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Production institutionnelle de l’enfance

Véronique Pache Huber
Charles-Édouard De Suremain
Élise Guillermet

Studying Yucatec Maya children through the eyes of their mothers (Mexico)

María Dolores Cervera Montejano


Le point de vue des mères yucatec maya sur leurs enfants. Ce chapitre présente les ethnothéories des mères maya sur le développement de leurs enfants, et les relations de celles-ci avec la vision du monde maya. En dépit des quelques différences au niveau des discours portant sur le rôle attribué aux « forces innées », la maison et l’école sont communément perçues comme centrales par les mères. Les forces innées renvoient à l’idée d’une destinée reliée à la date de naissance et conçue comme une « route ouverte ». Cette destinée se doit d’être cultivée ou modifiée grâce aux efforts de chacun. Les parents sont certes responsables de l’engagement des enfants sur cette route, mais des données récentes montrent que les enfants se voient reconnus une autonomie grandissante, laquelle va de pair avec une prise en compte de leurs décisions. Ce chapitre participe de la critique de la notion d’enfance universelle qui sous-tend les modèles classiques d’éducation indigène.

Texte intégral

1Central to the study of childhood and children are the assumptions that both are cultural constructions and that the latter are active constructors of culture. However, differences in approaches between Europe and the United States have been noted. Perhaps the most important is the major role that developmental psychology has played in the US but not in Europe (LeVine 2007; Montgomery 2009; Prout & James 1997). Contributions of developmental psychology come from perspectives put forth around the time that the field of childhood and children studies was emerging (for instance, see Bronfenbrenner 1979; Kessen 1979; Rogoff 2003; Super & Harkness 1986). They challenged mainstream developmental psychology on its search for “the eternal child” rather than the “historical child” (Vygotsky [1934] 1986) and for viewing children as passive recipients of adult care and instruction. These approaches have incorporated anthropological perspectives and share the assumptions that development is a culturally structured process in which children actively participate. Thus, social sciences and critical developmental psychology perspectives are complementary and have contributed to advancing the view that children are not merely adults in the making — or “becomings” — but also capable beings who actively engage in sharing and constructing cultural meaning while participating in their own developmental process (James 2011; Uprichard 2008).

2It is from this general view that I have studied the cultural construction of Yucatec Maya children through the eyes of their mothers. That is, I have studied maternal ethnotheories and child rearing practices based on the conceptual framework of the developmental niche (Super & Harkness 1986). Defined as a system, it consists of three interrelated components: physical and social settings (places, objects, and people available for interaction), child rearing practices, and parental ethnotheories. It serves to mediate the relationship between children and culture by structuring the context in which they live. Therefore, it provides building blocks for children to construct their own culture. Among the components of the developmental niche, parental ethnotheories play a leading role as cultural models. These are taken-for-granted systems of thought/feeling about the world that participants of a cultural community share, actively construct and negotiate through everyday interactions with their changing context. They serve to frame the interpretation of everyday experience and guide action as they are directed towards achieving goals, either conscious or unconscious (D’Andrade 1997; Quinn & Holland 1995).

3Parental ethnotheories are specific cultural models about the nature and meaning of childhood, children, and parenting. Parents construct and negotiate them by framing their past and present experience in the historical and changing experience of their community. They serve as cultural guides for parental perception and action and they communicate affective, didactic, and symbolic messages to children through rearing practices and the organization of children’s access and interaction with physical and social settings; that is the other two components of the developmental niche (Harkness & Super 1992; Harkness, Super & Keefer 1997; Super & Harkness 1986). Similar to other specific cultural models, parental ethnotheories are grounded in worldview: the general cultural model of the relationship between natural and sociocultural environments that is present in all spheres of life and frames human understanding and action in relation to nature, the self and other human beings (Cervera & Méndez 2006). In summary, parental ethnotheories relate to worldview. They set the stage for development and children’s access to knowledge, beliefs, and practices though their instantiation in the other two components of the developmental niche.

  • 1  Projects were partially funded by Consejo nacional de ciencia y tecnología (grants 2209HP and 6016 (...)
  • 2  Milpa refers to a general cultural model or worldview. Human beings are allowed to temporarily loa (...)
  • 3  Haciendas were large agricultural estates operated by land-owners who forced indigenous population (...)

4I present Yucatec Maya mothers’ ethnotheories about child development. The data comes from two research projects that I have carried out in two villages, Popolá and Kiní1. I selected them because they represent the two most contrasting historical contexts of integration into the Mexican nation in the state of Yucatán. Popolá is located in the eastern region of traditional subsistence agriculture or milpa2. Kiní is located in the northwestern region. This was incorporated into capitalist agriculture through henequen haciendas in the second half of the 19th century3. Projects were carried out in 1996-1998 and 2008-2010. I analyze how maternal ethnotheories relate to worldview while considering variations between mothers from both villages and time variations.

