The pandemic catapulted Mexican cities into spaces of trauma and loss and as sites of state failure. For Maya migrants, state failure forms part of a history of settler violence and neglect. In Cancún, settler tactics promote a narrative of a city of immigrants. These tactics erase Indigenous urbanisms seeking to uphold Indigenous self-determination and nurture u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob/convivencia, a Maya ethics of sociality and care based on caring for each other. I argue that the ethics of care and place-making entailed in convivencia help Maya migrants experience the metropole as a space of reciprocity, survival, and healing.
Durante la pandemia, las ciudades mexicanas se convirtieron en espacios de trauma, demostrando fracasos estatales. Para los migrantes mayas, estos fracasos forman parte de una larga historia de violencia y abandono colonial. En Cancún, tácticas bajo un colonialismo de asentamiento promueven narrativas de la ciudad como un espacio de inmigrantes, ignorando los urbanismos indígenas que luchan por la defensa de la autodeterminación indígena y fomentan la convivencia/u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob, una ética maya de sociabilidad basada en el cuidado mutuo. Propongo que esta ética y la generación de espacios sociales de ayuda mutua implicados en la práctica de convivencia ayudan a los migrantes mayas a usar Cancún como un espacio de reciprocidad, supervivencia y sanación.
In June 2020, I received a series of urgent phone calls from my friends and interlocutors in Mexico.* When I returned the calls, I was met with a wail of grief. Francisco, one of my interlocutors and a very dear friend, had died unexpectedly of acute respiratory failure.1 At the time, the doctor attributed his death to complications from diabetes. But as the world learned more about COVID-19, his family acknowledged that Francisco had exhibited classic symptoms of COVID-19: flu-like symptoms followed by acute respiratory distress. Francisco’s death was a tremendous loss for his family and his community. He was a much-loved husband, uncle, son, and brother. I met Francisco during my first visit to the Maya community of Kuchmil, located in the state of Yucatán, in 1991;2 he was twenty years old and worked as a waiter in Cancún. Over the years, Francisco became a dear friend and an important interlocutor in my research on (Yucatec) Maya migration to the tourist city of Cancún, Mexico. As a charismatic leader and organizer with a sharp intellect, Francisco was an advocate of affordable housing and Indigenous urban land rights. His death devastated his family and community. Their trauma was exacerbated by quarantine policies that made it difficult to follow Maya protocols for mourning a loved one. Living together in a city facing a serious housing crisis and a pandemic, my interlocutors lamented, had become a fraught practice.
This essay analyzes how Indigenous migrants grapple with urban inequalities within tourist economies and considers how the pandemic exacerbated these inequalities. Through a focus on Maya migrants’ experience with trauma and loss in the tourist city of Cancún, I delve into the settler logics that underpin these inequalities and erase Indigenous urbanisms seeking to uphold Indigenous self-determination and nurture u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob. Referred to as convivencia in Spanish (this term is translated as “living well together”), u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob is a Maya ethic of sociality and care based on living together and caring for each other.3 This essay pays tribute to Francisco’s legacy by examining Maya migrants’ efforts to adhere to the Yucatec Maya ideal of u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob/convivencia. Throughout this essay, due to ease of use, I use the Spanish term convivencia when discussing this concept.
For Maya migrants from Kuchmil, living well together in Cancún entails devising place-making strategies that help them forge a sense of belonging and cultivate reciprocal relations in urban spaces. Maya migrants are not just creating livable spaces, but they are also asserting their rights to the city, a process that I refer to as “Indigenous urbanisms” (Castellanos 2021, 8). I argue that the ethics of care and place-making entailed in convivencia help Maya migrants experience the metropole not just as a place of abjection and isolation but also as a space of reciprocity, survival, and healing. I show how convivencia as a praxis and practice helped offset urban inequalities that were exacerbated by the pandemic and a global housing crisis.
It should be noted that feminist scholar Joan Tronto first theorized an “ethic of care” in order to acknowledge the “morality of everyday life” and to center caring and women’s work as essential to the “good life” (1998, 16). Tronto’s ethic of care encompasses a broad overview of all types of care work, from caring about to “caring for,” to caregiving, to care receiving. Feminist scholars have expanded this approach to consider women’s care work, for example, as essential to the development of a global economy (Parreñas 2001, 2008) and as a human right (Robinson 2011). My reference to an ethic of care does not adhere to Tronto’s broad-based definition but specifically focuses on notions of sociality and care based on Maya worldviews and relationality. This is not to say that convivencia does not share traits with a feminist ethics of care, but my goal is to center and foreground Indigenous notions of care. Wanka and Quechua scholar Elizabeth Sumida Huaman (2020) reminds us that recentering Indigenous knowledge systems is essential for a decolonial anthropology.
The ideal of u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob is pervasive throughout Mexico’s Yucatec Maya communities. However, the phrasing of this concept may differ slightly across Maya communities in the peninsula. For example, Maya anthropologist Ana Rosa Duarte Duarte points out that in the Maya communities of Kanxoc and Chocholá, this idea of the good life is referred to as máalo’okinsik k kuxtal/vivir bien (2018, 36). Duarte Duarte (2022) suggests that, in order to effectively demystify colonial practices and unsettle neoliberal policies, we need frameworks that are attentive to how Maya peoples make sense of local and global dynamics and settler violence in their everyday lives. This analysis of convivencia and Indigenous urbanisms heeds this call and thus contributes to this special issue’s efforts to critically examine the structural and economic forces that lead to Indigenous displacements and dispossession in Mexico and the United States.
