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The Maya peoples constitute a diverse range of the Native American people of southern Mexicomarker and northern Central America. The overarching term "Maya" is a convenient collective designation to include the peoples of the region who share some degree of cultural and linguistic heritage; however, the term embraces many distinct populations, societies, and ethnic groups, who each have their own particular traditions, cultures, and historical identity.

There are an estimated 7 million Maya living in this area at the start of the 21st century. Ethnic Maya of southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and western Honduras have managed to maintain substantial remnants of their ancient cultural heritage. Some are quite integrated into the modern cultures of the nations in which they reside, while others continue a more traditional culturally distinct life, often speaking one of the Mayan languages as a primary language.

The largest populations of contemporary Maya inhabit the Mexican states of Yucatánmarker, Campechemarker, Quintana Roomarker, Tabascomarker, and Chiapasmarker, and in the Central American countries of Belizemarker, Guatemalamarker, and the western portions of Hondurasmarker and El Salvadormarker.

Yucatán Peninsula

The largest group of modern Maya can be found on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsulamarker. They commonly identify themselves simply as "Maya" with no further ethnic subdivision (unlike in the Highlands of Western Guatemala), and speak the language which anthropologists term "Yucatec Maya", but is identified by speakers and Yucatecos simply as "Maya". Among Maya speakers Spanish is commonly spoken as a second or first language.

The Yucatán's indigenous population was first exposed to Europeans after a party of Spanish shipwreck survivors came ashore in 1511. One of the sailors, Gonzalo Guerrero, is reported to have started a family and taken up a position of counsel among a local polity near present-day Chetumalmarker. Later Spanish expeditions to the region (Córdoba in 1517, Grijalva in 1518 and Cortés in 1519) resulted in numerous conflicts and open warfare. Vulnerability to European diseases along with a civil war with other 'city-states' allied to the Spanish eventually reduced the Yucatec Maya population to less than 10,000 by 1850. Those in the jungles of Quintana Roomarker to the east were more cut off from the Spanish, enabling them to survive more easily. Historically, the population in the eastern half of the peninsula was less affected by and less integrated with Hispanic culture than those of the western half. Today in the Yucatán Peninsula (Mexican States of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo) between 750,000 and 1,200,000 people speak Mayan. However three times more than that do not speak their native language but are from Maya origins and hold ancient Maya last names, such as Ak, Can, Chan, Be, Cantun, Canche, Chi, Chuc, Coyoc, Dzib, Dzul, Ehuan, Hoil, Hau, May, Tamay, Ucan, Pool, Zapo, etc..

Matthew Restall, in his book The Maya Conquistador, mentions a series of letters sent to the King of Spainmarker in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The noble Maya Families at that time signed documents to the Spanish Royal Family; surnames mentioned in those letters are Pech, Camal, Xiu, Ucan, Canul, Cocom, and Tun, among others.

A large 19th century revolt by the native Maya people of Yucatán (Mexico), known as the Caste War of Yucatán, was one of the most successful modern Native American revolts; results included the temporary existence of the Maya state of Chan Santa Cruz, recognized as an independent nation by the British Empire.

In Yucatanmarker, Francisco Luna-Kan was elected governor of the state of Yucatán from 1976 to 1982. Luna-Kan was born in Mérida, Yucatánmarker, and he was a Doctor of medicine, then a Professor of Medicine before his political offices, his first being overseer of the state's rural medical system. He was the first Governor of in the modern Yucatan Peninsulamarker, from a full Maya background. Currently there are dozens of politicians from Deputies, Majors to Senators from a full or mix Maya heritage from the Yucatan Peninsula.

According to the National Institute of Geography and Informatics (Mexico’s INEGI) in Yucatan State there are 1.2 million of Mayan speakers on 2009, representing the 59.5% of the inhabitants. Because of this, the cultural section of the government of Yucatanmarker, began to give on-line classes for grammar and proper pronunciation of Mayan.

