Skip to content

"Katun: A Twenty-Year Journey with the Maya" by Cindy Hull

The following is a summarized version of Hull's Katun: A Twenty-Year Journey with the Maya for use as a reference in my Belizean Ethnoarchaeology studies. For your convenience, here is the formal book citation:

Hull, Cindy L. (2004). Katun: A Twenty-Year Journey with the Maya. USA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. pp. 190.

Foreward (pages xi-xiii)

About the series   Katun: A Twenty-Year Journey with the Maya, by Cindy L. Hull is one book of a series of case studies in cultural anthropology that addresses the rich and complex aspects of human life lived in different ways and places, how groups and communities cope with changes in their physical and sociopolitical environments, and how cultures solve problems in life.

About the author   Hull began her research addresses the collapse of the mono-crop henequen system and its impact on families in the village of Yaxbe, in northwest Yucatan. Twenty years of work in the area allowed her to see the changes and adaptations of the people to the economic transformation; plus, she was given the opportunity to participate in their daily lives and rituals.

About the case study   Hull examined how women adapted to their growing power and the economic and social changes that have occurred since 1992. The case study is not only about Yaxbe, but how the whole world was transformed when the network of global relationships was born.

Preface (pages xiv-xviii)

Introduction to the Yucatan, Mexico   Hull arrived in Yaxbe in 1971, when henequen (sisal), a cactus-like plant, was abundant in the limestone plains and the henequen production was at its peak. Hull was faced with questions regarding how these people made a living with the extremely demanding environment and how they managed to preserve between two economic systems – ancient subsistence on corn and the imposed mono-crop production and wage labor. The Maya are part of a social system within their village and as a state in a developing nation.

Purpose of this Study   This study was done during a period of transition and adaptation with an analysis of the new integration of the Yucatec Maya culture with the dominant Yucatecan and Mexican society. The study focuses on the village of Yaxbe: the shift in economic strategy adopted by villagers after the collapse of the henequen market and the transformations in social relations with Yaxbe as women were integrated into the wage economy and the expansion of their involvement in social and political life of the village. The ethnography consists of three parts: the historic and geographic setting of Yaxbe and an introduction to the village, social context of the village life, and economic and social changes that occurred in the nation, state of Yucatan, and the village Yaxbe since 1990.

Chapter 1: A Katun with the Yucatec Maya (pages 1-12)

The Mayan Landscape   The natural landscape is made up of semitropical brush and corn fields or henequen plants. Towns have oval-shaped houses arranged in clusters (solares) and separated by limestone boulder fences. People speak Spanish and the elderly Mayan. Women dress in huipiles and magenta shawls; men wear the Maya traje. Girls wear faded skirts and dresses while boys wear tattered shirts and shin length pants. Older children carry infants on their hips as they rush to their destinations.

Entering the Village, 1976   Yaxbe, relatively isolated, was close enough to Merida for access to their urban markets – a major factor for their survival. As part of the henequen zone, fewer women wore the huipil and fewer men the traje. Even fewer villagers spoke Maya, only the elderly.

Returning to Yaxbe, 1998   After twenty years, Hull’s children and the children of Yaxbe had grown up together during the intervals Hull returned to update her data and document changes.

The Objective and Subjective in Anthropology   Anthropology is a constant conflict between theory and method. Anthropologists define the discipline as scientific, with testable hypotheses, research, and published works. Franz Boas, the father of anthropology, initiated the field. Ethnography is academic and written in third person – the anthropologist is removed from the action, but is present, and has a minimal impact on the culture being described. However, the anthropologist does have an impact: new technology, gifts, and even teaching others their language impacts the culture being studied.

Method: Longitudinal Research   Valuable research can be validated or tested. First, anthropologists can conduct research in the same location; secondly, longitudinal research means one or more researchers can return to the same location over time (Hull’s method of choice).

