I turned 52 last month, and as a consequence have spent a lot of time thinking about the cut or missing threads of friendship in my life. A couple of days ago I was inspired to remember and write “Happy Birthday” to a friend I haven’t heard from in years, but who was my rod and my staff for a long time, namely “Carmen” Jacqueline Amber Burns, aka “La Carmencita”, on or near whose birthday I originally met her in New Orleans at the annual meetings of the Society for American Archaeology in 1991. I suppose it all started when a girlfriend from my teenage & college years contacted me in late 2010 or early 2011, with whom I have been happily and regularly corresponding since, although she’s happily married with a college-age daughter and on the opposite side of the continent….
But from about May or June of 1982 onwards, one of my closest friends was a native speaker of Yucatan Maya named Pedro Un Cen—and unfortunately I lost contact with him about the same time and for some of the same reasons of shifting life focus as I lost contact with Carmen Jacqueline…. but Pedro was more my teacher and my guide to Yucatec Maya nature, modern and archaeology than any other single individual—he and his brothers Marcelino (an elder brother) and Luis Vicente (a younger brother) together with his cousins Felipe Cen Ucan and Felipe’s younger brothers Vicente and Damian…. Pedro’s entire family worked for me from 1982-1987/1989 at Chichén Itzá and Xkichmook, Yucatán, in years which were not merely magical and fairy-tale like for me, but I think would qualify that way in almost anyone’s life….
The Un Cens and Cen Ucans were experts in the local terrain, obviously, knowing every plant and rock formation and every nuance of soil or water on the surface and below the ground, every animal and every insect, bird and lizard, and all the peculiarities of each species. No modern Americans or Europeans born into the 20th or 21st century modern/post-modern world can imagine what it is really like to have intimate local knowledge of land the way these rural Yucatec Maya people still did as recently as the 1980s…. I am told that the early 20th Century Irish and Scots still had such knowledge in England, perhaps some of the Appalachians of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and the Virginias might have had something remotely similar—as was captured, albeit briefly, in the movie the Hunger Games about which I can’t stop writing. Certainly Pedro, Marcelino, Luis Vicente, and their cousins Felipe, Vicente, and Damian had all known hunger and hardship during their lives in a way that educates and humbles, and at the same time exalts and magnifies both their minds and their souls, as well as the scale of their achievement for having survived.
I know that since the late ’80s, electricity, running water, and television have crept into San Felipe Nuevo, bringing both comfort and amnesia, and I wonder whether Pedro’s grandchildren will know one-one-thousanth as much about their world as he did…. I tried to learn as much from Pedro and his family as I could…. but I missed lots and lots, I’m sure, even lots and lots of opportunities.
Our modern minds are atrophied to learning only things that can be useful—and without knowing the context, nothing is truly useful….
With the Un Cens and Cen Ucans I regularly learned about and attended their rain (Cha-Chaac) and village cleansing (Loh Cah) ceremonies at Tumben Cah San Felipe (aka “San Felipe Nuevo”), Municipio de Tinum, Yucatán. Pedro had been born in Uchben Cah San Felipe (“Old San Felipe”), but sometime in the late 1970s, had a falling out with his grandfather and uncle which led to the assassination of some of Pedro’s prize pigs (the grandfather was ever afterwards “the pig-killer”—ku cinsik keen). Pedro, together with his Father Don Andres Un Dzul, his brothers, and his cousins, all relocated into a new community of San Felipe right in the middle of the ruins of Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage (Patrimonio Mundial) site—one of the most famous and visited archaeological sites in the entire world, ranking right up there with the Acropolis and Delphi or Mycenae (Mikinis) in Greece or Stonehenge in England—Chichén is much more accessible and better known to the public than, for example Cahokia Mounds in Illinois or Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, although Mesa Verde in Southwest Colorado gets probably the highest number of tourists of any archaeological site in the USA… unless one counts the site of the World Trade Center in New York as an oddly modern kind of archaeological site….
What I remember most from Pedro was that he was constantly telling stories and teaching me, because he saw I wanted to learn about his world. Stories about the stars, animals and spirits of the bush “Ka’ax” and the ruins “mulob“.
According to Harvard’s preeminent geneticist Richard Lewontin, the Yucatec Maya are one of the “racially purest” groups on planet earth, insofar as DNA evidence suggests real homogeneity and the duration of isolation from other groups. If this is true, it proves that racial purity IS a virtue, because the Yucatec Maya are indeed among the noblest people I have ever known in my life, Pedro Un Cen, his brothers and cousins, leaders among them. They taught me about their legends and folktales, their understandings of and beliefs concerning the ruins. I could and should write much more about what they have learned than I have.
But for the moment, I just want to remember Pedro Un Cen’s 63rd birthday, and send him greetings and salutations from across the Universe—to him, his brothers and his children. No one ever had a better companion, guide, and friend than Pedro Un Cen.