Mel Gibson Is Wrong about Who the Violent Americans Are

After watching Mel Gibson’s controversial film Apocalypto, I left the theater pondering the history of racism, pillage and apocalyptic war through my own blood and family history. Gibson, I concluded, would have been more accurate, his film more resonant, had he used another group of people, another culture – certainly not the Maya -- to depict his vision of the Apocalyse.

Like many Central Americans born and categorized as mestizos (mixed Indian and Spanish blood), I watched Apocalypto as someone who consciously revered the Maya and other indigenous groups while subconsciously prohibiting himself any real identification with them.

As a boy, my parents gave me a leather case with a picture of an Indian from the region now known as El Salvador (the Savior). But I heard my father call people he considered ugly “cara de indio” (Indian face). For many of us--mestizo and non-mestizo alike--it’s always been easier to identify with the Christian culture depicted in Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ than with the Maya culture in Apocalypto.

The fundamental problem with Apocalypto’s depiction of Maya culture is that, in a procrustean manner, it imposes violence and an apocalyptic world view on the wrong people. In fact, UC Riverside archaeologist Zachary X. Hruby wrote recently in the San Francisco Chronicle: “There exists no archaeological, historic or ethnohistoric data to suggest that any such mass sacrifices -- numbering in the thousands, or even hundreds -- took place in the Maya world.”

Instead, Gibson should have looked for apocalyptic war and culture in the off-screen history of our Catholic, mestizo, and indigenous families in the Americas.

He could have done his homework about how Salvadoran culture sanctions my father’s use of “cara de indio” as a way to call someone ‘ugly.’ I never understood the deeper reasons for such racist remarks until my father told me what happened when he was a ten-year-old boy who climbed trees in 1932. That year, my father saw military men kill hundreds of Indians in what historians call “La Matanza” or the Killing. More than 30,000 mostly Indian peasants in El Salvador were slaughtered on the order of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, a theosophist military dictator who used radio broadcasts to justify his actions by sowing apocalyptic fear. Most of the killing my father witnessed took place not far from where the fictional killing fields of Apocalypto take place. Until I asked him about it, my father remained quiet about La Matanza for more than 65 years. The fear of Indians and apocalyptic war he learned while climbing trees as a boy stayed with him and spilled onto his kids through what some psychologists call “intergenerational trauma.”

It saddens me that the first big screen depiction of the inspired and inspiring culture of the Maya is this fatally inaccurate and very controversial film. Like the traumatized boy who became my father, millions among the current generations of Mayan, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and other Central American youth growing up in the United States and other countries are the children of apocalyptic war survivors. Most have experienced the numbing cultural effects of war; either firsthand or as the children of those who have witnessed the savagery of wars like the one in Guatemala, where apocalyptic dictator and born-again Pentecostal President Efrain Rios Montt, who famously said, “the true Christian has a Bible in one hand and a machine gun in the other,” ordered the killing and disappearance of more than 100,000, mostly Mayas. I saw how Montt used television and other media to beam the colorful biblical imagery of his apocalyptic vision as a way to cover over the massacre of innocents. He compared the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the four contemporary evils of hunger, misery, ignorance and subversion

Apocalypto’s depiction of the Mayas scares in its inaccuracy, but it makes sense when we consider that Gibson’s main audience belongs to a culture that reveres another very conservative actor like him, Ronald Reagan. Reagan introduced the use of media-communication skills and apocalyptic politics to advance a political agenda. He used them to justify the full arming, full funding of and political support for Montt, whom Reagan defended as “getting a bum rap.” In the name of combating “evil” and protecting the “city on a hill,” Reagan infused his foreign and domestic policy with statements like, "we may be the generation that sees Armageddon" and “I don't know if you have noted any of those prophecies lately, but, believe me, they describe the times we are going through." While filmmaker Gibson claims to offer an allegorical critique of the declining, apocalyptic civilization that feeds wars like the one in Iraq, Gibson the extreme right-wing Catholic, anti-Semite fails in Apocalypto and in all his movies to critique the very religion that has dominated apocalyptic politics for centuries.

Better than most, Gibson knows that Apocalypse sells in a culture in which born-again politicos, best-sellers like the Left Behind books and blockbuster movies like his Mad Max series or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days and the Terminator trilogy plug into the cultural and political DNA of this country, whose Puritan founders came here prepared for the end of days with Bibles and 20-ton cannons crammed into their ships.

My identity, in part, has been shaped by the effects of a culture of violence and apocalyptic war best found not so much in the stuff of Gibson’s Mayan epic, Apocalypto, but in the stuff of his Christian epic, The Passion of the Christ


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