No apocalypse? Chicago residents can tell you why

Guatemalan and Mexican residents of Chicago say Mayan apocalypse hype doesn’t represent the holiday according to Mayans themselves.

December 21, 2012

Flickr/Halseike
Mayan ruins in Belize.

You’ve heard it all: 2012, apocalypse, end of the world, blah blah blah. But for some Guatemalans and Mexicans in Chicago, December 21 is a time of celebration that has nothing to do with doomsday prophecies.

In the Mayan tradition December 21 is a major turning of the calendar, the end of an approximately 394-year-long cycle called a Bak’tun. It’s the 13th Bak’tun of the Mayan calendar era, and some say this era will be only 13 Bak’tuns long. Translation: time for a new world.

But in reality, December 21 more closely resembles Y2K than the John Cusack movie “2012.” It’s a big, huge renewal with numeric and astrological significance. Only one Mayan text suggests that it’s the end of the world, and people of Mayan descent are more likely to be celebrating than stocking up on bottled water and firearms.

“This is a time of reflection and to see what we have done with our lives, with mother nature, and how are we going to move forward in this new era,” said Hugo Hun, the Guatemalan consul general of Chicago. He said many Guatemalans will travel to large ceremonies in 13 different cities throughout Guatemala.

The Bak’tun events are also a tourist attraction, but some are concerned that the doomsday hullaballoo is commercializing the Mayan culture. 

“The living Mayans are systematically losing the way they used to live and their beliefs as well,” Akaze Yotzin said.

He’s the leader of a Chicago group called Nahualli that practices and studies indigenous Mexican traditions. He said poverty and racial stereotypes already endanger Mayan identity in Mexico, and stressed that Mayans are not an ancient people, but a people who are alive today. Nahualli held a ceremony Friday morning at the American Indian Center to celebrate the winter solstice and the turning of the calendar.

Music and mathematics

Ancient Mayan culture gave great significance to math and numbers, and the number 13 is considered particularly powerful. The complex numerology of the Mayan calendar system inspired Chicago musician Juan Dies, who produced a song called "13 Bak'tun" with his band Sones de Mexico.

"13 Bak'tun" features 13 parts, each carefully planned to highlight numerology. For example, the second part is in 2/4 time and uses two instruments. The thirteenth has 13 instruments playing in 13/8 time. And guess what - the song is 13 minutes long.

Dies said the date is important and also misrepresented. His song is part of an effort to correct that. Sones de Mexico has been together for nearly twenty years studying and reinterpreting traditional Mexican music. The tenth part of "13 Bak'tun" features Chicago poet Carlos Mejia performing a poem in Quiche Mayan. According to Dies, Mejia traveled to Guatemala for Dec. 21, 2012 to join the Bak'tun celebrations.

"I think the Mayans are seeing it today as a closure of a long cycle, very much as we saw the end of our millenium," Dies said. "Along with that comes an opportunity to renew yourself, to look back at the achievements of the last four hundreds years, and how you may make changes or improvements or a rebirth in the new Bak’tun."