Chapter 2: Historical Context (pages 13-21)

Anthropology, History, and Economic Theory; The Maya World   Mexico can be viewed within three matrices: the relationship between (i) Mexico and Spain, (ii) Mexico and the United States, and (iii) the Mexican government and its diverse regions. Within these matrices of colonialism, nationalism, and the formation of modern institutions, a person can understand the diversity, sources of inequality, and identity in the sociopolitical area. Maya territory expands from the Mexican states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan, to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and part of El Salvador. The Yucatan peninsula is flat and dry, with wet tropical lowlands. There is little soil for crops (with the exception to corn, beans, and squash) and the little rainfall the peninsula receives is absorbed into karst.

Pre-Conquest Maya and Conquest to Independence   Agriculture was supplemented with hunting and fishing. There was no centralized government in the Maya territories. Power was held by each civic center. Conquistadores took over the land and made the Maya work for them, the encomenderos. Land was suitable for cattle raising. Later, encomiendas transitioned to haciendas, self-sustaining enterprises.

Henequen and the Post-Independence Era   Yucatan was dependent on cash crops for most of its colonial history. Henequen became a mono-crop after the Yucatan invention, a mechanized decorticator, and the United States’ invention, the McCormick Reaper.

The Decline and Fall of the Henequen Era   In 1910, 985 of the world’s henequen came from Yucatan. By 1950, synthetic materials were replacing henequen, and by 1976, henequen production in Yaxbe was declining. The world competition for sisal, the rise of the petrochemical industry, and the production of less expensive synthetic substitutes caused the decline of henequen production. Increased reliance increased Mexican debt to the United States. Now, Yucatan depends on the maquila industry and tourism.

Chapter 3: The Economy of Yaxbe, 1976-1989 (pages 22-36)

World Systems Theory and Agency in Yucatan   The main principles of cultural change are: (i) economic and social change and patterns of cultural change are understood in the larger context of politics that affected the land and exploitation of natural resources, (ii) individuals and groups are agents of change who shape their own futures in this larger context, and (iii) human responses to change are not identical or predictable.

The Economic Structure   The Henequen Cycle consisted of extracting the fibers in henequen plants by cutting and stripping their leaves. Henequen requires seven years of care before they produce leaves that are useful. The plants produce leaves for ten to twelve years. When the plant dies a flower blooms that produces poisonous sap. Henequen production, until 1992, was exploited by ejidos and parcelas. The state and national governments that subsidized the production of henequen controlled the Henequen ejido system and also reimbursed the ejidatarios. Parcelarios are private landowners that cannot sell their land, only abandon it or pass it down to their children. Cordemex or haciendas owned decorticating factories. Families with two members working with Cordemex had better standards of living. The sindicato was a trucking operation used to transport henequen fibers to the Cordomex plant in Merida.

The Milpa Cycle, the second agricultural cycle, depends on the seasons. Milpa refers to the trilogy (corn, beans, and squash), though some also grow chiles, tomatoes, and yams. Soil is poor so milpas are moved yearly. Land is cleared, and brush is left to dry. At the end of the dry season, the land is burned for a month, after which a crop is planted.

Animal husbandry consists of herding cattle, selling domesticated animals and their byproducts, and beekeeping. Nonagricultural occupations include construction, tailoring, jobs in stores/restaurants/bars, and hammock weaving.

Chapter 4: Village Life: Resilience and Change, 1976-1998 (pages 37-66)

The Village   Yaxbe was a minor Maya settlement when the conquistadores arrived. According to the villagers, the Mayan ceremonial center, “los cerros,” is actually west of the current city and not beneath the Catholic Church. Yaxbe is made up of the village and seven henequen haciendas, set up as a grid with a main highway that divides the village in half. A central park is located across from the church. Houses are grouped in solares, each with its own well (some now have water pipes that extract water from the wells). Water from the wells is used for cooking and drinking. Hammocks are the dominant feature in all homes; kitchens are outside of the house since traditional cooking is done over an open fire.

