The New Year is here for many of us. My Chinese friends on the other hand are still preparing for one of their most important cultural traditions: the Chinese New Year. The fact that the end of a year and the welcoming of a new one happens on a different date for different cultures made me think about the importance of cultural awareness.
2012 came to an end with people talking, preparing joking or believing in doomsday. The idea of the world ending on a date predicted by an ancient culture proved to be very popular and also very profitable. The Mayan people measured time in cycles called "baktuns" of 394 years each and this last winter solstice marked the end of the 13th baktun. Mass media and social media were overflowing with end-of-the-world theories, reportages and advertisement.
Some people were moving to the mountains in France, a man in North Carolina built a special assault rifle to deal with any signs of doom lurking around the corner, and many parties, concerts, TV shows and magazines were celebrating or "informing" about the different ways people were expecting the end of the world.
Meanwhile, Mayan Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu was insisting on every interview that Mayans themselves were not expecting the end of the world. She said that it was actually somehow annoying for them, that people, mass media and even governments were using Mayan believes for other purposes. According to her, the end of the 13th baktun signified the end of an era and the start of a new one for Mayan people and for the world.
The idea of using people’s beliefs incorrectly was alien for many who did not even know that there are actually more or less than seven million of Mayan people alive in countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Moreover, many of the immigrants we have in Brandon carry the cultural inheritance of Mayan people as well as many other aboriginal groups that inhabit several countries in Latin America.
Have you ever stopped to think how easily we human beings are persuaded to share ideas we are not sure about, especially on social media? It seems like clicking and sharing is easier than thinking these days. Even though the end of the world followers were more of a festive pop culture kind of crowd, without any real bad intentions, actual Mayan people were being disregarded and ignored.
The whole picture of all this is interesting enough but it becomes sad and ironic as soon as you realize what recent Mayan history looks like: Mayan people were victims of genocide in the 1980s when Guatemalan army perpetrated massive killings, rapes and disappearances of people, mostly farmers, while completely burning their villages. This was actually the reason Menchu, who I mentioned earlier, won the Nobel Peace Prize. She became a voice for people that like her father and brothers were been silenced and murdered. It appears that Mayans were not so popular in those days. I doubt that all these sad events had the attention that mass media dedicated to "the end of the world" day. Currently, Mayan people continue their struggle to recover their lands and to conquer human rights in their own country.
Now, if you, like many others, celebrated the "end of the world" day with jokes, funny Facebook shares or an "end of the world" club party, do not feel guilty, but take note. These cultural misunderstandings happen every day. I still remember the day when I was invited to a Canadian home along with a group of other Hispanic international students. We had a wonderful dinner with a chili con carne dish. The family could not believe that we, Hispanic people, including some Mexican, had never tried such a plate. We had to explain that "chili" is not even a Spanish word and that people do not eat that in Mexico or Latin America.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed the meal very much and laughed. I personally learned to eat it in Canada and I love it.
Unfortunately, not every cultural misunderstanding will end like this and my advice is, before repeating, sharing or commenting on cultural sensitive matters such as the Mayan calendar, do your homework, it is only a click away.
Brandon is such a special place to become aware of the world and its cultures. As I make more and more friends from several cultures who are living in Brandon, I have decided this holiday season to say not only Merry Christmas, as I learned since I am a child, but also to say Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Wise Men day or Epiphany, and Happy Eid Al Adha. I feel so fortunate to be able to know a little about these traditions and experience them through my friends.
This is what I mean when I say "do your homework" before meeting the world’s people that now reside in Brandon.
You will enjoy it.
» Jaime Chinchilla is part of Brandon’s Latin American community and a member of the popular Son Latino Band. His column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 5, 2013