In the summer of 2010, we held a statewide contest to invite young art students throughout Yucatán to submit a painting to become the mural on the wall of our new Community Center. We wanted the mural to depict something wonderful about the Maya culture and, in keeping with our green theme, also contain specific examples of our local flora and fauna. One Saturday morning in July many of us came out to the plaza to see the entries and to vote for our favorite. Because the contest was “blind” we didn’t know who had painted any of the entries, and we were surprised to learn that the contest winner (by a landslide vote!) was a 21-year-old woman, an architect student from Mérida, Nubia Montserrat Alvarez López. Nubia came out to the village with two fellow art students, Adirán Cob Soberanis and Gabriel Antonio del Castillo Cantero, who volunteered to help. Every weekend for several months they worked to execute the mural. Now that the mural is up on the wall finished, the magnitude of her talent is visible to all. The vibrancy of the colors, the depth of perspective and the accuracy with which the plants and animals are depicted in the mural are only surpassed by the overall beauty of the work. Nubia is truly a remarkable artist, and we are deeply honored to have a representation of her work in our community for all to enjoy.
What’s in the Mural
The work shows the young corn or maize god throwing life, in the form of corn kernels, out to the world. At the young Maya maize god’s back is an ear of the native variety of corn (called x nuk nal in Maya). Even today we say that we, as Maya, are made from corn. Corn, in the form tortillas, vaporcitos (tamales), pozole, atole, or in some other way, is eaten at almost every meal throughout the course of a lifetime. It is so important that no one can truly feel satisfied without it. Maybe you’ll have a chance to visit Yaxunah and share a meal with a local family that includes corn grown right here on our own communal lands.
As well as providing life-giving corn, in the mural the young maize god is also depicted as sprinkling our world with beauty in the form of sac nicté or flor de mayo flowers. Known in English as frangipani, it is from the genus Plumeria, and there are numbers of species native to the area, each with different colored flowers. The particular creamy white and yellow flowers depicted in the mural are Plumeria rubra.
Above the young maize god is a branch of the purple-flowered balché tree (Lonchocarpus violaceus), the bark of which is used
even to this day in many Maya communities to make the mildly alcoholic drink used in sacred ceremonies.
To the far left of the mural is the splendid Yucatan jay (Cyanocorax yucatanicus). In Maya it is called ch’el. Another is flying near the hand of the young corn god. This bird is easy to spot as it is predominately black but has a bright blue back, wings and tail. You can also spot its characteristic yellow beak and feet.
Next comes the jabalí, also known in English as a javelina or peccary. These New World mammals are in the family Tayassuidae (Pecari tajacu), and are not really closely related to the wild boar of Europe or the razorback of Arkansas and other places in the US, both of which are really feral domestic pigs of the family Suidae. The jabalí has scent glands, which causes it to be a bit repellent to potential predators and to humans, as well. However, because its meat is at least as delicious as domestic porkers, and although hunting it is illegal, it is becoming increasingly rare in its range. It is hard to raise in captivity, being very difficult to domesticate; however, a number of people are trying. Ask someone in the community about this.
Next to the jabalí and again on the other end of the mural is a truly miraculous native plant known as chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius). We think of the plant as miraculous because it provides calcium and iron, plus other vitamins, protein and antioxidants. Velvet-like stickers on the leaves means that it is a bit irritating to handle, but highly resistant to insect pests. It must be cooked for 20 minutes before eaten, as it also contains cyanide, which is rendered out in the cooking process. Try it in any recipe, and you’ll become a fan of its fresh flavor.
Next to the chaya leaves look for a pair of oscillated turkeys (Meleagris ocellata). These birds, called kutz in Maya, are similar to wild turkeys in the US, but merit a separate species name. If you ever do get to see one in the wild, you’ll remember it because of its truly splendid iridescent green back. It’s so delicious, that like the jabalí, it too is becoming rare in this range.
Just under the young maize god’s outstretched hand you can see an iguana, huh in Maya, and there’s another in a tree at the far right of the mural. Our most common iguana is the black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaur similis), though it is also often called the gray iguana. This may not only be because of its gray color, but also because a British man named John Edward Gray in 1831 first described it scientifically. Often seen sleeping on rock walls, these handsome creatures look like a blast from the past. They can grow to more than 1.5 meters (4+ft.) long, and have distinct dark dorsal bands and spines along their backs. Juveniles of this species may be green, and adult males may have various colors on their cheeks during mating season. Don’t let them scare you. They can run very fast, but are primarily herbivores. However, they shouldn’t be teased, because they can give a nasty bite if cornered.
