— piste — past and present



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ACTIVITIES OF THE TOWN


Against the historical and the statistical background a description of the daily life of the Piste inhabitants introduces the reader to habits characteristic of the Maya and to conditions typical of life not only in Piste but in all rural Yucatan.

Life moves actively from six to ten in the morning. The farmers walk briskly from their homes to their farms, each one carrying an ax, a machete, a water gourd, and a bag which holds his food. Sometimes he carries a gun. He may lead, drive, or ride a horse, which is used chiefly as a pack animal. Children, neatly dressed in white, assemble in the schoolhouse. Pigs, chickens, dogs, and cattle are busy on the plaza gleaning whatever food is available. Women rise early to grind corn, to draw water from the cenotes for their daily wash, and to carry small amounts of corn to the village store to exchange for cloth, coffee, sugar, or soap. There are no special wash days, baking or cleaning day, or visiting days; all are the same for Maya women.

From ten to three the plaza takes on a quiet, lazy appearance, as if all the villagers were asleep. Rarely does one see people on the streets. Horses congregate in the shade, switching, stamping, and biting off flies. Lazy iguanas bask in the blazing sun, and the town drunks sit or sleep near the cantina. Occasionally one hears a rooster or a crackling hen, a baby may be crying in a nearby house, or a lone bull may wander across the plaza, lowing or bellowing in search of the members of his scattered herd.

This picture may leave the reader with the idea that the town as a whole spends these hours in what is supposed to be a universal practice in warm climates, the Spanish siesta, but this is not the case. The men are at work in their cornfields away from town. Very rarely do the Maya nap during the day, though the men do rest in their hammocks when they return from farming. The women are constantly busy with cooking, sewing, mending, or taking care of their babies.

At about three o’clock the schoolmaster sounds the church bell three times to recall the children to school. There is little punctuality, but by four o’clock they are again assembled. The weather becomes cooler, and more people gather about the cuartel and cantina. Between five and six o’clock, the young men in the more progressive towns assemble at the plaza for a baseball game. At this time the most familiar sound in every house is the constant patting of the boiled ground corn into tortillas, mingled with the muffled rhythmic sound of the chocolate mixer, a wooden pitcher in which a single cup of chocolate at a time is mixed with a wooden beater.

Just before dark one hears the constant twittering of the swifts, which seem to appear from nowhere, as they fly in spirals over the town. Then one by one they dive quickly down into the walls and cenotes to find shelter for the night.

When darkness settles, small groups of men are found talking or smoking cigarettes together and exchanging news which comes to Piste only by word of mouth. Drunken men become more loquacious and sometimes noisy. Small lights from candles or tin kerosene lamps mark the little thatched houses where mothers are putting their children to sleep in the swinging hammocks. By nine most of the lights are out and by ten even the young men have straggled to their homes, leaving the town dark and quiet except for the almost constant barking of dogs.

During my observations in the village, I have never seen any evidence of hobbies among the men. No one carves stone or wood; no one is interested in learning to play a musical instrument well; no one has made a collection of archaeological material, either small artifacts such as flints, pieces of obsidian knives, potsherds, or the beautifully carved stone objects found in the neighborhood. No one seems to feel the need of such diversion. It is true that the women care for flowers under all the adverse conditions of Yucatan, and they do embroider tablecloths and dresses purely for enjoyment. But there is an apparent lack of interest, as fat as the men are concerned, in most forms of recreation. There is no tendency among them to form clubs or organizations. Piste has no band, although it might well have one considering its size. There are no outstanding leaders, priests, ministers, or doctors. In 1933 there were two yerbateros (herb doctors), but accusations of witchcraft forced them to leave the town. The town is not particularly religious, being indifferent to Catholic and Protestant and, apparently, to the remnants of its own Indian beliefs.

Piste is a corn-growing community located in rather fertile bush, and its inhabitants are more or less tied to the soil from which they derive their livelihood. It is not to be though, however, that the Maya never move. Although not a nomadic race, they can easily migrate to another region when a situation is no longer desirable either economically or socially. This freedom of movement is facilitated by the facts that the land is owned by the state or community and that the Indians have few personal effects. Such may also have been the case during the time of the ancients.

Life in Piste is also probably very similar to that of ancient agricultural towns of the same size. Today is has only corn and cattle to barter or sell for all products other than food. Gunpowder, cotton cloth, colored thread, earrings, necklaces, and finger rings are all imported. In ancient times and even in colonial days, conditions were apparently much the same. Then the Maya exported mainly plain cotton cloth and salt, whereas such novelties as fine feathers, embroidered fabrics, gold and copper bells, jade jewelry, and fine pottery were imported. Indeed, in many ways, the life of the modern Maya probably duplicates that of their ancestors. The little boys carried the wood in those days and their sisters carried the water, even as do the children of the present time. The women played the same rather inconspicuous role that they do today; the men worried at the approach of rain when it was time to burn the bush or when no rain fell in the growing season. The medicine men practiced and men became drunk even as they do now. The climate was hot, and the wives prepared their husbands’ baths in the evening and waited to pick off the pestiferous and ubiquitous garrapatas. The ancestors of the present swifts dived into the same cenotes. The zopilotes gracefully glided through the air, the same fruits ripened, the same wild mammals bred, and the same birds sang. The chief difference is that today the Maya are ruled by Indian-White crosses, largely of Spanish descent, rather than by native Indian leaders.



