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Mayas Struggle With Poverty, Honoring Their Roots

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Mayas Struggle With Poverty, Honoring Their Roots

Latin America

Mayas Struggle With Poverty, Honoring Their Roots

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. A week ago, everyone seemed to be talking about the Maya people of Mexico and Central America. Due to a misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar, word spread that the ancient culture had predicted the end of the world on December 21st.

MONTAGNE: Tens of thousands flocked to Maya sites, to see if the prophecy would come to pass. There were bargain tourist packages and state-sponsored festivals.

GREENE: As it turned out, the world did not end; the tourists have gone back home. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the modern-day Maya people are going on with their lives. It is a culture that struggles with poverty, and depends on migration to the U.S.


CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Seventy-eight-year-old Paulino Ciau shuffles through his dirt yard, tending to his pigs and chickens in Tunkas, a small Maya town in Mexico's Yucatan state.

PAULINO CIAU: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Ever since I was 8 years old, the Maya priests would say the world is going to end. He chuckles. End - what end? I'm 78, and we're all still here. Ciau says he doesn't mind the attention, lately, his people have gotten, even though he says the benefits went to the businessmen catering to tourists. He says the people here in Tunkas are used to toughing it out.

CIAU: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: We are farmers here. We work the land. If it rains, we eat, he says. If it doesn't, we don't. Ciau owns the lone tortilla store in Tunkas. Most of his children left town years ago; to work in the tourist resorts around Cancun, or to the U.S.

There are about 5 million Maya living in Mexico and Central America. Migration to the U.S. only began in the 1970s. U.C. San Diego professor Wayne Cornelius, who studies the Maya of Tunkas, says many came after a devastating hurricane hit the region.

WAYNE CORNELIUS: On balance, most people who have migrated from this town have benefited. They have clearly, raised their standard of living; they have diversified their sources of income. But the migrants have also acquired some major health problems.

KAHN: Cornelius says those living in the U.S. are twice as likely to be obese, and suffer from hypertension. For the relative left behind, depression is a major health problem. The number one prescription in Tunkas is for antidepressants.

CORNELIUS: You know, this is a fascinating case. We have an ancient civilization being slammed up against 21st century America.


KAHN: That culture clash is loud and clear at Antonio Ciau's house in Inglewood, California. He lives right next to the 105 freeway, smack under the flight path of L.A.'s International Airport. Ciau, who's 49, left Tunkas when he was a teen, and hasn't been back since.

ANTONIO CIAU: I miss it. I miss my town, you know. In the 25 years - I haven't seen my mom in 25 years. I haven't seen my brothers and sisters in 25 years. I talk to them on the computer and all that, but it's not the same.

KAHN: Paulino, the tortilla maker, is his uncle. Ciau, like most Maya in the U.S., came illegally. And like most from the Yucatan, work in the carwashes of L.A. Ciau says he tried hard to teach his children, four of whom were born in the U.S., the ways of life back home.

CIAU: How to respect people and the Mayan way, how to talk to people. The way my dad's parents taught him, he taught me; so I wanted to teach them the same way.

KAHN: He says his children speak a few words in Maya, but it's been hard to keep the culture alive. That's a lot of what motivated Manuel Nunez Canche to move his family back to Tunkas, after living 11 years in Anaheim, California.

MANUEL NUNEZ CANCHE: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: In his Tunkas store, Nunez combs through a mound of popsicles he sells: grape, strawberry and sweet-rice ones.

CANCHE: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Nunez says here in Tunkas, he has more control over his U.S.-born children, who had to learn Spanish when they came back. They don't speak Maya at all. For Paulino Ciau, the retired tortilla maker, his biggest worry is how few in town speak the native language.

CIAU: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: The young here don't want to speak it; only the grandparents do, says Ciau. He says it won't happen right away, but he worries that within a generation or two, no one in Tunkas will remember the Maya words, or its ways.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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