Advances in Anthropology
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 16-22
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Being and Becoming Maya in Chan Kom: Towards Heideggerian
Interpretations of Cultural Transformation
Andrew R. Hatala
Department of Psychol o g y, University of Sask atc hewa n, Saskatoon, Canada
Received November 27th, 2012; revised D ec ember 29th, 2012; accepted January 14th, 2013
Between the years of 1931 and 1950, Robert Redfield, social science researcher and ethnographer from
the University of Chicago, and Alfonso Villa Rojas described subtle and explicit cultural changes within
Chan Kom, a Maya village in North-Central Yucatán. Using the theoretical framework developed by
Martin Heidegger regarding worlds, being and style, this paper explores the social and cultural changes in
the Maya village of Chan Kom in order to deepen our understanding of how cultural change occurs more
generally. Through this analysis, several aspects of cultural change emerge.
Keywords: Maya; Cultural Change; Heidegger; Being; Styles; Worlds
Maya peoples in and around the Yucatán peninsula of Cen-
tral and North America share an interesting and rich history.
Archeological and ethnographic records suggest that Maya
cultural groups occupied the Yucatán peninsula as far back as
200 B.C., flourished around 700 A.D. with the founding of
Chichen Itza and other great Maya cities, and continued to sub-
sist during the Spanish occupation in the 16th century up to and
including the modern era of the 21st century (Coe, 1999;
Thompson, 1970; Waldram, Cal, & Maquin, 2009). When
speaking of “Maya” peoples it is important to acknowledge that
although the term Maya often invokes a notion of singularity,
something akin to the term “Aboriginal” in Canada or “Indige-
nous” more generally, in reality, however, there are 31 distinct
Maya cultural groups with mutually unintelligible languages
inhabiting the areas of what have become today the nations of
Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize.
Throughout their extensive history, Maya cultural groups and
their practices—use of equipment, languages, religious cere-
monies, rituals, modes of subsistence, and ways of being—
underwent both subtle and explicit transformations (Kahn, 2006;
Little, 2004; Maurer, 1997; Watanabe, 1992). Several contem-
porary researchers from North and Central America have at-
tempted to portray and interpret these processes of cultural
change. Between the years of 1931 and 1948, in particular,
Robert Redfield, social science researcher and ethnographer
from the University of Chicago, described profound cultural
changes within Chan Kom, a Yucatec Maya village in North-
Central Yucatán.1 Beginning in 1931, Redfield, along with a
Yucatán local named Alfonso Villa Rojas, studied the cultural
practices of the Chan Kom peoples. Together, Rojas and Red-
field produced an ethnographic account entitled “Chan Kom: A
Maya Village”. Some years later in 1948, Redfield returned to
the same village to explore the extent to which these Maya
peoples and their cultural practices underwent changes since his
last report. These findings produced a second book entitled, “A
Village that Chose Progress”.
The following paper examines and compares the two ethno-
graphic accounts of Chan Kom by Redfield and Rojas (1934)
and Redfield (1950) in order to develop an understanding of
Maya cultural change in Chan Kom. Heideggerian perspectives
on worlds, bei ng and style form the analytic lens through which
cultural transformations within and amidst the peoples of Chan
Kom are interpreted. This paper begins by describing this Hei-
deggerian lens. Then, in the main sections of the paper, three
catalysts for cultural change are presented followed by two
examples of cultural change. Overall, it is suggested that cul-
tural change is a complex process that involves a blending and
mixing of many worlds, styles and ways of being, and is there-
fore not a simple linear replacement of one way of life over
another. It is argued that when speaking of local Maya commu-
nities it is essential to adopt a critical stance toward unbridled
claims of static “traditional” knowledge or ways of life that are
insulated or hermetically sealed from externally-generated in-
fluences. As we see in this analysis, cultural knowledge and
practices are modified by social and political change and are
heteroglossic, fluid and permeable across time and space (Good,
1994; Hatala, 2010; Keesing, 1990; Little, 2004; Molesky-Poz,
2006; Watanabe & Fischer, 2004). This paper concludes by
presenting key points regarding Heideggerian interpretations of
cultural transformation and societal change.
Heidegger on Worlds, Being, and Style
Heidegger’s (1962) “Being and Time” and his (1971) “The
origin of the Work of Art” outline the ontological structures and
intimate relations between worlds, being, and style. For Hei-
degger, there are four senses of the term worlds: 1) the uni-
verse and all therein (categorical substances); 2) the way of
being these substances or the realm of objects; 3) social worlds
such as the academic world or the theater world; and 4) finally
1The Yucatec Maya are the largest group of Maya in Central and North
America living primarily in Mexico’s Yucatán state. They commonly iden-
tify themselves simply as “Maya” with no further ethnic subdivision (unlike
in the Highlands of Western Guatemala). Throughout this paper, therefore,
we draw on t h e t erms “ Maya” and “ Yucatec” int er changeably i n reference t o
the peoples living in Chan Kom.
