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He Followed the Funereal Steps of Ixtab: The

Pleasurable Aesthetics of Suicide in


Newspaper Journalism in Yucatán, Mexico
By
Beatriz Reyes-Foster
University of Central Florida

Resumen
Este artı́culo argumenta que las fotografı́as y reportajes en el periodismo rojo Yucateco
representan al suicidio como un fenómeno que sucede casi exclusivamente entre los
jóvenes indı́genas. El artı́culo presenta un análisis textual y discursivo de noticias sobre
suicidios en Yucatán entre los años 2005–2010, y argumenta que en Yucatán esas
imágenes sugieren que los mayas tienen una predisposición cultural al suicidio. Esto
no significa que no exista un problema serio en Yucatán, dado su elevado ı́ndice de
suicidios, los cuales doblan media nacional. Más bien, sugiere que en el proceso de
representar a la vı́ctima como un “otro” perdemos perspectiva de los matices sociales
presentes en las condiciones, construcción social y realidades que empujan a la gente
a tomar la decisión de suicidarse. Por otra parte, la idea del Maya suicida presupone
la existencia de una identidad maya definida, lo cual ha sido problematizado. [Ix Tab,
Mayas, periodismo, suicidio, Yucatán]

Abstract
This article argues that the presence of photographs and reports of suicide in Yucatecan
“red” journalism functions to portray suicide as a phenomenon occurring exclusively
among young indigenous men. It presents a textual analysis of photographs and news-
paper articles covering suicides in Yucatán between 2005 and 2010, arguing that, in
Yucatán, these images function to generate the idea that Maya people have a cultural
predisposition to suicide. This is not to say that there is not a serious problem with
Yucatán’s elevated suicide rate, which more than doubles the Mexican national aver-
age. Rather, in this process of Othering the suicide victim, we lose sight of the social
nuances of the reality, conditions, and social construction of suicide that push people
to the brink of death with elevated frequency. Moreover, the idea that Maya people

The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 251–273. ISSN 1935-4932, online ISSN
1935-4940. 
C 2013 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/jlca.12019

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 251


are suicidal presupposes the existence of Maya identity—a notion that has itself been
problematized. [Ix Tab, Maya, newspaper journalism, suicide, Yucatán]

People visiting Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula who spend any amount of time
outside of the touristic bubble of the resorts might notice the newsstands. They
are found everywhere in Yucatán: temporary stands appear early in the morning
at busy intersections and plazas. The newspapers hang from metal frames; the
magazines are set up on small, light wooden tables or wooden crates. Prominently
displayed, hanging at eye level on the sidewalk, usually facing traffic, the front pages
of the major papers display the day’s news in color. On some of these papers, a
photograph or two on the front page might depict yet another young man, another
“Juanito Pech”—a sort of Yucatec Maya everyman—who has followed the funereal
steps of Ix Tab, the Maya goddess of hanging, and killed himself.
This article considers the ubiquitous presence of graphic images of suicides
in nota roja, “red” journalism, in Yucatán, Mexico. I argue that, while nota roja
journalism—a Latin American genre devoted to the reporting of violence and gore
in graphic detail—is common throughout Mexico, the particular form taken in
the Yucatecan context is embedded within broader debates around “the Maya,”
producing what I call “the myth of the suicidal Maya”: the idea, succinctly stated,
that Maya people are culturally predisposed to suicide. This myth is a contempo-
rary expression of a colonialist process of “Othering” (Fabian 2002) indigenous
people, and particularly indigenous men. In Yucatán, where Maya identity is highly
contested and intricately intertwined with political and economic projects, the pro-
duction and consumption of this myth reiterates the exotic connection between
present-day Yucatec “Maya” people and the Ancient Maya. Ultimately, the red
journalism of suicides represents a double process whereby producing the myth of
the suicidal Maya also produces “the Maya” themselves. In producing the suicidal
Maya, the purpose of the nota roja—identified by Mexican literary critic Carlos
Monsiváis (1994) as cementing class boundaries—is fulfilled.
Let me be clear: there is nothing mythical about suicide in Yucatán. According
to the Instituto National de Estadistica, Geografia, e Informática (INEGI), Mexico’s
census and population statistics bureau (2008), Yucatán’s suicide rate more than
doubles the Mexican national average (9.2 per 100,000 vs. 4 per 100,000 people in
2008). Suicide and suicide attempts are common occurrences in Yucatán, and many
people are in some way connected to someone who has attempted or committed
suicide. Although little has been published on the topic (Hernández Ruiz 2010),
my own experience over 10 years of ethnographic fieldwork echoes the experience
of other long-term ethnographers of Yucatán: anecdotally, suicide and suicide
attempts are common and, as one reviewer of this work stated, suicide seems “to
be taken for granted as a possible way out.”

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My argument is not that newspapers and journalists intentionally or even
unintentionally draw a connection between Maya suicides and Ix Tab (Ix Tab is
one of several tropes of suicide present in newspaper discourse in connection to
suicide). Rather, I argue that the representations of suicide in Yucatecan journalism
index suicide as a Maya problem. This indexing is a manifestation of a process of
Othering that homogenizes the suicides reported. In it, we lose sight of the social
nuances marking the reality, conditions, and social construction of suicide that
push people to the brink of death with elevated frequency. The papers create the
illusion that the only people who kill themselves are poor, alcoholic men with
Maya last names. Newspaper coverage repeatedly portrays suicide as an exclusively
Maya problem, thus, creating a myth—defined by the Oxford English Dictionary
as “a widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief”—that Maya people are
suicidal. Addressing the causes of Yucatán’s elevated suicide rate is beyond the
aims and scope of this article.1 Rather, I am interested in the way that the “suicide
crisis”—the idea that first, Yucatán has a very high suicide rate and second that
the people who commit suicide are young Maya men—is depicted in and is arguably
created by the newspaper media in general and red journalism in particular. In
other words, the myth of the suicidal Maya creates the illusion that there is no
problem of suicide among the rest of the population, and at the same time exotifies
the Maya.

