History and Archaeology among the Ch´ol: Ethnographic Dialogues in Northern Chiapas, Mexico

By Esteban Mirón Marván

Professors at the UIET in Oxolotán after a workshop on Classic Maya archaeology led by the author. (Photo courtesy of Esteban Mirón Marván).

Archaeologists in the Maya region have exploited the heritage and history of the contemporary indigenous Maya peoples for more than a century. For the last eight decades federal institutions in the Mexican state have monopolized the control of the archaeological heritage; when Mexico narrates its history through archaeology, it picks certain aspects of the indigenous material history that tend to the monumental, that fit into a monolithic and evolutionary narrative that erases the diversities of many peoples and many time periods. This also aims to attract an international and domestic market of heritage tourism, an extractive industry on which today´s descendants of the archaeological Maya participate only at the margins, preserved as part of the exotic scenery.

My current academic interests belong to the field of critical heritage studies, with a focus on the contemporary Maya Ch’ol people and their relation with archaeological heritage and archaeological practice. The main questions in my research are about how they conceive and narrate their own past, how they feel and represent themselves as a part of the millennia of history implicitly acknowledged by anthropology, as well as in the archaeological, epigraphic, historical, linguistic, and socio-cultural disciplines. To answer these questions, I engage in ethnography with the Ch’ol population of northern Chiapas, Mexico. My long-term objective is to start a process of decolonization of the Mexican practice of archaeology, towards more inclusive discussions about the national historical narratives and the indigenous rights that are granted by the Mexican Constitution and international agreements, but almost completely ignored by archaeologists, anthropologists, and their institutions.

Participants in the Workshop: Herramientas para la sustentabilidad lingüística en Chiapas, CELALI, San Cristobal de las Casas. (Photo courtesy of Esteban Mirón Marván).

Thanks to the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (ILLA) Travel Fund from the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley, I was able to travel to Chiapas at the beginning of this year and meet in person a network constituted by Ch´ol people and institutions I have been fostering over the last two years. I had the opportunity to give a workshop on January 14, 2019 about Classic Maya archaeology in the Palenque region for professors of the Universidad Intercultural del Estado de Tabasco, a university designed to host multilingual undergraduate studies for indigenous populations in the southern state of Tabasco. It was a great opportunity to get involved with native Ch´ol academics and to know more about their interests in research and education.

I also had the opportunity to attend the workshop: Herramientas para la sustentabilidad lingüística en Chiapas (Tools for linguistic sustainability in Chiapas), organized by the CELALI, Carol-Rose Little (Cornell University), and Sophia Walters (National Geographic Fellow) in San Cristobal de las Casas on January 17, 2019. Here, a group of scholars, artists, and cultural managers discussed different tools for language preservation. Although I am not a linguist, this congress allowed me to meet a community of academics, which includes several Ch’ol scholars, engaging in discussions about the preservation of Indigenous languages in Chiapas. They are producing tools to enhance indigenous memory, and this workshop represented a fruitful setting for questions of my dissertation, as well as an opportunity to keep learning, to listen to, and to speak in lakty´añ: the Ch’ol language.


ESTEBAN MIRÓN MARVÁN  is a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at UC Berkeley. He has worked in archaeological projects in the Palenque Maya region of northern Chiapas for 16 years, focused on the study of foodways and ceramics of the Late Classic in the Northwestern Maya lowlands. Esteban is interested in contemporary indigenous views of history and the decolonization of archaeological practice in Mexico.






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