  • 4  Quantitative data were analyzed statistically. When I refer to differences between mothers it mean (...)

5I used a mixed methods design. I first applied questionnaires to all participating mothers, followed by ethnographic interviews of subgroups4. The first project focused on temperament characteristics of children aged four to 36 months (Cervera & Méndez 2006). Mothers of all children in that age group were invited to participate and 178 agreed (76.1 % of the total). Among them, I selected 24 for ethnographic interviews, based on the rapport established with them and the ease with which they were able to communicate their knowledge. The second project focused on ethnotheories of development, intelligence, and teaching-learning processes. I randomly selected samples of mothers who participated in the first project. At this second time, their children were between 12 and 15 years of age. I also selected random samples of mothers of children between three and 11 years of age. There were 296 participants and I selected 16 mothers for ethnographic interviews, using the same criteria as before. All questionnaires and interviews were applied at home. Throughout field work in both projects, information from questionnaires and interviews was complemented by observations made at the time they were applied as well as informal interviews with family members other than mothers — mostly grandmothers — and participant observation projects.

“As is dawning, so is gaining understanding

6While I was doing field work in Popolá at the beginning of 1997, I read Gaskin’s account of how Yucatec Maya parents describe development or understanding as they name it, “as an ongoing approximation of a change, so subtle that it is rarely proclaimed that a child has accomplished that change... is seen not only as gradual and continuous but also as largely natural and automatic” (Gaskins 1996: 355). By that time, mothers had already described how na’at (understanding in Yucatec Maya) relates to behavior as they identified certain temperament characteristics with their child’s uts u or k’asan u modos (good/nice or bad/ugly manners). The former were defined as being obedient (“I do not need to scold her, she always listens to what I say”), respectful (“they address adults as uncle or aunt, never by their name”), and generous (“he shares everything with his siblings and friends”); k’asan u modos were defined as being disrespectful, disobedient/stubborn, stingy, and bad-tempered. I followed the thread of the descriptions by asking mothers about how the child’s understanding unfolded, what new behaviors and abilities had emerged, and what were the most important health problems that threaten young children. I followed the same procedure with mothers from Kiní.

7Mothers from both villages described their child’s process of understanding similarly and their descriptions conformed to Gaskin’s account. I summarize published results (Cervera 2007b; Cervera & Méndez 2006) but have added some maternal descriptions. At birth, ma’ tóop’ u na’at (understanding is not yet opened or has not yet sprouted) and neonates “just exist, they just nurse, sleep, and cry”. New abilities and behaviors displayed by infants and children are interpreted as a sign of understanding unfolding but its pace depends on su de por sí (“how they are”). Between two and four months of age, t’su ho’op’o’ol u yantal u na’at (“they have finished beginning to have understanding”). This means that the beginning of the process is finished. Thus, infants start smiling when they are talked to “because they not only hear, they understand”. Smiling and gazing at the person who addresses them as well as gesturing, pointing, and babbling are viewed as attempts to communicate. Between six and eight months of age, “ku k’ahotiko’ob max u mama” (they recognize their mother), “ho’op’o’ob u yu’ubik t’aan yéetel u yantal u na’at wa ku t’aanalo’ob k’eeylo’ob wa ku t’aanalo’ob seen k’áam” (they begin to listen to the voice and understand if they are scolded, if they are spoken to loudly).

8Between eight and 12 months, they start obeying and “ku na’to’ob u lak’ ba’alo’ob jex u yiliko’ob balche’ob” (“they understand other things like seeing animals”). Between one and three years of age, some children may become stubborn and bad-tempered as a result of innate tendencies (“su de por sí”) or inheritance but they may also learn from others. Between the second and third year of life, mothers start explaining how to behave to children and why they should correct their k’asan u modos. However, children are not held responsible nor are they expected to change because they are not yet able to understand the consequences of their behavior, ma’ tu tsiko’ob cuenta (“they are not aware”), ma’ tu tukulo’ob (“they do not think”). Between three and four years of age, children are able to start realizing the consequences of their behavior and learn household chores. Parents start holding them responsible and begin explaining and teaching, and whenever necessary, scolding and threatening to spank them if they do not obey. Yucatec Maya-speaking mothers explained that by three to four years of age, children yantal u na’at (“have their understanding”) because they tsu k’ahal u yiik’o’ob (“have finished remembering their responsibility”). Little by little, children increase their participation in household or agricultural chores. By the time they are between ten and 12 years of age, children are expected to be responsible for behaving properly, doing household chores, and studying all by themselves.

