Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross

Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross

Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross

Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross

Synopsis

This pathbreaking synthesis of history, anthropology, and linguistics gives an unprecedented view of the first two hundred years of the Spanish colonization of the Yucatec Maya. Drawing on an extraordinary range and depth of sources, William F. Hanks documents for the first time the crucial role played by language in cultural conquest: how colonial Mayan emerged in the age of the cross, how it was taken up by native writers to become the language of indigenous literature, and how it ultimately became the language of rebellion against the system that produced it. Converting Words includes original analyses of the linguistic practices of both missionaries and Mayas-as found in bilingual dictionaries, grammars, catechisms, land documents, native chronicles, petitions, and the forbidden Maya Books of Chilam Balam. Lucidly written and vividly detailed, this important work presents a new approach to the study of religious and cultural conversion that will illuminate the history of Latin America and beyond, and will be essential reading across disciplinary boundaries.

Excerpt

My first exposure to the world explored in this book was in a 1976 graduate seminar in what was then called “classical Maya,” taught by Norman McQuown at the University of Chicago. Mac introduced us to the colonial dictionaries and grammars and taught us to read the alphabetic Maya texts aloud, paying very close attention to the grammar. At the time I was preparing for doctoral research in linguistic anthropology, focused on the structure and use of modern Maya. Only some years later would I come to focus on the colonial language, as I now call it, but the first exposure had been formative. In the course of fieldwork in Yucatán, I became closely associated with a hmèen ‘shaman (roughly)’ named Sebastian Castillo Mo but best known as Don Chabo. We worked together continuously for sixteen years, until his death in 1996, and I learned and recorded most of the major rituals that he performed, many of which I witnessed or participated in multiple times. In his performance of rain ceremonies (known as ch’áa chaák), exorcisms (pa’ ik’), land purifications (hetz lú’um), and many spiritual cures (especially the santiguar, a therapeutic blessing), Don Chabo was what some would consider an idolater but I consider a mystic of great wisdom. From early on in our work, I became convinced that the cultural and spiritual premises of his practice could only be understood in the light of colonial history, especially the missionizing process. His ways of fusing apparently old forms of both Catholicism and Maya were simply too subtle and too deep to fit the models of syncretism or mestizaje. It was this conviction, echoing in the chambers of colonial grammar and discourse, that pushed me to the research on which this book is based.

The colonizing process was guided by a surprisingly systematic logic, even though it was implemented under sometimes chaotic circumstances. The terms . . .

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