Mundo Mejor: Making a Better Place in the Yucatan

Mundo Mejor:  Making a Better World in the Yucatán

 By Dorothy Lander & John Graham-Pole

 Culture es acción, es hacer, pero un hacer para expresar la idea en la materia.

  Alfredo Barrera Vásquez, 1965[1]

 “Culture is action” is the epigram for Tara Underliner’s (2004) book, Contemporary Theatre in Mayan Mexico. We translated “action to express ideas in matter” in our embodied performances during our Day in Progreso on the Yucatán peninsula. This was the centerpiece of our Play with Purpose seminar at sea, organized through the Taos Institute (, the Houston Galveston Institute (, and our hosts, the Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Progreso (ITS) and Kanankil Instituto (

At nine o’clock on Monday morning, February 7, 2011, we stepped off our cruise ship the Carnival Ecstasy onto the Yucatán. In sun-sparkled whites, our ITS and Kanankil hosts greeted us, shared a traditional Maya meal, and invited us to join in singing Michael Jackson’s “Make it a Better Place” ( The thirty women of Yucatán who told George Ann Huck and Jann E. Freed (2010) the stories of their journeys also “were carried forward by their passionate desire for a mundo mejor, a better world.” This passion unfolded time and again in conversation and performance throughout the day in Progreso. We learned from our Kanankil Institute host and organizer, Rocio Chaveste, that kanankil is the Maya word for “conversation.”   


Figure 1:  Singing “Make a Better Place” (ITS, Progreso, February 7, 2011)

Our 5-day Play with Purpose seminar at sea was tied to the itinerary of the cruise ship Carnival Ecstasy. Reminiscent of Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) theories of medieval carnival, even the ship name appeals to excess and possibility, temporary and subversive desire and appetite, self reaching out to other, “I” relating to “We.” From the moment we stepped off the ship onto the port of Progreso, the “democratic, emancipatory and transformative genre of social expression [of modern carnival took over], … a meaningful revelling in the subversion of standard meaning. For a short time life came out of its usual legalized and consecrated furrows and entered the sphere of utopian freedom” (Quantz & O’Connor, 1988, pp. 100-101). Carnival legitimates expression of the unthinkable; how apt that we were (dis)embarking on our own utopian freedom on Monday morning, the very day that is so culturally linked to the start of the work week! “Carnival is the dialogue of the streets where laughing folk become con-spirators in understanding something new” (Lander, 2000, p. 236).  Conspiring — breathing together — for just this short time as revelers, we were able to restore the intimacy so often distorted in the everyday officialdom of our professional and academic identities.


Figure 2: John Graham-Pole & Dorothy Lander;  Mary Gergen & Ken Gergen; the Carnival Ecstasy

Carnival expression, especially laughter, collapses “us” and “them,” removing even language barriers. The global reach of Play with Purpose participants included Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Macao, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom.  If you listen to the background hum on the accompanying YouTube video Mundo Mejor: Making a Better World in the Yucatán, (, you might suspect laughter is our lingua franca.  Bakhtin (1984) conceptualized carnival laugher as victory over all that oppresses and restricts. “Only equals may laugh. If inferiors are permitted to laugh in front of their superiors, and if they cannot suppress their hilarity, this means farewell to respect” (p. 92).



Figure 3: Laughing participants disembark at Progreso

Symbolic of the “I-We” conspiracy were the Ola! greetings and invitations to support the local economy that greeted us from the moment we stepped off the ship into the photo-op embrace of Yucatán performers in Maya dress and onto the (tiá) aunt-niece artisans displaying the embroidered fabrics developed over three generations of a family business. Their signature calla lily design now graces our kitchen table in rural Nova Scotia. We learned that along with traditional fishing, the cruise ships are the mainstay of the economy. 