“world” can designate the ontologicico-existential concept of
worldhood; that is it embraces the a prior character of world-
hood in general (Heidegger, 1962: p. 93). This is the structure
of the background, or any world that on the basis of which we
understand ourselves. For the purposes here, the term “world”
refers to the third category of primarily social worlds wherein
humans reside. In this way, world is the whole context of
shared equipment, roles, and practices on the basis of which
one can encounter entities and other people as intelligible. Us-
ing Heidegger’s classic example, one encounters a hammer as a
hammer in the context of other equipment such as nails and
wood, and in terms of social roles such as being a carpenter or a
handyman etc. This relational totality between the entirety of
equipment and the appropriate social roles forms the basic on-
tological structure of the worlds in which humans exists. The
term “culture” then signifies the emergent properties among
different worlds in their relations to one another. In this way,
culture is, on the one hand, a broader notion that runs through,
connects and informs individual worlds, while on the other
hand, it is closer to the individual and more fundamental due to
its reflection across and within many particular worlds.2
The particular term for being used by Heidegger to reference
the way in which humans’ be-in-the-world is dasein.3 For Hei-
degger, the unique human way of being lies in our ability to
take a stand on our being—thereby making our being an issue
for us. The way in which dasein takes a stand on its being is by
way of the equipment found within worlds that are intelligible.
Therefore, Heidegger suggests that our way of being is a kind
of activity through which we give ourselves an identity4 by
taking up a series of practices. In this way, Heidegger argues
that existence itself is our essence or, in other words, dasein is a
kind of being that through its activity it gives itself a nature or
essence. This activity of being, according to Heideggar, is inti-
mately connected with the worlds around us because the ways
in which we derive our nature or take a stand on our being are
possible only insofar as equipment functioning within a refer-
ential totality of a world is available to us within a particular
culture. For example, an individual can only take up being a
teacher if the teaching world exists for them. Hence, possibili-
ties of being are limited to the available worlds within a culture.
This further implies that humans and the world cannot be
meaningfully separated. Humans always exist within or are
absorbed by the “world”, thus Heidegger firmly argues against
Cartesian subject/object distinctions. The world, Heidegger
asserts, is a determination of dasein’s being—to be a self the
structure of a world must exist.
According to Heidegger, Style is the way in which beings are
revealed—what he calls the truth of their being—which deter-
mines worthwhile or relevant actions within and across worlds
and cultures. There are therefore two meanings of style. The
first is a style of worlds. This style is portrayed as the ways in
which a carpenter, for example, reveals specific actions that
determine the truth of his being. This style serves as the basis
upon which old practices are conserved and new practices are
developed. The second is a style of culture. This style is por-
trayed as the ways in which shared understandings of masculine
or feminine, for example, are determined or interpreted for
particular peoples. These cultural styles determine not only the
general category of male or female but also impact the ways in
which specific worlds such as a carpenter’s are lived.
At the broadest level, then, style opens a disclosive space in
three ways: 1) by coordinating everyday practices and actions;
2) by determining how things and people matter; and 3) by
being what is transferred from situation to situation. According
to Heidegger, these three functions of style determine the way
anything shows up and makes sense within a particular culture
(Heidegger, 1971). Style, Heidegger says, prescribes various
practices as dominant and subordinates others or ignores others
altogether. The cultural style, Heidegger continues, primarily
manifests in artifacts and bodily skills or habits. Therefore, it is
misleading to think of a cultural style as something inner such
as a belief system, scheme, or framework; rather, style for Hei-
degger, is a disposition to act in certain ways in certain situa-
tions. In this way, style is invisible and withdrawn from our
awareness both because it is in our comportment, and also be-
cause it is manifest in everything we see and do and is thus too
pervasive to notice. Our style is thus the nearest-and-the-far-
thest thing away from us, as Heidegger puts it; that is, our par-
ticular way of being or the cultural styles in which we use to
take a stand on our being are so obvious, so close to us, that
they become the hardest thing to see and the farthest things
from us.