ENDNOTES

Chapter 1 Pisté- Past and Present


  1. Wissler, 1911.

  2. Throughout the text, the word Maya will refer to those of Yucatán unless otherwise designated.

  3. Charney, 1863, p. 335.

  4. On one small twig an inch long more than 3,000 of these wood ticks were counted.

  5. Information on the history of Pisté from R. L. Roys. Pisté is pronounced pees-tay.

  6. Morley, 1938, p. 544.

  7. Molina Solis, 1896, p. 487.

  8. Relaciones de Yucatán, 2: 187.

  9. Ciudad Real, 1932, p. 322.

  10. Archivo General de Indias, Contaduría 920.

  11. In the curbing there were three carved stones (fig. 4), only one of which, however, bore a specific date. This one, according to Pedro Castillo and R. L. Roys, is to be interpreted as, “January 2 (or 20) of the year 1755 A. D.,” and ends with the initials “E. M.” (fig, 4a). In fig. 4b is shown a copy of the inscription on a second stone which reads, “Por la order de Sr. Capitan Don Bernardo De Arse Viejo [veteran] Del Regimento Guardia Civil.” The third stone (fig. 4c) could not be fully deciphered by Castillo or Roys. They did suggest, however, the following: “VVI NVB 78 Fallecio [died] el Independiente Juan Martín Encernacio.”

  12. The item contaiing the name Pisté is literally translated as follows: “Seventy-six pesos, one real, paid to Don Iph de la Camara y Bergara, as attorneys for Dona Juana Calderon, usufructuary [beneficiary] of the towns of Cuncunul and Pisté, for the half yearly settlement discharged at the end of June for the aforesaid period of time, imposts and annual charges deducted; it is of record from an entry on p. 120 item, of the account book. 76 pesos.” Archivo General de Indias, Mexico 3124.

  13. Lopez, 1801.

  14. The census was found in the Archivo General del Estado in Merida and supplied by F. V. Scholes.

  15. Roys, 1939, p. 371.

  16. Information from R. L. Roys.

  17. Stephens, 1843, 2: 280, 285.

  18. I quote from a letter from Roys: “In a document of June 15, 1844, Damaso Sansores states that he is ‘Alcalde primero municipal’ (1st municipal Alcalde) of the town of Pisté. He has been respectfully addressed by owner of Chichén who wants a certain certificate from him. (‘I beg and supplicate you,’) so he is plainly not an Indian alcalde.

“In a document of July 25, 1844, Damaso Sansores, 1st Municipal Alcalde of Pisté, appoints Raymundo Ruz and ‘Santiago de la Cruz Perez’ to be ‘witnesses present’ (testigos de asisitencia) at a proposed survey of Yulah. These two men are evidently also residents of Pisté.

“In another document of December 11, 1845, connected with the above survey, there is mentioned ‘Juzgado del Alcde. 2 de Pisté’ (Tribunal of the 2nd Alcalde of Pisté). Here also the ‘Alcde. 1’ is mentioned, so we know Pisté had both a first and a second alcalde at this time.”



  1. Charney, 1863, p. 335.

  2. Salisbury, 1877, p. 67.

  3. Charney, 1877, pp. 322-323.

  4. Maudslay, 1889-1902 (text) 3: 10.

  5. Maler, 1932, pp. 24, 27.

  6. The names of these people and the houses in which they lived are listed in Appendix III, “The 1918 general Census of the Town of Pisté with Ethnological Comment concernng the Individuals Nineteen Years Later,” on file at Division of Historical Research.

  7. My faithful assistant and interpreter, Martiano Dzib, was the first baby to be baptized in the remodeled church. He was born Jan. 2, 1910, and was baptized a few days later.

  8. Our informant stated: “In 1918 the Liberal party won for three months and all those who were in the Socialist party went to the bush. When again the Socialist party won, the members came back to Pisté and began their revenge for what had been done to them. It was then that many of the people went to live in other towns where they might be protected.

“In 1921, the Socialists of Pisté joined by some men from Tinum and Chan Kom, went to Yaxcaba and killed many Liberals. When they returned, many of the Socialists of Yaxcaba accompanied them and settled in Pisté. Shortly afterwards the newcomers began to steal among themselves, and some of the Pisté people began to do the same.

“This unhappy situation continued until the death of Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto on January 3, 1924. Four months later the Socialist party triumphed and has not been overthrown since.”



  1. For more information concenng the government of the Indian towns see Redfield and Villa, 1934, pp. 102-103.

  2. Pearse et al. (1936, p. 6) write: “Cenotes may b divided for the sake of discussion into four types. (A) The jug-shaped type with a small opening and gradually expanding circumference nearer the water-level and below. (B) The open type with nearly straight vertical walls. (C) The so-called “old cenote” with sides which recede above the water-level. Many of this type are dry or hold a little water in the rainy season. (D) The cave type with an entrance to one side.” See also Cole, 1910.

  3. Landa, 1937, p. 26.

  4. To estimate the population of a Yucatán town from the appearance of the plaza is difficult, since nearly all plazas are of the same size and general appearance.

  5. Landa, 1937, p. 62.

  6. Wauchope, 1934, p. 123.

  7. Landa, 1937, p. 32.



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