Tales of Biocultural Diversity

Petul and I had just finished recording a Tzeltal Maya elder, Don Antonio, who was telling us some of the old stories about people, plants, places, and spirits. The man had been talking for hours, showing no sign of getting tired, in spite of his age. Petul and I, instead, were exhausted. As we sat back, taking a rest, I asked him—my invaluable collaborator through two years of doctoral fieldwork in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, in the early 1990s: “Well, Petul, I guess this is what you folks normally do at night, sit around with the elders telling stories?” From the puzzled look on Petul’s face, I figured that something wasn’t exactly as I had imagined. “Huh—said Petul after a moment of reflection—actually, that was the way it used to be… But now, you see, the kids are going to school, and when they come back at the end of the day (if the school is close enough that they can come back daily at all), they have homework to do. So that’s what happens at night: they sit at the table under the light bulb and do the homework. Some of the people, also, now have TV, so they sit around and watch TV at night. We don’t spend that much time visiting one another and listening to stories anymore. The kids often think that the old stories are weird, anyway, because of what they learn at school, or see on TV…”