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Mexicolore contributor Jim Reed

Maya Spirituality

We are hugely grateful to Jim Reed, Independent Maya Researcher, Board Member of The Institute of Maya Studies, and The Maya Conservancy, for this enlightening and personal introduction - and invitation - to (explore) the world of Maya spirituality, and in so doing to learn a little more about yourself...

PART 1: On the road to find out…

Pic 1: The flames ignite the participant’s offerings in the Wajshakib’ B’atz ritual celebrating the beginning of a new sacred Tzolk’in 260-day calendar cycle (the Maya New Year) in Mosmostenango, Highlands of Guatemala
Pic 1: The flames ignite the participant’s offerings in the Wajshakib’ B’atz ritual celebrating the beginning of a new sacred Tzolk’in 260-day calendar cycle (the Maya New Year) in Mosmostenango, Highlands of Guatemala (Click on image to enlarge)

“You know, the most important part of a ceremony is the love in your heart. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t make any difference what rituals you do. If you have that love, all the rituals will work, no matter how you perform them.” - Miguel Angel Vergara (Maya wisdom keeper, book author, teacher)

“Living life has shown me the awesome power of cooperation and communication. These skills not only made our human ancestors formidable survivors, they became the very building blocks of language and civilization, giving birth to religious experience, art, music, and dance.
“It took millions of years of programming to make you… you, and scientists and researchers are now realizing that the key to understanding ourselves and our future, lies in decoding what we inherited from our prehistoric past.”
- Josh Gates (Expedition Unknown; planetary adventurist)

The ancient knowledge about You survives!
As you explore the world of Maya Spirituality, this journey will be an opportunity to not only learn about the lives and customs of the ancient and modern Maya, but to learn about yourself. You will see yourself in a new light, connected to the wider world around you, connected to all that exists, connected to the “source”.

Pic 2: Author Jim Reed feels “at home” among his Spiritual Elder friends in the K’iche’ Maya town of Momostenango in the Highlands of Guatemala
Pic 2: Author Jim Reed feels “at home” among his Spiritual Elder friends in the K’iche’ Maya town of Momostenango in the Highlands of Guatemala (Click on image to enlarge)

As the famous Lebanese prophet Kahil Gibran noted: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here.” Gibran strongly believed in the power of generosity and in taking the best out of every experience, good or bad.

The Maya and My Spirituality
I do not attempt to make the following a dry and mundane account of just another interesting topic. As I have been accumulating the information that I envisioned myself to be sharing about Maya Spirituality, it has morphed into a realization of the importance of the many life events that have shaped my current existence, and, most importantly to me, that others could learn from my experiences. I have a unique point of view concerning Maya Spirituality, because I have lived it, and continue to be involved with it. Many scholars, professors, and authors have shared their knowledge derived from their peer-reviewed academics as well as “on-line” sources of the subject, but, I doubt that there is any one of them who has actually experienced some of the different aspects of Maya Spirituality that I have. I believe that I relate to the world around me as being “spiritual”, not “religious” in nature. Like the Maya, I conceive of the world around me as a multi-vibrational, multi-dimensional cosmic whole. It all has meaning and was meant to be. In the following, I intend to weave a tapestry of words, images, and mental images to offer a glimpse into Maya Spirituality, both ancient and modern, entwined together with my own experiences, my own learning, my own insights, my own teachings.

Pic 3: Maya Cosmogram - I created this to show many of the important aspects of Maya cosmology. The Hero Twins, the main protagonists in the ‘Popol Vuh’ (the Maya Creation Story), ignite a sacred fire at the base of the Sacred Tree of Life
Pic 3: Maya Cosmogram - I created this to show many of the important aspects of Maya cosmology. The Hero Twins, the main protagonists in the ‘Popol Vuh’ (the Maya Creation Story), ignite a sacred fire at the base of the Sacred Tree of Life (Click on image to enlarge)

I consider myself an independent researcher into all things Maya, past and present. For a K’atun now, (about 20 years), I have been the editor of the monthly newsletter of the Institute of Maya Studies, the IMS Explorer, based in South Florida, USA. I am in contact with and share the views, comments, research, and publications of notable Maya scholars (known as “Mayanists”), archaeologists, and book writers. Towards the end of the previous century, I lived in Belize for 1-1/2 years, and in Guatemala for 5-1/2 years. For 18 years, I led group adventures to the Mayalands, to visit the ancient sites, to climb the pyramids, to enter the caves, to dine on the local cuisine, and to interact with the Maya people that we encountered along the way. In this millennium, my experiences evolved into being a participant in many important Maya ceremonies and rituals, as well as being sanctified by a Maya Spiritual Elder in a ritual so that I could perform ceremony on behalf of the Maya.
I believe it all began for me back when I was still in High School. When I was about 15, I started reading “un-school-like” books about subjects that I was interested in, like yoga, meditation, astral traveling, reincarnation, and personal empowerment. I was particularly interested in a series of books written by English writer Tuesday Lobsang Rampa. His popular “You Forever” (1965) was a book of instruction for those trying to develop special powers, with subjects such as astral projection, telepathy, the aura, and clairvoyance. Lobsang notes: “You must do your part. Anything that is worth having is worth working for. Things that are given away, free, are usually so given because they are not worth charging for. You must open your mind; you must be willing to absorb new knowledge. You must ‘imagine’ that knowledge is flowing into you”.
I also enjoyed the books of Hermann Hesse, especially “Siddhartha”, which explores an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge, and spirituality. “If your compassion does not include you, it is incomplete”. “I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and still am, but I no longer seek in the stars and books; I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my blood pulsing within me”. “Keenly aware… cast your own net… seek a deeper truth than what is mundanely available. I became a watcher, a seer, a doer… and eventually, a knower.”