The People   The blended population of Mexican and Maya (or with any indigenous race) is called mestizo in literature. Mestizo in Mexico, though, is the cultural concept of those who wear indigenous clothing (e.g., the elderly wear Maya clothing as a symbol of their traditional culture). Those who speak Maya are considered mestizo (e.g, the elderly), but most speak Spanish. There are Mayan and Spanish surnames. There is constant competition between Maya religion, Catholicism, and Protestantism (e.g., Seventh Day Adventism). Most of the population makes up the working or middle class. Kinship originally (prior to conquest) was ranked and patrilineal until the forced bilateral kinship with early marriages and a nuclear family.

Culture and the Individual: The Life Cycle   After birth, transitions in a child’s life are marked by religious rituals (e.g., hetzmek, baptism). As children grow, they are given responsibilities rather than their early freedom to do as they please (e.g., hammock weaving, working the milpa). In adolescence, actions are monitored by adults and they take on adult responsibilities (e.g., childcare, marriage, work). Women have a quinceañera that marks their passage to womanhood. Marriage may be of common law, civil ceremony, or religious church wedding. At death, the body is displayed in the home and then buried in the village cemetery.

Village Cohesion   School associations and community service are volunteer associations that help social and economic networks form. Mutual assistance is strongly expressed, always willing to help other villagers who are facing crisis.

Education   Education is a major agency of socialization and provides children with a chance to learn about their origin, religion, and values by listening to their elders and learn about future roles by observing daily tasks and practices. In Mexico, only primary education is mandatory (1st-6th). There are three primary schools in Yaxbe (federal, state, and private). When Yaxbe had a secondary school (7th-12th) built, there was an increase of education advancement. Those who want a professional career must complete high school so they may go on to university. Higher education has changed the perception of importance in urban and rural families because it gives their children opportunities in different workforces after the decline of working in the ejido.

Health and Medicine   Traditional health and healing focuses on traditional beliefs in the spirit world. Natural forces and ill will of others result in disease. Sorcery is not as common now, but it is still believed by some that sorcerers send disease by the winds. Traditional herb and plant medicines are still favored for everyday ailments (e.g., stomach aches, head aches). Western medicine promotes the persistent practice of breastfeeding, family planning, and balanced nutrition.

Chapter 5: The Political Structure of Yaxbe, 1976-1998

National and Local Politics The political party PRI dominated the political spectrum until the birth of PAN and PRD. Presidents in Yaxbe are elected based on personality and what they can provide for the people, not based on party affiliation. To recruit supporters, candidates must graciously give money (candidates need a lot of money, as a local patron and for his campaign) and offer something to their people (e.g., two kilos of beef for each family) if they are elected. The president gains respect, authority, and prestige, though they often continue with their original work and serves only one three-year term with no reelection. Presidents are to be loyal to family and compadres, favor egalitarianism, earn prestige by graciously sharing their wealth, demonstrate honesty, integrity, and fairness, plus are expected to express patronage and nepotism, and leave office with more wealth than when he began. The values expected from presidents are measured by what he did to benefit the village and how individuals were benefitted during his presidency.

Crime and Punishment in Yaxbe    The most common offenses are theft and drunkenness, not murder. Robberies normally concern the sale of livestock. These offenses are what cause people to serve in the state prison. People who spend their families money in excessive drinking are left to “sober up” in the local jail then are taken home to be delt with by their families. In the past, women were passive about their husbands’ actions; now in neolocal and matrilocal families, the wife has increased influence over their husbands. Alcohol used to be part of rituals and now is abused of, not only in Yaxbe but also globally. In Yaxbe, there are minimal capital offenses and violence. This calm state is controlled by the social and economic factors of external sources of factionalism (nonlocal class system promotes antiwealth distinctions and political gains of power) and internal sources of cohesion (village networks are reinforced by village endogamy and “compadrazgo”).

Chapter 6: Mayan and Catholic Roots in Yaxbe (pages 87-107)

Mayan and Catholic Syncretism   Religion, in an anthropological perspective, is the beliefs on native people and their corresponding rituals. Religion adds supernatural beliefs to explain the unexplainable world through symbols (e.g., the origin of the universe, spirits and demons in nature). The Maya roots of religion are based on the complex stratified society of the Maya that had economic, social, and religious positions. In religious positions, the “priest” interpreted the cosmos of thirteen tiers that divided the earth, sky, and underworld. Religion was part of everyday life prior to the conquest. Catholicism was imposed on the natives. After the conquest, native populations decreased 90-95%. The massive reduction formed new Indian social congregations without shared cultures. Women form the core of the Catholic church that provides important rites of passage (e.g., baptism, first communion, quinceañeras, weddings). Women are rejected positions in the church despite their participation.

