Soap opera cleans-up culture


It might be the cleanest Mexican soap opera around.

The passionate love scenes that are a staple of the genre were reduced, bowing to conservative local sensibilities, to a few pecks on the cheek and hand-holding as innocent as junior high schoolers on a first date.

It was not the only accommodation made by producers of what is considered the first _telenovela,_ as soap operas are known here, entirely in an indigenous language, Maya, and with a story line rooted in the community.

For starters, Mar__a, the love interest, cannot bring herself to say _I am falling in love with you_ when her beau-to-be, Jacinto, finally gets his act together. Because while phrases of desire like _I love you_ are roughly translatable into Maya, it is trickier to express being _in love_ in the language.

_It_s more like _the heart of my heart is happy,_ _ said Hilario Chi Canul, a professor of Mayan language and culture. He also helped write the script and also plays the leading man in the telenovela, called _Baktun,_ which makes its debut this month on Quintana Roo State public television.

It has standard ingredients of the form: greed, betrayal, family squabbles, unrequited love and acting that would probably not get the attention of the Emmy academy.

But _Baktun_ is as much a cultural journey as one of the heart, using a contemporary story line that blends Mayan ceremonies and beliefs with the tale of a young man who emigrates to New York City to work, distances himself from family and community _ even becoming rusty in his language _ and eventually returns and learns the value of preserving the community and not forgetting his roots. Or his childhood sweetheart, who has taken an interest in his brother.

Baktun (pronounced bak-TOON) refers to a megacycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar and was deliberately chosen as the title in light of the attention it received last December, when widespread misinterpretations fanned on the Internet led people to claim that the end of the world was nigh. In reality, one cycle ended and another began.

In the telenovela_s case, the cycle is a metaphor for life_s ever-changing chapters.

_We wanted to show you could still be proudly Mayan even in this modern world with mass media and digital communication,_ said Bruno C__rcamo, the veteran film and television producer who made the show and previously oversaw a documentary on fading indigenous languages in Mexico. _Telenovelas are popular in the Mayan communities, too, but they are not presented in their language or their reality._

The series, in 21 episodes and also packaged as a movie that will be shown at film festivals, was shot in this remote, historic village in Quintana Roo State, 140 miles southwest of Canc__n and famed for a church left damaged from a 19th-century Mayan uprising.

Most members of the cast are residents of the town with little or no acting experience, smitten a bit with the star turn. On a recent evening, Mr. C__rcamo showed some episodes of the drama as well as the full movie in an open-air meeting hall before rapt audience members who stayed glued to their seats even when technical problems interrupted the showing.

_We should never forget our origins,_ said Mar__a Elena Tuz Kuvil, 40, who sat leaning forward for nearly the entire screening. _I could not believe it was in our language. I watch a lot of telenovelas, but none like this._

Many people said the cycle of loss and gain resonated with them, as dozens of young people have left to work in nearby beach resort hotels or in the United States. Fewer parents seem to be teaching their children Maya, though Mr. C__rcamo estimated that 80 percent of the village speaks it as a first language. During the filming, in fact, he often needed an interpreter to get his point across.

_Parents often say, _Learn Maya for what? It_s better to speak English,_ _ said Jos__ Manuel Poot Cahun, 26, who plays the role of the scheming brother and grew up speaking both Maya and Spanish. _But many of my friends are wondering why they didn_t learn Maya as children._

Entertainment offerings in Maya are sparse. There are occasional documentaries and Hollywood movies dubbed in Maya. The 2006 Mel Gibson movie _Apocalypto,_ set during the decline of the Mayan empire, was almost entirely in Maya, with Mr. Chi Canul serving as a linguist on the production. It was criticized for focusing on the civilization_s violent practices, and Mr. Chi Canul today calls it _exaggerated, not history but Hollywood._

A full-length telenovela, or any television drama for that matter, set in the Mayan world in Maya is unique, experts on Mexican soap operas said.

_It_s very important that indigenous people are able to tell stories of their reality, not only in documentaries but in fictional formats,_ said Adrien J. Charlois, a communications professor at the University of Guadalajara, who studies telenovela history. _This allows them to see themselves as habitants of the full media panorama, while making it possible to generate new ways of defining themselves._

Still, Mr. C__rcamo and Mr. Chi Canul had to win the support of community elders, who were skeptical of outsiders but eventually were convinced by the idea of a Mayan story told by Mayans.

With Quintana Roo State television financing 60 percent of the $250,000 budget (Mr. C__rcamo put up the rest), the screenwriters carefully chose their principal villain, steering clear of making any connection to the booming tourist development that has troubled some communities and instead settling on a vague multinational industrialist bent on exploiting their land.

But working in Maya and in a community where public displays of affection are frowned on presented stiff challenges as well; many staples taken for granted in telenovelas, like passionate love scenes, would offend the community.

_We took all the kissing out,_ said Mr. C__rcamo, who with a partner wrote the script in Spanish and then adapted it with Mr. Chi Canul into Maya.

One translation stumped them, so they simply avoided it. _New York_ is referred to as _the far, faraway town._

_What,_ Mr. Chi Canul asked, explaining the difficulty, _is a York?_

The New York Times | By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD

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