My analysis is grounded in thirty years of ethnographic research with Maya migrants from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Specifically, I rely on the extended case method, which emphasizes a reflexive approach to ethnography in order to illuminate power dynamics (Burawoy 1998). Consequently, although I include diverse stories, the essay focuses primarily on Francisco and the way his life and death illuminate the challenges Maya migrants face as they endeavor to convivir far from their pueblos, especially during moments of crises.
Elizabeth Sumida Huaman offers a brilliant example of what this looks like in her collaborations with Quechua people. Recentering Indigenous knowledge systems, she clarifies, “demand[s] individual and collective will, access to knowledge systems, new and non-dominant ways of constructing research to learn why some things may have been forgotten or lost and how to recover knowledge, and the time and impetus for recovery and (re)claiming” (2020, 256–57). The stories I share here took place during the pandemic. Since I was unable to travel to Mexico, the pandemic forced me to rethink how to do ethnography. Expanding my sense of what constitutes a social field and exploring digital technologies became crucial; I rely on conversations I had with my interlocutors via WhatsApp, email, and telephone calls. At the beginning of the pandemic, we got in touch to make sure everyone was safe and healthy. After Francisco died, our conversations helped me process my grief, and I hope they did the same for Francisco’s extended family. I spoke at length with Francisco’s wife, Mariela, but to protect her privacy, I do not include her story. What follows is therefore a partial account of this traumatic experience.
Yucatec Maya Migration
Maya peoples have inhabited this region for centuries, but the construction of the tourist center of Cancún altered patterns of migration. Previously, Maya peoples migrated to cities like Mérida and Valladolid in search of work. However, with the launch of the megaproject of Cancún in the 1970s, the laborers needed to build this city were recruited throughout the region (Clancy 2001; McLean, n.d.). Maya fishermen and farmers living in nearby pueblos were displaced by the construction of this megatourist project (Martí 1991). With the development of the tourist corridor referred to as the Riviera Maya, Maya migrants participated in a regional system of migration (Lewin Fischer 2008; Re Cruz 1996). Indigenous migrants formed a significant part of Cancún’s labor force because they were considered cheap, docile, and expendable (Castellanos 2010a). These workers typically occupied the “backstage” of hotel work and formed part of a gendered international division of labor (Desmond 1999; Castellanos 2010a; Castellanos and Córdoba Azcárate 2021; Córdoba Azcárate 2020; Enloe 2000; MacCannell 1976; Marín Guardado 2009; Re Cruz 1996; Sierra Sosa 2007). Francisco and other young men from his pueblo joined this labor force in the 1980s; young women like Mariela began migrating a decade later. The expansion of tourism along the Riviera Maya attracted migrants from Mexico’s interior and from abroad. Many of these migrants come from Indigenous communities in Guatemala (who were displaced due to war and economic crises) and the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Campeche, Yucatán, and Chiapas (many of whom have also been displaced by violence and economic crises). In the municipality of Benito Juárez, where Cancún is located, 38.67 percent of the population claim to be Indigenous (Encuesta Intercensal 2015). Yucatec Maya people make up the largest portion of this population. In this essay, when I refer to Maya migrants, I am referring solely to Yucatec Maya migrants; I drop Yucatec before Maya because the Maya migrants I work with do not use this moniker to refer to their identity as Maya. Generational differences also impact Maya identity formation; the children of Maya migrants are as likely to identify as cancunense (a resident of Cancún) as maya. Nonetheless, Maya anthropologist Pedro Be Ramírez (2019) shows that Maya cultural traditions have been embraced by this generation in the face of racial discrimination and urban violence. Since my research focuses primarily on Maya peoples who migrated to Cancún as teenagers and young adults, I rely on a migration framework to understand the experiences of Maya peoples whose understanding of space, territory, and indigeneity have been informed by rural life and a collective system of landholding (ejidos; Castellanos 2010a). Living in Cancún entails a reorientation of modes of relating to space, land, and each other; this reworking is what I refer to as Indigenous urbanisms (Castellanos 2021).
A Global Humanitarian Crisis
For economies dependent on tourism, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating. In Latin America, the decline in tourism resulted in a loss of over US$110 billion in 2020 (Statista, n.d.). In the state of Quintana Roo where Cancún is located, ninety thousand service jobs disappeared the first year of the pandemic, making it difficult for people to pay their rent or mortgage (NBC News 2021). The lifting of tourism restrictions and the increasing number of vaccinated people meant that tourists were once again flocking to Cancún. With hotels at 60 percent capacity one year later, the economy began to stabilize, but the state faced a third wave of COVID-19 infections in the summer of 2021. To stymie this surge, Governor Carlos Joaquín González mandated vaccine certificates or negative PCR tests to access hotels, restaurants, bars, and discotheques (Mexicanist 2022). These precautions are intended to protect tourists, even though tourists are not required to show proof of vaccination or negative PCR tests to enter Mexico. The lack of tourist restrictions in 2021 led to the increasing exposure of local populations to the Delta variant. The upsurge in tourism in 2021 was life saving for Maya families who are dependent on tourist jobs, but it also placed their families at risk of exposure to the virus.
