Read an Excerpt
Through the Door of Color
Color-and the symbolic ways that the Maya of Mexico and Central America use painted color on their homes, places of worship, and dwellings for their deadhas been my obsession for the past eight years. What began with simple curiosityWhy are so many Maya tombs painted jade green?evolved into a long and intricate journey undertaken with my wife, Sally. Together we explored ancient Maya color traditions and their fruit, the painted villages of today's living Maya.
As we scratched beneath the surface of their paint, Maya voices carried us forward in our search. "My house is blue, the color of water and the heavens. Without these the world would end," said Eliseo Uk as he gathered herbs near the Uxmal ruins in the state of Yucatán, Mexico. Ten-year-old Angel, of San Andres Xecul, Guatemala, proudly declared, "Many visit our yellow church. They leave contented." And while weeding around her mother's turquoise headstone in the La Palma, El Salvador, cemetery, Doña Candelaria explained, "We paint to honor the souls of our ancestors. One day my children will shelter my soul with color."
I come to Maya Color as a photographer and painter with formal training as an architect. These three pursuits inspire one passion: painted walls. As a boy growing up in rural Indiana, I remember painting local scenes in oil on canvas and wondering why my neighbors' barns were nearly always red. Investigating this color custom, I learned that frugal farmers simply chose the least expensive pigment aroundred rustto best hide barnyard grime. To this day I remain fascinated by what colors a building wears and why. Forthe past two decades I have immersed myself in the study of painted traditional architecture and how its cloaks of color are embraced, altered, or abandoned over time. Painted façades offer me subject and palette from which to derive my own artwork as I, in turn, document their brilliance and power.
The first walls I focused on were the grand stone monuments of Europe, but my small-town beginnings and painter's tempering soon drew me to the more humble but colorful homes of farmers and fishermen in the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Seeking the meanings behind their marvelous colors, I asked Moroccan housewives why they shield their entryways in cerulean blue. I questioned an Italian shrimper about his town's unique green doors and gleaned the recipe for this pistachio tint. Puzzling over the reason nearly all Greek houses are whitewashed, I discovered the isolated eastern islands, where villages compete with one another in bold hues. Along the way I found that Mediterranean color can disguise poverty, dissuade insects, argue politics, and deffect the evil eye. Paint also provides a small opportunity for creativity and control in a world otherwise ruled by church and nature, at the same time that it echoes the color symbolism of classical Greece and Rome.
Color thus declared itself my life's calling, whether I captured color histories, myths, and meanings with camera, brush, or words. Twelve years of travel and inquiry overseas led to the publication of my first book of photographs, Mediterranean Color, and a PBS documentary, For the Colors, that followed me as I photographed my way across Italy. It was during the making of this film that I truly felt the twentieth century nipping at my heels as it laid claim to even the most secluded hill towns and their painted colors. Surrendering the field, I turned my gaze in a new direction. From long familiarity with Old World ways, it was now only natural for me to venture into the "New World" that was first unmasked and then transformed by my old friends, the Mediterraneans. And so I journeyed south of my own country's border. Mexico's colors were magnetic. I was pulled southeastward, farther from the tourist trail and further back in time, until I reached Veracruz State, a region rich in traditional cultures and the gateway to the Maya world. With their ties to a painted past so tantalizing, the Maya summoned. My path was set.
The Maya had already captivated Sally. Years before I moved to San Francisco, where we first met, her aunt had bequeathed an intriguing diary of a rugged trek through Guatemala in the 1940s. Fortunately for me, Sally also loves to travel and is gifted with two handy skills I lack: an extraordinary memory and a sense of direction. A native Californian, she holds a degree in English and another in art history that was prompted by an enchantment with the dazzling palette of fauvist painters. She earned her living as a journalist and researcher before working for more than a decade with the renowned Pacific Film Archive of Berkeley's University Art Museum. Sparked by the same expressive colors that were fast becoming my preoccupation, Sally needed no persuading to join me on many of my Mediterranean tours and only a little coaxing to stretch her sense of adventure and tackle the new Maya terrain. In addition to her contributions as journal-keeper, navigator, occasional translator, and editor of both my writing and images, Sally now steps forward as coauthor of this book. For simplicity's sake, however, we have chosen to tell our story in my first-person voice.
To define the project, Sally and I smoothed open a new map and flagged our territory: the ancestral world of the Maya. It lies cradled within Mesoamerica, the great arc of land that sweeps from central Mexico down through Panama's spindly tail and has nurtured five thousand years of civilizations. Today the Maya homelands encompass six states of southern MexicoChiapas, Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Veracruzplus Guatemala and portions of Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. All told, this area is just half the size of Texas and only fifteen hundred miles around; but ancient Maya trade routes often swept us beyond these bounds to places and peoples heir to Maya painting and belief. With this straying and all our zigzagging and backtracking, we logged more than 100,000 miles on our Maya color quest.
