Soap Operas for Cultural Preservation: Mexico's First Indigenous Telenovela

Here at Rising Voices, we often focus on new, digital media technologies as tools for social change. But what about the power of more traditional media, such as television, to empower indigenous communities? Thanks to a new production, indigenous Maya across Central America will get to share in one of Latin America’s greatest media legacies: telenovelas.

A team in Mexico is hoping to revitalize Maya language among indigenous – and increasingly urban – youth with a television soap opera written in Maya language. Baktún, the world's first soap opera produced in a Maya language, debuted at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City on 20 June 2013. The telanovela has since received international attention, with coverage in the New York Times, AOL News, and Fox News Latina. The team is hoping to promote and preserve Maya culture through this 21-part soap opera, produced in a Maya language and focused on modern issues of adaptation and cultural survival.

Shot in rural villages of Quintana Roo, as well as Cancún and New York City, the telanovela follows the journey of Jacinto, a young Maya man who must face the problems of immigration and the conservation of his cultural roots. As explained in the official trailer for “Baktún” (below), Jacinto leaves his community and travels to New York where he modifies his way of thinking and his way of life. He later returns to his homeland in Mexico to reconcile and revitalize his indigenous heritage; according to the production team, this is the central struggle of the “21st-century Maya.”

The series will debut this month on local free television in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Sources report (es) that the production team hopes to pitch the show to broadcasters in other Latin American countries, including Bolivia and Peru, which have expressed interest in replicating the model with other indigenous languages.

The series was begun by Mexican documentary filmmaker Bruno Carcamo and carried out by a local team of Maya actors and producers. It was created with support of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History.  The director noted that typically in Mayan communities of Mexico,

…la lengua maya duerme de 6 a 8 de la noche, porque a esas horas toda la gente está viendo en televisión su telenovela favorita, donde todos hablan en castellano y nadie habla el maya.

 The Maya language sleeps between 6 and 8 at night, because at that time everyone is watching their favorite soap opera, in which all characters speak Spanish and no one speaks Maya.

“It’s a project that essentially looks to empower the use of the Mayan tongue, to make it useful,” Cámaro told NowThisNews, “so that neither the tongue nor culture are lost. Once a language is lost, the culture closely follows.” Cámaro echoed this sentiment in an interview with the digital Mexican publication SinEmbargo:

Si se pierde una lengua no sólo se pierden palabras, se pierde un pueblo entero y eso puede suceder con los pueblos mayas de Yucatán.

If you lose a language, you don't just lose words – you lose a whole peoples and this could happen to the Maya peoples of Yucatán.

According to the Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geographic (INEGI), Yucatán has the second-highest population of indigenous peoples of any state in Mexico, after Oaxaca. Over 500,000 people speak Maya in Yucatán. While “Maya” can serve as a catch-all phrase to refer to indigenous

Mayan Calendar Baktun representation (image freely available from Wikimedia Commons)

Mayan Calendar Baktun representation (image freely available from Wikimedia Commons)

peoples in the region, the reality of their languages is much more nuanced. A linguist on the online weblog MetaFilter clarified that the specific language in Baktún is the Yucateca, a form of Maya spoken in the Yucatec peninsula of Mexico.

The series derives its name from the Baktún cycle of the traditional Maya calendar. The changing of the Baktún, such as occurred on 21 December 2012, signifies the end of an era and an important change or rebirth in the Maya tradition.

Using soap operas for social changes is not a new concept. These programs, which attract high rates of viewership in many developing countries, have been harnessed as a form of “educational entertainment.” For example, an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study confirmed that soap operas in Brazil could be used to shift viewers’ behavior and public attitudes on AIDS, fertility, and relationships – and are particularly useful tools for social changes in countries with high illiteracy rates or little internet access. Soap operas’ influence in many countries has been reported in both the BBC and the New York Times.

In addition to television outlets, the team has decided to post all of the episodes online on YouTube, in part because the director and producer noted that Mayan communities use cell phones and social networks more than they use television.

Mobile technology access continues to grow around the world, with high concentrations of phone access in low-income regions. According to the World Bankthe number of mobile subscriptions has grown from fewer than one billion in 2000 to over six billion now, of which nearly five billion are in developing countries. This has potential influence on indigenous peoples; “We wanted to show you could still be proudly Mayan even in this modern world with mass media and digital communication,” director Bruno Cárcamo told the New York Times.

As the director explained in a YouTube comment, the project consists of both a feature film and a mini-series consisting of twenty episodes. The production team announced they will have the episodes posted online soon.

For updates on the project, follow the official Baktún Twitter account @Baktun211212. Click here to download an informational brochure on the series from the production team (es).

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