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Mayas, the flight through time

A new documentary shows how a 3,500-year-old culture remains vibrant in Mesoamerica

When the Mayan people abandoned their cities of gleaming limestone in the 9th century AD, they took with them something far more enduring than monuments: They took their culture. 

Over the centuries, as the forest reclaimed these vast temple complexes, the descendents of this great civilization continued to speak their ancestral languages, find meaning in the same cosmology, and even eat the same foods. 

As a result, the 3,500-year-old Mayan culture remains central to the identity of six million people living in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Their heritage is the subject of the new documentary “Mayas, the flight through time” (Mayas, Aves del Tiempo) sponsored by the IDB, el Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes of México, and directed by the Mexican cinematographer Sergio Yazbek. 

The documentary was produced to commemorate the end of the 13th bak’tun of the Mayan calendar cycle. Its virtual launching coincides with the IDB’s Cultural Center inauguration in Washington of the exhibit "Heavenly Jade of the Maya,” an exceptional collection of archeological pieces from Guatemala’s National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. 

“With the documentary, we honor the worldview of the Maya civilization and identity values ​​and traditions of their descendants," said Gina Montiel, IDB Country Manager for Central America, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. "It's a way to show the IDB's commitment to indigenous peoples and their diversity.” 

The documentary opens with stunning views of ancient temples towering above the forests and examines the lives and culture of the present day Mayas. 

It emphasizes the connection between the Mayas and the natural world, especially birds considered religious symbols because they possess the miraculous ability to fly and journey to heaven. 

The Mayas’ reverence for birds continues today. A woman embroiders an aviary of brightly colored birds in her huipil blouse. “This clothing is traditional,” she says. “It has never changed.” 

It also shows how ancient symbols coexist with the new. The Mayas appear to have adopted many elements of the Catholic rituals; however, they often use these elements to express their traditional cosmology. 

“I am a Mayan curandero; I cure people with medicinal plants,” says a young man with gold teeth kneeling before the candle-lit carving of an old man. The image is of the Gran Abuelo, or Great Grandfather. 

“We ask him for cures, and for help in business, trips, studies, solving problems, finding a wife or a husband,” he says. Mayan people emigrating to the United States also ask the Gran Abuelo for protection on the long and dangerous trip. 

Today’s Mayan people speak 29 distinct languages. Although these languages all come from the same linguistic tree, many are mutually unintelligible. For instance, a person speaking K’iche’ would have difficulty understanding a speaker of Yucatec. 

These are some of the scenes of this original audiovisual piece that contrasts the past of the Mayan civilization with the present, highlighting the challenges faced by his descendants to preserve a culture rich in traditions, beliefs with a special appreciation for nature and animals. 

“Mayas, the flight through time”” will be the subject of a presentation in January in Washington, D.C., with film director Yazbek. Meanwhile, it is available on the IDB website.

Television channels interested in broadcasting the documentary should contact Indira Murillo: