Mexico: Connecting to my Mayan Origin

Marv Watson on Unsplash
Responsible Leadership

This December, the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network will gather in Mérida, Mexico, for the 6th World Responsible Leaders Forum. In this series leading towards the Forum, Responsible Leaders from Mexico will present their diverse perspectives on their home country – their inspirations, challenges, and opportunities to work towards a more sustainable, peaceful, and just future. Gladys Arana is one of them.

“Where do you come from?” This question goes way beyond small talk if you take it seriously. Origin is the sum of many breaking points and it is in perpetual movement, argues Gladys Arana, who was born in Yucatán, Mexico. Dissatisfied with responding with empty phrases, she took some time to deeply reflect about her origins.

This is what Gladys Arana came up with:

Gladys AranaMaya

Gladys Arana

Gladys Arana was born in the state of Yucatán and lives in the city of Mérida. From 2018 to August 2019, she served as technical director of the Great Museum of the Mayan World in Mérida, being responsible for the management and implementation of its projects. She is also a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Architecture of the Autonomous University of Yucatán. She has a PhD in Architecture from the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, and has also pursued studies related to cultural management, gender equality, and the history, theory, and criticism of architecture. She took part in the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Forum in Mérida.

Are you happy? This is one of the questions to which I have so far been unable to respond clearly, despite the fact that there have been very few occasions when I have not been able to respond to a question. Almost always, I have turned doubt into anecdote, made a scathing comment, come up with a circumlocution, or woven a strong logical argument. Almost always ...

The other question that made me wonder, and still does, is: What is your origin? This question was followed by a brief, question-like explanation: “What let you do what you do today, the way you do it and where you do it?” In other words, “What has defined you?” Besides being an ontologically complex question, people demanded an answer in five minutes and in another language – frankly impossible.

Nevertheless, I gave a first response, undoubtedly empty phrases, more a kind of restating the original question. I simply thought, I am where I am, I am doing what suits me, by chance, luck or equity (political or statistical). Then, I elaborated on the responsibility of being, conveying, visualizing, and reappraising the culture and legacy of this little part of the world where I live. On the value of the cultural melting pot and the deep roots this land nurtures.

As the days went by, this led to a slightly deeper reflection on “origin.” I realized that the first response had been completely wrong. Talking about the “origin” (singular) would take me nowhere unless I spoke about the “origins” (plural). But why the origins?

"The origin is pretty much like falling in love; you don’t know when it happens."

Gladys Arana

The origin is pretty much like falling in love; you don’t know when it happens, it is just the sum of events and coincidences, the aggregate of views and words, dissimilarities and affinities – until there is finally something that can be defined. It is also similar to happiness in that it is not a moment or fact but rather the sum of many instances when you feel good, at ease, fulfilled. Therefore, “the origin” as a concept should not be understood as a principle but as part of a series of turning points. We don’t have an origin but several origins. This is where the real reflection starts.

How could I define my origins, which all together have allowed me to become who I am, to myself and others? I would have to explain four basic concepts as a definition of origin: error, empathy, privilege, and place.

1. Error as an origin

Each error is a possibility to declare an origin, from its intrinsic acknowledgement to seeing it as an invaluable opportunity to do things better. Errors also offer an opportunity to stop, think, reassess, and revalue; and although errors many times leave scars in the deepest of one’s being, they should not be hidden.  It’s from errors that I’ve learned about second, third, and infinite opportunities. I learned about the value of sincere forgiveness, almost always expressed with pain, as well as given with love and comprehension. And finally, I understood that there is no need to always give explanations throughout life about living it.

2. Empathy as an origin

It’s not enough to recognize affinities, identify risks, or propose strategies. The complex and total immersion in another’s problems and circumstances can be risky but it is urgent and necessary. Full empathy can help to identify the origins of “the other’s” needs, thus enabling us to assertively address them. Reading and crying about the story's character, listening to implausible stories of pain and strength, or laughing with someone else doesn’t tell us anything about the character, unrelated stories, or distant happiness. They tell us about ourselves, the pains, fears, solitudes, weaknesses which pile up over time and are often difficult to feel and acknowledge, unless “the other” becomes a perfect portrait of you. This point, this portrait, becomes a perfect origin.