Methodology

This article presents a qualitative analysis of newspaper discourse using data sets
from two newspapers, De Peso and Por Esto! Much of the analysis here centers on De
Peso because, first, it is situated in the genre of nota roja, red journalism, a particular
genre that focuses on covering violence and gore, and presents it in a humorous
light; second, its daily print circulation (75,000–80,000 issues) is larger than any
other paper in the region. De Peso is modeled after the daily Alarma, a Mexico City
newspaper devoted exclusively to nota roja. When interviewed about the paper’s
readership, De Peso founding director Luis Bofil replied, “Let’s say [our readership
is] made up of a lower middle class, and the financially screwed [jodida]. They
are, logically, construction workers, campesinos [peasants], people with very little
[formal] education. We’re talking people who didn’t even finish their primaria
[elementary school]” (interview with Luis Bofil, Merida, June 25, 2012). Bofil’s
discourse regarding the nature of his paper indicates that he defines his readership
in terms of socioeconomic class. While ethnicity is not overtly mentioned, the
vast majority of the people whose suicides are reported in De Peso have Maya
last names and died by hanging. De Peso’s overt social commentary touches on
class, and uses language associated with what Bofil refers to as la clase jodida, the

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 253


financially “screwed.” Bofil is clear when he explains the genre of his paper: while
De Peso reports news, the writing of the headlines and stories is a creative endeavor
seeking to present tragedy in a humorous way. Ultimately, De Peso does not try to
publish objective, dispassionate reporting, but, like U.S. tabloids, is published for
the entertainment of its public.
In contrast, Por Esto! is an established, relatively prestigious newspaper cov-
ering news from all over the Yucatán peninsula. Founded in 1991 by journalist
Mario Renato Menéndez Rodriguez, the paper has bureaus in Merida and Cancun,
publishes separate Yucatán and Quintana Roo editions, and features a broad array
of coverage from local, national, and international news to editorials contributed
by local writers, political commentators, and intellectuals. Unlike De Peso, Por Esto!
publishes electronic editions of both its Yucatán and Quintana Roo papers online.
At MXN$8 (US$0.60), it is double the price of De Peso. Moreover, the paper’s
market and readership are heavily influenced by national politics: it is commonly
accepted that Por Esto! caters to supporters of the left-leaning Partido Revolu-
cionario Institucional (PRI) and Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)
national parties, while its main competitor, the mainstream Diario de Yucatán,2
is highly sympathetic to the right-leaning Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN). Por
Esto! does not share any information regarding its circulation or readership pro-
file, although some web estimates claim the newspaper’s daily print run is about
40,000–70,000 issues (Cotts 2000; Stevenson 1999).
This article presents two data sets. The first is a detailed breakdown of every
suicide report in De Peso in the years 2008 (see Table 1) and 2009 (see Table 2).
Time constraints limited my analysis to two years, although a longitudinal study
of the depiction of suicide in this publication from its founding in 2004 to the
present is warranted. I selected these two years because they coincided with the
timing of my ethnographic fieldwork.
In these tables, I only note when photographs of suicides appear on the cover
of the newspaper. This does not mean that there were no photographs of the
suicides in the newspaper, however. In our June 25, 2012 interview, Bofil noted
that at the behest of De Peso’s parent company, Grupo SIPSE, the newspaper has
recently stopped publishing front-page photographs of suicides, although such
photographs are still featured on the inside pages. Bofil explained that suicides
always took low priority in terms of cover page publication because the newspaper
prefers to print pictures of traffic accidents. Nevertheless, it is interesting that
cover page photographs of suicides were frequently accompanied by headlines
with mentions of Ix Tab. This suggests the potency of the sparingly used trope of
Ix Tab.
Although reports of women committing suicide and some suicides that took
place in Merida were published in these newspapers, an overwhelming majority of

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Table 1: Suicides in De Peso, 2008 Total reported: 101 (INEGI-reported suicides: 160)
Number of Number of Mentions Maya Photograph
Month suicides hangings of Ixtab surnames Men Women on the cover
January 11 11 3 10 8 3 1
February 7 6 2 3 7 0 0
March 6 6 1 (cover) 4 5 1 1
April 11 10 2 9 9 2 2
May 12 12 0 6 8 4 0
June 5 4 1 (cover) 3 4 0 1
July 3 3 1 (cover) 1 2 1 1
August 10 10 2 (cover) 7 8 2 1
September 11 11 2 7 5 6 3
October 5 5 0 3 5 0 0
November 12 10 1 7 12 0 1
December 8 6 1 (cover) 4 8 0 2

Table 2: Suicides in De Peso, 2009 Total reported: 142 (INEGI-reported suicides: 218)
Number Number Mentions Maya Photograph
Month of suicides of hangings of Ixtab surnames Men Women on the cover
January 8 7 0 5 7 1 0
February 8 6 0 5 8 0 1
March 13 12 1 8 11 2 3
April 8 8 4 5 7 1 0
May 13 10 4 (1 cover) 6 9 4 3
June 21 19 8 (1 cover) 14 17 5 4
July 11 10 1 8 9 2 0
August 17 13 2 14 17 0 4
September 10 10 4 6 8 2 0
October 16 14 6 10 15 1 2
November 10 10 1 5 9 1 2
December 7 4 0 3 6 1 0

suicides depicted were of young men with at least one indigenous surname from
Yucatan’s rural and semi-rural regions. When Ixtab was mentioned, it was almost
always attached to the male suicides. As the qualitative analysis will bear out, these
men, the majority of whom were in the 15–30 age range, were also frequently
reported to have been either intoxicated or battling substance abuse at the time of
their deaths.
The second data set, presented below in Table 3, is a compilation of total
suicide stories, tracking the incidence of Maya surnames and visual depictions of
suicides in the newspaper, Por Esto!, from the years 2005, 2006, and 2010. The

