The Modern Maya

Chicleros - A Season in the Jungle

Quintana Roo, 1971


Chicle, the base for chewing gum, is the boiled sap of the zapote tree extracted by laborers living in jungle camps during the rainy season. Each tree requires at least five years between slashings. Therefore chicleros are nomadic, changing camps each year. The industry has declined significantly in the last twenty years as manufacturers begin to use synthetic vinyl gum bases. The jungle in Quintana Roo is a tropical rain forest that contains mahogany, Spanish cedar, zapote, and other hardwoods. It smells of fecund growth and of rotting decay. Tree trunks and snaking vines make it hard to see more than twenty of thirty feet in any direction. The work the chicleros do is hard, time consuming, and repetitive. Each day they look for zapotes to cut. They first clear away vines and low sapling from around the base of a tree. Then, beginning at shoulder height, they work down, slashing V-shaped right angle gashes in the tree bark. Immediately the milky-white resin oozes thickly from between the bark and hardwood. At the base of the tree they hang their collecting bags. Then they cut the tree as high as they can climb. In the past, chicleros were usually included in any discussion of the dangers of the jungle, along with poisonous snakes and plants, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and packs of wild boar. They had a reputation of being bandits and murderers, beyond the reach of the law in their jungle camps. However, most contemporary chicleros are not violent, many of them coming from peaceable Yucatecan villages. Archaeologists owe the discovery of many of the Maya ruins to chicleros, who found them while working deep in the jungle. The stands of zapotes growing at nearly all the ruin sites suggest that the ancient Maya planted the trees near their cities. They used zapote wood in their building construction, especially for door lintels. The wood is so hard that many examples survive today.


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The Changing Role of a Maya Woman
Henequen - The Decline of an Industry
Cowboys - Corn to Cattle
The Cruzob - The Rebel Maya

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