Being and Becoming Maya in Chan Kom
After describing Heidegger’s (1962, 1971) approach to
worlds, being and style, the next objective is to apply these
concepts to cultural transformation in Chan Kom as outlined by
Redfield and Rojas (1934) and Redfield (1950). This section is
analyzed in two parts. First, three catalysts for change are pre-
sented thereby exploring possible “Hows” of cultural change,
these include: 1) the desire to be a pueblo and a “free munici-
pality”; 2) contact with Americans and Chichen Itza; and 3) the
introduction of the Spanish language within the Chan Kom
school in general or through the local teacher in particular.
Second, two consequences of change are outlined thereby ex-
ploring in more detail possible “Whats” of cultural change,
including: 1) equipment and modes of dress; and 2) under-
standings towards and practices of religion.
Catalysts for Cultural Change
2Heidegger does not specifically define culture in this way and most of his
references to culture are static and essentialist. That being said,in order to
proceed with the following objectives a basic operational understanding o
culture should be posited. As such, culture primarily refers to the broader or
overarching system of meanings that reflect within individual worlds,which
is somewhat reflective of Heidegger’s fourth understanding of worldhood as
the “worldhood may have its modes in whatever structural wholes any special
‘worlds’ m ay have at t he time” (Heideggar, 1962: p. 93).
3Dasein literally translates to English as there-being to signify that humans
are alwa ys and only intelli gible within a w orld and cannot be understood apa rt
from worlds.
4Identity for Heidegger is the fusion of horizons between the worlds and the
unique stand one takes one their being with regards to the equipment and
roles found therein.
The three catalysts for change discussed, in a way open new
worlds and thus new styles of being for the residents of Chan
Kom, although this occurs in somewhat different ways. Around
the 1920s the residents of Chan Kom severed ties with
neighboring villages, allowing them to become an independent
village (pueblo)—a goal shared among the majority of Chan
Kom residents. According to Redfield and Rojas (1934), be-
coming a pueblo has two implications: 1) the village begins to
take on the appearance of a Spanish American town; and 2) the
village begins to secure legal confirmation of the communal
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 17
lands. In the summer of 1928 Chan Kom officially obtained
pueblo status, however, its desire for progress did not end there.
In the 1930s Chan Kom’s residents worked to secure its status
as a “free municipality”, which differs from a pueblo in that it
is more “free” having its own president, judge and justice sys-
tem, in addition to its own officers chosen by the community.
This new status of municipio was officially granted in 1935
with a total population of about 450.
The goal and motivation for these political and social
changes was, according to Redfield (1950), primarily ideals of
liberty and freedom.
[W]hile freedom is a conscious ideal of these people and a
goal toward which they have striven it is not a freedom of the
spirit, not a liberation from taboo and ancient moral impera-
tive, …but freedom economic and political (p. 161).
Since Spanish occupation of the Yucatán peninsula and Cen-
tral America, native Yucatec residents of the area have been
subjected to subtle and explicit forms of persecution (Coe, 1999;
Thompson, 1970). More recently, in 1847, a War of the Castes
broke out on the peninsula creating dissention and strife be-
tween different local communities. The background desire and
motivation to become an independent village was thus freedom
from centuries of serfdom and political conflict. The people of
Chan Kom were driven to emancipate themselves from previ-
ous oppressions, and their success in gaining a “free municipal”
is primarily interpreted and internalized as a glorious and tri-
umphant revolution (Redfield, 1950).
One way cultural transformation occurred in Chan Kom, it
could be argued, was by subtle changes in Maya ways of being
as result of contact with new social worlds. To be a free mu-
nicipio, a broadening of the political and social milieu was
necessary. As a result of this broadening of horizons, new
worlds, styles and social roles were thus created or opened to
the Chan Kom residents, such as judge, law giver, political
leaders, and town council members. These new worlds and
styles allowed the peoples of Chan Kom to take stances on their
being that were previously unavailable to them, thereby facili-
tating processes of cultural change. From a Heideggarian per-
spective, then, one way in which cultural change occurred in
Chan Kom, or can occur in general, is due to the introduction of
new worlds, and styles of being.
Contact with American styles and worlds as well as increased
contact with Chichen Itza, also served as a catalyst for cultural
change in Chan Kom. As much as the Chan Kom villagers de-
sired political progress, they also, with new interest and ex-
citement, turned their attention towards Chichen Itza—the great
symbol of their cultural roots. Redfield and Rojas (1934) note
that the Chan Kom people envisioned the city of Chichen Itza
not solely as a symbol of a forgotten past, but also a guide to
the future. In this way, during the 1920s, the Chan Kom peo-
ples organized the building of a new road—“road to the
light”—that would strengthen their connection with Chichen.
