moment just when Lau was going to mix the zaca. The bucket is shown hanging on a tree later.) This is followed by scenes of watering and cleaning garden plots. While some corn is grown in Kom Cħeen, what is mostly grown are vegetable and fruit crops for sale in the markets in Mérida and Progreso.

Firewood gathering. Principal characters: Emiliano Poot Chim, Goya Ek de Poot, their children Nicolasa, Mauro and Lydia, and Alejandra Bolles and her sister Leonora Kim Yu. Gathering firewood is usually a weekly chore. People go out into the ejido lands in search of dead trees, chop them into firewood lengths, and bundle them to be carried back to the house. The preferred woods are catzim (Acacia Gaumeri Blake) and uaxim (Leucaena glauca L.). Those who use large quantity of firewood, such as bakers, will ask for green wood, which is easier to cut. Since they store such a large quantity of wood, by the time they get to the wood which was cut green it has usually dried out enough to be used in the oven.
Green wood is also used in the production of charcoal. The still sequence shows the preparation of the charcoal kiln. Dry wood is used at the center of the kiln in order to get a hot fire going, The fire is usually touched off in the evening and the fire allowed to burn through the night in order to cook the green wood. When this film was taken many houses still had a charcoal braziers used for cooking foods where smoky fires by using firewood would not do. Now, with propane gas being available and used in many houses, charcoal production has almost come to a halt.

Cemetery. People are buried for two years, after which the bones are disinterred. This is because there is limited burial space in the cemetery due to the rocky land. However, there are also indications that secondary burials are a pre-Columbian tradition, what with painted bones and other such being found in archeological digs. If the family hasn't prepared the osario (bone box), which is usually the case, then the bones are hung up in plastic bags in the mortuary building, often to be thrown out over the back wall of the cemetery after a certain amount of time when it becomes clear to the cemetery keeper that the family has no intention of building the osario.

A photo slideshow is also available with additional photos of life in Kom Cħeen. Click here to view the PDF slideshow.

Many women work in the sewing factories which have been set up in the neighboring town of Dzit Ya. One beneficial result of this is that the women spend there earnings on food rather than on booze, as is the case with the men, and the children of Kom Cħeen are much healthier and surprisingly much taller. Click here to read my comments about Maya stature and dimorphism.


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