Figure 4: Calla Lily Tablecloth from the Yucatán in our Nova Scotia Kitchen

In Progreso, participants were invited to create “real time” performances simultaneous with the students, faculty and staff from the Kanankil Instituto and the Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Progreso (ITS), who had been developing their performances for three months.  Building on the seminar-at-sea sub-title —Relational and Performative Practices in Everyday Life — we coordinated 10 simultaneous performances in the ITS courtyard, spanning themes of: community and social change; education and teaching; environment and sustainability; organization/business/work life; therapy/counseling. We were one of three groups on community and social change, and all the Yucatán performers were women. As the performance was without words, I have removed the background sound from the accompanying video (see

 Culture as action: these women performed environmental activism; they mimed complacency, taping their eyelids shut; they performed urgency, the clock symbolizing time running out.  They performed struggle, illustrating that no sooner had some members cleaned up the environment, others were adding to the litter. They performed disease, signalling the link between caring for the environment and caring for each other, the “I” relating to the “We.” They performed “hope” and “we’re all in this together,” actually embracing the character of the villain used to symbolize the most flagrant harming of the environment.


 Figure 5:  Community and Environmental Change Practices

As an immediate effect of the performance, we could not in “all conscience” think and act the same about the water bottles and disposable plates and cutlery that subsequently served up our exquisite meal. At the same time, we could appreciate that much of the food we were eating was produced on the Yucatán, using traditional Maya recipes. Sally St. George, the leader for our community group performance, articulated the conflict that we were struggling with: the irony of the huge carbon footprint taken up by the cruise ship that we had chosen to bring us to this place. In carnival mode and surrounded by the very body of water that was still reverberating from the effects of the 2010 BP Deep Horizon oil spill, which flowed for three months before it was capped, we could not so readily distance the “I” from the “We.” We had to make meaning differently.   

Through the deft translation of our group facilitator Victor, both performers and audience were able to share insights.  The leadership of women in the environmental movement was a strong theme.  In the spirit of carnival, we couldn’t tell faculty, students, and administrators apart. Administrator Lesley was wearing the traditional Mayan embroidered dress (huipil)[2]. In the performance of community change, they were equals. A recurring theme was our shared experience that children often take the lead on environmental change in their families. 

Just as we were moving into a discussion about the role of political leadership in community and environmental change, as if on cue the Mayor of Progreso appeared.  In this picture, Ms. Maria Esther Alonzo Morales underscores the leadership of women in the environmental movement, holding up two fingers — dos — to point out there were only two men in our group. In the accompanying video, you will not need a translation for the Mayor repeated appeals to “esperanza.”


Figure 6: Mayor of Progreso, Ms. Maria Esther Alonzo Morales, joins our conversation  

Back in our snowbound home in rural Nova Scotia and sitting at our embroidered calla lily kitchen table, we took time to reflect on the insights and meaning-making that can only happen in carnival space and time. In keeping with our guiding research methodology of appreciative genealogy (see Dorothy’s research blog:, we wanted to put these new meanings into historical context.  What was the history of Maya women’s role in social transformations embedded in the dominant discourse that constructs their identities as guardians and defenders of tradition? Kathleen Rock Martin (2007) in her book on Maya poet and politician Araceli Cab Cumi reveals the long history of women’s political activism in the Yucatán — the site of Mexico’s first feminist congresses (1916) and the first Mexican state in which women held public office (1922). This day we met many more “organic intellectuals”: Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci introduced this phrase in the 20th century to identify thinkers and organizers within an emerging social group who communicate — perform — the world view to those outside it. From the perspective of contemporary feminist theory, it is easy for historians to dismiss this first feminist congress in 1916 for its “lack of sophistication, the ignorance of social theory, the confusion of ideas, and its mild mawkishness” (Foppa, 1979, p. 193); however, this discounts the symbolic and strategic power that this recognition of the first instance of organized feminism in Mexico carries.  

What is the history of the Yucatán in the environmental movement? Whereas engineering and technology and the environmental sciences are dominated by male students and faculty in North America, women were the strongest presence at ITS, under the leadership of Direccion General, Lila Rosa Frias Castillo. Esther who dramatically performed “environmental sickness” in our group was an ITS engineering student. Lila’s farewell remarks to us collapsed family, community and professional identity, as she cited the wise words of her 90-year old father about the importance of “humbleness” in her academic and community leadership. Lila performed a poignant reminder that our best leaders marry the soft and hard sciences.