Disasters are often characterized in popular media to be “periods of social leveling” that create a sense of solidarity among community members, regardless of race or class differences (Klein 2010, 413). Instead, Naomi Klein suggests that we have ended up with a patchwork of “green zones” and “red zones,” where “green zones” are fortified enclaves with state-of-the-art facilities and “red zones” are those spaces outside of the green zones that have been abandoned by government and are thus riddled with insecurity. Disasters become opportunities for corporations to profit from chaos, a practice Klein refers to as “disaster capitalism” (413). We saw disaster capitalism at work in Cancún after Hurricane Wilma devastated the city in 2005. Millions of dollars were funneled to rebuild the city’s hotel zone, while families living in working-class neighborhoods had to scramble to procure funds to clean up debris and repair damaged homes (Castellanos 2010b). Similarly, at the onset of the pandemic, Maya families shared that once again they experienced this sense of abandonment. Even though the Mexican government ramped up its social programs (such as Sembrando Vida [Sowing Life] and Programa para el Bienestar de las Personas Adultas Mayores [Program for the Well-Being of Older People]) to aid families during the pandemic, the Maya families I spoke with explained that these resources were not evenly distributed, which meant that they had to rely primarily on their extended social network to get by during the first year of the pandemic. The decline in tourism further exacerbated this situation. To foment tourism, resorts instituted new mandates to protect and care for tourists, converting the hotel zone into a green zone. Tourist workers were either dismissed or experienced a severe reduction in wages that made it difficult for them to care for their families who lived along the periphery of the city, a demarcated red zone where residents were expected to fend for themselves. As in many contexts, the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities for essential workers (see Lynn Stephen’s article in this issue).
The pandemic has also provided an opportunity for local governments and corporations to transform the ways different groups of people inhabit Cancún. Resorts have taken advantage of this moment of crisis to increase surveillance of their employees (e.g., Klein 2010). Maya migrants who work in hotels have accepted these new tactics as necessary, but they acknowledge that this new normal is only applicable to particular sectors of the population. As a janitor in a hotel, for example, Emiliano is required to wear a mask and have his temperature taken daily. “If you feel sick, they won’t allow you to work. You get sent to the health clinic [seguro social] by the doctor on staff. New employees are given COVID-19 tests.”4 Service workers, like Emiliano, appreciate that these measures are crucial to limit the spread of the virus, but they are frustrated and scared by the lack of regulations for tourists because it increases their (service workers) risk of becoming ill and dying. While employees face greater restrictions and sanctions, Emiliano observes that, for tourists, “it’s like COVID doesn’t exist. My hotel is full, at 93 percent capacity. Plazas, like Plaza Forum, are full. Few people wear masks.” In June 2021, the federal government stated it would prioritize vaccines for tourist resorts and border cities. In Cancún, vaccines became available to everyone aged eighteen years and older in July 2021. Unfortunately, this option did not come soon enough for Emiliano’s son who works at the airport. He was infected with COVID-19 right before he was scheduled to get vaccinated.
The pandemic has also called attention to housing as a global humanitarian crisis. An estimated one billion people were at risk of losing their homes prior to COVID-19; the pandemic has exacerbated this crisis (Lopez and Boba 2020; Prindex, n.d.).5 In Mexico, the pandemic crippled a struggling economy and further destabilized a housing market that was stymied by a lack of affordable housing. To prevent massive evictions, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador instituted an eviction moratorium on loans provided by the government-run providence fund INFONAVIT (Instituto del Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda para los Trabajadores [National Institute for Funding Workers’ Housing]) in February 2020 (Forbes México 2020; Quintana Roo Hoy n.d.). INFONAVIT generates seven out of ten home loans nationwide. According to the 2020 National Housing Survey, 52 percent of homeowners were having trouble paying their mortgage loan, while 50.8 percent of renters were struggling to pay rent (Los Angeles Times 2021). Since the government has not implemented an eviction moratorium for renters, 2.3 million renters are at risk of losing their homes (DW Noticias 2020; Habitat International Coalition 2021).
Housing and the Good Life
The housing crisis is about more than just evictions. I suggest that it can also be seen as a referendum on the value of social life and what constitutes “inclusive” housing. Prior to the pandemic, Mexico had invested in housing reforms that would increase access to “dignified” housing that is affordable and sustainable—referred to as inclusive or social housing—and has become associated with the “good life”/vivir bien. This effort included making housing loans more accessible and expanding the construction of affordable housing (Soederberg 2015).6 In Cancún, thousands of social housing units have transformed the landscape and become for many migrants, like Francisco and his wife, Mariela, the only affordable housing option.
The shift to the mass production of tract housing in Cancún is not just an outcome of neoliberal policies. I propose that it is also grounded a long history of Indigenous dispossession under colonialism (Castellanos 2021). Yet, in light of Cancún’s young history as a metropolis, a colonial framework does not fully explain Indigenous dispossession. Settler-colonial theory, however, offers a new lens by which we can understand Cancún. This type of colonialism is based on the elimination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples (Wolfe 1999). Engaging with settler theory demands that we think critically about the ways nation-states are settler states, which are reliant on tropes of the settler/native that imagine settlers as those who come to stay, while natives are depicted as vanishing (either physically or metaphorically). A settler-colonial lens also demands that we acknowledge the violence of Indigenous land expropriations and loss of autonomy, extending from colonial times to the present day (Castellanos 2017; Castro and Picq 2017; Gutiérrez Nájera and Maldonado 2017; Loperena 2017; Speed 2017).