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 255


Table 3: Por Esto! suicide reports 2005–2006, 2010
INEGI- Number of Number of
Number reported Number of Maya photographs
Year of suicides suicides hangings surnames of hangings
2005 65 N/A 54 24 (29%) 19
(January–
November)
2006 81 151 68 46 (57%) 13
2010 56 206 50 39 (69%) N/A

Table 4: Common Ix Tab headlines in the Por Esto! and de Peso (2005–2010)
Spanish English translation
Siguió los pasos funebres de Xtab [sic] Followed the funereal steps of Xtab [sic]
Adoró a Ixtab Adored Ixtab
Rindió culto a Ixtab Worshipped Ixtab
Siguió a Xtab Followed Xtab
Se lo(la) llevó Ixtab Ixtab took him (her)

selection of years was based on the availability of the newspapers themselves: while
I was granted access to De Peso’s archives and an interview with its editor-in-
chief, Por Esto! never responded to my contact attempts regarding this project,
does not keep an archive open to the public, does not include publication dates
on its online content, and does not disclose its daily print run. As such, I used a
private collection of Por Esto! suicide newspaper clippings, and these were the years
available for consultation at the time. I also used papers from my own collection
from 2008, as well as insights gained from 10 years of ethnographic research in the
region.
Mentions of Ix Tab were not as common in Por Esto! suicide reports, although
they did appear in each year analyzed with the exception of 2005. However, it is
interesting to note the jump in the number of suicides reported of people with
Maya surnames in each year considered, from only 29 percent of the sample in
2005 to 57 percent in 2006. The total number of suicides reported did not fluctuate
as wildly from year to year, but in 2005 and 2010, years for which INEGI (Mexico’s
census bureau) published suicide data, the number of suicides reported in Por Esto!
was much lower than the total number of suicides recorded by the state. Overall,
mentions of Ix Tab in both papers were formulaic and resembled one another. The
most common headlines appear in Table 4.

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Suicides and Car Crashes: The Pleasurable Aesthetics of Suffering and Violence

A typical De Peso cover (see Fig. 1) features a scantily clad woman and a dead body.
The aesthetics of violence and sex, the pornography of violence, are condensed
into the color pages of a newspaper written, in Bofil’s words, para los jodidos, for
the financially “screwed.” Bofil claims, however, that the jodidos are not the only
ones reading his papers. “One day, a couple of years back,” he explains,
Some of our newspaper sellers started telling us about how they were selling this
thing—they called it “paquete diez” [package ten] See, they started folding our
paper into the Diario de Yucatán. See, the Diario at the time cost seven pesos.
Ours cost three. So, the paquete diez, was the two papers together! You have to
understand, our paper is what the maid reads, not what the señor de la casa [the
man of the house] reads. Maybe they might take a quick look at it while the maid’s
not looking, but they will never buy it on the street where people can see it. But you
fold it into the Diario, then nobody has to know. And you know what? Our sales
soared. Our paper started selling all over el norte de la ciudad [the north of town].
So even though our readership is made up of los jodidos, the rich ones, they like this
stuff too (Interview with Luis Bofil, Merida, June 25, 2012).

There is undoubtedly a pleasurable aesthetic in the images presented in De


Peso, both of sex and death. Most of the time, there is not a suicide on the cover
but a picture of a car crash, a terrible accident, or a corpse discovered weeks after
death. In the following paragraphs, I analyze the nature of images through the
work of Kleinman and Kleinman, Berger, and Monsiváis. Ultimately, the images in
De Peso cement boundaries of class intimately intertwined with ethnicity in which
the unstated ambiguity of the photograph mirrors the ambiguity of “Maya” as a
category of ethnicity.
In general, images, their trajectories, and consequences have captured the
attention of academics (Gruzinski 2001; Kleinman and Kleinman 1994; Mon-
siváis 1994; Sontag 2003; Spitulnik 1993). Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman’s
(1994) article, “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Ap-
propriations of Suffering in our Times,” associates the Western consumption of
images of suffering taken in the developing world by Western photographers with
neocolonialism. However, while Kleinman and Kleinman (1994) write about the
depiction of suffering in far-off lands and its consumption in the West, the pho-
tographs published in local Yucatecan newspapers depict a very different kind of
suffering—one geographically and socially closer. The “Other” represented in the
image of the suicide in the photograph resembles the jodido who buys De Peso.
Moreover, where Kleinman and Kleinman (1994) see the consumption of suffer-
ing as a relatively recent phenomenon in U.S. newspapers, nota roja, the genre

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 257


Figure 1 De Peso, “Motoroloco” July 11,2012. In this particular example, the person on the cover
survived a motorcycle accident.

producing the images of suicide in Yucatecan media, dates back to the nineteenth
century at least, when the images were etchings rather than photographs.
Kleinman and Kleinman note the usefulness of exploring the moral and po-
litical assumptions inherent in every photograph (1994:7). These assumptions,