As they constructed their road, contact began with American
sociologists, anthropologists and archaeologists that were work-
ing on the restoration of Chichen. Redfield (1950) notes that, in
part, the villagers interpreted the American workings as the
“Red People” who were mentioned in ancient stories to return
one day to initiate progress and peace for the Maya peoples.
Chan Kom residents quickly recognized the knowledge and
skills of the Americans, with their motor vehicles and their
abilities to make the stones of the ancient pyramids go back
into their places (Redfield, 1950). The powers of the American
peoples, Redfield (1950) notes, came to be incorporated into
Chan Kom’s dreams for progress.
From a Heideggerian perspective, contact with the Ameri-
cans and the rebuilding of Chichen Itza opened new worlds and
styles in two related ways. Firstly, the American equipment,
social roles, and sporting games such as baseball, spilled into
the Chan Kom ways of life. These unique skills were desired
and accepted by the Chan Kom peoples based on their interpre-
tation of the Americans as the return of the “Red People” (Red-
field, 1950). This aspect is simila r to the broadening of horizo ns
mentioned previously.
In a second way, contact with Americans not only threw
open new worlds that were directed toward the future, but also
facilitated a surging of the past. For example, Redfield (1950)
notes that things once on the periphery, such as traditional sto-
ries of Chichen and the King of the Itza’s, were now uncovered
and brought again into the daily discourse of the Chan Kom
peoples. From here, Heidgger (1971) suggests that great works
of art, as he calls them, such as the pyramids of Chichen for the
Maya’s and the Greek temples for the ancient Greeks, disclose
worlds for those people by articulating their style. By rebuild-
ing the temples and the great cities at Chichen, then, Americans
facilitated this opening process for the villagers of Chan Kom.
Moreover, Heidegger argues that great works of art—or things
that disclose a world and articulate a style—function to allow
people to witness and understand the style of their culture by
displaying a glamorized exemplar. Thus, Heidegger suggests
that works of art, such as the great city of Chichen, do not
merely articulate a style, they illuminate it. From this perspec-
tive, the rebuilding of the Chichen and the building of “the road
of light” connecting Chan Kom to this ancient place, illumi-
nated and brought to the surface ways of being long since on
the periphery of life, which together with the new worlds al-
ready opened through contact with the Americans, served as
significant catalysts for cultural change.5
A final catalyst for cultural change to be explored involves
the dealings with the Chan Kom School in general or the
teacher in particular. From this perspective the introduction and
education of the Spanish language is most relevant. Although
the Spanish language had been slowly spreading since the
Spanish occupation of Yucatán in 1527, its adoption and use
was largely reserved to those of somewhat privileged class and
residents of larger urban centers (Thompson, 1970). Villages on
the outskirts of the Peninsula isolated by the thick bush of the
forest and with minimal access to formal education, took up
Spanish only to a limited degree. This began to change for
Chan Kom residents, however, as their march for progress in
the early 1920s began. The first school in Chan Kom was built
in 1917 with mild success and the cycling of 7 different teach-
ers over a period of 4 years. Only after receiving pueblo status
during the 1920s and 1930s did the Chan Kom School become
a catalyst for cultural change. Indeed, villagers who speak
Spanish before 1930 was under 14 percent; whereas, in the late
1930s and 1940s, after the school had been established for
some time with a stable teacher, there was over 50 percent
Spanish speaking residents in Chan Kom. This development is
significant in Chan Kom only insofar as Spanish, according to
Redfield (1950), was interpreted as the language of progress.
5The relation between reclaiming old ways of being and the desire for pro-
gress and adoption of new modes of being is a central theme running
throughout Redfield’s work. It will be discussed in more detail in latter
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
All literature from the “out side” world was in Spanish: news-
papers, magazines, maps, monetary systems etc. The school and
teachers of Chan Kom are then witnessed and understood as the
principle cause of these linguistic changes.
For Heidegger, what ultimately bestows the material for a
new cultural style is the style of a people’s language. The
working of art, as Heidegger (1971) puts it, or the ways in
which a peoples’ being is reflected and illuminated to them,
takes place in a clearing “which has already happened unno-
ticed in language” (p. 74). For Heidegger, language is central to
being in that it brings beings as beings into the open for the first
time and further makes possible the founding of truth. The in-
troduction of the Spanish language, then, is important for the
current analysis insofar as it founds new truths of being or the
ways in which beings are revealed. These new styles founded
within the adoption of or introduction to a new language are,
however, at first barely intelligible. Therefore, Heidegger notes
that this founding of new worlds and styles is only possible
insofar as it can be grounded to or somehow connected with
previous modes of being.6 In this way, Heidegger (1971) sug-
In a historical change, some practices that were marginal
become central, and some central practices become marginal.
