A unique soap opera written in the Mayan language has aired on TV in Mexico. The protagonists of the new show – called “Baktun” (bak-TOON) – go through the typical ups and downs relating to love, family, problems and betrayal that one would expect in a soap opera but do so by communicating in the ancient language. The show’s producers hope that their efforts will help save the language from extinction.
“There are a lot of Mayan speakers who won’t speak the language,” said Hilario Chi Canul, script writer and male lead on the show. “The language is not lost. We who speak it are the ones who are lost.”
Director and producer Bruno Carcamo said the soap opera, which is broadcast with Spanish subtitles, gives Mayan-speaking Mexicans a show in which they can see and hear themselves. He hopes it will encourage people in Mayan communities to speak in their mother tongue.
Baktun is the first telenovela entirely in the Mayan language to air in Mexico.
Telenovelas are limited-run serial dramatic programming popular in Latin American, Portuguese, Filipino, Spanish, and North American (Spanish language network) television programming. The word combines tele, short for televisión or televisão (the Spanish and Portuguese words for television) and novela, a Spanish and Portuguese word for “novel”.
The term “baktun” is derived from the Mayan for 20 “katun” cycles of the ancient Maya Long Count Calendar – which contains 144,000 days. So a “baktun” is equal to approximately 394 years.
“We can’t go into a ritual and not take part of the ritual,” Chi Canul said. “It would be an offence to the community.”
Carcamo stated thar the telenovela has been well-received by Mexico’s Spanish-speaking population and viewers were already asking if there were plans to release more.
“We have something to show the world, too, and this is the first time I see something like that,” said David Vzul, a Maya who lives in Chetumal and has been watching the show religiously with his family.
In the Mexican states of Yucatán, some parts of Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Quintana Roo, Maya remains many speakers’ first language today, with approximately 800,000 to 1.2 million speakers. Estimates suggest that there are around 30 Mayan languages still spoken in Mexico and Guatemala, however, many are thought to be on the edge of extinction.