258 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


which usually remain unstated, are part of what John Berger (2002:47) calls “the
ambiguity of the photograph.” Berger argues that the photograph has a special
place in the world of visual media and that it contains an inherent ambiguity: the
“truth” that it transmits is limited because the image has been framed, taken, and
recontextualized. Berger argues that the photograph has been co-opted by late cap-
italism and transformed into a tool for the commoditization and quantification of
the world. The inherent ambiguity of photographs is denied and photographs are
given the legitimacy of truth. This denial of the ambiguity of the photograph—the
unstated claim that the newspaper photographs of suicides represent the reality of
suicide in Yucatán—is at the heart of the myth of the suicidal Maya.
Berger’s criticism takes on particular significance when considered alongside
the work of Mexican literary critic Carlos Monsiváis (1994). In his chronicle of the
nota roja in México, Mosiváis argues that the genre, which initially evolved as a way
to convey cautionary tales of moral import, serves today to reify class boundaries.3
Based on Monsiváis’ and Berger’s claims, it is possible to argue that in producing
the myth of the suicidal Maya, Yucatecan journalism is commodifying suicide—
and the Maya—as a form of entertainment while simultaneously cementing class
boundaries. Historians of the nota roja characterize it as a particularly Mexican
genre. In her analysis of the production of nota roja in Guadalajara, Mónica Alvarez
Rodrı́guez (2002) notes that the genre possesses two distinct characteristics: first,
the presence of civilian voices and the absence (or dismissal) of authorities’ voices,
and second, the centrality of the criminal as the main character of the narrative.
This is certainly the case in the stories presented in De Peso: the authorities are
usually only peripherally mentioned (it is not unusual for the newspaper reporters
to visit and photograph a suicide crime scene before the police arrive), and the
perpetrator of the crime—the suicida—is the narrative’s main character.
One may wonder about the origins of the Mexican public’s apparent appetite
for blood. Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsiváis (1994) connects the red news to
the Mexican “obsession” with death (see also Brandes 2003; Lomnitz 2005; Paz
1950) and with a societal need to preserve class boundaries. For Monsiváis, the
origins of Mexican red journalism can be traced back to the work of Mexican
engraver José Guadalupe Posada at the turn of the 20th century. Posada was a sort
of early crime scene photographer: he drew sketches of crime scenes during police
investigations, and these sketches were subsequently published in Mexico City’s
major newspapers. The newspaper publication of Posada’s visual representations
of crime scenes enabled Mexico City’s most heinous crimes to become urban myths
transmitted in oral culture. Monsiváis posits that while the nota roja functioned
to frighten and entertain its audience, it also enabled “enlightened society” to set
itself apart from the uneducated masses that consumed the genre: “the enlightened
or semi-enlightened sectors of society condemn the publication of red journalism,
not for its mistakes . . . but for its most notorious consumers, the poor, whom

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 259


they suppose complacent in their degradation: they read that because they enjoy it.
They are what they read” (Monsiváis 1994:29).
In considering Monsiváis’ analysis of Mexican red journalism, I noticed a recur-
ring word, morbo. Morbo does not have an exact translation to English, although
the Oxford Spanish Dictionary defines it as “a ghoulish fascination.” It refers to
an affect of being drawn to sights that social convention marks as undesirable
but nonetheless hold potential for pleasure. In the words of an interlocutor from
Mérida, “morbo is that feeling that, when you are passing the scene of a bad acci-
dent, makes you look.” Although this feeling is not alien to English speakers—for
example, people in the USA might turn to look at a bad traffic accident, and the
frequency of violence and gore in movies and video games indicates an appetite
for this visual imagery—in Mexico, this affect has a formal name.
At the same time, morbo and sex are closely intertwined: a person too obsessed
with sex is called morboso/a. Just as morbo might make one look at a bad accident,
it also motivates one to peer up a distracted woman’s skirt in a stairwell, to
look at pornography, to indulge baser sexual appetites. Morbo means letting go of
repression, both of sexual desire and of taking pleasure in death, gore, and suffering.
These two sides of morbo, sex and death, are expressed in contemporary nota roja,
with its grotesque images of injured and dead people and “sexy” centerfolds. Sex
and death thus appear to be two sides of the same affective coin, which might best be
studied ethnographically and is outside the purview of this article. For Monsiváis,
morbo drives red journalism’s success: it allows its readership to indulge morbo in
a safe and legal way: “Morbo acquires the quality of a ‘calming nightmare. The
taste for the bloody—induced horror and controlled pleasure . . . combines real
bogeyman with joyful storytelling” (1994:34).
While the success of the nota roja may be driven by consumer appetite, Mon-
siváis argues that red journalism serves a specific purpose: the reinforcement of
social boundaries. The haunting images of the dead on the front cover linger in the
reader’s mind. As Monsiváis observes, the “corpses glorify their abandonment or
their putrefaction, the prostitutes face the camera, the disapproving gaze of soci-
ety” (1994:31). It could be argued that because red journalism focuses on violence
and gore—and because in Yucatán many stories about violence and gore happen
to be about suicide—frequent suicide coverage is simply a local manifestation of
a national phenomenon, which may be the case here. However, whether suicide
coverage in Yucatecan red journalism is simply a part of national Mexican culture
is irrelevant to the question of whether the particular form it takes in Yucatán—
depicting a specific suicide type and contextualizing it using such literary motifs
as the trope of an Ancient Maya goddess—generates a particular idea about who
commits suicide.
Berger’s “forces of late capitalism” (2002:48) drive the supply and demand
economics of De Peso. The product—the images of suffering—sells what Kleinman

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Figure 2 Por Esto! Quintana Roo, “Se disparan los suicidios,” August 10, 2008.

and Kleinman (1996:3) call an experience, a pleasure in bloody aesthetics produced


by morbo. The photograph’s unstated claim to truth conveys a distorted experience
that in turn creates a defined subject: The young, drunken, deviant suicidal Maya
stares out of the front covers—the unseen specter of Ix Tab leading him to an
uncertain fate.

Catastrophes in Tizimin

On Monday, August 10, 2008, the Quintana Roo edition of Por Esto! printed two
full pages of detailed photographs of the deceased and their bereaved families (see
Fig. 2). The headlines on the back cover read, “Suicides shoot up: three people took
their lives in their homes in less than 12 hours and the number of cases in Cancun
grew to 48/ Two hung themselves with rope and one with a hammock/Another
symptom of social decay” (González Ramı́rez 2008), and underneath appeared
three color photographs showcasing the corpses of the three men who had hanged
themselves over the weekend. Antonio Chulı́n Balam (aged 35), Carlos Francisco
Balam Ramı́rez, and Roberto Cupul Martı́nez (aged 23) appear in various positions:
Chulı́n Balam is covered with a blanket, his calves and bare feet visible; Balam
Ramı́rez lies on his back, a white sheet folded under his head. The caption beneath
the photograph reads, “Taxi driver Carlos Francisco Balam Ramı́rez followed the
funereal steps of Xtab [sic] in his home in region 95.” Cupul Martı́nez appears to
be bending backwards, his face fully visible, a single red rose lying by his side. (Did
someone place it there after he died, or did he have it beside him when he hanged
himself?)