The Yucatán Living website offers a fitting close to our carnival reflections on culture as environmental action ( Although feminist historians dismiss the 1916 feminist congress in Mexico for its antifeminist tone, especially its call for “male rather than female education,” (Foppa, 1979, p. 193), our partication in the women-led performance of environmental activism at Progreso leads us to conclude that quite the reverse has emerged into the 21st century, including this community exemplar of conserving the mangrove habitat in Progreso.

For years, the mangroves in Progreso have served as little more than a dumping ground for everything from old bed springs to bags of regular garbage. But no more! Several weeks ago, a group of students from the Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Progreso, accompanied by members of the IX Naval Zone, visited the mangroves in search of black mangrove seeds. Those are the ones that grow up to have those exotic looking air roots that are so great for holding down erosion. The collecting of these seeds is part of our new reforestation program, in which mangroves figure prominently. However, upon arriving in the mangroves at Progreso, the students and naval personnel were shocked at the amount of trash found there – enough to seriously damage the entire ecosystem of the area. So they set about to clean it up as part of the Navy’s Ecological Saturdays project in Progreso. Fifteen students from the Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Progreso and 30 members of the Navy spent an entire day cleaning in the mangroves and removed hundreds of kilos of trash. As the trash went away, it was not lost on anyone that this area is quite capable of becoming a tourist attraction. Mangroves provide habitat for such a diverse population of animal and plant life that is would be the height of foolishness to ignore this very special treasure that has been right here in Progreso all along.



 Figure 7: The Mangroves of Progreso

In the carnival atmosphere that we experienced on the Yucatán, organic intellectuals are a committed and eloquent presence.

 Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Rabelais and his world (H. Iswolsky, Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Foppa, Alaide (1979). The first feminist congress in Mexico, 1916. Signs, Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5(1), 192-199.

Huck, George Ann, & Freed, Jann E. (2010). Women of Yucatán: Thirty who dare to change their world. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing.

Kintz, Ellen R. (1998). The Yucatec Maya frontier and Maya women: Tenacity of tradition and tragedy of transformation. Sex Roles, 39(7/8), 589-601.

Lander, Dorothy (1999).  Telling transgression: A bridge between contract and carnival in making student services policy. Journal of Education Policy, 14(6), 587-603.

Martin, Kathleen Rock (2007). Discarded pages: Araceli Cab Cumi, Maya poet and politician. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Quantz, R., & O’Connor, T. (1988). Writing critical ethnography: Dialogue, multivoicedness, and carnival in cultural texts. Educational Theory, 38(1), 95-109.





[1] Alfredo Barrera Vázquez (1900—December 28, 1980) was a Mexican anthropologist, linguist, academic and Maya scholar. He is noted for both his research into the historical Maya civilization of the pre-Columbian era and his contributions promoting literacy in Mayan languages and the culture of contemporary Maya peoples. He has been described as “perhaps the greatest Maya scholar to emerge from the actual land of the Maya” (accessed on Wikipedia).[

[2] The huipil is the tunic-like dress with underskirt that is a Spanish modification of Pre-Conquest Maya dress and also a key element in Maya women’s political self-presentation (see Martin, 2007 on Araceli Cab Cumi, Maya poet and politician).  Ellen Kintz’ (1998) analysis of Yucatec Maya women of different ages in different families suggests that creative expression through textile/huipil designs produced for the tourist industry is of critical value in the preservation and/or transformation of Yucatec Maya culture. Culture as action!

~ by artpoped on February 20, 2011.

2 Responses to “Mundo Mejor: Making a Better Place in the Yucatan”

  1. Amazing work. I learned to appreciate our trip to Progreso so much more by reading your blog. You bring together scholarship and the spirit of the carnival, the theme of the conference and the complexities of life on the cruise and on the peninsula.. I hope you will be participants with us again, when we (The Taos Institute) join together with Kanankil for a conference in Merida to note the end of the Mayan calendar and to delve more deeply into the wisdom of other tribes, other times, other places. Thanks for this.


  2. Thank you for this wonderful description of your experience at the cruise ship and Progreso. I especially enjoyed the way you have taken it home to make it part of your daily lives. It was a real pleasure to share 5 days with you and your incredible spirit
    Be well,


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