Reconfiguration is thus not the creation of a genius, but the
drawing up of the reserve of marginal practices bestowed by
the culture as from a well (p. 76).
The work of the school and the teachers, from this perspec-
tive, act or work—through the medium of a new language—to
open an alternate historically situated being. In other words, the
teacher and the school by way of setting-into-work new
truths—the ways in which beings are revealed—thrusts up the
unfamiliar and extraordinary and at the same time thrusts down
the ordinary. This thrusting can only occur, according to Hei-
degger, by way of connection to some historical experiences
and ways of being already realized or experienced. For example,
Heidegger (1971) presents an example of a radical cultural
transformation: the transformation of the Hebrew world into the
Christian world. Heidegger (1971) points out that if Jesus had
not had some basis in the previous practices—something be-
stowed by the past—he would not have been intelligible to the
Hebrews. Thus, it is essential that the grounding of a new
world—introduction of Spanish in our example—takes up and
makes central a marginal practice already bestowed.7
In summary, Heid egger implicitly outlines two stages to cul-
tural transformation: 1) a reconfiguration that thrusts down the
ordinary and introduces the extraordinary; and 2) an articula-
tion that focuses, and stabilizes or grounds the new style. As
presented in the above examples, becoming a municipality,
looking to the American ways of being, the rebuilding of
Chichen, and the establishment of a new language and educa-
tional system contributed, among other things, to the thrusting
down of ordinary practices while at the same time articulating
new styles, worlds, and modes of being, which together served
as a catalyst for cultural change.
Consequences of Cultural Change
After attempting to outline a few catalysts of cultural change
in Chan Kom, we now turn to examine some of the cones-
quences of these changes and explore how styles, worlds and
being of Chan Kom residents are transformed in more detail. In
this ‘going-deeper’ into the process of cultural change, two
main examples are presented. The first includes changes in
equipment use and modes of dress, followed by changes in
religious practices and beliefs.
Becoming a free municipality, increasing the contact with
American worlds and styles and the spread of the Spanish
Language, together facilitated changes in and uses of equip-
ment; which, in turn, reflect changes in being Maya in Chan
Kom. As Heidegger points out, dasien—the particular ways in
which humans take a stand on their being—is intimately con-
nected to the worlds in which we exists and the equipment
therein. Therefore, changes in the referential totality in general,
or equipment use in particular, one could reasonably assume,
ini- tiate changes in being. For Chan Kom residents, this is wit-
nessed, among other things, in the introduction of more mecha-
nized machinery, changes in agriculture, new architectural de-
signs, and basic equipment editions such as tables and chairs
that were not present in Chan Kom worlds before the 1920s.
These additions to or changes in Chan Kom worlds allowed for
or opened the possibility of new ways of being a villager Chan
Consequences of the shift in these referential totalities are
exemplified by changes in women’s dress and changes in men’s
footwear between the years of 1921 and 1945. Redfield (1950)
notes that changes in dress were primarily from folk to city;
that is, the introduction of footwear and new modes of dress—
something not common in Chan Kom and the surrounding vil-
lages at the turn of the 20th century—created two modes of
being in dialogue with each other: modern and traditional.8
Shoes and dresses, according to Redfield (1950), tend to sepa-
rate the wearer from the traditional ways of life. “Shoes and
dresses mean being advanced” a Chan Kom resident is quoted
saying in Redfield (1950: p. 41). Indeed, Redfield notes that
with the changes in women’s dresses in particular their partici-
pation in the work of the milpa and in getting firewood declines.
New forms of dress, therefore, alter the ways in which women
can participate in the regular activities of social life thus alter-
ing the stance they take with regard to their being. Furthermore,
Redfield notes that a new type of girl occurs in Chan Kom not
seen in 1931 during his first visit, “a girl who joins with zest in
baseball with friends and neighbors, including boys,9 “and who
“speaks up when spoken to and has not the shy, almost voice-
less and completely unassertive, manner that prevailed among
young women in former generations” (pp. 134-135). Form this
perspective, these changes reveal and articulate to others in the
community styles and worlds wherein a different stance with
6This point was already eluded during the discussion of the Americans being
interpreted as the “Red People” coming to bring light to the Maya
civilization. In this way, the interactions with the Americans were already
grounded in previous modes of being.