9From an early age, children are granted autonomy to make their own decisions, which are respected. They may be cajoled but not forced. When weaning infants refuse a food, mothers do not insist and offer a different one. Similarly, mothers do not force older children to eat what they do not like. While doing interviews, I watched children from three years of age go out without asking permission even if their mother did not approve, se lo tengo dicho que no salga, pero ¡ay Dios! este chiquito (“I have told him not to go out but my God! This little one”). A three year old boy decided to sell some herbs grown in the home garden because he had understanding and wanted to have some cash of his own. He sold a bunch of herbs to me. A three year-old girl started playing with my pencil. Her mother told her to stop but to no avail. We continued the interview and she explained that the little girl had yet to understand. On one occasion, three siblings were playing cards together; the younger one was a three year-old girl who insisted on having them all. As the older ones tried to take them away from her, the mother told them dejenla así, no lo entiende (“let her [have them], she does not understand”).

10Mothers considered understanding to be an innate, gradual and continuous process, similar to dawning, as a grandmother explained. However, they also considered that talking to infants since early age helps them begin understanding and talking earlier. Mothers direct rhetorical questions to their infants. Once they are able to walk, mothers direct commands in order to prevent accidents and illness. When children are three to four years old, mothers direct commands to correct malos modos and start explaining how to behave. Between five and six years of age, mothers start requesting children to do chores or run errands. Once children start attending primary school, mothers start inquiring about homework and, if available, ask older siblings to help younger ones. Parents also seek to symbolically influence the process of understanding early through the ceremony of hetsmek’. This gets its name from the word for carrying young children straddled on the hip. Its purpose is to help children to walk fast and learn to work. Mothers from Popolá also stated utial ka’ k’ahak u yiik’o’b seeb (some fathers who spoke Spanish translated it as “So that they become more intelligent”). The phrase is similar to the one used by mothers to explain the level of understanding achieved by three to four years of age. Thus, it may be glossed as “that they remember their responsibility soon”.

11Differences in schooling and language among mothers related to variations in their ethnotheories. Mothers from Popolá had 2.7 years of schooling on average; 77.3 % were monolingual Yucatec Maya speakers and the remaining were bilingual Yucatec Maya-Spanish. However, except for one of the bilingual mothers from Popolá, none felt comfortable answering questionnaires and maintaining a conversation in Spanish; they preferred to speak Yucatec Maya. Mothers from Kiní had 5.4 years of schooling on average; 66.1 % were bilingual and the remaining were monolingual Spanish speakers. In contrast to mothers from Popolá, those from Kiní preferred speaking Spanish. Mothers from Popolá interpreted children’s withdrawal responses from people as fear-based and associated them with evil eye, whereas mothers from Kiní viewed them as shyness. Mothers from Popolá and Kiní acknowledged that responding to every sign of distress makes the child more difficult to care for. However, the former usually responded quickly to prevent illness and the latter did not believe that illness ensued. Understanding was viewed as more rapidly unfolding among mothers from Kiní and more schooled mothers from Popolá, judging from ideas on their child’s temperament and age of becoming aware of the consequences of behavior.

Popolá and Kiní a little over a decade later

12As I watched the central plaza filled with women and children attending a school event and met Doña Eusebia and her family, the Popolá I knew seemed almost gone. The number of women and children was higher than I expected. Doña Eusebia was no longer wearing hipil (the traditional female garment) and was speaking a little Spanish. I noticed young men and women driving motorcycles or scooters, small diners that served hamburgers and hot dogs, and quite a few new stores. In 1996, few families had a TV set and none had telephones. By 2008, virtually all families owned at least one mobile phone, almost all owned a TV set, and many owned a DVD player. The population increased from 2562 inhabitants to 3675. In 1996, 54.8 % of men aged 12 and over reported making milpa and 20.2 % reported being engaged in wage labor as their primary activity. In 2008, proportions were reversed (27.5 % and 44 %, respectively). Construction industry in the southern coast of the neighboring state of Quintana Roo was booming, thus adult males temporarily migrated to work there. The number of females aged 12 years and over who were housewives changed little but quite a few were now also employed as housemaids or kitchen helpers in the nearby city of Valladolid. As a result of the 2008 financial crisis, most males lost their jobs and returned to Popolá. Most women also lost their jobs, and some diners and stores closed. Education services also changed. In 1996, there was one early childhood education group and one preschool, the former monolingual Yucatec Maya and the latter bilingual; by 2008, a new early childhood education group and a new monolingual Spanish preschool had been opened. In 1996, primary school was bilingual and multigrade; in 2008, there were two shifts, each with two groups per grade plus a mobile first grade classroom. Education was now provided in Spanish despite the fact that children continued learning Yucatec Maya as their first language at home. Similarly, a second shift at the junior high school had been opened. As time passed, I realized that the Popolá I knew was still there, as I listened to mothers talking about their children.

