Finding the New in the Old

At Uxmal in Yucatan, Mexico.

I went to Yucatan state in Mexico over the New Year holiday. We engaged in all the usual touristic activities, from visiting the amazing Mayan ruins at Uxmal, Chichen Itza, and other lesser-known archeological sites to beaches, cenotes (sinkholes with clear turquoise waters), haciendas, and remarkable wildlife, especially birds. While we were seldom far from a car or modern life, the combination of entering 2012 and being amidst both centuries-old Spanish colonial towns and even more ancient Mayan cities, made it easier to feel the longer stream of history we too are floating in.

Here in Northern California the New Age hype is already at fever pitch for the Mayan calendar’s prediction of the “end of the world” in 2012. But as we drove along country roads to long-abandoned cities of elegant stone towers, massive edifices that were apparently “apartment complexes,” and sophisticated systems of water management and interurban roadways, we came upon a surprising text in the local tourist magazine “Yucatan Today.” Anabell Castañeda writes that the Mayan prophecies do not predict an end of the world at all, but rather a “change of time:”

Not for a single moment have the Mayas feared the arrival of this date; on the contrary: the ancient Mayas have always told us to wait patiently for a change in consciousness and the evolution which that change will bring… Human beings don’t exist by chance or a work of fate, they are part of a plan to carry out a mission in this part of the universe. Nor is the world totally complete in its creation and perfection; mankind has a job to do on this planet and must be a part of its conservation. It could be said that life on planet Earth depends on humans and what we do during our existence…  The Popol-Vuh is their book of advice and it tells us: “It is time for a new dawn and to finally complete the task.”

… within this long-awaited change, it is expected that there will be a reawakening of the Mayan world in all its complexity…  We have an opportunity to experience a change of conscience which will help us to evolve as a species, protecting the natural resources which we need for our survival, and bringing about the long-awaited urgent social equity, finally understanding the importance of the human being in the universal order.”

It was charming and serendipitous to find such a prosaic interpretation of the much-cited Popol Vuh. In a way, Castañeda is placing the prophesied changes into the context of the political movements already underway, from the global efforts to put the brakes on chaotic climate change to the sweep of occupations from North Africa through the Middle East, to southern Europe and across the U.S. in 2011. Imagining the “Mayan world re-emerging in all its complexity” wasn’t so far-fetched while standing on the top of the ruins of Uxmal or Ek-Balam. In fact, Mayan life is quite present throughout Yucatan, albeit a relatively modern and Mexicanized Mayan life. (My neighbor David Miller, a practicing witch, just finished a rather different look at the Popol Vuh in “The Cosmic Ballgame” where he reads the myths and stories in it as the point of origin for cultural obsessions with sports and ball-playing!)

The massive ballcourt at Chichen-Itza, Yucatan.

Yucatecans playing baseball in their own "field of dreams," in rural Yucatan.

I was reminded of an excellent book I read many years ago, “Stolen Continents: The ‘New World’ Through Indian Eyes” by the Canadian writer Ronald Wright. He traces five great civilizations (the Iroquois, the Cherokees, the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incas), describing their first contact with Europeans, their centuries-long struggles to resist subjugation, and their remarkable re-emergence in the late 20th century. In fact, since the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969-1971, Indians in the U.S. have regained cultural pride, political initiative, and with the indigenous from around the world, a global treaty on the rights of indigenous peoples passed at the United Nations. The descendents of the Incan empire, a vast and highly sophisticated urban culture that spanned much of western South America (from today’s southern Colombia through Ecuador and Peru to northern Chile), have been making themselves felt in all the countries of the Andes. Continue reading Finding the New in the Old

Getting a Head Start on the “End of the World”!

We went to see the flamingos in the wild at the northern edge of Yucatan...

This vast structure is in Sayil, south of Uxmal, a lesser known/visited Mayan ruin.