Mérida is the capital and largest city in Yucatán state, as well as the largest city of the Yucatán Peninsula. Marc Beckmann
One of many Mayan artifacts found in the region. Marc Beckmann

3. Privilege as an origin of commitment

As part of a complex society which is based on rewards, it becomes really difficult to admit that the everyday is usually a privilege. Indeed, being part of those infinitesimally small figures from the official statistics – whether it’s about your academic degree or performance, whether it’s being in a place or position where you can express your opinion, having a job, living in peace, or being able to freely choose your partner and who you love - these things today are privileges per se, which must be turned into responsibility. It must be understood that privilege should be viewed as a tool to help, to communicate, to support, to accompany, to be friendly, and to be humble. That is the compromise.


6th World Responsible Leaders Forum in Mexico

The World Responsible Leaders Forum in Mexico (Dec 5–8, 2019) will offer a space where members of the global BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network can strengthen connections and use their skills, knowledge, and empathy to reflect on Responsible Leadership and how they can contribute to the UN 2030 Agenda. As venue, we have chosen Mérida in the Yucatán Peninsula, the center of the Americas. The Maya are one of the most representative indigenous cultures in southern Mexico. Merida is one of the cities where Mayan is still spoken, and the culture of this community is intrinsic to the region and city of Merida.

4. Place as a definition of origin

Acknowledging, feeling, and communicating the pride and love I have for the place where I happened to be born, raised, and currently live, as well as appraising the place which has marked me and where I will try to leave a footprint is not necessarily an easy task. It implies breaking paradigms, setting paths, dignifying and making visible processes and customs, many of which are so simple that they go unnoticed to foreign eyes. The value of a greeting, the joy of an afternoon spent on one's porch, the family reunion around a hearty stew on Sundays are simple activities, but they define how we view and make a place, and they, of course, shape personality. Finally, being “Yucatecan” is not only a matter of being born Yucatecan but also of “becoming” Yucatecan.

"Being 'Yucatecan' is not only a matter of being born Yucatecan but also of 'becoming' Yucatecan."
Gladys Arana

Anyway, how do I recognize in the everyday the link between the place, my cultural origin, and my present life?

  • Acknowledging my cultural mixing, a tortuous, painful past, full of never-told grim stories, yet feeling proud of my blood both indigenous and Spanish.
  • Appraising my language, proudly speaking this Yucatecan Spanish, with traces of archaisms and strong Mayan elements, using words and grammatical structures in academic documents, ideas and phraseologies that often require a dictionary to be fully understood.
  • Studying the water, which, in perfect harmony with the surrounding vegetation in a completely flat land, defines the natural environment. This water is characterized by its visual absence, but full presence in the partial darkness, for its hardness and taste, for its role in the construction of “the private” and everyday hygiene practices.
The ancient heritage of shamanic rituals is still part of the culture in Mérida. Marc Beckmann
  • Appraising the food and drink which bring us together, understanding how they were processed, studying the spaces of alchemy where transformations occur and the settings where people gather for food consumption; talking with those who make it possible, from everyday life to extreme professionals.
  • Studying and analyzing the spaces where we live, deconstructing them to understand the stories, needs, yearnings, and frustrations (past or present), which were simply materialized with the aid of materials, none of them humble.
  • Approaching the rites, objects, and people who inhabit these spaces; collaborating in the construction of urgent spatial biographies and identifying those spaces which have defined life even in unintended ways. In fact, for many years, all my efforts have been directed to being aware of these values, living by them, and transmitting them to others – from my academic work as a university professor and researcher to my current work in a museum, where the real work is not reduced to management and space administration, but aims to give voice to all those who are distant but also out of the normalized social and cultural circumscriptions, but also those who have been marginalized throughout history, including women and children.

Therefore, if asked about “my origin,” I will reply:

Origin is the sum of many breaking points and it is in perpetual movement; it happens day after day, time after time; and it is a permanent reshaping of me as a subject and of my values. Origin is what happens at this very precise moment.

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