Above the oscillated turkey find the two white-tailed deer bucks (Odocoileus virginianus yucatanensis), one of approximately 38 white-tailed species native to the Americas. This would actually be a rare sight here. Though these deer do live in the area, they are getting rare, and spotting two males together at the same time would be difficult. You might find their antlers about, as they shed them once a year after fighting with rival males and mating. This is still a great source of protein for rural families.
Giant toads (Bufo marinus) are known as besmu’ch in Maya and are wonderful native creatures. They can often be seen beside a rock wall under a streetlamp enjoying the insect dinner that flies by. These remarkable toads can grow to nine inches long, and that doesn’t include the length of the legs! Nights during the rainy season in Yaxunah are filled with a chorus of toads and frogs. Come hang your hammock and enjoy nature’s symphony.
On the far right of the mural under another black spiny-tailed iguana you will see a nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcintus) or uech in Maya. This small insectivore is not usually seen in the daytime. Even though it carries armored protection on its back it is shy and is generally nocturnal.
Below the armadillo in the far bottom right-hand corner is a baby northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana) or ajchab in Maya. This animal, sometimes called an anteater or oso hormiguero, is another insectivore like the armadillo, but it concentrates on using its big claws to tear open termite and ant colonies and to look for smaller insects behind bark and in old tree trunks. Like the armadillo, the tamandua helps control the insect population of the tropical forest.
The two birds in front of the armadillo represent the plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula). This bird, called ba’ach in Maya, is about the size and shape of a half-grown turkey. It’s best known for its noisy raucous call from the bush early in the morning. If your house is close enough to the woods, at the very first light it can be counted on as a reliable alarm clock.
A coral snake (Micrurus hippocrepis) can be seen just below the chachalaca. This beautifully colored snake is also one to be avoided if you come upon it, as it carries a neurotoxin. However, a bite from one is very rare, as they are shy, and if seen at all, will likely be going away from you into a burrow. They generally bite only if stepped on, are cornered or otherwise feel threatened. The coral snake’s mouth and teeth are small, so hiking boots and just watching where you step are usually enough to protect against them if you are out in the woods.
Look for a spectacularly colorful bird almost in the middle of the mural. This gorgeous bird is called toh in Maya and turquoise-browed motmot in English (Eumomota superciliousa). In Spanish it’s called a pájaro relojero. This name comes from the fact that when the bird sits on a branch the tail feathers keep moving back and forth like a clock pendulum. You can see the tail is shaped somewhat like two small black and turquoise spoons. If you visit our cenote just across the street from the Community Center, you are almost sure to see one or more of these marvelous birds.
Two red hibiscus flowers are seen in the middle of the mural. It is the only species in the painting that is not native to this area (being generally thought to have originated in Hawaii and the Pacific islands). It was added here to remind us how many lovely plants have been “borrowed” from other parts of the world and are perfectly happy to grow in our rich tropical environment.
Along the bottom of the mural you will see palm fronds. These are called huanos or xa’an in Maya. There are numerous members of the genus Sabal used for roof thatching around the Yucatán Peninsula, but here we generally prefer to make our roofs from the Sabal yapa. These palms make a wonderful natural roofing material. When the fronds are placed close together on a sloping roof, they shed water for many years, and help keep the house cool despite the outside temperature rising. During a hurricane the fronds simply lift up and allow the destructive winds to pass through without necessarily destroying the roof.
In the upper right hand side of the mural there are a number of leaves and trunks of the sacred ceiba tree or ya’axche in Maya. Though any one of a number of trees in the Bombacaceae family may have been called the sacred ceiba, the world tree by Ancient Maya in different parts of Mesoamerica, here it is the Ceiba pentandra. In ancient times it was considered the center or axis of the world, the fifth cardinal direction. It stood on the earth, held up the sky and reached into Xibalba, the underworld. The fertilized flowers of the ceiba produce a long oval-shaped pod from which soft kapok fibers are obtained. In modern mythology the ceiba is reported to be the home of the Xtabai, the beautiful temptress who roams the woods at night in order to catch men out to commit unacceptable deeds. So this apparition can be seen as a keeper of community morality.
You might notice that the sky in the background of the mural looks particularly red and golden. If you don’t think these are natural colors, come see sunset in Yaxunah after a shower in the rainy season. That’s when our sky is at its most spectacular.
Come see the mural. Judge its ecological and its cultural message and its special beauty for yourself.