There’s a lot of funny hype about how the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012, so we found ourselves going to Yucatan state in Mexico for New Year’s, and laughed that we were getting a head start on the end of the world!. What a beautiful place! And once upon a time, densely populated by urbanized Mayans, who lived in cities dependent on complicated water capture and storage schemes, with stunning temples and massive stone buildings covered in ornate sculpted hieroglyphs that tell stories of battles, kings, and conflicts of various types. We visited five different archeological sites, including world famous Uxmal and Chichen-Itza, and the lesser known Labna, Sayil, and Ek-Balam (the latter is also the name of a large undersea oil deposit in the Gulf of Mexico). We learned about Sac-Bé, the name given extensive “white roads” that connected the many Mayan towns and cities from the Yucatan down into Central America, rivaling the roads of the Incas in Peru/Ecuador/Bolivia, and the Roman roads across Europe.

One of the Mayan roads that cut across the Labna ruins, south of Uxmal.

This iconic arch at Labna is used in a lot of tourist promotions. In a book called "The Lost Cities of the Mayans" I saw an image drawn in the 1840s of the same arch as it was just being dug out of deep jungle and soil.

Continue reading Getting a Head Start on the “End of the World”!

The Future Changes its Spots!

“Progress consists of the application of intelligence to the reduction of effort and dependency, and the expansion of a sphere of idleness and individual freedom.”

—Franco “Bifo” Berardi, After The Future

The Occupy movement is going through a pivotal moment right now, with various camps—notably Oakland, Portland, and New York City—being destroyed by police action during the past few days. The punditocracy and the politicians are all hoping this will bring it to an end, but that is not going to happen. It is likely that the focus on camping and holding public plazas may give way to new tactics, but the newly vocal populations all over the U.S. are not going to be silenced just as they’ve rediscovered their voices.

Arriving at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland on November 2, we were met with this amazing scene.

Walking around the area, the scenes of everyone together were endlessly inspiring. An historic day!

In particular, the Oakland General Strike of November 2 was an historic event. For the first time in the U.S. an urban General Strike emerged from the new working classes, the precarious, the unemployed, the unorganized, and the poor, brought together 2,000-strong in the Occupy Oakland General Assembly on October 26 and voting 96% in favor. One week later it happened, and it was an amazing day.

General Strikes are not so rare in other parts of the world, of course. Several cities in Syria have been out for almost two weeks as I write. Italy and France have had many one-day general strikes in the past decades. But those have been led by giant trade union confederations, and kept under pretty tight control.

The Oakland General Strike was an opening salvo from an unexpected quarter: the “precariat” (a neologism made by combing precarious and proletariat). Local unions could not formally endorse the call in such a short time, and are often bound by no-strike clauses in their contracts. Nevertheless, rank-and-file members of the Service workers (SEIU 1021), the Teamsters, the Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and others, enthusiastically joined in during the day-long festival that gripped the center of Oakland, culminating in the mass marches towards dusk that shut down the Port of Oakland, the nation’s fifth largest. But organized labor was following, not leading this General Strike. The people filled the city center with music, banners, marches, humor, performance, food, yoga, meditation, childcare, art-making, and more. Rappers, hip-hop spoken word artists, and folk musicians all performed in the streets. Urban farmers showed up with free vegetables grown in the city’s reclaimed lots. Free valet bike parking was provided by local bicycle advocates. Dozens of economic and environmental justice activists were in the mix. The Oakland General Strike not only halted business as usual in much of Oakland, but demonstrated practical everyday alternatives that are already well entrenched in the area.

Much to my surprise, the Teamsters showed up with a truck load of hamburgers and hot dogs from the Alameda County Labor Council which they fed to all comers for hours.

This table offered free veggies from the East Oakland schools farmers market.

This booth had already given away all its food by the time I took this photo.

Most hopefully, the Oakland General Strike excited everyone who turned out, leading to cascading feelings of solidarity and possibility, which in turn flows out of Oakland and across the networks of occupiers everywhere. Solidarity messages flowed in from as far away as Egypt, while Oakland suddenly found itself in the eyes of the world. The one-day strike was a powerful demonstration to local and national elites, but more importantly, it was a powerful demonstration to participants and allies, shifting imaginations about what is possible. Continue reading The Future Changes its Spots!