13Kiní seemed to remain very much as I remembered it: a village where almost everybody had relatives who migrated to the USA. Here too, young females and males were driving motorcycles or scooters and there were a few new stores. The population decreased a little from 1581 in 1997 to 1414 in 2010. Even though some migrants had returned because they lost their jobs due to the 2008 financial crisis, others had migrated to the state of Quintana Roo to work in the tourism industry. Migrants’ remittances had largely increased. Before these were used to improve or build family homes and a small baseball field. By 2010, they had helped build a new preschool, a health clinic, and a children’s playground in partnership with local, state and federal governments. The proportion of males 12 years and over engaged in agriculture decreased from 40.4 % to 12.8 %; some of them no longer grew henequen but made milpa; the proportion of wage and day laborers increased slightly and 7.5 % were either unemployed or underemployed. Among females 12 years and older, fewer reported being a housewife and more reported being employed. Many young women, and to a lesser extent males, worked in a maquiladora located in the nearby city of Motul. School services did not change; there were one preschool, one primary school with one group per grade, and one junior high school. Former henequen growers felt that the government abandoned them because there was no longer financial support to continue with their activity. Kiní did not remain the same, yet the village I knew was still there as I listened to mothers talking about their children.

Responsibility, respect, and obedience

14Maternal schooling changed a little. On average, mothers from Popolá had 3.3 years of schooling and those from Kiní had 5.8 years. Maternal language changed more. Among mothers from Popolá, 58.9 % were bilingual Yucatec Maya-Spanish, 40.2 % were monolingual Yucatec Maya, and 0.9 % (2) were monolingual Spanish speakers. This increase in the number of mothers who reported being bilingual may relate to their work as housemaids or kitchen helpers in the city of Valladolid. However, their level of proficiency was poor since they had just learned what they needed to function in their job. All mothers from Kiní spoke Spanish but 52.5 % were bilingual. As before, bilingual mothers from Popolá preferred speaking Yucatec Maya and those from Kiní preferred speaking Spanish.

15Most mothers from Kiní (70.6 %) considered that children may learn to have understanding, whereas more mothers from Popolá (57.0 %) thought that understanding is inherited or it is su suerte del niño. The phrase is similar to su de por sí, which was used by mothers before to explain variations in children’s modos and the pace at which understanding unfolds. It translates as “child’s luck”, but it may also be glossed as “child’s destiny” (Barrera Vázquez et al. 1980). However, understanding is also influenced by the developmental niche. Even if they thought that it depends on inheritance or luck/destiny, mothers from both villages agreed that parents, older siblings, and school contribute to have understanding. Parents should explicarles qué es el bien y el mal, ayudarlos a que tomen el buen camino (“explain what is good and what is evil to them, help them to take the right path”); cuando vean que su hijo no entiende las cosas, le pueden explicar las cosas para que los aprenda (“when they see that their child does not understand things, they can explain to him so that he learns)”; los papás pueden explicarle a sus hijos sobre el trabajo de la casa y del campo (“parents can explain to their children about household and agricultural chores”); jugando con sus hijos, hablándolos y aconsejándolos (“playing with their children, talking to them, advising them”); I play with Imelda because the doctor told me to do so in order for her to u k’ahal u yiik’ séeb [séeb means faster]. Siblings help because juegan, platican de muchas cosas y los mayores les enseñan muchas cosas a los chicos (“[they] play together, talk about a lot of things and the older ones teach the younger ones a lot of things”); porque los chicos ven el comportamiento y la forma de ser de sus hermanos y los imitan ( “because the younger ones see their siblings’ behavior and way of being and imitate them”).

16All mothers from Popolá and 95.9 % of those from Kiní considered that school contributes to children having understanding. The remaining mothers argued that it depends on children paying attention or on teachers’ performance. The role attributed to school may be roughly divided into two. The first one more frequently described in both villages (86.4 %) may be referred to as domain-specific. That is, the type of knowledge and skills that school provides: ahí aprenden muchas cosas. Dibujar, pintar, recortar y, en la otra escuela, las matemáticas, español, a leer y escribir porque si no saben leer, sólo ven letras, no saben qué dicen (“there [preschool] they learn many things. Drawing, coloring, cutting with scissors, and at the other school [primary], mathematics, Spanish, reading and writing because if they do not know how to read, they only see letters, they do not know what they mean”); en que van a la escuela, u k’ahal u yiik’o’ob y, poco a poco, van enseñando lo que se les acuerda en la escuela (“as they attend school, they remember their responsibility and, little by little, they go on showing what they remember at school”); aprenden lo nuevo de la escuela y cuando regresan a su casa combinan sus conocimientos de la escuela y de la casa (“they learn new things at school and when they come home, they combine what they learn at school with what they learn at home”); los enseña, les explica las cosas de los libros (“[school] teaches them, explains the things [knowledge] in books to them”); ahí les dan clases de varias asignaturas, cómo deben expresarse (“there they are taught different subject matter, how to speak correctly”).

