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  • Behind the Scenes of a Visual Ethnography:A Dialogue between Anthropology and Film
  • C. Melinda Levin (bio) and Alicia Re Cruz (bio)

This article is an ethnographic account of the production of a documentary film about out-migration and tradition in a contemporary Maya community of Mexico. The village of Chan Kom sits about two hours east of the Cancun coastal area in the dense Yucatan jungle. This exodus is a different story from that often told about Mexican migration because this migration is within Mexico itself. Out-migration to the tourist mecca of Cancun and its neighboring "Mayan Riviera" developments is common in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo in particular and has prompted reevaluations of traditional lifestyles, gender roles, and community organization within a capitalist economy. Given the ongoing, sometimes controversial subject of immigration, this film sheds a new light on the internal migration practices within Mexico and how they affect socially integrated, traditional communities.

The film follows several villagers from Chan Kom who are engaged in migration to Cancun, and it examines the impact of the infusion of cash that results from their labors on the coast. It also observes their neighbors and family members who do not favor migration, prefer-ring the traditional, agricultural lifestyle to the barrios of Mexico's premier tourist destination. The two sides of this community's position on migration are intimately connected to the families of the two founders of Chan Kom: an uncle, Don Epifanio, and his nephew, Don Eustaquio. Over time representatives of these two families have adopted different worldviews and political affiliations directly connected to their opposite positions regarding out-migration. Differentiated Maya worldviews that evolved from the intriguing interconnection of political and socioeconomic positioning regarding out-migration are ultimately linked to issues related to Maya identity. The overarching goal of the film is to provide a glimpse into some of these social and cultural influences affecting the difference of opinion on the "truest" definition of Maya identity.

Melinda Levin served as director, camera operator, and editor of the film, and Alicia Re Cruz served as producer, sound recordist, and ethnographic content expert. In the same way that our film was an exercise in visually portraying the intricate cultural processes embedded in the global human experience of crossing geographical and cultural borders, our article's goal is to examine some of the processes involved in the conceptual, fluid journey between film and anthropology. We also present some of the decision-making processes that guided this film [End Page 59] production and, consequently, the personal and professional premises that informed them.

The idea of documenting the dialogue and counter-dialogue between Cancun and Chan Kom via Maya migration emerged in 1997, when Levin and Re Cruz began a discussion about the educational importance of visually documenting changing definitions of cultural identity in the midst of powerful globalizing phenomena. We started filming in Chan Kom in the summer of 1998 and concluded principle photography in 2003; during these six years of visits to Chan Kom and Cancun, we reconceptualized the documentary's focus and narrative, based on a complex web of different factors. The analysis and discussion of a few of these factors, at personal and professional levels, constitutes the core of this article. A DVD of The Mayan Dreams of Chan Kom: Tourism, Migration and Changing Identities in the Yucatan is included with this special Film and Anthropology issue of the Journal of Film and Video.

Chan Kom, An Ethnographic Icon

This documentary project builds on Alicia Re Cruz's anthropological work and ethnographic research on Chan Kom since 1986. Multiple articles by Re Cruz (e.g., "The Thousand and One Faces," "Maya Women," and "Milpa as an Ideological Weapon") and the publication of The Two Milpas of Chan Kom (1996) examine the effects, at different levels, of the globalizing currents within the Yucatan peninsula, mainly through the explosion of Cancun's tourism industry and its repercussions on Maya communities. Chan Kom's reaction to out-migration is not unique but serves as an example of how societies often respond to globalizing currents affecting their culture and traditions.

The Carnegie Institute started a series of scientific projects on...


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