7On this point, it i s interesting tha t throughout Redfiel d’s (1950) account the re
seems to be a tension between cultural changes and new ways of life on the
one hand and old traditions on the other. From a Heideggerian perspective,
traditional values must guide the course of progress otherwise new modes o
eing cannot be intelligible. Therefore the tension is a natural and necessary
part of cultural change.
8In addition, as the residents of Chan Kom continually moved toward pro-
gress, Redfield (1950) notes their temporal association gradually shifted
from retrospectiveto prospective. Being Maya in Chan Kom, therefore, was
in a sense, divided in two: there becomes the what-it-is-to-be a resident o
Chan Kom largely the traditional understanding as well as the what-it-is-
desired-to-be or the modern understanding.
9Thisis a significant change as well that was introduced due to increased
contact with city life. Previously male and female contact before certain ages
was very conservative and the social norms prohibited significant contact
etween the sexes (Redfiel d & Rojas, 1934).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 19
regard to one’s being can be taken that was previously marginal
or unavailable.10,11
To interpret these examples and their implications, let us turn
to Heidegger’s (1971) analysis of the work of art where he
outlines arts capacity to reveal and articulate worlds. Heidegger
demonstrates this idea by analyzing a Van Gough painting of a
peasant woman’s shoes. Heidegger claims that the shoes in Van
Gough’s painting are not so much a symbol that points beyond
them to something else. Instead, Heidegger argues that the
painting of a peasant women’s shoes reveal the shoes them-
selves in their truth; that is, the shoes reveal the world of the
peasant women thus allowing others to witness and approach
that world. From Heidegger’s perspective, then, art—anything
that acts to disclose a world of being—not only manifests the
style of a world but also articulates it, thereby facilitating the
crucial sharedness dimension of cultural systems. In other
words, Heidegger (1971) claims that works of art, in their
working, articulate worlds in order to produce a shared under-
standing of being and style. In this way, footwear in general—
or the sandals in particular as a new style of footwear in Chan
Kom—become works of art, in that, they reflect new truths of
being Maya and serve to articulate these new styles of being to
those in the surrounding environment, which thereby facilitates
a new shared or common meaning of being Maya in Chan Kom.
On this note, Taylor (1979) makes a similar observation in his
distinction between common meanings and inter-subjective
meanings. For Taylor (1979), as with Heidegger (1971), articu-
lation is the way in which common meanings work and form
the grounds of community life:
Common meanings are the basis of community. Inter-subjec-
tive meanings give a people a common language to talk about
social reality and a common understanding of certain norms,
but only with common meaning does this common reference
world contain significant common actions, celebrations, and
feelings (p. 60).
From the previous example, the modern shoes and dress for
the Chan Kom people, like the peasants shoes in Van Gough’s
painting, articulate and help construct a common meaning of
what it means to be Chan Kom during their years of progress
and change, thereby reflecting new worlds, styles and modes of
being for others to witness, share in and experience.
During both ethnographic investigations, Redfield and Rojas
(1934) and Redfield (1950) note that Religious beliefs and
practices form an intimate and vital dimension to life in Chan
Kom.12 During the 1920s and 1930s religious life is described
as an amalgamation of traditional Maya and Catholic religious
systems. For example, Redfield and Rojas (1934) note that the
symbol of the cross was seen as much a representation of Jesus’
sacrifice as it was a symbol of the four sacred directions.
Within this religious landscape, there was a strong belief in the
Santos (guardian spirits much like the Catholic saints) for both
individuals and the entire village. Religious practices, then,
generally take the form of ceremonies and rituals that were
offered for the Santos and other spirits for both propriation and
atonement. “A man’s moods and his needs” Redfield and Rojas
(1934) observe, “are objectified in a variety of spirits, and the
expression of his relationships to these spirits is institutional-
ized in ritual” (p. 107). The novena and village fiesta, in par-
ticular, are larger gatherings of ritual worship, of which sick-
nesses are usually the most common initiating circumstance. In
this regard, h-men or village spiritual leaders, not unlike sha-
mans, are central in initiating and maintaining religious, and by
association, therapeutic practices.13 The priestly and therapeutic
functions for these individuals, therefore, are closely related.
The h-men are typically more inclined toward traditional Maya
practices and usually work alongside or in conjunction with a
ritual chanter that is generally more embedded in Catholicism
(Molesky-Poz, 2006; Redfield, 1950). In all likelihood, how-
ever, distinctions between these two religious individuals are
significantly blurred. Both spiritual leaders, for example, make
regular use of a ritual altar understood and described as a rep-
resentation of the world itself, and both religious leaders are
seen to be set apart from and “sacred” to the mundane everyday
life in Chan Kom.14 Thus, significant overlap between these so-
called sacred-worlds and the everyday-worlds everywhere
abounds Chan Kom daily life (Redfield & Rojas, 1934).