17The second role may be referred to as shared. It centers on the type of teaching and explaining that parents do at home. It includes behaviors that instantiate the notion of uts u modos: ahí les enseñan cosas buenas, como el respeto y ahí u k’ahal u yiik’o’ob (“there they teach them good things like respect and they remember their responsibility”); les explican muchas cosas como llevarse y tratarse con los otros y no pelearse ( “[teachers] tell them many things like getting along with others, how to treat them and not to fight”); la maestra los habla y se queda como si fuera su mamá (“the teacher talks to them and acts as if she were their mother”); allí les explican cómo respetar, obedecer (“there [teachers] tell them how to be respectful and obedient”).

18As before, I observed children going out without asking permission, mothers telling older children to let their under three year-old siblings do things their own way because they had yet to have understanding. When school performance among siblings varied considerably, mothers explained that it was a matter of whether they like studying or not, and that maybe those who performed poorly could change if they se dan cuenta, piensan (“become aware, think”) or escuchan (“listen to”) parents and teachers. If they do not, it makes no sense to force them because they will fail. A mother of a 14 year-old girl said: I explain to her but she does not like studying. She wants to work so she earns money to buy things. I cannot make her study if she does not want. When talking about her 15 year-old son, a mother explained so far, he u k’ahal u yiik’ for studying but ma’ [ma’ means no] u k’ahal u yiik’ (“for obeying me, taking care of me, loving me or helping me with household chores”). Her husband was present and so was her son. The former nodded. The latter smiled and shrugged, and soon after said goodbye and left. The mother then said that he will eventually understand because he is a good boy. Whenever mothers were asked their permission for children’s participation in a study (in Popolá, Kiní and other Yucatec Maya communities), they always replied It is up to them; mothers also respected children’s activities even if they did not like them (e.g., bird catching) (Jiménez 2012, Méndez 2009, Uc 2014).

U yantal u naat, u kahal u yiikoobtheir understanding is awake, is open”: destiny and responsibility

19Among the Maya, destiny has been conceived as a road since at least the Classic Period (AD 250-850). Evidence shows that the glyph for the contemporary Yucatec Maya term beh (and its cognates in other Maya languages) referred to road, astral course, spirit path, day, well-being, destiny, life course, and occupation. It also shows that these meanings have changed little over time (Keller 2009). One’s destiny, occupation, abilities and character were bound to the day of birth among ancient Maya and all ancient Mesoamerican peoples, as they still are among some contemporary peoples. Each day carries its own kuuch. The glyph for this word and its cognates in other contemporary Maya languages means load, obligation in the sense of burden and duty, guilt, occupation, and road in the sense of destiny. Hence one’s occupation, character, and abilities, in summary, destiny and responsibility are tied to the burden of the birthday. Fulfilling one’s destiny and responsibility contributes to the cosmic order as established by the creator gods (Popol Vuh 2007; Farriss 1987; Freidel, Schele & Parker 1993; Monaghan 1998). Nevertheless, rather than being an inevitable fate, destiny is better understood as a general orientation or potential bestowed upon the individual on his birth day. For it to be realized or avoided — in the case of a bad destiny — the individual should cultivate it or change it through hard work and effort (Monaghan 1998).

20Among contemporary Yucatec Maya, bèel refers to road as well as occupation (Bricker, Po’ot & Dzul 1998): “The day, state of being, and destiny of the individual is a road, and for it to be ‘open’… is a sign of possibility” (Hanks 1990: 337). They greet each other asking ¿Bix a bèel? (literally, “how is your road?”), and refer to getting married as ts’o’okan u bèel (literally, “finish one’s road”). This notion of destiny as an open road shows continuity with its ancient meaning as a potential to be realized or avoided. Therefore the idea that understanding is natural and innate should be understood within this conceptual framework.