The Place of Ancient Spirits in the Modern World   The aluxob and Xtabai are two factors of the Maya supernatural realm still believed in by Yaxbeños. The aluxob cause misfortune to people if they are not shaken off. The Xtabai is a spirit that appears as a woman that lures drunken men away, whom are never seen again. Both of these supernatural powers are used to lure people from drinking and wandering away at night.

A Tale of Two Rituals   There are two rituals that have combined traditional and modern customs: the comistraje and the annual fiesta. The comistraje is a rain ceremony. Live chickens and turkeys are brought and a large pot of water boiled (from the sacred cenotes) for the preparation of ritual food. The gods are addressed and asked to bless the food prepared. The fiesta is predominantly Catholic but has incorporated elements of traditional Maya beliefs; an example a syncretism between religion and secularism. It is a celebration of the village patron saint and is becoming more and more secular (controlled by the church and government).

Chapter 7: Religion for Business and One for Sunday: The Seventh Day Adventists (pages 108-124)

Protestantism in Yaxbe   Seventh Day Adventists (STA) had 180 baptized members in 1976 and the villagers built a second (religious, STA) primary school. The church is modern and modest, unlike the imposing Catholic Church. Adventists drew people away from the “centralized, authoritarian, and patriarchal” Catholic Church. There are dietary (abstinence from pork) and social (cigarettes, alcohol, and secular activities) restrictions. Adventist baptisms occur in the cenotes. Adventists emphasize individual salvation and the relationship between work and predestination. Most people covert to Adventism after a crisis that was unresolved by Catholicism. Protestants are “drawn together” by daily sacrifices and moral superiority that strengthen their faith that God is leading them in life and gives them strength.

The Impact of Protestantism on the Lives of Men and Women in Yaxbe   In Yaxbe there is an unspoken emphasis on individual effort as a means to economic success. Adventists are less likely to work in traditional agricultural and factory work. There is an emphasis on professional and non-agricultural occupations. Those who do work in agriculture are diversified (combination of henequen production, cattle herding, vegetable horticulture, and non-agricultural work). Adventists devised a way of self-employment, such as the vegetable shipment market of Pedro. Statistically, a higher percentage of Adventists (compared to Catholics) continue their education after primary school.

Pentecostals and the Impact of Protestantism on Village Life  There is a third, least established, church in Yaxbe that is the Pentacostal temple. Pentecostals have not expanded as much as the Adventists, and most live isolated from other villagers. There are cultural “threads” that tie the Protestants and Catholics together in the village, though they worship, have social events, and express their interests separately.

Chapter 8: In the Ashes of the Henequen Ejido (pages 125-146)

Peasants and the World System Revisited   In 1989, the ejido fell and the service sector rose. The decline of the henequen system was destroying the delicate economic balance of the local economy. Non-agricultural wage jobs were rare in the village. A local taxi service increased traffic going into Merida. In the 1990s, the infrastructure and appearance of the village improved. There is an increase of cellular phones in the village (increased communication) and even internet cafes. Houses are larger and more modern (e.g., furniture) and many villagers have vehicles. Contrary to Hull’s beliefs, there was a decline in migration rates and a healthy increase in population. There were economic strategies that led to the village improvements.

Economic Diversification in the Village   Diversified sources of income and the participation of women in the wage economy, combined with commuting and out-migration gave birth to the economic diversification that increased economic success of the village. Agriculture became an occupation for both men and women the cooperatives were reborn. Non-agricultural occupations have expanded (primarily were construction, tailoring, and shop keeping). Only the poorer women make hammocks now. Women and their children have invested in home-front stores with produce. More women are joining the workforce outside of the home as teachers, secretaries, nurses, and even factory workers.

