Living in Central America we can tell from first hand experience that there is a large population of indigenous peoples of Maya, Nahuatl and other groups. Sometimes they are easily recognized by their colorful traditional dress. Other times they look and speak exactly like all the other Central Americans.
In Maya Roads, Mary Jo McConahay draws upon her three decades of traveling and living in Central America’s remote landscapes to create a unique and mesmerizing chronicle of the people, politics, archaeology, and species of the Central American rainforest, the cradle of Maya civilization. Captivated by the magnificence and mystery of the jungle, Mary brings to life the intense beauty, the fantastic locales, the ancient ruins, and the horrific violence. She witnesses archaeological discoveries, the transformation of the Lacandon people, the Zapatista indigenous uprising in Mexico, increased drug trafficking, and assists in the uncovering of a war crime. Over the decades, McConahay has witnessed great changes in the region, and this is a unique tale of a woman’s adventure and the adaptation and resolve of a people.
What’s Up El Salvador was lucky enough to grab a few minutes of Mary Jo’s valuable time to provide an interview with her about her new book which just became available on August 1st. The Maya Roads book is interesting to us as we are former Bay Area natives and now we are living as Central American expats. It tells the true stories of a great and amazing people while highlighting the problems and solutions of foreign and local policy in the region.
Whats Up El Salvador (WUES) asks: Your book seems to be a unique intersection of hard journalism, personal journey, and love of the Mayan people. What were the three most intriguing things you learned about the Mayan people in this journey?
Mary Jo McConahay: Far from being a people who disappeared when their great city-states fell by the year 900, the Maya live and thrive today. They have regained their pre-conquest numbers. The natural respect and deep love that exists for Mother Earth in the Maya cosmology may be the key worldview for a moment when we face irreversible destruction of the natural world, and thus, ourselves.
(WUES) asks: If you could only get one key message of this book, across to your readers what would it be?
Mary Jo McConahay: Instead of thinking in terms of message, I prefer wanting the reader to feel the experience of a world of a struggling, resistant people living in a stunning and precious corner of the earth, which must survive.
Mary Jo McConahay, author of Maya Roads
(WUES) asks: Who was the person you met in writing this book who had the single greatest impact on you?
Mary Jo McConahay: I remember each person in this book vividly, and each for a different reason. The person I know best is the Maya priest I call Ramona, because I’ve known her longest, and she has always opened doors on Maya life to me, as a friend.
(WUES) asks: Your book has some political overtones in a sense in dealing with the affects of US “influence” throughout Central America. How do you see the US’s involvement changing in the region over the next decade?
Mary Jo McConahay: My writing about U.S. involvement in Central America and Mexico is not political but historical. You cannot understand the last thirty years in the region without an awareness of events that have shaped its politics and development. Che Guevara lived in Guatemala during the Guatemalan Spring (1944-1954) with its flowering of culture and literacy, and saw the democratically elected administration of Pres. Jacobo Arbenz overthrown by a C.I.A.-orchestrated coup. The lesson he learned is that a government or movement truly intolerable to Washington will come under attack from the United States in one way or another. The most recent example is the Honduran coup only two years ago. Nothing has changed in the big picture to alter this relationship between the United States and the countries to its south.
(WUES) asks: What do you hope that this book brings about? (political change in Central America, the US, economic changes?)
Mary Jo McConahay: As a journalist I do not think in terms of promoting change, but reporting the story. My job is to provide information, and readers decide how they will use it.
(WUES) asks: How do you feel that your unique combination of living both in the Bay Area and in Central America has helped to shape you?
Mary Jo McConahay: The Bay Area historically has been one of the most connected and alert U.S. populations with regard to Central America, so I have been able to go beyond the basics in my reporting and know there is an audience for it. I know journalists who feel they are shouting in a desert because they get no feedback or reaction when they write about Mexico or Central America. I never had to worry about that when writing for Bay Area readers.
(WUES) asks: How did both living this story and then writing it improve you personally?
Mary Jo McConahay: I don’t believe living this story and writing it made me a better or worse person. However, as with any such intense travel experience, what I have seen has given me a degree of understanding about the lives of some fellow human beings I would not have otherwise known. And I think that’s always a good thing.
(WUES) asks: What are the challenges of living as an expat women in Central America for you?
Mary Jo McConahay: I’ve lived as an expat in Saudi Arabia and Europe, too, and it’s not much different from living as an expat anywhere. Life improves to the degree you know the local language, have local friends, and throw yourself into a place’s history and culture. Otherwise, why are you there?
(WUES) asks: You brought your daughter to live in Central America at a young age. Many of our readers (and us!) are living or are considering living in Central America with our young children. What are the three key pieces of wisdom you would offer us?
Mary Jo McConahay: I don’t know about wisdom, but here are a few things I’d tell a friend moving to Central America:
Relax about school. Don’t give in to constant comparing “where she is” with kids of the same age in the States. It comes out the same in the end, or the child who went to school abroad may even get a better education.
Don’t speak Spanish to your child unless you’re a native speaker. She will be immersed in Spanish everywhere, especially at a local school, but probably nowhere else will she learn to use proper native English except at home. It’s eventually a real gift to the child to be truly bilingual, and bicultural.
In Latin America gender expectations — and what you want in regard to them for your boy or girl — can be really different from those in the United States. Ojo
WUES asks: The book takes place mostly in Guatemala and Mexico, what are your thoughts on the indigenous of El Salvador?
Mary Jo McConahay: I’d really like some day to write about the indigenous of El Salvador. They do not wear the traje or openly express their culture in the way Guatemalan indigenous do — the Salvadoran Matanza of 1932 took care of that. But the glimpse of ceremony and other events I experienced in corners near Izalco during the war intrigued me, although there was no opportunity then to follow up. The intrigue remains.
Support Mary (and What’s Up El Salvador!) and buy this book right now. This is a great book that will open your eyes and your heart. Send one to a friend who you know would benefit from learning about this amazing region and these brilliant people. It also makes an inspired gift- And Christmas is right around the corner!
Mary Jo McConahay's GlobeWatch
"Dramatic life-and-death experiences in a clear prose style that flows with immediacy -- a profoundly moving document"
--Jon Lee Anderson, Staff Writer for The New Yorker and Author, Che Guevara, a Revolutionary Life
I'll be "In Conversation with William Carlsen, Author of Jungles of Stone," the great new book about Maya world explorers John L. Stephens and William Catherwood at Litquake, Mechanics' Institute, San Francisco, Oct. 8, 2016, 11:00 a.m. Free!
And coming: Tango War, about the WWII struggle for hearts, minds and strategic resources in Latin America. From Macmillan, 2018
Writer and journalist Mary Jo McConahay watches the globe, near and far. She is author of the award-winning Maya Roads: One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (Chicago Review Press), and Ricochet, Two Women War Reporters and a Friendship under Fire (Shebooks). Mary Jo is the current Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year. Her reporting has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Ms., Salon, Sierra, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Parenting, The Progressive, National Catholic Reporter, and many others.
As a documentary filmmaker, she co-produced and co-directed Crimebuster, A Son's Search for His Father, and the award-winning PBS documentary, Discovering Dominga, writing its original story. She is producing a new half-hour documentary: Father Bill, Revolutionary Priest, about the late Fr. Bill O'Donnell, who was arrested 245 times for nonviolent resistance to incidents in which "my government misbehaves."
GlobeWatch continues the column by the same name, formerly published by Pacific News Service and New America Media.