February 2000 Meeting of the Pre-Columbian Society

February 12, 2000 1:30 pm  University Museum Room 329

Speaker:     Nancy Forand   NForand@aol.com

Title:   "Finishing the Road:  Breaching Conflict via Courtship Dialogues"

Summary:  This presentation reported on a field study in the Mayan villages of Saban and Huaymax in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico.  According to local customs, parents are responsible for negotiating marital alliances on behalf of their children.  Marriage is called "finishing one's road" in the Yucatec language.  It refers to the gendered social roles that each of the partners plays as they walk the road of life together.  A woman's life is centered on the three stones of the hearth while a man's life is centered on the milpa.  A "proper"
marriage is arranged during a series of formalized meetings in which the boy's father presents traditional brideprice offerings to the girl's father, including gold jewelry and clothing for the girl, and chocolate, rum, and soft drinks for her parents. Brideservice, the practice by which the groom works for a period of time for the bride's father, is in decline, partly due to the fact that many of the young men leave the village to work in Cancun during the week.
  The courtship rituals are social dramas in which the parents work out the particulars of the marital transaction and establish an ongoing alliance between the two families.  The interactions play out the unequal relations between the two families and the dependence of children and their elders.  No amount of brideprice can ever compensate the girl's family for her loss, and so the groom's family remains forever indebted to them.  Elders often
give a ritualized speech to the couple about their marital duties. The bride and groom must listen intently to the speech, and they are not allowed to respond.  After the brideprice has been accepted, the couple is typically joined in a civil ceremony.  The negotiation process concludes as soon as a church wedding can be arranged and carried out.
  Despite the conflict and tension that has resulted from the introduction of Protestantism in the Mexican countryside, many small villages today are religiously plural. The growth of the
evangelical Protestant population in the village (presently 30%) s responsible for the emergence of a new form of the ritual dialogues, which is clothed in Protestant symbolism.  The presence of "True God" in the transaction is signaled by reading the Bible, and not by the statues and crosses that are found at folk Catholic services.  Protestant forms of prayer
are used.  Also, because drinking of any kind violates their fundamentalist code of ethics, Protestants do not present gifts of rum.
  One of the greatest challenges to an individual's sense of  tolerance arises when his or her child wishes to marry a person belonging to a competing religious community.  While some parents simply reject the idea (often with the result that the boy and the girl run off and live together), others have participated in the courtship process as a necessary step in negotiating a proper marital alliance. This pattern of courtship represented the sole context of joint religious participation that was observed between parties who subscribe to
different religious ideologies and moral codes.  As it is customary to honor the girl's family, the general form of the ceremony (Protestant or Catholic version) and composition of brideprice is dictated by the religious affiliation of the bride and her family.  Negotiation of
mixed marriages indicates that the emerging religious tolerance is founded on the creativity of individuals who have re-interpreted the Mayan notion of harmony.  After the wedding, the couple is expected to choose one religion.  The participation of the parents in the marriage negotiation signals their willingness to accept their choice in the interest of preserving relations with them, establishing the proper relations of respect with the in-laws,
and accomplishing a marriage that is blessed by True God.

The talk was richly illustrated with slides, and stimulated considerable questions and discussion afterwards.

Biography:  Nancy Forand earned a masters degree at the University of Illinois in
archaeology. She is presently a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. For two years Nancy lived in a Mayan village in Quintana Roo, Mexico, where she conducted doctoral research on religious pluralism.

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