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 261


The three men were young. They had Maya last names. One is said to have
followed “Xtab’s” funereal steps. Another perhaps died following a romance
gone wrong, as the red rose might suggest. We know little about Chulı́n Balam,
save that he was a construction worker. But the headlines convey that these suicides
are “another symptom of social decay.” As presented, the images and accompa-
nying story convey a clear picture of who commits suicide: all of these men are
relatively young, all are poor (none of them wear shoes, and the rooms that are
the settings of the photographs appear to have dirt or concrete floors), all were
employed in nonskilled wage labor, and—importantly—all died by hanging. The
mention of “Xtab” is not accompanied by an explanation: the reader is already
expected to know who “Xtab” is.
De Peso offers another example of the portrayal of suicides in mass newspaper
media. The January 21 issue of De Peso contained two different suicide stories. The
first, appearing under the heading “Zona Rural” (Rural Zone), consisted of a short
note with no photograph:

For unknown reasons, Diego Leonor Chablé Dzib ended his existence, hanging
himself inside his home in Motul, even though this was not the first time he
attempted to end his own life, as was explained by his amasia,4 who is eight years
older than him and was drunk when she spoke with the authorities . . . [she]
explained that on Saturday night she left the house to work at a bar, and the guy
was still alive, but when she returned in the first minutes of Sunday, she saw that
the door was locked, and when she looked through a window she discovered that
Diego had committed suicide . . . [she] also commented that it was not the first
time that her lover attempted to end his own life, as every time he got drunk he
would threaten to kill himself (De Peso, 2008a:A27).

The language of the note describing the death of Diego Leonor Chablé Dzib—
for example, the use of the derogatory term amasia—presents a narrative of social
deviance. The second note, appearing on the following page under the heading
“Alerta Tizimin,” features a photograph of a young man hanging from a rope (see
Fig. 3). He sits on the ground with his back to the camera, his first name, Ilman,
tattooed on his upper back. The headless body of a reporter stands above him,
holding a camera; a color picture matching the photographer’s position graces the
front cover (see Fig. 4) under a bright red headline: “Catastrophes in Tizimı́n,”
which actually refers to a recent storm. Next to the photograph, a warning caption:
“when someone dedicates himself too much to drinking, one never knows when he
will make the fatal decision to take the false door, as happened to Ilman Enrique.”
According to the report, following a heated argument with his wife, Ilman Enrique
Interián Cen “Chose to worship Ixtab” (De Peso 2008b). His family members
discovered him after they noticed that he had suddenly fallen silent.

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Figure 3 De Peso, “Catástrofes en Tizimı́n,” January 21, 2012.

Several themes emerge from both examples, which are representative of the
sample of newspapers stories and photographs collected. First, the suicides are
represented within a context that portrays the suicida, the person who commits
suicide, as socially deviant. The suicidas are most commonly described as drunk
or alcoholic, although other forms of social deviance may also be present (such
as the example above of Diego Leonor Chablé Dzib, who is living out of wedlock
with an alcoholic woman who is eight years his senior). Second, as stated above,
the suicidas are disproportionately male, relatively young (usually ranging in age
from 15 to 35, although occasionally the suicides of older or younger people are
reported), and have at least one Maya surname. Third, the dominant method of
suicide is hanging.
The paradox of nota roja emerges in these representations: while the people in
these stories are Othered, these Others are not so dissimilar from the readership
conceived as los jodidos. A possible way out of this paradox is that while the people
featured in the papers may share a social class with the readership, they nevertheless
violate socially accepted conventions within the readership itself: regardless of
cultural and social background, drinking or otherwise intoxicating oneself, acting
out in violent ways, and living out of wedlock are socially unacceptable.
The next example of a story covering the suicide of a non-Maya person, pub-
lished in the Yucatán edition of Por Esto! on March 24, 2008, contrasts sharply with

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 263


Figure 4 De Peso, “Alerta Tizimı́n,” January 21, 2012.

the suicides discussed above. The portrayal of Jorge Arturo Abad Cardeña’s death
seems like the quintessential exception that confirms a rule:

From a gunshot wound to the head Jorge Arturo Abad Cardeña, 42 years old,
deprived himself of his own life, inside his home situated on 43rd and 18th streets
in the Sol Campestre neighborhood. The now deceased, who was depressed, alerted
the neighbors when he shot the gun. They alerted the police and his family, who
found the lifeless body inside the home. At the scene, the authorities could not
ascertain the gauge of the firearm with which Abad Cardeña, who according to the
neighbors was homosexual, took his own life. The suicide was last seen alive around
nine in the morning, when he returned to his house, marked with the number 458
of 43rd street in the aforementioned neighborhood, and put his Ford EcoSport
truck, with license plate number YXE 6060, in the garage. The neighbors said that
he would go running every morning and treated everyone kindly, but that he took
things very seriously and apparently when his partner left him he fell into a deep
depression that led him to commit suicide (Por Esto! 2008).