En route we collected stories of the paint while my camera claimed the patina on a corn yellow shutter lashed against a blood red wall, smoke-blackened santos shouldering countless petitions in their sky blue chapel, and the shadowed niche of a jade green tomb. As Sally and I absorbed these images and words, we began to grasp that, to the Maya, what is painted is important. Color engenders life. It is creation and a magical medium of faith. These revelations, in turn, established our themes: the painted places of shelter, devotion, and burial.
Following the Maya from house to church to grave, we traced the lineage of changes wrought on Mesoamerica since the conquistadors first cut a wide swath through indigenous cultures. The Spanish Conquest decimated millions and unleashed the greatest migration of all time, building an empire on native lands and backs. Despite the enormity of this assault, we gradually recognized that the Old World does not have as firm a grip on the New World as first appears. Especially here among the Maya, Mediterranean beliefs are often merely grafted onto resistant native stock. Five centuries' efforts to crush vernacular traditions have only plowed these just beneath the surface, for the chronicle of the Maya did not begin with Columbus or Cortes but speaks of kings and customs rooted millennia before Christ and Catholic monarchs were planted in this soil.
Many studies treat the Maya as one of history's curious, closed chapters; but this ancient culture is far from extinguished. Today over seven million Maya populate their ancestral realm. Speaking some thirty distinct Mayan tongues and often only a few words of Spanish, these Maya are classified by their language group but call themselves by their village name. They hail from thousands of hamlets scattered across frosty mountains, scorching deserts, and steaming jungles. Their cherished landscape, littered with the ruined cities of glorious ancestors, must now be shared with mestizos (people of mixed blood) and a powerful elite of pure Spanish descendants. The state and national borders that these "newcomers" have drawn across the age-old domain mean little to the Maya, who view their own village as the center of the world. But with these imposed boundaries, the intruders lay claim to hallowed Maya landthe very cornerstone of traditional lifeand thus consign the modern-day Maya to the least of everything: food, wages, education, justice, opportunity, years of life, and fertile soil. Yet the Maya endure. Treading a path beaten hard by century upon century of repetition, they continue to sow their deified corn, commune with their gods, and paint life into their color-washed village walls. For Sally and me it is this painted color that most loudly broadcasts the message of Maya survival.
Long ago, every Maya citizen could read the cycle of his life, his land, and all creation in five symbolic pigments: the red of blood, birth, and beginnings; the yellow of sustaining corn; the blue-green of crucial water and fertility; the black of death; and the white of change. To make sense of their world, the ancient Maya created a sacred map binding the four cardinal directions and center to these five vital colors. The red of the east's essential sunrise blazed from its apex. The Maya then assigned everything in their universe to the colors in this diamond. Gods, corn, winds, birds, bees, trees, epochs, planets, and plagues were each allied with a compass point and its hue. This cosmic map once oriented Maya architecture, and its emblem was abundant in carving and design. Today the map lives on within the diamond patterns so prevalent in Maya weaving, pottery, and even village plans. We can also read its latent meanings in painted color glowing all across the Maya world, from vivid houses in the cloud-bound Guatemalan highlands to resplendent churches in waterlogged Tabasco State to the parched Yucatán Peninsula, where deep-dyed cemeteries bloom with brush strokes.
Once Sally and I fathomed the resonant power of these colors, we firmly fixed the diamond map as Maya Color' s graphic setting. We tied its five symbolic hues to our five paint-drenched chapters: the red of beginnings for the dawn of Maya colors, the yellow of harvest and hearth for painted houses, the blue-green of divinity for painted churches at the heart of our text, the black of death for painted cemeteries, and the white of change for chromatic shifts within today's Maya realm. This is not to imply that a color bears only one message for all Maya, nor that every house is yellow or every tomb is black. Even neighboring villages may have separate color customs, and both yellow and white have lost much clarity of meaning over the centuries. Other inconsistencies arise because the living Maya run the gamut from culturally isolated and ritual bound to integrated and progressive. But like a child's string telephonewith one tin can resting on a pyramid and the other in the hands of a modern heircolor serves as the connective cord. Knowledge of the ancient diamond map stretches this line taut; and through paint's pregnant whispers, we detect a remarkable continuity reverberating across time.
Enthusiastic travelers have been recording the Maya world ever since the camera's nineteenth-century birth coincided with the first excavations of ancient sites. Sally and I follow in the footsteps of these devotees. This book presents our personal view of the Maya through the door of color swung open by two decades of educating our eyes. Ours is not a mysterious expedition into uncharted territory, nor do we approach with extraordinary equipment or years of academic training in this field. But our lack of specialized degrees has not necessarily been a hindrance. For 150 years Maya scholars have wrangled over far-flung theories fluctuating as rapidly as the Mexican peso. Since we began our study with few preconceived ideas, we bravelyor perhaps foolishlyfelt free to join the fray with some hypotheses of our own.
