According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), México has 193 archaeological sites, 17 of which are located in Yucatán. Each of these sites needs to be guarded and maintained, and this is not just the work of archaeologists and restorers. It is also the work of the guardians, custodians, and those fortunate enough to work there. They not only protect the sites but also ensure that what still stands continues to do so, keeping alive the stories of what probably happened, its importance and significance, and what continues to happen today.
This is the work that Jorge Pech Quijano has been doing for 33 years at the archaeological site of Aké, a site to the east of Mérida, that has not just become a workplace but an extension of his very being. Don Jorge arrived at Aké at the age of 18, hoping for it to be temporary, but the place absorbed him: it taught him different ways of working, knowledge, worldview, beliefs, and ways of living. ‘I was an atheist back then, but here, my spirituality awakened; these sites are like portals,’ he passionately recounts.
What does an archeological zone’s custodian do?
Thirty years ago, this site seemed like a ghost town, draped in profound silence that made it seem as if time itself had stopped. ‘When I arrived, they told me I had to keep everything tidy: the main buildings, the restored ones, the square. It was jungle everywhere; no modern tools, just the machete, and your sheer will! Don Isabel Cruz Sosa, a chiclero (natural chewing gum farmer) from Cenotillo on the cusp of retirement, was in charge back then,’ he reminisces. ‘He taught me how to use and sharpen the Coa (a type of hoe) and the machete. To do this job, you have to know many things, even about toxic plants.’ Today, there’s more technology to make the job easier, but he remains in constant motion, using his electromechanical skills to service his equipment and stay on top of one of his main tasks: cleaning, pruning, and maintaining the site free of weeds, known in Yucatán as “monte”. He, along with two other colleagues, performs this daily work in the early hours of their shift to avoid the heaviest elements: heat and humidity.
They also have to deal with other risks: potential collapses, falls, bites from the numerous snakes—both rattlesnakes (Crotalus tzabcan, Serpiente de Cascabel in Spanish) and Yucatecan cantil (Agkistrodon russeolus, Wóol Póoch’ in Maya and Huolpoch in Spanish)—that inhabit the site, and stings from wasps and bees that sometimes settle in the structures. In his early days, Jorge remembers being attacked by hundreds of African bees. ‘I was cleaning, and when I swung my Coa, all the bees came out; they stung me all over!’ Fortunately, this is how he discovered he wasn’t allergic to their stings. A custodian’s job is also to protect visitors from these potential risks; that’s why it’s important to follow their instructions and signs and refrain from entering restricted areas.
So many years in this peaceful site have given Don Jorge the opportunity to cultivate his knowledge and spirit, reading, for instance, countless books by prominent Mayaists (Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, Román Piña Chan, and Alfredo Barrera Vazquez, among others) and experiencing different archaeological seasons to rediscover the buildings that, upon his arrival, were just rubble. He has also had the fortune of interacting, talking, and learning from great archaeologists like Thelma Sierra Sosa, Beatriz Quintal Suaste, and Víctor Segovia Pinto (one of the archaeologists who discovered the phenomenon of the spring equinox at Dzibilchaltún, Chichén Itzá, and Uxmal, among others), whom he fondly calls ‘the father of archaeologists.’ Jorge Pech has also collaborated with journalists from National Geographic, filming, and photographing birds; with Richard Evans Schultes, considered the father of ethnobotany; with the pharmaceutical laboratory Aventis (now Sanofi); and with Filogonio García, the grandson of the renowned Oaxacan healer María Sabina. These collaborations are based on his extensive knowledge (and documentation) of the plants in Aké and their medicinal uses, complemented by his interest in healing through incense and minerals.
Today, Don Jorge is no longer a custodian. For the past year, he has been working as an Assistant to the Head of the Administrative Area for Cultural Heritage. However, he continues to work as if he were still a custodian. He is proud and grateful to INAH for funding his high school and university studies in administration, among other things. He’s not a guide, but if you ask him, he will gladly share what he knows about the site with you and even show you some images of the pieces found there. Currently, he’s working on a script for fifth-grade students who will soon visit the archaeological site, so he faces the challenge of adapting the information to language that children can understand. So, if your paths in Yucatán lead you to Aké, don’t hesitate to look for and greet Don Jorge Pech Quijano; your visit to this archaeological site will be even richer with some of his anecdotes.
The archaeological site of Aké is an hour away from Mérida towards the east. Follow the road to Cancún until Tahmek and then head north towards Tixkokob.
By Magali Ramirez D.
Graphic Communicator. Food lover. Inveterate adventurer. Athlete by conviction and extreme out of restlessness. I discover, I get surprised and I learn through the life stories that we all have to tell.
Photography by MKCT, and Horacio Castillo for use in Yucatán Today.
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