DER Documentary

Incidents of Travel In Chichen Itza

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by Jeffrey Himpele and Quetzil Castañeda
color, 90 min, 1997

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This original ethnographic video depicts how New Agers, the Mexican state, tourists, and 1920s archaeologists all contend to “clear” the site of the antique Maya city of Chichen Itza in order to produce their own idealized and unobstructed visions of “Maya” while the local Maya themselves struggle to occupy the site as vendors and artisans.

The setting is the spring Equinox when a shadow said to represent the Maya serpent-god Kukulkan appears on one temple pyramid. As more than 40,000 New Age spiritualists and secular tourists from the United States and Mexico converge to witness this solar phenomenon, the video depicts the surrounding social event as a complicated entanglement of expected dualisms concerning tourism. Going beyond previous films that reduce tourism to neo-colonial and exoticizing social relations, this video portrays a Maya cultural site where US New Agers — rather than local Mayas — appear as exotic ritualists who are on display for other secular tourists and for local Mayas.

While the video does examine representations of Mayas by visiting New Agers as part of globalizing discourses on the exotic and evolution, it also shows how during the ongoing economic crisis resident Mayas struggle against the Mexican state — rather than against tourists — that regularly “sweeps” them from the tourist zone in order to anchor the nation in an image of pure antiquity.

This video also asks what kind of fieldwork is possible at such a spectacle and it questions the status of ethnographic authority as people from the various groups converging on the event, including the anthropologist-videomakers, ironically trade positions as well as compete to speak about the Maya.

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Society for Visual Anthropology Film Festival, Award 1997
Margaret Mead Festival, 1997
Royal Anthropological Institute, Material Culture and Archaeology Prize, 1998
Latin American Studies Association Film Festival, Washington DC, 2001

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Supported By Massachusetts Cultural Council National Endowment for the Humanities National Endowment for the Arts