Attempting to confirm these hunches, we dispatched ourselves on a series of circuitous routes, open to any plausible, if possibly apocryphal, stories to come our way. Gradually, color conjectures from daily observations and conversations in the field, when assisted by inductive leaps and substantiated by intensive research, produced our most persuasive color insights. The Maya were revealed to us through a great many written sources: translations of those few pre-Hispanic bark paper codices that survived jungle rot and Spanish clerics' flames; both native and conquerors' eyewitness accounts of the conquest; colonial-era histories; explorers' tales and the romanticized notions of eccentrics; dusty anthropological tomes and dissertations; contemporary travel writers; and updates from today's Mayanists, who continually add new pieces to the gigantic jigsaw puzzle of this labyrinthine culture.
Each time Sally and I crossed our southern border, we rejoiced as orderly blocks of mirrored glass and gray concrete gave way to unruly purples, pinks, and aquas. Our life on the road in two- to nine-month stints was travel at its most basic. Making decisions from hour to hour, we followed weather, festivals, and color legends rather than a fixed itinerary. There was no such thing as a wrong turn, since every Maya hamlet held painted promise. We prospected between bases in our little Honda Civic or any conveyance at hand, from rented jeeps, donkey carts, and dugout canoes to three-wheeled bicycle taxis, frigid luxury buses, and rides atop beets or carrots in the back of pickup trucks. Mostly, however, we bounced along in thirdhand, jam-packed, brightly painted Blue Bird buses, possibly the very same ones we rode in to grade school, though our seat mates here were often live chickens and goats. But no matter our means of transport, upon arrival we always slowly combed each street on foot, paid homage to the church, and sought out the cemetery with the pace, perspective, and priorities of a villager.
Because we walked up to twelve hours a day, I limited myself to the weight of one trusty Nikon f3 and a 35mm Nikkor perspective-control lens. My Kodak Lumiere film and batteries had to endure grueling extremes of heat and humidity, but risk of losing exposed film to border theft, military confiscation, or unreliable shipment home was of even greater concern. I will never forget the concise but devastating tracking report, "El camino es frío" (The trail is cold), from an international carrier that misplaced two months' worth of my work for several weeks before fortuitously recovering the package.
Getting in sync with life in the land of the Maya entailed far more than simply resetting watches. On many occasions Sally and I shared hotel rooms with lizards, scorpions, bats, bees, and the most insecticide-proof cockroaches in the world. We politely sampledor even more politely declinedsuch local delicacies as wriggling red worms, insect eggs, armadillo tacos, grilled jungle rodents, and roasted winged ants sprinkled with salt and lime. We found ourselves complimenting exotic home decor like snakeskins, monkey skulls, and stuffed foxes as if these were as common as concrete geese on an Indiana porch. We often just missed hurricanes, narrowly avoided prowling pumas, and talked our way out of thousands of dollars in bogus infracciones. We were sometimes laid low by poisonous jungle thorns and by innocent-looking ensaladas harboring intestinal attack. And we were frequently stalled by guerrillas' felled trees, government roadblocks, army maneuvers, and cross-examinations by crisply pressed, no-nonsense officers searching for drugs in the middle of nowhere.
From Acanceh to Zacalaca and a host of villages in between, we spoke with a curious cast of characters: embassy consuls and election observers; birders and B-girls; beisbol stars and Bible-thumpers; Mennonites and Mormon teens on missions; poets and expatriates; archaeologists and hippies; weathered mercenaries wound too tight and tourists on vacation; as well as volunteers from the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, and Amnesty International. We met a missionary who said she'd known Maya children to die for lack of a thirty-cent pill, and a coffee baron's wife ensconced in a posh fortress who longed for the old days of strong dictators when both she and her possessions were safer. We encountered a pair of retired American optometrists who were heartbroken over a nearly blind Maya womancarried on her hopeful grandson's back the twenty hard miles to their doorbecause they could do nothing but fit her with a pair of sunglasses. And then there was the Miami restaurateur living in Belize who bragged about all the jade he'd looted from Maya sites and smuggled back to the States in his wife's brassiere.
