Who, What, Why: Francisco Díaz on anthropology and the modern Maya

The doctoral student’s research shows that living Maya people actively participated in the excavation of their past.

Francisco Diaz at the Penn Museum with carved stone reliefs made by his ancestors
Francisco Diaz studies the anthropological contributions of the Yucatec Maya people. Here, he stands at the Penn Museum between carved stone reliefs from Piedras Negras and Chichén Itzá.  (Image: Eric Sucar)
    • Who

      Born in Mérida, Yucatan, about a half an hour north of the coast, Francisco Díaz moved to San Rafael, California, in the Bay Area at age 5. His parents are both from Peto, a small town in the middle of the Yucatan peninsula that saw a lot of migration to the United States in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, Díaz says. The U.S. had economic opportunity, and his family migrated in search of a better life. “My dad was the only one in his family who went to college,” Díaz says. “Even with that, he saw that he couldn’t make it.”

      Díaz first returned to Mexico at age 11 and felt something amiss. “What always got to me is the level of poverty that Maya people still live in. Most people worked two or three jobs and still financial security was out of reach, he says. This was in sharp contrast to vacationers, attracted to the Mayan Riviera and its idyllic beaches with a soupcon of cultural enrichment from nearby archeological sites. There is a disparity between the poverty of Yucatec Maya people and the glamorization of ancient Maya archaeology, he says. 

      “I came away from that thinking, how can this be?” Díaz says. “That’s what always impacted my direction and pretty much everything I’ve done.”

    • What

      Díaz, now a doctoral candidate in anthropology, has studied the discipline since his years earning an associate degree from Santa Rosa Junior College. Anthropology is qualitative analysis, says Diaz. “We study Indigenous people; we study the cultures. And we also study the machinations of the world and all these big forces that influence the way that people live.”

      His dissertation looks at early Mayanist research in the 1890s through 1930s from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in order to locate contemporary Maya within archaeological study. These researchers characterized the Maya as a revered civilization, in contrast to the living Yucatec Maya people, who were often demeaned and racialized, he says.

      Yet Indigenous people actively participated in excavation, Díaz says. His research shows that Maya people were archaeologists in their own right, working season after season with specialized skills to excavate the past. But their contributions have been buried, he says.

    • Why

      “As a descendant of Yucatec Maya people, it makes me feel good, having this connection with the past,” Díaz says. “Not only is this our past, but we have helped bring knowledge about this past forward. I think this is a service to my people today.” 

      In the 1940s, Díaz’s grandmother was pulled from school in second grade. Traditionally, Yucatec Maya women and girls would wear a huipil, a cotton shift dress with complex, colorful embroidery around the yoke. When the state of Yucatan passed a law saying all students had to attend school in a purchased uniform, she stayed home to help with housework instead.

      This was the message for Indigenous people, Díaz says. “Your culture doesn’t have value except all the stuff that we are digging up and putting in galleries.” Just two generations later, he is doing research that “makes living Maya people visible,” he says. “That is probably the most significant thing that has come out of my time and my research here at Penn.”