264 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


Although in this article the trope of social deviance recurs (this particular man
happened to be gay), the article’s tone is almost respectful. It contains no mention
of Ix Tab, alcoholism, or overly passionate personalities. The deceased is merely
pictured in a body bag being loaded into a SEMEFO (Forensic Medical Service)
truck, and the caption beneath the pictures once again notes that Abad Cardeña was
known among his neighbors for his trato amable, a gentle or kind disposition. Abad
Cardeña possessed several markers of white middle-class identity: ethnic Lebanese
and Spanish surnames, a home in a middle-class neighborhood of Merida (a major
city), and a car. He was also middle-aged and died from a gunshot wound to the
head, not by hanging. This narrative stands in stark contrast with the recurring
narrative of the young, passionate, drunken Maya who hangs himself during a
binge following a fight with his wife/girlfriend/lover/mother.
Nevertheless, Abad Cardeña is not a fully “normal” member of society: his
neighbors maintain that he is gay, and killed himself after being left by his partner.
He lives in a fraccionamiento, a subdivision of homes known in the city for their
affordability. He is not a good son: upon hearing of his death, his mother suffers a
nervous breakdown. A person who commits suicide must therefore be an outcast,
but above all an outcast who allows his passions to carry him to the grave. Following
the formula outlined by Monsiváis in Los Mil y Un Velorios, the story remains a
moralistic warning, and—while Abad Cardeña does not fit into myth of the suicidal
Maya—social boundaries remain in place due to the fact that Abad Cardeña’s
lifestyle, especially his sexual orientation, makes him a social deviant.
Even more rare is journalistic coverage of suicides among the upper echelon
of Yucatecan society, not because they do not happen, but because these people
tend to exercise influence over the owners and upper management of Yucatecan
newspapers. In 2007, when Marina Lara,5 a Merida socialite, killed herself at her
home in Colonia del Campo, a higher-class neighborhood in northern Merida, the
news of her death only appeared as an obituary. Her body was cremated the same
day it was discovered, and the following evening her ashes were present at the Mass
held in her honor at Maria Concepción—a church in a wealthy parish in the del
Campo neighborhood. No graphic photographs of her cadaver were published; no
article appeared in any of the newspapers. Based on this research, it appears that
the suicidal deaths of the upper class remain hidden, and absent from the media
and public discourse.6
The suicidal body at once challenges and is defeated by the “conventional soci-
ety” conceived by Monsiváis. Its presence on the front page, unavoidable regardless
of whether the passerby buys and reads the paper, assaults the senses, creates dis-
comfort, and reminds its public that Death, can be just around the corner. By the
same token, the suicida appears exposed and humiliated, with a broken, twisted
body stiffened in the position of the final throes, for all to see: his mother, wife,
girlfriend, and the thousands of strangers, readers, and passersby. De Peso and Por

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 265


Esto! give the suicidal body a social life as the images are shared, talked about, and
reflected upon. The corpse faces the camera, at once frightening and entertaining.

The Specter of Ix Tab

I have thus far been unable to trace when exactly Ix Tab gained prominence in
Yucatecan suicide journalism. What I have found, however, is that the existence of
the “suicide goddess” was commonly mentioned in investigative newspaper articles
about suicide in Yucatán, which often speculated about a connection between
Yucatán’s high suicide rate and the existence of an Ancient Maya suicide deity.
In the course of ethnographic fieldwork in Valladolid and Yucatán’s puuc region,
I never met a single interlocutor who was aware of the existence of Ix Tab prior
to learning about her via newspaper coverage of suicides. Other legends abound,
including that of the Xtabay, a female demon that preys on drunken men, but even
she is not explicitly connected to suicide. I suspect that the newspapers themselves
are responsible for introducing the figure of Ix Tab into public discourse, and that
this connection between Yucatán’s high suicide rate and the pre-Columbian Ix Tab
is then reinforced by the frequent mention of Ix Tab in subsequent media coverage.
The frequent recurrence of the motif of Ix Tab is a key element of the myth
of the suicidal Maya. The idea of a pre-Columbian goddess of suicide is powerful,
particularly when considered in the context of an aggressive effort made by the
state to create a general awareness throughout Yucatán of the Ancient Maya and
their potential for Neoliberal exploitation (Castañeda 1996; Castillo Cocom 2005).
While Yucatán’s Secretarı́a de Turismo (secretariat of tourism) has taken on the
Ancient Maya as a cornerstone of its tourism industry, the ten-year-old Instituto
para el Desarrollo de la Cultura Maya del Estado de Yucatán (INDEMAYA), the
institute for the development of Maya culture of the state of Yucatán, has taken
on the stated mission of creating a “new social order in which the Maya People
may overcome the state of marginality and poverty in which it finds itself, and
take its place in contemporary history” (INDEMAYA n.d.). It is beyond the scope
of the present work to look at this aspect in detail, although the complexity
of the “Maya” identity of Yucatán has been addressed by several scholars, for
example, by Castañeda and Fallaw (2004) in a special JLACA issue, as well as by
Juan Castillo Cocom (2005) and myself (Reyes-Foster 2012). Nevertheless, I posit
that the prevalence of the motif of Ix Tab in Yucatecan journalism cannot be
understood without an awareness of the commercialization of the Ancient Maya
and the ubiquity of public relations campaigns that encourage Maya-speaking
Yucatecan people to adopt a Maya identity they have never claimed before.7,8
In this context, it is important to explore Ix Tab the deity, the limited ar-
chaeological knowledge we have about her, and the ways this knowledge has been

266 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


co-opted into the myth of the suicidal Maya. In his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán,
Diego de Landa wrote,

[the Indians] held it as absolutely certain that those who hanged themselves went
to this heaven of theirs; and on this account, there were many persons who on slight
occasions of sorrows, troubles or sicknesses, hanged themselves in order to escape
these things and to go and rest in their heaven, where they said that the goddess of
the gallows, whom they called Ix Tab, came to fetch them (Tozzer 1941:132).

