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Gary Bevington

I sent the link of my Texas Observer piece about trying to learn Yucatec Maya to Gary Bevington, who wrote the book about learning Maya in the field that I found so helpful. (Read the piece, you’ll understand.) Bevington is now retired and lives part of the year with his wife in a house near Cobá — he was probably there at the same time we were.

Funnily enough, Punta Laguna was also the place where he learned Maya, which he detailed in an e-mail back to me:

At that time there were no (alterni-)tours, guides, buses, etc at [Punta Laguna], just a few very poor Maya families, one headed by a guy named Serapio Canul, who loved the monkeys and had a dream for a nature preserve….

I drove out to PL very early every morning from Cobá where I was staying at a small hotel called El Bocadito. Serapio and I sat on a rock beside the lake and he told me stories about PL and his life in Maya, which I recorded on a cassette recorder. Then I played them back, and I tried to write them down and Serapio gave me his own translation of what he had said. Then I went back to El Bocadito and got the young guys who were waiters in the restaurant to listen to the tape, repeat what they heard and give me their Spanish version. I also worked on phrases and expressions I got from them. After a while, the Cobaeños decided that I was a worthy project, and so began a language immersion routine in which they spoke to me only in Maya. If I didn’t understand, tough shit. If I said something in Spanish (which I didn’t speak very well at all), they would paraphrase it in Maya and then respond.

In my article I mentioned the use of Maya in museum signs. Well, Bevington told me what was up with that:

You probably noticed that there is otherwise little or no public display of the language. These signs are readable by ‘real’ Maya only in conjunction with the parallel text in Spanish, and even then only with great difficulty. The whole idea is from the period when INAH fell under the nefarious influence of the U.S. National Park Service and spawned a cottage industry in translating the elevated Spanish of historical-anthropological description into Maya. This was poorly accomplished by calques, archaisms, loose paraphrases and such.

Calling bullshit on things like this made his Maya book more readable and authoritative.