In my book Indigenous Dispossession (2021), I frame Cancún as a settler-colonial project, because Cancún was envisioned as terra nullius, empty land ready to be transformed into a tourist utopia, even though it sits on the traditional homelands of Maya people. Maya communities were associated with an ancient past and thus erased from urban landscapes and national development projects organized around planned tourist poles (Centros Integralmente Planeados) and free-trade zones. I suggest that Cancún has been shaped by a settler logic of improvement—a logic that argues that land belongs to those who can, in the words of former President Vicente Fox, “capitalize it.”7 Fox promoted individual home ownership because he considered Indigenous peoples and ejidatarios (communal landowners) incapable of developing land to make a profit. This logic of improvement is manifested in the shifting orientation of Cancún’s real estate market for the working class, which was previously organized around land redistribution and self-built housing, and is now focused on the mass production of tract housing. The shift away from land redistribution is an outcome of the 1992 revisions to Article 27 of Mexico’s constitution that made possible the sale of previously inalienable ejido land and thus opened up vast tracts of land in and around Cancún for development. Companies like Grupo Sadasi purchased thousands of hectares to convert into tract housing developments. Tract housing is modeled on a racialized suburban domesticity, where home ownership is based on a single-family dwelling and a landscaped environment, which was considered an improvement on the multigenerational households characteristic of self-built housing. Francisco and Mariela bought into the idea of social housing as a modern and dignified solution to their housing woes. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, made visible the cracks and fault lines in this type of housing and the good life associated with this way of living. Assumptions about the ability to quarantine and contain the virus fall apart in the reality of inhabiting social housing units consisting of open floor plans with one or two bedrooms.
Social housing transforms the way people live and interact with their environment. To build these housing units, developers razed the tropical jungle surrounding Cancún and replaced it with concrete buildings and paved roads. Green spaces are circumscribed to specific areas, such as neighborhood parks, transforming lush, wooded land into a desert-like territory. Floor plans of social housing units are small, measuring between thirty-six to fifty-five square meters. Town house–style homes may include tiny yards. The scale and size of social housing units change the way people inhabit their homes. These units cater to nuclear families, but in reality, the families that purchase these homes do not follow this norm. Due to the prohibitive cost of living in Cancún, families pool resources in order to survive. Most families are organized into multigenerational or multi-family households. Not surprisingly, the small footprint makes living in social housing difficult due to the lack of space and privacy. Indeed, social isolation is a major problem with social housing developments (Monkkonen 2012; Reyes Ruiz del Cueto 2013). In social housing developments with a high number of abandoned or vacant homes caused by job loss and rising home foreclosures, crime has risen due to the lack of vigilance and the opportunity to use abandoned homes for clandestine activities (Reyes 2019; Replogle 2014).
For many Maya families, the isolation and rising insecurity make living in social housing developments unappealing. They prefer to procure land upon which to build a house because this option allows them to construct a home that aligns with the Maya ideal of u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob/convivencia, where neighbors know and support each other.8 Derived from rural Maya life, the principal tenet of convivencia is generosity and is enacted through acts of goodwill and the sharing of resources. Self-built homes are structured around spacious living areas and gardens where families can gather on weekends, share meals, and spend time with each other. In neighborhoods with self-built houses, families share resources, childcare, and establish a strong sense of community. As a result, families in these neighborhoods come to rely on each other. This type of living and socializing is spatially difficult to cultivate in social housing developments.
When the government implemented a three-month quarantine in Cancún, the social isolation in social housing developments became even more acute. Residents stayed home and were only allowed to go out to shop for groceries and other necessities. For families living in social housing developments, life became unbearable. Soledad explained what it felt like to live in her eighteen-square-meters apartment when she and her partner were sick with COVID-19: “I felt a sense of desperation when I couldn’t leave my house. We were so isolated.” Since her apartment did not have a patio or balcony, they were stuck inside for three weeks. Her mother-in-law brought them meals and left them outside their apartment door. But they felt cut off from friends and family. Soledad missed seeing her children and grandchildren.
Multigenerational households also suffered from claustrophobic conditions and the inability to social distance, especially when family members became sick. Studies have shown that overcrowded and poor housing conditions have resulted in higher rates of COVID-19 infections and higher rates of mortality (Ahmad et al. 2020). Jovana recalled that it was impossible to separate infected family members. When her son came down with the virus, they set aside a spot on the sofa for him to help him keep his distance and sanitized the house multiple times a day. “It was awful to have COVID in the house. You can’t live as a family. You’re afraid of everything.…But you don’t have any options.” The pandemic magnified existing spatial and racial inequalities that beset impoverished households and are rampant in social housing developments.
Commemorating a Life
The global housing crisis has been compounded by the loss of many lives; Mexico has experienced the second highest death toll due to COVID-19 in Latin America and the fifth highest in the world.9 By September 26, 2022, the state of Quintana Roo had documented 112,000 cases of COVID-19, resulting in the deaths of 4,422 people (a fatality rate of 4 percent; see Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, n.d.).10 The story of Francisco’s life and death illuminates the settler violence that presaged the pandemic and accelerated into the present. Maya families are grappling with the ramifications of neoliberal housing policies in Cancún, one of Mexico’s fastest-growing cities and premier tourist centers. After working for over a decade in the service industry in Cancún, Francisco and his wife Mariela purchased a tract home in a new social housing development in 2005 with loans from INFONAVIT and the mortgage company Hipotecaria Su Casita. When Su Casita filed for bankruptcy after the 2008 financial crisis, tourism plummeted. Francisco, who worked as a waiter, found his wages drastically cut. Unable to pay two mortgage payments, he stopped paying Su Casita’s subprime loan and embarked on an extended legal battle to stave off foreclosure proceedings. Inspired by a history of Maya collective resistance, Francisco and Mariela organized a neighborhood collective and filed legal suits to keep their home. In previous work, I have shown how these resistance tactics form part of a politics of recognition (Castellanos 2021).