21At birth, the potential, the possibility is there, but understanding, or the mind, needs to be opened or awaken. Symbolically, the hetsmek’ ceremony serves this purpose. Infants’ legs are opened so they may walk fast. Walking fast may be understood literally but also figuratively as working fast and efficiently. Infants are presented with gendered and non-gendered tools to touch so they may learn to use them and master them. In communities located in the eastern milpa region of Yucatán, infants are also offered certain foods to try for the first time in order to awake their memory and open their thought and language. Elsewhere (Cervera 2007a), I suggest that these abilities evoke those that primordial gods were looking for when creating human beings: “They were able to speak and converse. They were able to look and listen. They were able to walk and hold things with their hands” (Popol Vuh 2007: 185). In everyday life parents talk to, explain to, advise their children, and scold them and threaten to spank them if necessary.

22The words responsibility or responsible were rarely used by mothers, even if they were Spanish-speakers. Instead, they used tukul or pensar (“think”), tsik cuenta or darse cuenta (“be aware”), and u’ub/u’uy or escuchar (“listen”). Mothers from Popolá also used the phrase u k’ahal u yiik’ when explaining new abilities displayed by three to four year-old children, the role that school shares with home, and as one of the purposes of the hetsmek’ ceremony. More often, they used it as a synonym for yan u na’at (“having understanding”). They also explained that some adults ma’ [no] u k’ahal u yiik’o’ob, (“they lose contact with reality, they become like crazy, they do not work, they do not understand that they have children to support, they just go out and get drunk”) and that the elderly u tu’ubsiko’ob [forget] u yiik’o’ob (“and then they stop bathing, and changing clothes until they forget everything”).

23Bilingual mothers from Kiní translated u k’ahal u yiik’ as ya despertó para pensar más las cosas y hacerlas (“[the child] has awakened to think harder about things and do them”); despertó el niño, se da cuenta ya de las cosas que hay ( “the child has awakened, he has become aware of all things that exist”); despertó su entendimiento de la chiquita ( “the understanding of the little one has awakened”). Phrases like understanding or the child has awakened or se abrió su entendimiento (“her understanding opened”) were also used by Spanish-speaker participants when explaining changes in child’s behavior and abilities. Yucatec Maya speakers also referred that the elderly u tu’ubsiko’ob u yiik’o’ob and that drunkards ma’ u k’ahal u yiiko’ob because they do not think, they do not remember their family, they only remember their drunkenness. It may be because they have no understanding since they were children, they get addicted and once you are addicted you do not have a mind to think about what you are doing.

24Thinking and being aware relate to one’s role towards the family and the community. This encompasses both proper behavior and learning to work, work hard, and get the job done and done well. Listening refers to paying attention to what is said, listening to advice. That is, being obedient and respectful. In the Yucatec Maya language u’uy refers to listening as well as to all senses (may or may not include sight) and it may be translated as to understand. “Moreover, a person said to… ‘hear speech’ is understood to be reasonable, obedient, and respectful, while one who doesn’t hear speech… is disobedient, rebellious, drunk, demented, in a rage, or otherwise intractable. Thus the two basic verbs of perception also code understanding, the ability to ‘see’ a situation, and attentive reasonableness, the ability to ‘hear, listen to it’” (Hanks 1990: 89). Therefore, thinking, being aware, and listening convey the idea of responsibility as being able to carefully consider and reflect on one’s behavior in relation to oneself and others as well as fully understanding the consequences of one’s actions and decisions.

25I have glossed u k’ahal u yiik’ as remembering one’s responsibility. K’ah and k’ahal mean remember, when combined with ik’ they mean “be aware” (Barrera Vázquez et al. 1980) and “responsibility” (Bricker et al. 1998). However, its literal translation is “remember one’s wind”. Ik’ has been translated as wind, breath, life, spirit, and soul. Since the Classic period (C.E. 200-900), ik’ has been conceived as living soul and breath, one of three animate essences that allowed human beings to realize their destiny and responsibility through everyday interaction with each other and the cosmos, and related to the god of wind (Houston & Taube 2000; Taube 2005). According to the Maya genesis, in addition to their ability to speak, look, listen, and walk, creator gods said that the first human beings “… had their breath, therefore they became” (Popol Vuh 2007: 185). Ik’ was also associated with the act of breathing as well as with vitality; when used in the phase k’ahal ik’ refers to regaining awareness after fainting; in concert with other animate essence, it allows human beings to learn quickly and become skilled. It was also construed as spirits of dead people and gods, some associated with the cardinal points. These ik’o’ob (“wind” plural) could make people sick (Bourdin 2007; Chávez 2014).