Commuting and Migration as Economic Strategy   Factory jobs and professional occupations have played roles in economic diversity, though women are underpaid in wage jobs. Commuting is a dominant employment pattern. Migration may be temporary (find wages elsewhere to maintain a family in the village), chain (siblings follow the older ones), or return (leaving the village for work and then returning).

The New Social Class System, 1977-1998    The wealthy contribute help villagers in need and Western culture has influenced families’ perceptions of “wealth” (e.g., televisions).

Chapter 9: Mayan Women: Beyond the Stereotypes (pages 147-167)

The Anthropology of Gender Roles and Statuses   The relationship between men and women in reflected in all aspects of culture. Gender roles originate from religion, kinship, family systems, and the economic division of labor. These are embedded in society and define the roles and statuses of everyone in the society. Maya women were modest and assertive and had some control over land and their possessions. The machismo-marianismo model is a stereotype of Mexican society (male dominance and submissive women with lack of power).

From the Woodwork to the Double Day   Women production has transformed over the years. New economic positions and shifts have resulted in more political opportunities and increased status for women. PRONASOL (Solidaridad), an antipoverty program for rural programs and UAIM, a women’s agricultural-industrial unit have given women a chance to form cooperatives and “carry out small development projects.” Horchateras and the tortilleria industry started economic movements with the government for loans to continue their businesses.

Women and Economic Production   Women face obstacles (appealing to the local government with a convincing argument their enterprise has merit and opposition to women in cooperatives) because women working faces conflict in traditional values but economic circumstance require more work from the family (and women can contribute to the work). Most women in cooperatives are married, have economic motivation, and face the advantage of remaining in the village.  Labor is often gender-based and lack of women in households impacts the social form and family ties. Women’s production has provided control of resources, improvement of family status and standard of living, and a sense of empowerment.

Women in Yaxbe   Women activism has provided a means for women to expand the borders of their worldview. Women have increased their participation in the “social sphere” and they express their pride in their work, helping their families, as part of the working community.

Chapter 10: From Tortillas to Bread (pages 168-173)

From Tortillas to Bread: The Tortilla as a Metaphor for Economic and Social Change In the beginning of Hull’s study, cooking huts were abundant and women worked over comals making tortillas. Upon her return in 1992, only one woman was able to demonstrate the art of tortillando to her and her accompanying student. The disappearance of the tortilla ritual marks a loss of an integral part of Mexican culture. Changes in Yucatecan life were replacing the previously core elements of ritual practice. Modern appliances have replaced the traditional stove with a gas power stove and oven. Machine-made tortillas have replaced the homemade “from-scratch” tortillas. Economic and educational patterns have caused the loss of the tortilla practice. Women grew up either not knowing the skills to make tortillas or simply do not make them. Tortillando symbolizes economic and social relations: to Hull as tradition, household, and female bonding; to older women as linking past to present, mother to daughter, and home to village; but to the young girls of today, tortillando is a symbol of poverty and tedious, old-fashioned hard work.

Epilogue: Return to Yaxbe, 2001

Hull’s sons, Nathan and David, accompanied her on her sixth trip to Yaxbe. Houses were less active since both men and women were out working. Solares had adopted consumer patterns. Though many customs had dissipated and social ties loosened, Hull and her friends of Yaxbe were still tied together even after so many years. Reymundo, Hector, Pedro, and Dora still remain in contact with her. Hull terminates her ethnography with a phone call from Pedro, whom she tells her ethnography will be published and she will visit them once again for permissions for photos. Dora requests if she could bring her a new comal and some instant coffee. Hull instantly accepts. After many years of free hospitality she still feels as if there should be someone to repay the people of Yaxbe for their kindness and generosity. Her closing statement is powerful and the reader (myself) finds there is no next page for the story of the people and equally anticipates Hull’s next trip to Yaxbe to live a little longer in the Yaxbeños world in the rural Yucatecan countryside.

Tags: book-summary

Thanks for reading! If this helped or you learned something, Buy Me A Coffee.