What remains unexplored was how this collective resistance was guided by an ethos of convivencia, of caring for each other and providing mutual aid. Francisco’s efforts to organize a collective resistance against eviction did not succeed, in part because a good portion of residents in Paseos Kabah (Francisco’s neighborhood) came from other regions of Mexico, did not know each other well, and thus found it difficult to trust each other. Francisco’s organizing efforts aimed to combat the isolation endemic to social housing. They also served as a critique of the individualism inherent to the capitalist dictum of private property. Francisco and Mariela attempted to “wait out” the state by refusing to leave their home.11 They hoped that their efforts would convince INFONAVIT to call a halt to the foreclosure proceedings by the mortgage company Tertius, which had bought out their loan from Su Casita. Francisco and Mariela were heartened by the presidential campaign promise by López Obrador and the MORENA (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional) party to place a moratorium on evictions. Instead, they became casualties of the policy shifts that take place when administrations change following an election. Francisco explained that when it became evident that López Obrador might win the presidential election, Tertius began expediting eviction proceedings. Unfortunately, Francisco and Mariela were caught up in this process and were evicted from their home in July 2018.12 They lamented that they were not able to benefit from the eviction moratorium that López Obrador implemented in February 2020.
By the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Francisco and Mariela were living in a small self-built palapa with a leaky roof. The decade-long battle to keep their two-story town house had taken a deep toll on their health and spirits. The trauma of being evicted from their home was visible in the lines of their faces and the process of “beginning anew” after losing the house of their dreams. When Mariela became bedridden with a fever and cough in late June 2020, Francisco was not immune, even though they took precautions. By July 2020, cases of COVID-19 had tripled in Mexico, even as the cases in the United States were on a downward trend and inspired an upsurge in travel abroad. The details of Francisco’s death were drawn from conversations with his extended family members. To respect Mariela’s privacy and in adherence to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (2012) decolonial approach to ethical research, I do not include her personal narrative of loss.
Since the city had implemented quarantine measures, Francisco was primarily responsible for caring for Mariela when she became ill. He did the shopping, while his sister, who was a nurse, monitored Mariela’s illness. Despite the lockdown, Mariela’s siblings, who lived nearby, checked in on them. A week after Mariela became sick, Francisco came down with a fever and cough, but he remained physically mobile. His family told me that “he was preparing his own tea” the day before he died. Since Francisco’s health had been fragile due to type 1 diabetes, his sister kept an eye out for COVID-19 symptoms. Then one evening, Francisco felt dizzy upon standing. His sister told him he needed an insulin shot, but he had run out of insulin. It took some time to get him one because the neighborhood pharmacies did not have any in stock. Throughout the first six months of the pandemic, insulin, like many other medications and basic food staples and necessities, was in short supply or escalated to unaffordable prices (Frederick 2020; Green 2020). The next morning, Francisco woke up and struggled to breathe. He died within hours. He was diagnosed with suffering from “acute respiratory failure.”
His family was in shock at his unexpected death. I was devasted to receive this news. I had last seen Francisco six months before, but we had been in frequent touch because he was working on translations of Maya music for one of my research projects. Public health precautions mandated that Francisco’s body be cremated. His family was unable to mourn following Maya traditions, where a wake with a viewing of the body and community gatherings are common practice. Instead, that morning Francisco’s family and friends, who were stricken by his unexpected death, stood outside Mariela’s front gate to join in mourning his life. They held a vigil at the altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe and Jesus Christ that Mariela had set up in the corner of her front patio. Since Mariela was still recovering from fever, her siblings helped her with daily tasks and with the paperwork involved in the aftermath of Francisco’s death. Fátima, Mariela’s sister, urged Mariela to move in with her family so she would not be alone, which Mariela did soon after.
Francisco was not counted among the current tally of the 250,469 deaths in Mexico acknowledged to have been caused by COVID-19 as of August 18, 2021 (Orozco 2021). His family was told that his death was due to a complications caused by diabetes, which Francisco had battled most of his life. It was only months later, after they were able to view the events without being crippled by grief, that they began to question the state’s rendition of Francisco’s death. “Acute respiratory failure,” they acknowledged, was a euphemism for COVID-19, but they remained unsure because of the state’s refusal to officially proclaim the virus as the cause of death. Francisco’s story illustrates how Indigenous people working in tourism economies become even more vulnerable in the face of global crises. Francisco’s health had been compromised by childhood illness and battered by his violent and traumatic encounters with and neglect by the settler state.
Convivir as an Ethic of Care
Public health restrictions forced Maya families to adapt the notion of convivencia to pandemic times in order to care for one another in the absence of the state. “Convivir,” Fátima explained, “is an idea that is practiced in el pueblo.13 It means to come together, to be generous, to invite people to a meal.” In Yucatec Maya, the plural form of convivir translates to u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob, literally meaning “life with the miracle of men.” When used to reference an individual, convivir translates to ti’ óol, which Fátima explained means “to be generous,” but which literally is defined as “your heart, will, energy, or spirit.”14 The practice of convivencia is crucial to a well-balanced and well-lived life. But how does one practice this ethos under social-distancing guidelines? Doing so required creatively rethinking social life.
Maya families living in social housing developments found it extremely difficult to engage in this practice during quarantine. Since their patios were miniscule and their houses lacked proper ventilation, they ran the risk of exposure to the virus. In contrast, Maya families who lived in self-built houses had more possibilities because they had space to do so. For example, the patio attached to Fátima’s self-built house was not big enough to social distance, but prior to the pandemic, Fátima had built a stairway to access her roof. Her rooftop was triple the size of her patio and enabled her to invite her siblings and their families to her house for gatherings outside. “We spent every day up on the roof. I bought a cheap plastic wading pool for the kids to play with.” Convivencia was also practiced long distance. Relatives in the pueblo sent migrants in Cancún sacks of beans and other food supplies to help them through the economic downturn.
