Two semesters ago I took a course at SUNY Cortland called Maya Culture. Going into this class, I was expecting to learn the history of the Maya, and how the effects of colonialism still affect them today. What I was not expecting to learn was how this culture would cause me to reflect back on myself and see how I can implement aspects into my own life.

By Rebecca Diers

On the very first day of this class, the first thing the professor taught us was the Maya concept of éetlàak’, or “other self.” Compared to most people in the world, the Maya have respect for everything, and this concept is used to show how the Maya prioritize other people before themselves. The “other self” in this case means that the individual should behave towards others as if that other person is oneself. You would never show disrespect or harm to oneself, so why would you do it to anyone else? With éetlàak’, you should always be willing to offer other people your heart. It is important to always tell the truth and be open with the person you are speaking with. In fact, the Maya show respect to one another through the ¢ikbàal conversation.

In order to successfully complete ¢ikbàal, those who are speaking with one another must always tell the truth, never take what the other person says for granted, and always reach some sort of agreement with one another instead of settling to “agree to disagree.” “Agreeing to disagree” insinuates that you did not take the time to listen to each other thoroughly and learn from one another. Maya know whether a person is paying attention to what they are saying or not, because when they converse in ¢ikbàal, the other person must begin their thought with whatever the last word the other person said. This shows the other person that the focus is on them, and that everything they are saying is important. In the United States, people tend to plan on what they are going to say in response before the other person has finished speaking. This takes away from what the other person is saying because you are thinking of yourself instead of focusing on them. The Maya do not do this; they remain focused and give the other person the respect they deserve. These aspects of ¢ikbàal show how the Maya prioritize respect, as it conveys to the person with whom you are speaking—that they are more important than anything else at that moment in time. In fact, if a Maya individual was having a conversation with someone else, and they saw someone else they knew approaching, they would never put a pause in their conversation to say hello to, or even wave to, the person approaching. In that moment, nothing else is more important than the conversation and the person they are having the conversation with.

The Maya truly care about everyone, and expect honest answers to everything. They will often ask people what they are thinking about, and they are expecting that person to actually tell them everything that is on their mind, instead of replying with a generic answer. In the United States if someone came up to you and asked, “How are you?” you would typically reply with “good,” “fine,” or other simple answer. But if a Maya asks you the same question, they want you to tell them exactly how you are doing, and why. They genuinely want to know your thoughts, and not answering truthfully shows disrespect to them. I think this is a crucial aspect that we can learn from the Maya. How often do our minds wander when we are talking to someone, and we offer the occasional nod or word to acknowledge that we recognize they are still speaking so that the other person thinks we are still listening to them? How often do we believe that our thoughts are correct and that any other opinion is false? How often do we withhold information from others instead of telling them the truth? By adopting the concept of éetlàak’ and ¢ikbàal into our lives, our connections with people would become more genuine. Not only would we be showing others respect, but we would feel respected as well, which I personally think would make people feel better about themselves.

Another aspect of Maya culture that conveys their value of respect is how they believe that everyone is kѐetil, or equal. For example, if someone from the United States knew how to speak Maya, and they went to Yucatán in Mexico, the Maya there would treat that individual as one of their own. This is because knowing Maya makes you Maya in the Maya’s eyes. Even if someone didn’t know the Maya language, they would still be treated equally and with respect. This is not the case in the United States. If a Maya individual learned English and came to the United States, most American people would view them as an outsider and treat them as though they are lesser than instead of as equals. There seems to be a dominant mindset in the United States, and I think if they, and the rest of the word, followed the Maya in believing that everyone is kѐetil, and they treated everyone with this equality and respect, that the world would become a more peaceful place.

The Maya are very religious, and this can be shown through their various ceremonies. Towards the end of the semester, our professor shared with us a video that a Maya individual he follows on Facebook posted. One of the first things this individual mentioned was the Maya ceremony of saka. Saka is when the Maya make offerings and prayers to the gods. In this video, the individual discussed how whenever his grandmother witnessed any diseases coming, she would offer saka for nine days. When offering saka, she would sit in her hammock while offering her prayers, and when that was completed she would make a sacrifice. This would be a sacrifice of a roasted chicken that she would then offer to the Maya gods. His grandmother would complete this entire process with the hope that the gods would then keep the disease from arriving, or at the very least minimize its arrival.  She wouldn’t just do this for the Maya people though.  For these nine nights, she would offer saka for everyone in the world.  This is because the Maya do not only think of themselves. Egocentric views in the United States, and other countries encourage people to only think of themselves and how they can get ahead in life. That is not the case with the Maya. Everyone is kѐetil, and therefore everyone is deserving of being protected and thought of. How different the world would be if people actually thought of others needs and desires instead of focusing on their own.

One of the last aspects of Maya culture that helped me reevaluate myself and my life is how most Maya live in what most people would consider to be “poverty.” I refer to it as “poverty,” because the term is socially constructed by those who have accumulated “wealth” in terms of tangible money. Yes, most Maya make a living from their Milpa (the name for their cornfields), and yes, without being able to sell Nal (corn), most Maya cannot make any money, but they are rich in so many other ways despite their material wealth. Their relationships with one another and their faith alone makes them more wealthy than the people who have the most money in the world. Shifting the focus from what we don’t have to appreciating the things you do have like food, shelter, health, and family and friends is what makes you rich in life.

By examining Maya culture, I have been able to reevaluate my own life. Equality and respect are core values in Maya culture, and it is reflected in everything they do. So many people in the world today are only concerned with themselves and how they can get ahead or improve their own lives.  Through reevaluation and reflection, maybe people will realize how material items do not have any actual significant value, but the ways in which we present ourselves and respect others is what holds value in this world.  Once we learn that we are all equally human, it will no longer be about “How can I improve my own life?,” but rather “How can I improve someone else’s life?”  When we start to put other people’s lives before our own, people will realize that their actions—no matter how small—can have an impact on the outcome of someone else’s life, or even the world.  It all starts with taking the time to reevaluate ourselves though, and realizing what is actually important in this world.

Do you think the Maya have valuable lessons for others to learn? Are there elements of Maya culture that you would like to incorporate into your life? Send me your thoughts at

Rebecca Diers is interning with Pressenza as a part of her Professional Writing major at SUNY Cortland. Her other major in Anthropology fuels her passion for understanding different cultures and making connections with people. She uses writing as a way to make sense of the world, and to inspire a sense of humanity in her audience.