Cultural Ambassador for the Maya of San Simon
In 2006 the World Heritage Alliance was born. It consisted of a partnership between the United Nations Foundation in Washington DC and online travel giant, Expedia of Seattle, WA. Their lofty goals were to promote sustainable tourism and awareness of World Heritage sites and communities around the world. The idea was to stimulate conscientious travelers to contribute directly to nature conservation, historic preservation, and poverty reduction through sustainable tourism.
Having had the unusual career of training US and Canada travel agents, and sometimes travel agents around the world, we were contacted by Expedia to create on-line learning to support these goals. To kick off this partnership, a team of twelve from the UN Foundation, Expedia and Destination Ventures (the company we owned) were chosen to hold live workshops in Spanish in Campeche, Merida, Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Our target audience was customer contact employees from major hotels and ground operators.
At the time, most of them did not realize that there are five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. Those sites were and still are:
- Chichen Itza (the best known)
- The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
- The historic city of Campeche
- Calakmul archaeological site in Campeche state
Sadly, after about three years Expedia pulled their funding and although memberships to the alliance had grown, there were not sufficient funds to continue the project.
There were, however, some lasting success stories. For instance, the Maya communities of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve joined together to form community tours of Sian Ka’an. These tours were owned and led only by of Maya who were born and raised in the reserve and had grown from being chicleros to highly trained tour guides. Given their history, they know so much more about the nature that surrounds them and can identify up to 300 difference species of birds living in the Reserve just by their call. This is still the only company operating in Sian Ka’an which employs only native Maya from the communities in the reserve (see their website below).
Of all the people we worked with during that time, one who stood out for his dedication and commitment to helping local communities was Enrique Valdes, Director of Cultural and Sustainable Tourism at the Mayaland Resorts. Our friendship continued over the years, and I recently spent time with him at the Lodge at Uxmal where he lead my husband and I and some friends from Bend, Oregon to the tiny village of San Simon to donate school supplies for the primary and kindergarten students there. I took that chance to conduct an interview with him which I am happy to share with the readers of Yucatan Living.
YL: Where are you from originally?
Enrique: I was born in Xalapa, Veracruz. If you haven’t been there, it’s an amazing city with an excellent University and one of the best archaeological museums in Mexico. You can see the giant Olmec heads there. And then there’s the charming town of Coatepec nearby, which is the coffee capitol of Mexico. Another nearby town is Xico with the world renowned waterfall where ‘Romancing the Stone’ was filmed. I could go on and on...
YL: How did you end up in Merida?
Enrique:I was drawn to Yucatan because of my fascination and appreciation for the Maya culture, its people, and its history. I currently live in Uxmal during the week and Merida on weekends. I think it is an ideal combination.
YL: Were you hired as the Director of Cultural & Sustainable Tourism or did you start with another position at Mayaland?
Enrique:Initially, when I first moved here, I was working at Gray Line Cancun doing cultural excursions and quality control. After Hurricane Wilma, I moved to another position related to reservations at the Mayaland Resorts next to Chichen Itza. My background and training is in Social Anthropology, so I suggested to Mayaland that my experience might better be put to use in historic research and supporting the local Mayan communities, enriching our relationships with the local culture.
The company trusted me to manage and apply new cultural experiences to the business of the hotel. We started cooking Poc Chuc (pork marinated in Maya spices) in a Choza Maya, the traditional round thatched Maya hut. Other projects I initiated include buying products like bar soap, shampoo or honey products from the local Maya communities. The hotel became a member of the Rain Forest Alliance and The World Heritage Alliance. I also instituted a program where the Mayalnad staff takes online courses in sustainable practices.
We have now "adopted" the community of San Simon, a village about 14 kilometers down a dusty road from Uxmal. Many of our workers come from San Simon, and I work to involved them with the guests in different activities.
YL: So, how exactly would you describe your job?
Enrique:I have two areas of responsibility. The first responsibility is to expose our guests to the traditions and cultural expression of our local Maya communities through client experiences. The second responsibility is to conduct any activities related to improving the quality of life of our communities so that Mayaland can be a socially responsible company.
YL: What do you like best about your job?