Francisco’s death presented another moment through which Maya families could enact convivencia. Francisco was renowned for his generosity. His family reminisced, “He loved to convivir, to share, to give, to help people who needed help.” He practiced this ethos not only in Cancún but also with his pueblo. For example, he donated baseball uniforms to the baseball team in his pueblo. He was an excellent cook and regularly invited people to eat meals at his house. His fajitas remain one of my favorite meals. I would sit at the bar, while he prepared the meal on a hot griddle, all the while telling jokes and sharing wonderful stories of life in his pueblo. When I brought colleagues to Cancún on a guided tour, he invited them to his house to eat and ask questions about life in Cancún. Francisco’s family was unable to celebrate his death in the traditional manner, which involved holding a velorio (wake), mass, novena, and community meal, because they were afraid to travel to their pueblo and expose the pueblo to the virus. As a result, loved ones had a hard time coming to terms with his death. Fátima explained that because “they did not see anyone carry his body” in the traditional funeral procession, they could not believe he had died. At the one-year anniversary of his death, however, Mariela and Francisco’s family organized a novena, mass, and community meal to give friends and family the opportunity to say goodbye. Mariela carried his ashes and deposited them in a newly constructed casita, a small tomb-like house where disinterred bones are cleaned and deposited seven years after a loved one’s burial. For many migrants living in Cancún, attending Francisco’s novena was the first time they had returned to their pueblo since the pandemic began. This gathering became a moment of convivencia where they could commemorate Francisco’s life, share their grief, and celebrate being with each other.
Losing loved ones to COVID-19 has been traumatic, especially since the traditional rituals of death and grieving were radically transformed to follow public health mandates. How do families heal from the trauma of loss? Francisco’s sister-in-law Fátima spoke emotionally about this loss. Francisco and Mariela lived with Fátima and her family after they were evicted from their home in Paseos Kabah in 2018.
Before now, I cried all the time because we spent lots of time conviviendo with Francisco. He accompanied and stood in for my husband at school events when my husband couldn’t attend because he was working. My kids considered him a second father. He watched football with my son. They would turn up the volume of the television and watch it together. He and my sister were with me throughout my pregnancy. They accompanied me to the hospital. They were enthralled with the baby and became his godparents.
Fátima began to overcome her grief when she began dreaming about Francisco. In Maya culture, dreaming about a loved one who has passed away helps families grieve and communicate their grief with others (Burns 1983; Castellanos 2010a). According to Fátima, dreams also provide another plane through which families can convivir. She explained,
Dreams become the only means through which we can convivir with Francisco. When we took his ashes to the cemetery, the door [of the casita] closed. The candle snuffed itself out. It was his way of saying goodbye. I never thought I would dream him. I dreamed that I saw his body in the cemetery. I heard a voice that told me Francisco was not dead. In the dream, my sister [his wife] tells him that he can’t show up like this because everyone knows he is dead. He informs us that he will come to us in the form of animalitos [little animals]. The day we held his mass, I saw that a butterfly landed on the altar and then flew away. I was told that another butterfly appeared again later. During his novena, an owl appeared.
Family members narrated tales of encounters with other animalitos, including dogs and doves, in dreams and in real life. Through these encounters, they were able to come to terms with their loss. Family members also shared stories of the conversations they had with Francisco in their dreams. In these phantasmic encounters, he tells them that “he is fine,” that “he has come to say goodbye,” for them “not to worry” because “there was nothing more they could have done for him.” He repeatedly tells them that “it was his time to go.”
These dreams alleviated the guilt Francisco’s family carried over his death; they worried that they could have prevented his death if they had taken him to the hospital after he became ill, instead of treating him at home. And as the dreams recede, Francisco’s family looks forward to future healing encounters with the animalitos that embody Francisco’s spirit and allow them to continue to convivir with Francisco in this worldly realm.
Countering Settler Violence
Settler-colonial logics and technologies have also been instrumental in shaping the modern city. For example, narratives of cities as the bastion of civilization position Indigenous peoples as savages and thus silence Indigenous peoples’ active engagement with modernity (Thrush 2016). In another example, urban infrastructural projects, such as dams and aqueducts, resulted in Indigenous land expropriation or the destruction of Indigenous territories through methods such as flooding (Dorries et al. 2019). Likewise, racially segregated urban neighborhoods, like hyperghettos in New York, need to be understood as spatial manifestations of settler-colonial projects (Tang 2015). Indeed, cities like Honolulu and Cancún have been framed as tropical paradises waiting to be discovered, while Indigenous histories and peoples are consigned to the past (Aikau and Gonzalez 2019; Castellanos 2021). Not surprisingly, life in Cancún is dangerous for women and youth, when violence has become an integral part of everyday life (Fragoso Lugo 2016a, 2016b).