In his careful notes on Landa’s Relación, Tozzer goes on to make a connection


that has become central to the visual representation of Ix Tab in the Yucatecan
media as well as in local tourist art: Tozzer notes that on Dresden Codex 53 (shown
in Fig. 5) there is a figure of a woman suspended by a rope around her neck and
concludes that this is “undoubtedly Ix Tab” (Tozzer 1941:132).
There is, however, some disagreement. In his commentary on the Dresden
Codex, Thompson (1972) expresses doubt as to whether the female figure is Ix
Tab. In fact, the figure appears in the lunar eclipse sequence of the Dresden Codex,
a series of predictions regarding eclipses. No name glyph identifies her as Ix
Tab. Thompson speculates that the moon glyph that accompanies her in 53b is
meant to identify her. Perhaps, he muses, Ix Tab may be merely a manifestation
of the moon goddess (Thompson 1972:76). Elsewhere, he states, “I doubt that a
goddess with that sole function [hanging] existed. More probably that duty was
undertaken by the moon goddess” (Thompson 1970:301). However, he does not
substantiate this claim—that the moon goddess, Ix Chel, had a duty to those who
hanged themselves—with any evidence other than the fact that the moon goddess
is depicted hanging by the neck in the Dresden Codex.
Whether or not this is the case, my goal here is to show that Mayanists know
remarkably little about Ix Tab, and that the image in the Dresden Codex can-
not be conclusively associated with the “goddess of the gallows” described by de
Landa. When newspaper headlines state that someone has “worshipped Ixtab,” the
statement is directly borrowed from what might be termed “pop-archaeology”—
popularly disseminated “facts” about the Ancient Maya present in public discourse.
More importantly, as stated above, “Ix Tab” had no resonance for any of my inter-
locutors in Valladolid or Merida, beyond its connection to newspaper headlines
about suicide. Although the legend of the Xtabay, a female demon said to lure men
into the bush to death or madness, is present throughout Yucatán (Baquedano
2009; Máas Collı́ 1993; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1933; Stross 2007; Tuyub Collı́
n.d.), no explicit connection has been made between Xtabay and Ix Tab by any of
my interlocutors or in any published literature on the subject.9
During my research, many of my interlocutors shared their own theories about
Yucatán’s suicide rate. They would posit suicide as a symptom of changing times,
saying things like “these young men don’t want to work the milpa, they want

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 267


Figure 5 Drawing by Linda Schele, 
C David Schele, courtesy Foundation for the Advancement of

Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., www.famsi.org.

expensive televisions and fancy cars. They drink too much and abuse drugs and
then they kill themselves.” Having framed suicide as a problem of modernity and
changing values, some of my interlocutors would ask, “but the Ancient Maya,
they had a suicide goddess, right?” thus, positing the other possible explanation:

268 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


a cultural, ancient Maya predisposition. The young men who committed suicide
were either not indigenous enough, committing suicide after the hubris of denying
their traditional heritage, or too indigenous, following an ancient tradition passed
down from the ancestors. The question of reception of these images and reports,
whether or not the myth of the suicidal Maya has been accepted or internalized
by the people whom anthropologists and the Yucatecan state call “the Maya,” is
beyond the reach of this article.10 In large part, before the question can be answered
about whether “the Maya” believe this myth about themselves, we would have to
find out whether “the Maya” have come to see themselves as Maya.
Juan Castillo Cocom’s work on what he terms “the fifth creation of the Maya”
(2005:134) is particularly insightful to this analysis. In Castillo Cocom’s view, the
“Maya” identity of Yucatán—constructed on an “essential quincunx” by anthro-
pologists, historians, archaeologists, and linguists—has been hijacked by the many
political players vying for control of the state. “The essential quincunx”, concludes
Castillo Cocom, “is an invention that oppresses the subaltern people” (2005:140).
In other words, the constructed Maya identity of Yucatán functions to oppress the
people that anthropologists would call the “actual” Maya of Yucatán, because it
essentializes them. What is more, lost in the academic and public discourses about
the Maya are the material and structural challenges faced by the Maya themselves.
In Castillo Cocom’s critical eye, the “Maya” invention only produces artifacts of
touristic consumption.
In my own work (c.f. Reyes-Foster 2012), I found that the many Maya and
non-Maya speaking Yucatecans I talked to had bigger things to worry about than
their non-Maya identity or whether they were depicted as suicidal by the media. My
interlocutors were mainly concerned with access to steady employment, financial
security, and high-quality medical care. The people I worked with ethnographically
who had survived serious suicide attempts tried to kill themselves for many reasons,
but not because they believed in Ix Tab. The surviving family members I interviewed
as part of my research never attributed the deaths of their loved ones to Ix Tab, but
to the actions of Satan, as has also been shown in the works of Baquedano Lopez
(2009) and Hernandez Ruiz (2010). Moreover, this association of suicide with the
Devil has also appeared elsewhere in the Maya area, as demonstrated in the work
of Gracia Imberton (2012) among the Chol in Chiapas. None of these scholars
have encountered references to Ix Tab in their work.
It appears that the myth of the suicidal Maya, despite the fact that it is readily
consumed, reflects little of Maya dispositions. Kleinman and Kleinman argue that
images of suffering appeal to audiences because they portray a suffering Other in
a distant land. Monsiváis argues that Mexican morbo in red journalism arose from
a desire to reinforce boundaries—in other words, to distance the reader from the
subjects featured in the news. Although the young men who appear on the pages
of De Peso may not appear to be socially or geographically distant from the Maya

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 269


buying and reading the paper, their deviance—be it because of their drinking, their
marital choices, or their inability to control their emotions—makes them distant
enough.