Changes in the religious landscape of the Chan Kom peoples
are noted to occur most significantly between the years of 1930
and 1940. During this time a Protestant Evangelical movement
made its way to the outskirts of the Yucatán and began preach-
ing its message. Nea rly one half of the Chan Kom residents fell
under the influence of the Evangelical movement and became
its avowed supporters, while the others remained within the
traditional Maya and Catholic systems. Consequently, the strict
teachings of the Evangelicals directed towards the cult of the
Santos—a religious system previously cherished by all, now
became sinful for many. Moreover, candles on the altars were
becoming taboo and many traditional ceremonies lost their
appeal. Naturally a schism occurred in the community bringing
with it disunity, mistrust and separation. In the end however,
many village leaders became aware of this disunity and began
to back away from the Protestant movement in the hopes that
unity could return to Chan Kom. In the wake of this religious
disruption, a new mode of being with regard to religion ap-
10The villagers refer to this as catrina; that is, one who wears city clothing.
It is common, Redfiled (1950) says, that people will say that person has
gone catrin if they see them wearing modern or city clothes (pp . 40-41 ) .
11According to Heidegger (1971), changes in a referential totality of worlds
and being, reflects changes in the way styles and truths of being are dis-
closed. It is interesting to note, then, that Redfield (1950) suggests that these
changes in dress and shoes are minor and amount to nothing significant in
the long run, stating, “what is behind, inside, more intimate, is much less
changed, with regard to the to ols and t echniques as also with regard t o ideas
and attitudes” (p. 45). From a Heideggarian perspective, however, this is not
the case due to the subject/object distinctions being discounted. Form this
perspective, it is not just the “front piece of life that has changed” as Red-
field (1950: p. 42) suggests in terms of the introduction of new equipment;
rather, the so-called front piece of life must be taken to reflect changes in
life-as-lived wherein external and internal distinction are not to be made
with any significance.
12For purposes of this paper, “religion” is understood from James (1902) as,
“the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far
as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may
consider the divine” (p. 34).
From a Heideggerian perspective, prior to the advent of
Evangelical Protestantism, the style of one’s religious life for a
Chan Kom villager was unreflective and remained withdrawn
and within the background of all activity. It was not a topic of
13Although it will not be discussed here in detail, Redfield and Rojas (1934)
note that transformati ons in the ro le of the h-men wer e already occu rring in
Chan Kom during the 1920s. Most notably was the h-menschange in
power from a person-above to a person more in line with the other members
of the village. This reflects, Redfield and Rojas (1934) note, an attitudinal
change due t o i n creasing contact with larger or more modern cities.
14Here I draw on Durkhiem’s (1912) understanding of religion wherein it is,
“a unifi ed system of beliefs and practices rel ative to sacred thing s, that is to
say, thingsset apart and surroun d ed by prohibitions” (p. 46).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
deep reflection any more than the growing of crops, as it was a
normal part of everyday life and an integral part to one’s being.
Through the introduction of a distinct way-to-be-religious, “re-
ligion”, an idea previously undeserving of deep reflection, be-
gan to occupy a central place in the mind of the Chan Kom
peoples. In other words, a resident of Chan Kom, due to the
introduction of Protestantism, can now take a stand on their
being with regard to religion, as it, religion, has moved from the
implicit pre-ontological withdrawn aspect of being, to the ex-
plicit conscious realm of concerning-life. Indeed, Redfield
(1950) says, “religion” for the Chan Kom villager, is now a
matter to talk about, to take into practical consequence, to think
over” (p. 112). Furthermore, Redfield (1950) posits, “Where
before the conduct of the religious life was as unreflective and
inevitable as sunrise or spring it is now purposeful it is now a
thing defended” (p. 119). From a Heideggerian perspective,
therefore, we can infer that one’s way of being—initially unno-
ticed and unreflective—can be made known to oneself only,
unless, and until it is thrown into relief by another mode of
being. Whenever multiplicity of worlds, style and being abound
within a cultural landscape, so too, it could be argued, follows
self-reflection. Therefore, the introduction and adoption of new
worlds and styles act not only to articulate another shared or
common meaning of being, but they also become, through
self-reflection, catalysts of the change itself. Geertz (1973)
sums up this point nicely:
A peoples ethos is the tone, character, and quality of their
life, its moral and aesthetic style... Quartets, still lives, and
cockfights are not merely reflections of a pre-existing sensibil-
ity analogically represented; they are positive agents in the
creation and maintenance of such a sensibility (p. 451).
