Mani is a small town about 70 miles southeast of Merida, Yucatan. It is undistinguished except for the massive church that towers over the small buildings around it.
When we first went to Mani, about 22 years ago, the enormous church and monastery was alive with activity. The sounds of children’s voices and the lovely echoes of the church choir rehearsing broke the spell of the gloomy old building the minute you walked in. The doors were nearly always open and women in huipiles grouped in the corridors talking and laughing. There were always delicious smells emanating from the kitchen, run by Bernadetta, whose specialty was pavo relleno blanco.
And there were plants everywhere. Fruit trees, flowers, tall trees, sweet-smelling vines and a big kitchen garden.
Mani is famous for one thing. It is where Bishop deLanda, a Franciscan friar sent by Spain to civilize this part of the world, sought out and burned 27 Maya codices, almost the entire history of the Maya, enscribed carefully by hand, in lively, sophisticated glyphs. DeLanda did this on the front entryway to the massive building, for all to see, and among great ceremony. He also destroyed five thousand idols. This happened in the middle of the 16th century.
DeLanda had trouble locating the books at first. The local Maya, headed by Nachi Cocom and his extended family, had hidden the codices in a cave. A converted Catholic Maya contingent, lead by Tutul-xiu from Uxmal, sent emissaries to talk to the Cocom, urging them to convert and give up their heathen ways. The Catholic Maya group was not received well in Mani, and were in fact, slaughtered by the Cocom. A Tutul-xiu messenger, blinded by the Cocoms, was permitted to go back and give the Tutul-xius the bad news.
The following part of the history is vague to me, but the Spanish, equipped with firepower, quickly overcame the Cocom and the rest of the indigenous Maya around Mani, and installed Bishop deLanda to take over this unruly spot.
The Tutul-xiu group located the codices and handed them over to deLanda, who said they were inspired by the devil and had to be destroyed. He also destroyed recalcitrant Mayas by burning them alive, hanging them upside down until dead, and torturing and mutilating them. He drowned scores of others.
An entire history of an elegant, proud, sophisticated people was destroyed in one afternoon on the front entryway of the Mani cathedral. Only three codices remain, two of them now in Europe.
Years later, when deLanda returned to Spain, he had the nerve to write Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, his racist and unutterably cruel account of how he had found these devil-inspired heathens and forcefully tamed them.
Coming back to the present, the church in Mani is no longer the culturally rich center it was 20 years ago. It is as sterile as the day it was created by deLanda, and very, very quiet. And quite empty except for maintenance workers.
Years ago, the priest appointed by the archdiocese of Yucatan to head the Mani church was a small, quiet Maya man, Padre Luis Quintal. Padre Luis was soon beloved by his parishioners and brought the crumbling old building to life with human activities and music. He had a smile for everyone and wore the torments of his flock on his intelligent face and in his sad eyes. He had a wicked sense of humor and a talent for making heavy burdens lighter.
Padre Luis is a compulsive gardener and surrounded the building with fruit-bearing trees and plantings that seemed to lessen the evil pall cast by the church’s violent history. He also taught the villagers how to garden and if you drive through Mani today, you will see fruit trees in nearly every compound.
The population of Mani is 100% Maya. The Padre made room for indigenous beliefs in his Catholicism. He took a huge piece of a Ceiba tree (the sacred tree of the Maya), oiled it beautifully, and turned it into a pulpit, which stood aside the standard one in front of the church.
While at Mani, Padre Luis saw the need for teaching campesinos how to get more out of their little milpas, where they grew beans and corn. He wrote a grant application which was funded by an organization in Germany, and built a school just outside of the town. He named it U Yits Ka’an. At this school, farmers learn to rotate crops, compost, and diversify. They continue to experiment with produce not commonly grown in this area. Alberto Castillo, Merida artist, RIP) painted a stunning mural for the school chapel.The beautiful school, with palapa and stick buildings went up quickly, all owing to enthusiastic volunteer labor. Padre Luis took no public credit for this school, and appointed someone else as director.
Padre Luis packed the Mani church on Sundays, and kept it lively all week with classes, choir practice, and conversations with visitors from everywhere who came to talk to him about the history of the place and his agricultural school project. Universities and environmental organizations got interested in the U Yits Ka’an. Mani was a happening place.
Perhaps a bit too much was happening. The Yucatan archdiocese, never supportive of Padre Luis’ ways, removed him from the school he had founded, and sent him from Mani to a much smaller church in nearby Teabo. I visited there several times.
Until Padre Luis got there, the Teabo church had been crumbling, the huge doors hanging by single hinges, the place filthy. When I went, there were dozens of villagers cleaning up and fixing things. There were young fruit trees in the back property. Perhaps what touched me the most was the presence of a sick derelict who had apparently lived in the filthy old place for years. No one threw him out of the new, clean building. In fact, he was using his hands to down a plate of food.
I was glad to see the Teabo church being rejuvenated, but a few years later, Padre Luis became ill. He’s had several surgeries now and can’t work. He has moved to a piece of land near Mani where he’s built some Maya-style houses with ecological touches and hopes to make it into a retreat center someday. There is no budget for the place, but workers show up to clear land and plant trees. There are pools stocked with fish that eat insect larvae. There are “dry toilets.” There are no electric lights. There is a pyramid-shaped stack of logs where busy Yucatan melipona bees are getting ready for honey season. Found Maya objects sit on stone foundations. No one steals them. The place delivers a physically palpable wave of peace.
The Padre faces severe physical challenges in the coming months.
Last week, we visited Mani and were struck by the changes in the church. It is silent, no one is smiling, and there are fewer plants. The lovely Ceiba altar has been cut in two and put in a back courtyard in the rain. The church is sterile and austere. We couldn’t help but see parallels, of history repeating itself (minus the hangings, of course).
There is an excellent restaurant in Mani – so good in fact, that Meridians make the long drive there for lunch on Sundays. Unfortunately, it is called the Principe Tutul-xiu, although I understand the owners are not related. I was going to take a lot of pics of it and write an article about the restaurant, but we were so hungry I forgot to photograph anything past the soup.
Tutul-xiu’s specialty is poc-chuc, broiled outside over a wood grill. In memory of the old, warm church kitchen, I had the relleno blanco, which was fabulous.