Conclusion

Front pages of tabloids catch the eye: they are usually displayed at eye level on the
sidewalk, and newsstands feature them facing traffic. Even if someone does not
routinely read Por Esto! or De Peso, their highly visible presence on the newsstands of
Yucatán makes these images impossible to escape. Moreover, suicides happen often
in this region. For the many Yucatecans who call one place home but during the
week work elsewhere, these newspapers, sold alongside popular graphic novels and
magazines, represent a cheap form of entertainment for the sometimes hours-long
trip home. The discourse produced by these media is material as well as symbolic:
the papers are brought home, and shared among family members, who look at the
pictures and read the stories, sometimes aloud for the benefit of family members
who cannot read. Once read, the old newspapers are kept around the house for
many other uses: lighting fires, lining chicken coops and birdcages, cleaning up
mess, or wrapping objects. Eventually, the newspaper images make it into children’s
games and into the way people understand violence, suicide, and their own society.
There is an undeniable materiality in the life of a newspaper, which persists long
after its publication. This materiality is determined by the cultural practices of the
people who buy these papers—people whom anthropologists call Maya.
This article has analyzed the way suicide and people who commit it are covered
in Yucatecan newspaper journalism. I have presented data culled from two major
daily newspaper publications that demonstrate the ways in which newspapers
routinely portray suicides as the actions of young, rural, alcoholic, indigenous
men. I addressed the figure of Ix Tab, the “suicide goddess,” as a motif frequently
used by the media to produce the myth of the suicidal Maya, and have examined
the journalistic genre of the nota roja, arguing that although the visual depiction
of violence and gore in newspaper media is not unusual throughout Mexico, the
particular form that it takes in Yucatecan journalism functions to propagate an
essentializing image of Maya people that presents them as drunken and unstable
people prone to “following the funereal steps of Ixtab” by hanging themselves.
Building on the work of Carlos Monsiváis and Juan Castillo Cocom, I have argued
that the nota roja genre not only produces the myth of the suicidal Maya, but also
contributes to the commoditization of Maya identity.
As I have noted at various points in this article, there is still much work to be
done and many questions to answer on the matter of both suicide and the reception
of suicide discourse in Yucatán. More research is needed on the reception of this

270 J ournal of L atin A merican and C aribbean A nthropology


media discourse in parts of Yucatán other than Mérida and the Valladolid area.
Moreover, the question of suicide and the agency of the suicides themselves—who
no doubt know that their images are likely to appear in the newspapers—bear
further exploration. A partial goal of this article is to begin a conversation about
the portrayal of indigenous people in newspaper journalism through the particular
geographical and temporal instance of the myth of the suicidal Maya in Yucatán.
The presence of suicide imagery in newspaper journalism must be understood
within the larger context of the complicated Maya identity of Yucatán (Castañeda
and Fallaw 2004; Castillo Cocom and Castañeda 2004; Reyes-Foster 2012). Par-
ticularly, the connections between Yucatecan newspapers and national Mexican
political parties bear further scrutiny, as political affiliation can have a direct effect
on what reality a certain newspaper may choose to represent. By drawing attention
to the way these images and reports are framed, I echo McLuhan and Fiore’s (1967)
assertion that “the medium is the message,” and heed Berger’s warning that pho-
tographs do not simply reveal an objective reality but can, in fact, serve to construct
it. The Yucatecan media use anthropological and archaeological discourse to legit-
imize their creation: the myth of the suicidal Maya. In so doing, these newspapers
not only perpetuate the survival of a stereotype about indigenous people; they also
create a spectacle that enables them to turn a profit on the personal suffering and
tragedy of Yucatán’s most vulnerable people.

Acknowledgments

Research funding for this project was provided by a Fulbright-Hays DDRA fel-
lowship and the University of Central Florida. I would like to thank J. Marla
Toyne and four anonymous reviewers whose insightful comments greatly im-
proved this article. Stanley Brandes, Nathaniel Dumas, and Deanna Barenboim
provided thoughtful commentaries on early versions of this work. Marcela Con-
treras, Gaspar Baquedano, Luis Bofil, and Jose Valladares greatly facilitated the
research that led to this publication.

Notes

1 In the Oxford Dictionary of Suicidology and Suicide Prevention, Baquedano (2009) uses psychoan-

alytic theory to argue that Yucatán’s presently elevated suicide rate may be the result of both a cultural
acceptance of the practice in precolonial times and the collective trauma of colonialism.
2 The most important mainstream newspaper in Yucatán is Diario de Yucatán. I have not included it

in this analysis because although it publishes a police section that occasionally features suicides, it rarely
(if ever) publishes photographs of suicides and generally focuses its attention on crime rather than
gore. In 2012, Diario’s parent group, Megamedia, began publishing Al Chile! This is a red journalism

Funereal Steps of Ixtab 271


tabloid, intended to compete directly with De Peso. Due to time constraints, I was unable to include
this newspaper in my analysis, although it certainly presents an opportunity for further research.
3 Both Berger and Monsiváis, by focusing on the objects of study—photographs in one case and

a journalistic genre in the other—could be criticized for assuming a unidirectionality in the message
transmitted. After all, a message-centered analysis may result in a lack of attention toward the audience.
A study of media reception requires a qualitatively different type of analysis, which would easily fill the
pages of another full-length article.
4 A local Spanish slang term, roughly meaning “lover girl.”
5 I became aware of Marina Lara’s death through acquaintances who knew her and the manner of

her death. One of them was the physician who attended the scene when her body was discovered.
6 Abad Cardeña and Lara’s deaths both point to the unspoken yet undeniable importance of social

class reflected by newspaper discourses. Just as Bofil characterizes De Peso in terms of social class—as a
paper for the jodidos—so do these markers of class appear in these stories. As in much of Latin America,
race and class are intimately intertwined, although class is spoken of much more overtly than race or
ethnicity. For further exploration, see Reyes-Foster 2012.
7 All translations from Spanish to English are my own.
8 See, for instance, the “‘Weyanone’: Aquı́ Estamos” campaign of 2004–2006, which emphasized the

“many faces” of Maya people. This INDEMAYA program was dismantled when the state governorship
shifted from PAN to PRI affiliation. A Google search on February 8, 2012, revealed that the Weyanone
website domain name had expired and all state-produced images and videos of the campaign had
disappeared from the Internet.
9 Gaspar Baquedano (2009) does discuss the legend of Xtabay as it pertains to Ix Tab. His analysis

presents a psychoanalytic perspective, which suggests that Xtabay represents the colonial subjugation
of Maya worldviews. Baquedano does not present ethnographic evidence that interlocutors on the
ground articulated this particular viewpoint, but further research is warranted.
10 This begs the question: if Mayas are being portrayed as suicidal in the papers, why do Mayas

keep buying them? This is also a question in need of further research.

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