Within the example of a changing religious landscape, then,
Evangelical Protestantism, with its practices, rites, beliefs, and
experiences, and to the extent that individuals took-up these
new modes, represented new worlds and styles of religious
being to other Chan Kom villagers. In so doing, the style of
being a Maya-catholic was thrown into relief thereby creating a
new problem with regard to one’s stand in the world. Individual
change, then, in this case, is the result of witnessing the way in
which one currently takes a stand on their being through con-
trast to an atypical stance. Cultural changes, it may be argued,
would then be emergent properties or holistic totals of these
individual processes.
This paper attempted to depict some aspects of cultural trans-
formation in the Maya village of Chan Kom based on the eth-
nographic accounts provided by Redfield and Rojas (1934) and
Redfield (1950). Insights from Heidegger’s (1962) “Being and
Time” and his (1971) “The origin of the Work of Art”, wherein
the ontological structures and intimate relations between worlds,
being, and style are presented, formed the analytic lens through
which cultural changes were interpreted. From this analysis,
three so-called catalysts for cultural change in Chan Kom were
outlined: 1) the desire to be a pueblo and a “free municipality”;
2) contact with Americans and Chichen Itza; and 3) the in-
troduction of the Spanish language within the Chan Kom
school in general or through the local teacher in particular.
Following this, two consequences of cultural change were pre-
sented: 1) new equipment and modes of dress; and 2) new un-
derstandings towards and practices of religion.
In the final analysis, cultural change remained a difficult and
extremely complex social process to describe. Using a Hedeg-
gerian approach however, some potentially fruitful insights
emerged that might help researchers better grasp and under-
stand the rich process of and complexities within cultural
transformation. These include:
1) The normal state of rest for one’s cultural style, worlds
and being is generally unreflective, withdrawn and within the
background of daily activity.
2) The introduction of or contact with new worlds, styles and
being is often the beginning of cultural transformation by
throwing into relief one’s own style of being, thereby increas-
ing self-reflection and creating a new problematic with regard
to one’s stand toward the world.
3) The introduction of new worlds and styles reconfigures
and fosters a setting-into-work of new truths—the ways in
which beings are revealed—by articulating them to the com-
munity and thereby opening new ways in which individuals can
take a stand on their being, ways that were previously marginal
or unavailable.
4) The grounding of a new world or setting-into-work of
truth, must take up and make central a marginal practice al-
ready bestowed, otherwise the new practice will not be intelli-
5) Language bestows the material for a new cultural style and
is central to being, in that, language brings beings as beings into
the open for the first time and further makes possible the
founding of truth or the ways in which beings are disclosed as
6) The concept of the work of art—understood as anything
that acts to disclose a world of being—is central to the process
of cultural transformation, in that, art, or the enactment of new
worlds, not only reveals the style of a world, but also articulates
and illuminates it; thereby facilitating the “sharedness” or com-
mon meaning dimension of cultural systems.
7) Cultural changes are the emergent properties or holistic
totals of individual changes as a result of contact with other
styles, worlds and ways of being. Individual transformation,
then, is at the center of cultural change.
Redfield suggests that the future of Chan Kom and its resi-
dence is uncertain. Many changes he interpreted as beneficial,
such as increased education and opportunities for new ways of
sustenance. Yet at the same time, Redfield (1950) observes the
loosening of the so-called moral fabric that was knit together
through many years of traditional stories, ceremonies and ritu-
als. Skepticism of traditional Maya ways is steadily gaining
influence in Chan Kom as “progress” creeps forward. To meet
the future demands of life, Redfield (1950) suggests, Chan
Kom needs less faith in traditional ways and more knowledge
of science and modern ways—” less faith and more science is
the answer” Redfield argues (p. 178). Based on the analysis
here, it is instead argued that to meet the future demands of
Chan Kom life and all its complexities, an integration between
traditional values and modern science, rather than a replace-
ment of one over the other, would bare the most fruit in the
years to come. This argument also extends to many other In-
digenous cultural groups who face similar processes of change
in the face of modernity (Hatala, 2008; Hatala & Desjardins,
2010). As outlined, change is a slow blending of worlds, and
not a linear progression or smooth binary transition. Cultural
transformation is a messy collision of worlds, styles and being,
which work together to create a host of new stances one can
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 21
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
take toward the world. Plurality, it would seem, is unavoidable
and essential in the modern age, thus including so-called faith
and science, tradition and modernism.
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