26Many ancient meanings are still present among contemporary Yucatec Maya: “Ik’ is one of the two characteristics that ‘link them’ [human beings] with other higher animates and that make it possible for them to engage in the world in a directed manner” (Hanks 1990: 87). It relates to breath, animacy, awareness, and its movement within the body contributes to the production of blood. Ik’ is shared with extramundane beings and causes illness: k’ak’as ik’ (“evil wind”), whirlwinds that are thought to be spirits of dead people, winds associated with cardinal points and others associated with the lords or guardian spirits of nature and towns (Cervera 2007b; Redfield & Villa Rojas [1934] 1990; Ruz 2003). The translation of u k’ahal u yiik’ as children or understanding is awakened by bilingual mothers from Kiní and is similar to the idea of regaining awareness after fainting as both involve transitioning from an unconscious state to a conscious one.

27Whether expressed as u yantal u na’at, u k’ahal u yiik’, despertó su entendimiento or se abrió su entendimiento, mothers’ conceptualization of having understanding centers around being responsible in the sense of duty towards oneself and others by: (i) being respectful and obedient; (ii) being able to learn and work, get the job done and done well; and (iii) carefully considering and reflecting on one’s actions and the consequences of behaviors and decisions. Except for the brief reference to ik’ as one of the attributes of human beings, other studies published only reported its expression as wind associated with illness. Maternal descriptions and exegesis show that ik’ is related to the process of development. U k’ahal u yiik’ and having understanding were used interchangeably by mothers from Popolá; those from Kiní identified the phrase with understanding has awakened or has opened because at birth ma’ tóop’ u na’at (“understanding is not yet opened or has not yet sprouted”).

28Yucatec Maya mothers’ conceptualization of development as a process of opening, awakening, sprouting and remembering responsibility conveys the idea of it being natural and that children are “influenced almost completely by innate forces that are beyond both their own and their parents’ ability to change or control” (Gaskins 1996: 355). Innate forces and inheritance are expressed in understanding being dependent on children’s de por sí (“how [they] are”) or children’s suerte (“luck”). Overall, 42.7 % of mothers from both villages considered that development is innate or inherited yet they attributed a role to home and school as did mothers who considered that understanding may be learned. The apparent contradiction between lack of control and human agency may be understood in the context of the specific cultural model of the self. Individual destiny, abilities and character are tied to the kuuch (“burden”) of the day of birth, but they are not an inevitable fate. They are a possibility, a potential to be cultivated or avoided by individuals in order to contribute to the cosmic order. As expressed among contemporary Yucatec Maya, it is a road that when open, signals possibility.

29Parents are responsible for paving their children’s road towards having understanding. Their responsibility is instantiated in rearing practices and opportunities and restraints for children to explore and interact within their physical and social settings. Siblings and school are among the most important settings of Maya children’s developmental niche and both contribute to the unfolding of understanding. Siblings do so by playing, teaching, and setting a good or a bad example to the younger ones. The school’s role is domain-specific. It provides children with the knowledge and skills construed in what has been called Western society. To a lesser extent, it may also share the parental role by teaching respect and obedience, most likely in ways that differ from those used by parents.

30At home, children are allowed to make their own decisions from early age, as per Redfield & Villa Rojas ([1934] 1990), Gaskins (1996), and my own observations. Parents talk to, explain to, and advise their children but do not force them to do what they do not want. This autonomy may be seen as an instantiation of the idea that opening one’s destiny ultimately depends on having one’s understanding open. Roughly until toddlerhood, children are not held responsible because they do not understand, they do not think, they have not remembered their responsibility. Thus, mothers let them have their way and instruct older children to do so. Once children show signs of understanding, parents cease to treat them differently because they are expected to start taking responsibility. In both cases, decisions are respected. This rearing style has also been reported among other populations, including the Maya from Guatemala. Referred to as responsibility with freedom of choice, the style is described as one that allows children to learn to be responsible, respectful, and cooperative as they participate in everyday interactions (Mosier & Rogoff 2003; Reynolds 2008).

Conclusion: understanding as the Maya psychological theory of development

  • 5  As one mother put it: es más fácil que los niños vayan a la escuela porque tienen la oportunidad ( (...)

31Popolá and Kiní tell a different history since they are located in the most contrasting contexts of integration into the Mexican nation in the state of Yucatán. Their histories are reflected in differences in language, education, means of earning a living, and maternal ethnotheories (meaning of some temperament characteristics, rate of development, and role played by innate or inherited forces and environment). Socioeconomic changes did not seem to have influenced ideas and practices except among mothers from Popolá. Unlike before, and other studies (Gaskins 1996, 2000), they recognized a role be to played in gaining understanding as a result of increased presence of health services and programs. In addition to population growth, changes in education in Popolá suggest increased importance of schooling, which was also observed by Gaskins (2003), but also suggest increased access to government support5. Educational services had not changed in Kiní and access to health services was facilitated by the opening of a health clinic in the village. Mothers’ ideas remained the same as before, probably because of the longer history of contact with both health and education services.

