Steamy soap operas, known as telenovelas, are small-screen staples in Mexico, serving up scandal, sex and escapism for millions enthralled by the sappy storylines. The telenovela Baktún takes the tawdry form of television to the Mayan languages, but with a twist: no kissing or displays of public affection. “A big issue [for us] has been the absence of kisses,” says director Bruno Cárcamo. “It’s what sells in all of Latin America.”
The move is an attempt at accommodating the cultural sensibilities of the Maya, who still populate traditional pueblos across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and parts of Central America. The show is also part of a broader effort to keep the culture alive, particularly as many Maya move to bigger cities such as Cancún for tourism jobs.
The Mayan culture has been misrepresented and misunderstood—most recently by the end of the long-count calendar last Dec. 21, erroneously interpreted as the end of the world. But the misinterpretation brought an awareness of the Maya and provided the pretext for the producers to finally find funding for a 21-episode series on public TV in Quintana Roo state.
The Mayan calendar and its concept of renewal also inspired the storyline of the series, shot in an actual Mayan community south of Cancún. The show focuses on Jacinto, who migrates to New York for economic opportunities and loses many of his Mayan customs. He returns to his rural village to find his language skills lacking and his love interest taking a liking to his brother—the closest Cárcamo comes to pushing the envelope. As Jacinto rediscovers his roots, he becomes Mayan again, but in a more modern sense. “What Baktún and the main character present is the introduction of a new Maya, who uses Twitter, Facebook, English—but doesn’t lose his traditions,” Cárcamo says.
Baktún is just one of several recent efforts to make a family of indigenous languages with some 700,000 speakers more relevant. José Manuel Poot Cahun, 27, who plays Jacinto’s brother in Baktún, moonlights as a rocker under the stage name Mayan Prince. Others in his collective of artists—called Sueño Maya, or Mayan Dream—use Mayan languages in comedy, theatre and even hip hop music. “We can motivate people to feel pride in their culture and the Mayan language,” Poot says.