Imagined as a tropical utopia, Cancún was expected to attract a million settlers. By papering over a long history of Maya insurrection and Indigenous organizing, these settler tactics failed to acknowledge Indigenous urbanisms—place-making strategies such as public protests demanding rights to the city and acts of “waiting out” the state by squatting or refusing to abandon foreclosed homes (Castellanos 2021). Public protests are widely used as resistance strategies throughout Latin America, but what makes these tactics distinctive in this context is their origins. Maya migrants acknowledge that it is Maya pueblos’ struggle for autonomy that serves as their model for resistance; they have refashioned these strategies to demand Indigenous rights in an urban setting. Maya families envision rights to the city as human rights: housing, health insurance, a decent education, et cetera, which have been denied to them by settler-colonial logics that erase them from urban landscapes. During times of crises, these rights become even more important, as exemplified by the global housing crisis triggered by the pandemic. Clara Han (2012) reminds us that neoliberal states tend to outsource their social debts, placing the responsibility of “caring” for poor and marginalized communities onto families and individuals. Care, Han suggests, is relational and embedded in uneven structural inequalities. How we care for each other says a lot about the values and ideals that drive our societies and national politics. The outsourcing of care work makes for a very fragile social safety net that can be easily torn asunder by public health crises and natural disasters. During the pandemic, even President López Obrador, who is a populist, implemented measures that proved to be inadequate to curb the very real public health threat posed by COVID-19 (Ibarra-Nava et al. 2020). Despite these interventions, austerity measures and delays in cash assistance forced Mexican citizens to rely on each other instead of the state (Sheridan 2021; Paley 2021). The pandemic exposed what Maya migrants perceived to be a lack of care by the government. Prior to the pandemic, migrants had already railed against the state for “failing” to recognize their rights as Indigenous pueblos in urban centers, along with their demand for land rights. These failures were compounded when the tourism industry shut down during the pandemic. Although the government imposed a moratorium on home evictions in order to secure stable housing for its citizens during this moment of economic hardship, this stopgap measure sidestepped Indigenous demands for recognition and access to affordable housing. Instead, the Mexican state once again relied on crisis as a narrative device to privilege mega-infrastructural projects and private capital over the needs of Indigenous pueblos and sustainable ecosystems. For example, the López Obrador administration increased the budget of the military and promoted settler-colonial projects like the Tren Maya (Maya Train; Paley 2020, 2021). A 1,525 kilometer high-speed train project, the Maya Train will connect key tourist sites in the Mexican states of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Tabasco, Campeche, and Chiapas (Cancun Sun 2021).15 It is touted for “transforming southeastern Mexico” through “sustainable development,” specifically by creating eighty thousand jobs, improving public transportation, and expanding industrial development and tourism throughout the entire peninsula (Tren Maya, n.d.). The Maya Train project aims to scale up tourism by attracting up to three million tourists and thus follows traditional tourism development models, like Cancún, that are based on mass tourism and urbanization. But these megaprojects are also based on Indigenous displacement (Castellanos 2010a, 2021; Hernández Castillo and Cruz Rueda 2021; López Santillán 2015; Marín Guardado 2015a). As with the Cancún project, concerns over the destruction of local ecosystems, Indigenous land expropriation and dispossession, and the lack of infrastructural support for communities located along the nineteen train stops have not been fully addressed (Paley 2020). As Gustavo Marín Guardado (2015b) points out, tourism is a major economic engine; by converting land and natural resources into value, it financializes the landscape in ways that are not always beneficial to local communities. Maya communities such as Maxcanú and Kimbilá opposed the project because they viewed it as an extension of past oppressions and ongoing land dispossession (Hernández Castillo and Cruz Rueda 2021). Nonetheless, by promising jobs and aid from social programs like Sembrando Vida, the government rallied support from some Maya communities. Yet, government consultations with Maya communities located along the train route did not provide them with access to complete information that would allow them to make culturally informed decisions regarding the Maya Train and thus violated Indigenous people’s rights to self-determination as guaranteed by the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention no. 169 and Article 2 of the Mexican Constitution (Hernández Castillo and Cruz Rueda 2021). In her study of hacienda tourism in Yucatán, Matilde Córdoba Azcárate (forthcoming) points out that the construction of the train has led to land speculation and resulting land loss for Maya communities. For example, the pandemic prompted owners of Hacienda Xcanatun to partner with The Banyan Tree, an Asian management corporation, to promote exclusive sanctuary spaces for the global elite, while eschewing their commitments to remodel the community playground for the Maya pueblo of Xcanatun (Córdoba Azcárate, forthcoming). Construction of sections of the train was halted after Indigenous communities and environmental organizations like Sélvame del Tren filed legal injunctions (see Abi-Habib and Cegarra 2022; Mexico Daily News 2021; El País 2022). By August 2022, however, the majority of these injunctions had been overturned.
Scholars have shown that the settler-state apparatus renders Indigenous peoples, especially women, vulnerable to gender and state violence (Speed 2019; Stephen and Speed 2021). Settler states have deployed racist and gender tropes to sanction the enslavement, sexual violence against, and the murder of Indigenous women (Hernández Castillo 2008; Velásquez Nimatuj 2021). The militarization of Indigenous territories and the criminalization of Indigenous migrants are additional settler tactics that subject Indigenous women to multiple violences (Hernández Castillo 2021; Speed 2019; Stephen 2021). In Cancún, Indigenous women encounter settler violence as they lead the struggle for land rights. Racist tropes also undergird the everyday forms of structural violence Indigenous women experience, for example, in health care. Maya women acknowledge that they are wary of receiving care through the national health care system, such as the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS; Mexican Institute of Social Security), where some doctors and nurses treat them poorly because they are Indigenous. State neglect is another form of settler violence experienced by Maya women in Cancún. This sense of abandonment is evident in Simona’s experience with the outsourcing of care during the pandemic. Simona worked as a custodian in a retail clothing shop. When the clothing shop shut down during the pandemic, Simona despaired over how she would support her two daughters and grandson. As single mother, she did not have an additional source of income. Initially the government made food supplies available to single mothers and families, but these donations only occurred a couple of times before stopping altogether. Simona felt forsaken by the state, but at the same time, she was accustomed to this neglect. The strong social network Simona had constructed prior to the pandemic to help her when she could not rely on her children’s father was severely strained when the resorts shut down. It was these ties that kept Simona afloat. I consider the outsourcing of care work to be a manifestation of settler violence, of structural logics that mark the most vulnerable populations as disposable and abject subjects whose so-called backwardness justifies the lack of care and its outsourcing. For Maya families, what is needed is a model of care that privileges reciprocity and fosters social ties and connectivity as a way to combat settler, racial, and gender violence.