32The notion of development as understanding was shared among mothers from both villages during both study periods. Furthermore, the notion of understanding and various rearing practices (e.g., rituals similar to hetsmek’, autonomy and respect to individual decisions) are shared by Maya mothers from Yucatán, Chiapas, and Guatemala (De León 2005; Gaskins 1996; Mosier & Rogoff 2003; Pye 1986; Reynolds 2008; Stross 1972). Among the Maya from Chiapas and Guatemala, the ancient notion of multiple animate essences is still maintained and is one of those is linked to understanding. Studies among the Yucatec Maya extensively document pixan (soul of the dead); only one refers in passing to two human attributes, ik’ and oól without relating them to pixan.

  • 6  Thanks to all team members, especially to Bertha Maribel Pech Polanco, Eurídice Imelda Ciau Ché, a (...)

33In light of ethnographic, archaeological, historical, epigraphic, and linguistic evidence, development as understanding is a shared notion that may be traced back to core concepts of Maya worldview. It represents a specific cultural model about childhood and children embedded in what I call Maya psychological theory. Its variations may be related to different historical experiences lived by the Maya since Spanish colonization. In order to understand the cultural construction of childhood and children, it is necessary to cross disciplinary borders as I have attempted to do. Much remains to be done but the relevance of doing so goes beyond documenting cultural diversity, as it may contribute to contesting the notion of universal childhood and children that underlies indigenous education (Cervera 2008; Lewis & Watson-Gegeo 2004)6.


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1  Projects were partially funded by Consejo nacional de ciencia y tecnología (grants 2209HP and 60167).

2  Milpa refers to a general cultural model or worldview. Human beings are allowed to temporarily loan the bush from its lords in order to feed themselves and are responsible for its restitution. The model is instantiated in milpa-making which consists of slash-and-burn cultivation of corn, beans, vegetables and tubers followed by a fallow period. Corn is the most important as human beings were created with corn.

3  Haciendas were large agricultural estates operated by land-owners who forced indigenous populations into debt peonage. The hacienda system was the basis of the transformation of agricultural production and agrarian structure into a capitalist endeavor in the second half of the 19th century. In the state of Yucatán, haciendas cultivated one of two native agave species, henequen (Agave fourcroydes, ki in Yucatec Maya) for its fiber that was in great demand in international markets (García 1986).

4  Quantitative data were analyzed statistically. When I refer to differences between mothers it means that they were statistically significant. For the sake of brevity, I omit results from tests. Interpretation was based on maternal descriptions and exegesis from questionnaires and ethnographic interviews.

5  As one mother put it: es más fácil que los niños vayan a la escuela porque tienen la oportunidad ( “it is easier for children to attend school because they have the opportunity”). She was referring to Oportunidades (Opportunities), a federal program aimed at maintaining regular primary and junior high school attendance, among other benefits.

6  Thanks to all team members, especially to Bertha Maribel Pech Polanco, Eurídice Imelda Ciau Ché, and Marcelina Chan Canché for assisting in field work, and Rosalinda Ché Chunab and Rodolfo Olguín Castillo for assisting in data processing and analysis. I also thank Feliciano Sánchez Chan, Fidencio Briceño Chel, and Miguel Angel Güémez Pineda, Yucatec Maya intellectuals and friends, for sharing their knowledge and insight. Most of all, I thank all participating mothers and their children for helping me tóop’ in na’at.


Anthropologist, Department of human ecology, Centro de investigación y de estudios Avanzados del IPN-Unidad Mérida (México). ,
Born in México City where she had her BA degree in Physical Anthropology (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia), she moved to Mérida, Yucatán, in 1980 where she has worked on different topics related to Maya children and mothers. She got her PhD degree in Behavioral Neurosciences (Boston University). For the past 20 years, she has studied Maya children’s developmental niche, specifically maternal ethnotheories, their relationship with Maya worldview and role on the cultural construction of children. She is presently Professor at the Department of Human Ecology at Cinvestav (Mérida, México). In addition to research, she teaches and supervises graduate students’ thesis. The latter have mainly focused on Maya children’s construction of ideas and practices about the relationship culture-nature and the role of their developmental niche. Her main publications on the theme are : in 2007, “El hetsmek’ como expresión simbólica de la construcción de los niños mayas yucatecos como personas, Pueblos y Fronteras Digital 4 ;] ; and, with R.M. Méndez, 2006, “Temperament and ecological context among Yucatec Mayan children”, International Journal of Behavioral Development 30 : 326-337.

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