Argentinian Agustin Villalba moved into a small Mayan village without running water or electricity six years ago. Today, an entire village is thriving because of his efforts.
Visit Riviera Maya or any of the small towns and villages south of the tourist mecca of Cancun, and it’s unlikely you’ll get a firsthand look at any traditional Mayan customs. Despite the fact that the region is named after a proud native people, the Mayan culture has been slowly dying for decades.
Rampant tourism growth — including the popularity of Mayan ruins throughout the region like Chichen Itza and Ek Balam — was partly to blame as people left their villages to work at resorts and tourist attractions to earn a lot more money.
Today, the decline is being reversed with a remarkable program where little kids in small Mayan villages are teaching gringos like me how to make traditional pottery.
And it’s all because of an Argentinian potter named Agustin Villalba.
When Villalba was in university he became fascinated by Mayan pottery. As part of his studies, he visited small Mexican villages to learn more about the people and craft, but was stunned to discover in many cases that he was more familiar with the craft of Mayan pottery than the natives themselves.
"In 10 years, if we didn’t do anything, the only thing left of Mayan culture would be the ruins," said Villalba.
He was determined to change all that by teaching Mayans in the small seaside village of Coba the craft of their ancestors, while also they also learned how to run their own business. In 2004, he set up a school to teach both kids and adults how to make traditional Mayan pottery that they could sell directly to tourists in a shop next to the pottery studio. And what better way to attract tourists in search of authentic Mayan experiences than to have kids teach them how to make pottery as well?
At first, the residents regarded Villalba as yet another gringo looking to make money off the Mayans. After all, most of the tourist attractions and hotels in Riviera Maya are owned by multinational corporations that are making money off the Mayan name, but little of it gets funneled to actual Mayans, except for the paltry paychecks of those who work in low-paid service positions at the resorts.
To win them over, Agustin moved into a hut without electricity or running water in a Mayan jungle village 25 kilometers outside of Coba. Before long, enrollment at the school grew from five students to 33, and his wife, Sophie, launched classes in Mayan embroidery and textiles at the school as well.
With the success of the program, Agustin joined with other Mayans to offer other authentic cultural experiences to tourists, including traditional dinners and performances of Mayan music and theatre through an organization called The Mayan Express.
From my perspective, it’s all working. Back in the studio, the kids are skilled beyond words, but they aren’t very successful at hiding their giggles at my ham-fisted attempts to turn a lump of clay into an ashtray or bowl, or at least something that doesn’t look like a misshapen rock. Soon, we’re all breaking out into laughter.
“We’re only re-introducing what they lost,” says Villalba. Indeed, he considers it the ultimate compliment when one of his tiny teachers says that he has a heart of clay.