Enrique: I love promoting the preservation of our historical heritage, which is mostly expressed at our archaeological sites and through the living cultures of Yucatan. I recently researched an article on the history of the Hacienda Uxmal, for instance.
YL: Tell us a story about an inspiring event that you have experienced in your job.
Enrique:My proudest achievement is working to avoid the separation of families when the main breadwinner has to travel far away, to the US or Canada, to support their family. For children this can be devastating. They know they might never see their fathers again, or if they do, it could be years between visits. It is sad to observe when young men turn eighteen that they prepare themselves to leave behind their school, family, communities, traditions and their native language because they see no other alternative. This is part of the migration culture and it has been devastating to families here.
At Mayaland at Uxmal, we hire young men and women from local communities whenever we can. We can see that fewer are migrating away, and are instead staying at home to care for their families and raise their children. They are the heart of this community, and we do as much as possible to help them.
YL:How did you choose the community of San Simon?
Enrique:It is the closest community to our resorts in Uxmal. In addition, it is quite isolated. San Simon no longer even appears on most maps, as roads were detoured in the late Seventies. The townspeople do not have easy access to supplies, public services or social events. They must travel at least 35 kilometers to get anywhere they need to go for these services. This isolation results in limited resources and exposure to opportunities.
YL:What would you like to tell the expat community in Merida? How can we help?
Enrique: I would love to open up a conversation with the expat community. I know you are generous with the local people and have contributed much to animal welfare. San Simon, and other similar small towns on the Yucatan Peninsula, need workshops where boys and girls can explore their potential and learn from others. We have some local psychologists from Merida who have given art therapy workshops to our staff and the San Simon community, and it was so successful that we are continuing that activity. Expats could teach art, carving, knitting, dance, who knows what else? Below is a list of supplies that are needed by the children for the art therapy, but school supplies (like paper, pencils, notebooks) are also always appreciated. Also, the youth in San Simon have limited access to education after middle school. High School must be attended in Santa Elena, which is 35 kilometers away. But higher education is needed if they are going to face the future and take care of their families. I can be a link to the town for any group or individual of expatriates who are interested in helping with any of this!
YL:Thank you for talking to us, Enrique!
Enrique: Thank you!
Editor's Note: More and more, the hotels and other establishments that see an influx of tourists in the Maya world are doing the sort of cultural outreach that Enrique is doing for San Simon. We know, for instance, that Hacienda Chichen has similar programs with a nearby town. If you are traveling to the Yucatan and want to bring supplies or donations to help Yucatecan children, inquire with the hotel where you will be staying if they can facilitate your donation. Chances are that they can!
You can reach Enrique at email@example.com
If you would like to bring supplies to donate to the town of San Simon, an explanation of what they need follows:
Art Therapy Materials List
Senderos del Alma (Paths of the Soul) is comprised of motivated professionals who volunteer their time with the goal of offering personal growth and healing by means of art therapy workshops. A key element in the workshops are the materials used in group activities. At this time we have no formal funding stream and would deeply appreciate any donation of materials on the list below. The list contains items we use on a regular basis for workshops across many kinds of groups of all ages. We thank you in advance for any help you might offer:
• Jumbo crayons in 8 – 12 pack
• 8-12 packs of assorted colors of markers
• Brown art or craft paper in rolls 12”, 18” or 24” wide
• Rolls of white butcher or craft paper
• Rolls of Pellon white interfacing
• Bandanas-any color
• ‘Flowing type’ fabric with a variety of textures or colors for dance therapy
• Watercolor paints in jars
• Clear plastic condiment containers, used for paints preferable 24 oz (see attached)
• Boxes of colored chalk
• Pastel sets
• Foam craft sheets assortment of colors and textures
• White paper letter or legal size
• Two pocket folders-letter size-any color
• Colored construction paper for mask making
• Illustration paper-8-1/2 x 11”
• Sheet of colored tissue paper
• Oil paints in jars
• Rolls or sheets of cotton canvas for painting
• Glue sticks or liquid glue
• Colored pencils
• Aleene’s quick dry tacky glue or similar
• Fabric paints in different colors and textures
• Sponge-like foam for use in painting
You can find Senderos del Alma at their Facebook page.