I once took a Classics professor friend of mine, a real Hellenophile, to the majestic Maya ruins of Palenque in southern Mexico. I wanted him to see why the Maya, thanks to their advanced astronomy, mathematics and cosmology, are considered the Greeks of the New World. As we entered the Palace there, my friend stopped, surprised, and said, “Corbel arches!” That’s the kind of precocious architecture you find at famous ancient Greek sites like Mycenae—and seeing it at Palenque made him acknowledge that maybe the Greeks could be considered the Maya of the Old World.
Today, Dec. 21, we’re all standing under those Corbel arches, celebrating one of civilization’s more sublime accomplishments, the Maya calendar. The 2012 winter solstice marks the end of a 5,125-year creation cycle and the hopeful start of another—and not the apocalyptic end that so many wing nuts rave about. (That comes next month, when our wing nuts in Washington send us over the fiscal cliff.) Understandably, this Maya milestone is a source of Latin American and especially Mexican and Mesoamerican pride. As teacher Jaime Escalante tells the Mexican-American kids he turns into calculus wizards in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver: “Did you know that neither the Greeks nor the Romans were capable of using the concept of zero? It was your ancestors, the Mayas, who first contemplated it…True story.”
But, unfortunately, most Americans ignore that record and focus on the doomsday nonsense that a crowd of pseudo-scholars has tied to the Maya calculations. It’s part and parcel of the western world’s condescending approach to pre-Columbian society—typified by the popular canard that if the Maya did rival the Greeks in any arena, then space aliens must have shown them how. It also reflects the maddening American disregard, if not disdain, for Mexico and Latin America, which persists even today as Escalante’s now grown-up Chicano students and the rest of the Latino community prove their political clout. So since today is all about new beginnings—and since Mexico itself is endeavoring a fresh start right now—we also ought to consider an overhaul of the tiresomely arrogant and indifferent way we look at the world south of the border.
The U.S., especially our foreign policy and media elite, gets a perverse superiority kick out of dismissing Canada and Mexico, but especially Mexico, in ways that other world powers, like Germany, would seldom snub their neighbors today. Even the Houston Chronicle, a newspaper serving a city whose population is 45% Mexican-American, and where Mexico is the No. 1 trade partner, just closed its Mexico City bureau. This despite the newsworthy fact that in Mexico—after a decade, its first as a modern democracy, that was marred by horrific drug war carnage and anemic economic growth—new President Enrique Peña Nieto took office this month promising to repair those daunting problems and restore the country’s flagging self-esteem.
If anything, today should remind us that Mexico—the world’s 14th largest economy and our third largest trading partner, a giant of 112 million people with whom we share a 2,000-mile-long border—matters. So if I were Peña Nieto, I’d hype the Maya mania not just as a symbolic reboot for Mexico, but as one for jaded U.S.-Mexico relations as well. OK, he should tell Washington, I’ll modernize Mexico’s dysfunctional law enforcement. In the spirit of a new baktun (Maya era), I’ll even order the release of former U.S. Marine Jon Hammar, who’s languishing in a Matamoros prison after his controversial August arrest for bringing into Mexico a hunting rifle for which he claimed he had proper documents. What you can do, Peña Nieto should add, is confront the reckless U.S. gun laws which, when they’re not making it easier for monsters to massacre your school children, make it easier for smugglers to supply our monstrous drug cartels with assault weapons.
Or bring up immigration. Yes, he could tell the Beltway, I’ll finally challenge the leviathan business monopolies that worsen Mexico’s inexcusable poverty, which in turn prods so many Mexicans to seek work in the U.S. And then you can finally get serious about fixing your tragically laughable immigration system, which demonizes the low-wage indocumentados your businesses desperately need and hire at will, but which scorns workable guest worker programs and other commonsense solutions. Either way, he might add, if my presidency fails, you can expect a new wave of illegal immigration, as well as worsened narco-violence at your doorstep and a weaker market for the $224 billion worth of goods the U.S. exported to Mexico last year—which, by the way, was 75% more than you exported to China and represents 15% of your global total.
Better yet, mention the Hispanic voters, especially the Mexican-Americans who make up more than 60% of that bloc, who may have swung a U.S. presidential election last month. Mention the Republican Party, whose xenophobic posture toward Mexico and Latinos helped it notch a pathetic 27% of the Hispanic presidential vote.
As smart Republicans like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush try to point out to the GOP, Latinos have a stronger bond with their countries of origin than most immigrant groups do. Dissing Mexico and Central America, the Mesoamerica that was home to classical Maya civilization, doesn’t exactly charm that burgeoning U.S. demographic. Especially not on this day, when Latinos contemplate the fact that their ancient ancestors were capable of contemplating things the Greeks couldn’t. True story.