The pandemic catapulted Mexican cities into spaces of trauma and loss. This anguish was compounded by the state’s failure to care for its citizens during one of the worst economic crisis to date. For Indigenous pueblos, state failure is not new; it is part of a long history of settler violence and neglect. In Cancún, settler tactics have resulted in the expropriation of Indigenous lands and have promoted narratives that frame the city as a city of immigrants (coming from outside of Quintana Roo) that expunge Indigenous histories of insurrection and resistance.16 As such, these tactics erase Indigenous urbanisms that seek to uphold Indigenous self-determination and nurture convivencia. Francisco was instrumental in this struggle to promote a radical ethos—a heart and will (ti’ óol) to resist the violent and racialized impositions and willful neglect of the settler state by valuing caring, friendship, generosity, and reciprocity. The trauma experienced during the pandemic made the practice of convivencia even more crucial, as Maya families struggled to survive and heal from the loss of loved ones like Francisco. Dreams and encounters with animal spirits made it possible for Francisco’s family to heal and continue engaging with Francisco beyond this worldly sphere.
Through this recentering of care work and celebration of life (u kuxtal) through convivencia, Maya families create regenerative spaces for living and healing in urban centers. This vision of Indigenous urbanism aligns with what Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson refers to as “radical resurgence,” in which Indigenous families “join together in a rebellion of love, persistence, commitment, and profound caring and create constellations of coresistance, working together toward a radical alternative present based on deep reciprocity and the generous generative refusal of colonial recognition” (2017, 221). Similarly, Indigenous urbanism is rooted in love, involves human and nonhuman kin, and occurs across multiple planes.17 In this pandemic moment, heeding dreams, listening to animal spirits, and observing the cosmos take on even greater importance in struggles for Indigenous self-determination and survival.
In the spirit of convivencia and in solidarity with Maya struggles for autonomy, I share my heart through stories of friendship and love that honor Francisco’s legacy.
* (I am truly grateful to Francisco's family for allowing me to publish this story. Christina Ewig, Lourdes Gutiérrez Nájera, Lisa Hilbink, Jessica Lopez Lyman, Lynn Stephen, Elizabeth Sumida Huaman, Laura Velasco Ortiz, and two anonymous reviewers provided comments that strengthened this essay.
I use pseudonyms for the people I mention here, with the exception of public figures.
Kuchmil is a pseudonym.
This translation of convivencia was provided by Fátima, a Maya migrant from Kuchmil. According to Fátima’s father, don Dani, the term convivencia can also be translated as mu’uch kuxtal or mu’uch taamb’al; both phrases refer to gathering together. According to Fátima’s husband, who is from a Maya village in southeastern Yucatán, convivencia can also be translated as mu’ul kuxtal or u akuxtal yéetel u je’el máako’ob, both of which refer to living well with other people. The Maya translation of convivencia that is used, my interlocutors pointed out, depends on the generation of the speaker and the community to which they belong. Nonetheless, the abundance of expressions denoting an ethic of living well together indicates the importance of this ideal for Maya communities.
This and the other quotations from interlocutors throughout the article were provided in conversations with me, conducted over the telephone and via WhatsApp and email during the COVID-19 pandemic, during the period March 2020–October 2022. All quotations were originally in Spanish and have been translated by me into English.
The threatened lapse of the US eviction moratorium recently placed an estimated thirty to forty million people at risk of homelessness (Benfer et al. 2020). For the housing crisis in Venezuela, see Moloney 2021. For the housing crisis in Argentina, see Cholakian Herrera 2020.
This mass endeavor has been beset with problems (Marosi 2017).
For a discussion of settler logics of improvement, see Castellanos 2021; Chang 2011; Cronon 1983; Farriss 1984.
Maya migrants translated u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob as convivencia. It should be noted that the term convivencia has been used in other contexts. For example, convivencia is a term that is also used by Chicana feminists. Derived originally from Ruth Trinidad Galván’s (2001) work with rural women in central Mexico, Chicana feminists theorize convivencia as a principal of womanist pedagogies that aims to empower women through collective organizing and solidarity (Delgado Bernal, Alemán, and Flores Carmona 2008; Pérez Huber 2017; Trinidad Galván 2001, 2011). However, it is important to note that Chicana feminists’ conception of convivencia is not the same as the Maya ideal u kuxtal yéetel u máatsil máako’ob. They are distinct concepts.
On September 26, 2022, 330,046 deaths (a fatality rate of 5 percent) in Mexico were attributed to COVID-19; Brazil had the highest death toll (685,881, with a fatality rate of 2 percent) in Latin America. See Worldometer, n.d.; similar numbers can be found in INEGI 2022.
The most recent numbers posted on the state of Quintana Roo’s COVID-19 website (Gobierno del Estado de Quintana Roo, n.d.) show that on May 2, 2022, in the municipality of Benito Juárez where Cancún is located, there were 63,654 cases of COVID-19, of which 2,712 people have died (a fatality rate of 4 percent).
For a discussion of the concept of “waiting out” the state, see Castellanos 2021.
For a deeper analysis of this eviction, see Castellanos 2021.
For an analysis of the ethos of convivir as it is practiced in Xiulub, Yucatán, see Sastaretsi Sioui 2018.
For the literal translation, see Bricker, Po’ot Yah, and Dzul de Po’ot 1998, 17.
Quotations translated from Spanish.
Joaquín González Castro, mayor of Cancún from 1984 to 1987, described Cancún as a city full of “immigrants” (Martí 1991, 9).
For Mvskoke communities, Laura Harjo (2019) does a beautiful job of speaking to the key role that the cosmos plays in Mvskoke futurities.