Photos: Living History in Izamal

Quinceañera in Izamal
In the plaza of a 16th-century Monsatary in Izamal, Mexico, families take photos in celebration of Quinceañera, a celebration of the transition to "womanhood" for girls on their 15th birthday.

Imagine simply being able to touch a 500-year-old painting.

While doing research for a story, I was treated to a personalized, guided tour (well, “treated” isn’t the right word–the translator I paid also happened to be a tour guide) of the colonial Mexican village of Izamal.

Diego de Landa statue
A statue of Diego de Landa in Izamal, May 3, 2016. (Jacob Bielanski /

Izamala is something of a juxtaposition of Mexican culture. Mighty Catholic symbols are literally built on the foundation of Mayan temples. The entrance to the monastery has a stone block representing a Mayan god (or saint, as Hugo and I discussed) on the ground–as the story goes, the Catholic leaders wanted the ethnic Mayans to literally step on their own gods on the way in to church.

Hugo, my guide, stops to deride a statue honoring friar Diego de Landa, the veritable founding father of catholic Mexico.

“That man should not have a statue,” Hugo spits. “They need to tear that down.”

And yet, when I ask him if there’s something of an underlying bitterness against the role of religion in Mexico, he balks.

“Every Mexican (Mayan or otherwise) believes Catholicism was the best thing to happen to the country,” he said. “I just hate (the statue) because he was responsible for burning almost all the Mayan literature.”

A stone representing a Mayan god sits on the path as you enter the monastery at Izamal. (Jacob Bielanski / Living Astray)
A stone representing a Mayan god sits on the path as you enter the monastery at Izamal. (Jacob Bielanski / Living Astray)

Hugo later tells me he’s been to the library in Dresden where one of the three known remaining pieces of Mayan literature are kept.

But archeology-grade cultural preservation doesn’t seem to be a battle Mexico is winning easily. In addition to thousands of tourists traipsing up Mayan temples, the monastery includes multiple roughly 500-year-old frescoes which are fading, unprotected. I note St. Barbara near the entrance–as an artilleryman, my father was honored for his service to the industry of sudden explosions through induction into an order bearing her name.

Saint Barbara on Izamal Monastery
A fresco of the Catholic Saint Barbara is seen on the wall as you enter Izamal’s monastery. (Jacob Bielanski / Living Astray)

“If these frescoes were in the U.S., do you think they’d look like this?” Hugo asks me.

At the very least, I couldn’t imagine getting withing 100 feet of them without a $20 ticket.

In the monastery, a mother’s day sermon is going on. Throughout a grand plaza (Hugo argues it’s the largest in Mexico–I have no way of knowing if that’s tru) outside the monastery, three families hover with expensive photographers over young girls in dresses that are reminiscent of a Latin-theme Cinderella. It’s the “quinceañera,” a traditional celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday regarded by many as a celebration of the transition into “womanhood.”

“I feel lucky I only have boys,” Hugo says with a laugh. “These parents will end up spending more on quinceañera than on a whole wedding.”

Fresco in Izamal
Another faded, 500-year-old fresco adorns the walls of an anter chamber in Izamal’s monastery. (Jacob Bielanski / Living Astray)

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