Mayan Peoples from Yucatan Peninsulamarker living in the United States of Americamarker, have been organizing Mayan lessons and Mayan cooking classes since 2003 in California and other states, clubs of Yucatec Mayan are registered in Dallasmarker and Irving, Texasmarker, Salt Lake City in Utahmarker; Las Vegas, Nevadamarker and Californiamarker State with groups in San Franciscomarker, San Rafael, Chino, Pasadena, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Inglewood, Los Angelesmarker, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, San Fernando Valley and Whittier.


Chiapasmarker was for many years one of the regions of Mexico that were least touched by the reforms of the Mexican Revolution. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which launched a rebellion against the Mexican state in Chiapas in January 1994, declared itself to be an indigenous movement and drew its strongest and earliest support from Chiapan Maya, a number of whom still support it today. (see also the EZLN and the Chiapas conflict)

Maya groups in Chiapas include the Tzotzil and Tzeltal, in the highlands of the state, the Tojolabales, concentrated in the lowlands around Las Margaritasmarker, and the Ch'ol in the jungle. (see map)

The most traditional of Maya groups are the Lacandon, a small population avoiding contact with outsiders until the late 20th century by living in small groups in the Lacandon Jungle. These Lacandon Maya came from the Campeche/Petén area (north-east of Chiapasmarker) and moved into the Lacandon rainforest at the end of the 18th century, 1000 years after the ancient (Pre-Columbian) Maya civilization had disappeared (around 850 A.D).

In the course of the 20th century, and increasingly in the 1950s and 1960s, other people (mainly Mayan Indians and subsistence peasants from the highlands), also entered into the Lacandon region; initially encouraged by the government. This immigration led to land-related conflicts and an increasing pressure on the rainforest. To halt the migration the government decided in 1971 to declare a large part of the forest (614,000 hectares, or 6140 km2) a protected area: the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. They appointed only one small population group (the 66 Lacandon Indian families) as tenants (thus creating the Lacandon Community), thereby displacing 2000 Tzeltal and Ch'ol families from 26 communities, and leaving non-Lacandon communities dependent on the government for granting their rights to land. In the decades that followed the government carried out numerous programs to keep the problems in the region under control, using land distribution as a political tool; as a way of ensuring loyalty from different campesino groups. This strategy of divide and rule led to great disaffection and tensions among population groups in the region.

(see also the Chiapas conflict and the Lacandon Jungle).


The Maya population in Belizemarker is concentrated in the Cayomarker, Toledomarker districts and Orange Walk district, but they are scattered throughout the country. They are divided into the Yucatec, Kekchi, and Mopan.


The Mexican state of Tabascomarker is home to the Chontal Maya.


In Guatemalamarker, the largest and most traditional Maya populations are in the western highlands. The departments of Baja Verapazmarker, Quichémarker, Totonicapanmarker, Huehuetenangomarker, Quetzaltenangomarker, and San Marcosmarker are majority Maya.

In Guatemala the Spanish colonial pattern of keeping the native population legally separate and subservient continued well into the 20th century. This resulted in many traditional customs being retained, as the only other option than traditional Maya life open to most Maya was entering the Hispanic culture at the very bottom rung.

Considerable identification with local and linguistic affinities, often corresponding to pre-Columbian nation states, continues, and many people wear traditional clothing that displays their specific local identity. Clothing of women tends to be more traditional than that of the men, as the men have more interaction with the Hispanic commerce and culture.

Maya peoples of the Guatemala highlands include the Achi, Akatek, Chuj, Ixil, Jakaltek, Kaqchikel, K'iche', Mam, Poqomam, Poqomchi', Q'anjob'al, Q'eqchi', Tz'utujil and Uspantek.

The southeastern region of Guatemala (bordering with Hondurasmarker) includes groups such as the Ch'orti'. The northern lowland Petén region includes the Itza.

List of Leaders and Notable Mayan Peoples


  • "We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism." — Rigoberta Menchú, 1992.



Restall, Matthew (1997). The Maya World. Yucatecan Culture and Society, 1550-1850. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN: 9780804736589.

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