But mostly we talked with the Maya themselves: farmers, brick makers, waiters, mothers, mechanics, grave diggers, barbers, potters, paint-shop clerks, and shamansall keepers of the colors of their world. Some dwell in the richest bastions of traditional culture and color, like the cool mountains of Chiapas and Guatemala or the flat, searing Yucatán. Others persevere in Belize or El Salvador, where Maya colors, languages, costumes, and memories have nearly faded away. The rest live in between, in the growing tangent where pure Maya meet change. All have a story to tell about color. "The Days of the Dead are over. Tonight we dance the spirits back to their painted homes," explained the woman loaded down with calla lilies, following the setting sun to her colorful village cemetery. "I paint my house with red and yellow so I can see it from my Weld across the valley," said the Maya melon farmer, leaning on his hoe. And in a colorless refugee camp in southern Mexico, where no money for food meant no money for paint, we listened to a Guatemalan who had fled the civil war with nothing but his hunger. He yearned for his distant cornfield, his patron saint, and the guidance of his ancestors. "I will only live again," he sighed, "when I see my village and our blue church. If one day I can go home."
By now there are some half-dozen Maya families we visit on every trip. "It's a miracle; you have returned!" they exclaim. First we catch up on marriages and babies, the status of their corn, the shiny antenna that may have sprouted from the thatch roof, and of course the coats of colors, fresh or fading, on their village walls. Then, around a meal of beans and tortillas, we share photographs from our journeys. Our hosts ask voraciously, "Where is this, and this?" of places that are far outside their narrow sphere even if just a few miles away. Sometimes they puzzle over our fascination with houses we neither built nor live in, altars we do not worship before, and tombs our people will never occupy; but they always appreciate our record of their polychrome village. They know these images mark the path that each will one day take in slow procession from beloved house, past precious church, into a painted grave.
Before leaving any of these friends, we offer to take family snapshots. Children are collected, and everyone lines up outside. A teenage daughter, who has changed into festival best, runs to catch her prized red hen for the shot. A dignified grandfather repositions his sombrero and then stands frozen at attention beside his wife. While Sally teases out a few smiles, I shield stray sunbeams with my straw hat and release the shutter. On our next visit we deliver the prints and watch as work-toughened hands tenderly wrap the paper treasures with brilliant woven cloth to store them safely inside a painted wooden trunk or flat upon their altar like some priceless relic.
Maya Color does not profess to be a comprehensive survey of the Maya. Both images and text revolve solely around color. In our series of vignettes, dialogues are telescoped, eliminating most of the preliminaries about family, corn, and ancestors as well as the third party sometimes assisting with translation, since we speak little Mayan. Thus conversations are unmanipulated but distilled. The same is true of the images; for while my photographs are documentary, I do control and transform by limiting what, when, and how I shoot. I avoid everything that would distract from my true commitment-painted color-including traditional landscapes and portraits. This may be just as well. Maya feel invaded by tourists who snap away without permission or recompense, and fear persists that a photograph in the wrong hands can be used to work evil against the person pictured. Such concern is well-founded in politically volatile areas, where photographs that identify can also mark to kill.
To further emphasize color, I shun direct sunlight's patterning shadows. I also censor suffering, soda bottles, and electric lines from my frame, composing an idealized world of timeless refuge. Maya culture is thus more complex and contradictory than my photographs suggest, and certainly less idyllic, but it is no less colorful. Anyone who has wandered through a Maya village will agree that my images are there, intact, awaiting patient discovery: offerings of first fruits resting on a yellow church ledge; the skull reverently placed atop a green tomb; the crooked ladder balanced against a deep red wall; or hibiscus flowers fallen to fade beside a green chair upon a blue-dyed porch.
In our pursuit of color, Sally and I spend much time making contact and earning trust, grateful for any color clues. At every opportunity we ask, "What do the colors mean? Are they important? Have you heard stories about why this is painted?" If these questions lead nowhere, we try to enter through a backdoor, asking, "When do you paint? How is the paint made? What colors will you choose?" Sally's extensive note taking intrigues the Maya even more than my camera, because her journals manifest something beyond the sound of a click. Time and time again our endlessly repeated interview nets the evasive or honest but unfulfilling answer, "It is the custom." With this, our kind Maya informants loudly proclaim cultural continuity. But these words do not establish proof of the color diamond's tenacity, even when we see it evidenced in their paint. Many factors conspire against communication: multiple language barriers, lost keys to the color code, and most of all the impenetrable veil of secrecy surrounding all that is considered sacred.
It is difficult to draw a portrait from a shadow, but this challenge only makes the rare discovery more satisfying. Whenever we fear that we are off track in our theories, a Maya will invariably steer us back on course. "Why is your church altar painted red?" we inquire of a Maya elder. "To please San Miguel. He brings the rains to our soil," he replies. "But why red?" I pursue. "Because we like the color." "And for any other reason?" "It is our custom." "I have heard that your ancestors often painted their great temples red," I prompt. "Well, of course," he confirms with evident excitement. "Red is the color of the blood of Jesus and of the sunrise, which we need to live." A covert belief has been confided, and we have our reward, that ancient link: the red of East and precious blood. The red of beginnings.