International Perspectives Program Engages Local Culture in Yucatán

Millsaps College students in the International Perspectives Program recently had the opportunity to climb to the top of an ancient Mayan temple, tour the capital city of Mérida, and visit the College’s bio-cultural reserve during a research trip to Yucatán.

The International Perspectives Program, established in the 2017-2018 academic year with a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, incorporates global experiences and conversations on campus as well as in field programs.

The program designates 12 Millsaps students as International Scholars who reside together in a living/learning community on campus, participate in weekly International Perspectives seminars during the fall semester, and work with a visiting scholar-in-residence to plan a program on campus during the spring semester.

The topic of study for the 2018-2019 academic year is globalization and local cultures, and the trip to Yucatán provided students a firsthand look at how that state compares with Mississippi, said Dr. David C. Davis, associate professor of history at Millsaps and the current Arthur Vining Davis Foundations International Perspectives Faculty Fellow.

Mississippi and Yucatán share a historical narrative that includes conquest and settlement of land by European settlers, displacement and destruction of Native American populations, imposition of a plantation economy on land occupied by the Native American population, secession from federal authority, and race and class tensions. Both also have in common multinational manufacturing attracted by low labor costs, shared lifeways and food, education and healthcare challenges, and tourism as a revenue source.

While in Yucatán, the group saw significant sights in Mérida, including Colonial Square, Mérida market, City Museum, Casa de Montejo, the cathedral, and the Governor’s Palace.

They also visited Hacienda Yaxcopoil, which is located outside Mérida and was once considered one of the most important rural estates in Yucatán. At one time the estate covered nearly 22,000 acres that were used for cattle and henequen, a plant whose fibers can be used to make rope. Hacienda Yaxcopoil rose to its height at the end of the nineteenth century when the henequen industry was booming.

Students were able to compare Hacienda Yaxcopoil with Hopson Plantation, a once thriving farm in the Mississippi Delta that is now a tourist destination and a site they visited in the fall as a group.

Dr. Tomás Gallareta Negrón, the College’s Scholar of Maya Studies, spoke to the group about Maya and Mayan culture and provided a guided tour of the College’s 4,500-acre experiment in living archaeology at Kaxil Kiuic, home of the landmark Living in Yucatán program, which offers courses in archaeology, business, ecology, education, geology, history, literature, and socio-cultural anthropology.

Located in the Northern Maya lowlands of the Yucatán peninsula, the Helen Moyers Biocultural Reserve—so named for a major donor—has been featured in USA Today and a 2012 National Geographic documentary, “Quest for the Lost Maya.” Also centered at Kiuic is the Bolonchén Regional Archaeology Project, which focuses on the adaptation of the ancient Maya from their first appearance in the Pre-classic period up to the present day in the Puuc area of central Yucatán. Millsaps’ program also includes, in nearby Mérida, the Else School of Management’s Center for Business and Culture.

Students also toured the archaeological site of Dzibilchaltun, one of the most important ceremonial centers of the Mayan world, and had the opportunity to enjoy a refreshing swim in Cenote de X’Lacah. Mayan villages were historically built around beautiful cenotes as they were the primary source for water. Students spent time engaging with local college students in Merida and Oxkutzcab discussing issues, including what it’s like to be Mayan in contemporary Mexico.

“Talking to several groups of local students helped me realize that we are so much more alike than we are different,” said Ashley Gremillion, a junior from New Orleans who is majoring in Spanish.

Bailey Smith, a senior from Olive Branch, Mississippi, said he was impressed by the deep history of the Mayans in Yucatán and the beauty of many of the more untouched areas of the environment.

“We learned about the roots of Mayan civilization in Yucatán and how this heritage/identity is currently playing a role in how Yucatanians/Mexicans conduct themselves and perceive their own identity,” he said. “Most of the population are Mestizo, a mix between Mexican and Spanish/European, but hold their Mayan roots very close to their identity and are very proud of it.”

The trip was well planned and gave the students an opportunity to study globalization and global capitalism in an international setting, Smith said. “I learned more about how Yucatán is attempting to continually differentiate itself in the new, connected world that we live in while also holding on to ancient identities,” he said.

Sasha Vengesayi, a sophomore from Zimbabwe, said the trip helped him realize how much Yucatán and Mérida are like Mississippi because past history contributes to their identities.

“Mississippi still has the Confederate flag on its state flag, and it’s a state that is still associated with its history of slavery and being a primary battlefield for the Civil War,” he said. “Yucatán is still associated with its Mayan history and has a lot of Mayan ruins in the area. What differs between them is that Mississippi is trying to separate itself from its past in order to move forward, while Yucatán is holding on to a past that is in danger of being lost forever. This was very evident in how many monuments and different structures were dedicated to the Mayan past.”

The group’s visit to ruins at Uxmal left him impressed with how advanced the ancient Mayans were. “We learned how intricate the ancient Mayans were with numbers and astronomy and how some buildings were built to face the east so the sun would hit them on a specific spot,” he said.

Gremillion said a highlight for her was climbing to the top of a Mayan temple and seeing the rest of the world — or what seemed like — below her. “As someone extremely scared of heights, I was not sure if I would be able to make it to the top, but I am here to tell you it is absolutely worth it,” she said.

Talking with students, touring archaeological sites and experiencing the culture and food made the trip memorable, said Bonnie Yang, a junior from China.

“Yucatán has a great culture, and the people are very friendly,” she said. “We explored different types of delicious food. The cuisine is amazing and goes beyond tacos and tortas.”

The culmination of the seminar and these experiential learning experiences in the Mississippi Delta and Yucatán will be individual projects on constructed identities in the global community and a group component showcased as part of an intercultural festival this spring.

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