Visiting the Last of the Mayans

The culture of the Lacandons in the Mexican jungle is dying out. In an interview, photographer Martin Engelmann and journalist and filmmaker Katja Döhne talk about how rapidly the lives of the descendants of the Maya are changing.

Maya Lacandons in Mexico (Photo Credit: Martin Engelmann)

Interview Conducted By Anna Behrend

March 28, 2018 01:17 PM

Adventurous travel, unforgettable encounters, anecdotes and impressions from foreign countries: In the Hörweite podcast series, SPIEGEL ONLINE reporters talk about their reporting trips around the globe (in German). In this edition, filmmaker Katja Döhne and photographer Martin Engelmann talk about their journey to the Mexican jungle. Here, you can read an abridged, English-language version of the interview.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Martin, you have been visiting and photographing the Lacandon people for many years. They are descendants of the Maya who had long lived in the Mexican jungle without contact with the outside world. And you, Katja, accompanied Martin and made a film about his work. How did you become aware of the Lacandons and what did you find so fascinating that made you want to report about them?

Martin Engelmann: For me, the journey began almost 10 years ago. I had traveled in Mexico many times and was personally very interested in the Mayan culture. I visited the archaeological sites and then traveled through the rainforests in the state of Chiapas. When I happened upon the villages of the Lacandons there, I realized that there is still a lot of authentic life to be found in the traditional sense. And that was where my interest was suddenly awakened.

Spiegel Online: And what does traditional life there look like?

Martin Engelmann: The traditional aspect mainly relates to the faith of the Lacandons. Most of the Maya were Christianized by the Spanish conquerors during the conquest. But the Lacandons have managed to preserve their faith for many centuries, and they were only Christianized in modern times.

Katja Döhne: They were very much opposed to it at first, fleeing into the jungle and running away from the conquerors to avoid being Christianized.

Spiegel Online: Then they lived without contact with the outside world for a long time. But now this contact has been established. When and how did it happen?

Martin Engelmann: They have been in contact with the outside world for over a hundred years now. You have to imagine that they were inundated with all kinds of impressions in this short period, and that their lives have changed considerably as a result. Of course, they now have access to television, telephones and cars, and yet a small part of their old traditional life has been preserved, especially when it comes to faith.

Journalists Katja Döhne and Martin Engelmann (Photo Credit: Martin Engelmann)

Spiegel Online: Is Lacandon a collective term for all descendants of the Maya or does it only refer to a distinct group?

Katja Döhne: It's a distinct group. I believe there are 6 million people in Central America with Mayan ancestors. But they have all somehow modified their faith, so that it now contains many Christian influences. They all speak Spanish, and so on. The Lacandons are this one group that resisted Christianization and lived in isolation in the jungle until a little over a century ago.

Spiegel Online: How many Lacandons are there? And do they all live in one village?

Martin Engelmann: They live in several villages and some now also live in cities. But I would say there are about 500 to 700 Mayan Lacandons in total.

Spiegel Online: Katja, how did you get involved in the project?

Katja Döhne: I have traveled to Mexico many times. It's probably my favorite country. I had heard of the Lacandons but I never really knew how to approach the subject. I got to know Martin through mutual acquaintances. And when he told me what he was doing, I thought: What a stroke of luck -- a German-speaking person who is already documenting the life of the Lacandons anyway. That could be my way in to finally get to meet them. It was really great.

Spiegel Online: What do the Lacandon villages look like these days?

Martin Engelmann: When you enter the villages of the Mayan Lacandons today, it looks like any other Mexican village you might find anywhere in the forests. But when the people are out in the woods, working in their cornfields or fishing on the lake in their canoes, then life is more like it used to be before.

Katja Döhne: It's also interesting to see how the path to the Lacandons has changed over the years. The villages are in the jungle and to get there you drive to Palenque, the nearest city. From there you continue in a colectivo, the small vans that serve as public transportation in the area. The trip took us about three-and-a-half hours. You make fast progress at the beginning because the road is paved, but that wasn't the case just a few years ago.

Martin Engelmann: Yes, the road has gradually been improved and paved in places. Six or seven years ago, it took five or six hours to cover the same distance in a colectivo. And I think it will soon be possible to cover the whole distance in one-and-a-half to two hours.

Spiegel Online: And what sort of work do the people there do in the middle of the jungle? What does their everyday life look like?

Martin Engelmann: People's everyday lives are very varied, of course. They still work in their cornfields. There are now attempts to establish a tourism industry of sorts, but it's been difficult so far because of the relatively long distance to the nearest larger towns. Fishing in the lake and working in the cornfields are common activities. Many of these cornfields are relatively remote, tucked away in the woods. Sometimes you have to walk through the rainforest for an hour or more to get there. Many Lacandons now also work in normal jobs in other villages. Some run grocery stores, small shops where you can get almost everything.

Katja Döhne: There's an unbelievable number of shops in this village, certainly almost 10. That's apparently the business idea there: to buy things in the next bigger town and then sell them in the village.

Spiegel Online: What's in these shops? Do they sell traditional food, for example?

Katja Döhne: Corn is the staple food of the Maya, who make it into tortillas. Tortillas are available in many varieties, as is the case all over Mexico. But it's even more apparent in the village. There is now a small restaurant there, which serves tortillas in all variations, rolled, filled or covered in sauce. At first, we tried to order various things, but in the end, we simply ate the same dish all the time, so-called synchronisadas, because all the dishes on the menu looked the same anyway. These shops actually sell all the things you would find in a convenience store, including cigarettes -- but no alcohol. That's only available in the neighboring village.

Spiegel Online: Why?

Martin Engelmann: They didn't want it for a long time. It was a decision made by the village council. You can now order beer in the restaurant, but that wasn't possible for a long time.

Spiegel Online: Is it part of the Lacandon culture to not drink alcohol?

Martin Engelmann: On the contrary, balche, the drink of the gods, is a traditional Lacandon beverage. The fermented, bark-based drink used to be prepared by shamans. It has an intoxicating effect. So, alcohol is not unknown.

Katja Döhne: And we've heard that it has also become a problem.

Martin Engelmann: I think the problem is simply that there have been extreme upheavals in these villages within a short time. Think about it: They lived untouched in the rainforest for many centuries and then, within a hundred years, they got everything we have developed over many centuries. When you look at the development process that has taken place in such a short time, it isn't surprising that people often have trouble dealing with it. I believe many were simply overwhelmed and, just as in our latitudes, alcohol can become a problem.

Katja Döhne: Another one of the changes is that the Lacandons now receive subsidies from the Mexican government for protecting the rainforest. They simply get money for the fact that this forest is there and they are not growing anything in it. One day we wanted to do an interview with Don Antonio, a shaman, but you could tell that he was distracted and completely beside himself. He had just heard the news that the Mexican government would pay even more subsidies if they stopped cultivating their cornfields. The village was totally in favor, and Don Antonio was distraught, because corn plays a central role in the Lacandon culture.

Spiegel Online: Can you talk a little more about Don Antonio? He seems to be a very interesting character.