Pic 4: George Harrison, during what looks like his 30th birthday celebration, includes a photo of his most influential spiritual guide
Pic 4: George Harrison, during what looks like his 30th birthday celebration, includes a photo of his most influential spiritual guide (Click on image to enlarge)

At 18, before I graduated from school, I was teaching Hatha Yoga at the local ashram in Deerfield Beach, Florida. A little known fact is that one of England’s Fab Four, your own George Harrison, had a grandmother who lived in Deerfield Beach. Every once in awhile, a small notice in the local paper would appear to note that George had been spotted again, walking along the beach at 2 am! I heard that a guru from India would be speaking at the ashram. I went to see him, but he spoke for only about 10 minutes, then asked everyone to get into the Lotus Pose, and that we would all meditate together. After about ten minutes of meditating, I heard what sounded like a door opening, so I opened just one eye to peak, and in walked George! So, I got to meditate with George sitting just 8 feet away, facing me, for two hours! A few months later, George released his song “My Sweet Lord”, and the name of the guru was chanted in the final chorus of the song.
George, aka the reluctant Beatle, was always curious about a few questions like “what is our purpose in life? Where did we come from? and, where do we go after we are done?” Trying to find answers to these questions, he was more and more spiritually inclined and in this process, he got introduced to the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda. It is considered as one of the most influential spiritual books ever written. It was first published in 1946 and it still sells heavily worldwide. The book greatly influenced my understanding of what it means, and all that it entails, to become spiritual. I read the book in my early twenties, and it still occupies a special place on my bookshelf.
George’s 1976 song Dear One, was dedicated to the guru. George’s spiritual inclination was quite evident from the Beatles song My Sweet Lord. During that process, the entire band made several trips to India and met several spiritual gurus. On the cover of one of the most popular albums of the Beatles, the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, the montage of individuals featured includes an image of Paramhansa Yogananda.

Pic 5: Artist’s conception of an astral traveling experience. During astral projection the astral body leaves the physical
Pic 5: Artist’s conception of an astral traveling experience. During astral projection the astral body leaves the physical (Click on image to enlarge)

Once, when I was 19, I had my first astral traveling experience. It didn’t happen for me until I had given up trying. I was lying on my back attempting to sleep, when I noticed my feet rising up. I felt a slight “click” in my navel area, and then I found myself floating above my body, looking down at my sleeping self! I floated out into the living room and attempted to move a chair so that I could prove to myself that what I was experiencing was real… but my hand kept just moving right through the wooden armrest. I was elated. But mostly, I proved to myself that I was really living in a multi-dimensional universe, and that there was no reason to fear death. I now know death to be just a transition from one state of being to another.
I also started to be able to “see” auras; the emanations of light surrounding the human body. I noticed this especially when I was in a classroom setting. Go ahead, try it. Don’t focus on looking at the teacher, but focus your perception beyond them. By “seeing through them”, if aware, you’ll be able to see an emanation of light surrounding their head and shoulders. Artists of the past painted these emanations around the religious figures in their paintings. It is more or less the same technique used by Maya curanderos and curanderas (healers) when they venture out to look for healing plants and herbs. The plants glow, and call out to them. What they need to help an ailing patient will just “appear”.

Pic 6: A quaint sign that welcomes visitors to San José Soccutz Village, depicts the Maya site of Xunantunich which is on the other side of the Mopan River (visible in the background)
Pic 6: A quaint sign that welcomes visitors to San José Soccutz Village, depicts the Maya site of Xunantunich which is on the other side of the Mopan River (visible in the background) (Click on image to enlarge)

Living among the Maya in Belize
When I was 21, I went to Belize (once known as British Honduras) with a couple of friends who had purchased land in the Cayo District, in the westernmost area of Belize that borders Guatemala, to open a yoga retreat. Their land was on a mountain ridge between the town of Benque Viejo, and San José Soccutz Village. We had a Maya family helping us to build a six-room thatched structure – at the time, the largest thatched building in Belize. We planned to have small thatched “cabins” up a trail to the mountaintop, where we could place the visitor’s meals at the front door, and they could self-isolate, and meditate while viewing a Maya pyramid that was perched upon a mountaintop across the Mopan river. That project only lasted for a year-and-a-half, until my friend’s funds ran dry, but that pyramid was where my Maya journey really began. And living on the land in Belize was an opportunity for me to get to know and interact with modern Maya people.

Pic 7: An authentic Maya “cayuko” canoe, hand-carved from a single tree trunk, usually from a sacred Ceiba tree, also known as the Kapok Tree
Pic 7: An authentic Maya “cayuko” canoe, hand-carved from a single tree trunk, usually from a sacred Ceiba tree, also known as the Kapok Tree (Click on image to enlarge)

I had a young Maya friend who lived with his family down by the river. He had his own dugout canoe, called a “cayuko”. On full moons, we would cross the river and make our own trail up to the top of the tallest pyramid with machetes. The pyramid (named El Castillo, “the Castle”) is the largest structure at the Maya site of Xunantunich; the second tallest in Belize at some 40 m (130 feet) tall.
Seeing the beautiful crystal-clear canopy of stars above, and sleeping atop the castle under the glow of a full moon, was where I first fell in love with the Maya realm, and the “Maya mystique” took hold of me.

Pic 8: If you don’t have a cayuko, a picturesque hand-operated ferry built in the 1950s, can take you (and your vehicle) across the Mopan River
Pic 8: If you don’t have a cayuko, a picturesque hand-operated ferry built in the 1950s, can take you (and your vehicle) across the Mopan River (Click on image to enlarge)

Thomas Gann chose the Cayo District area to settle in because he had an interest in Maya archaeology, and he wished to be able to explore the (at the time) unknown wonders of the indigenous people. Gann moved from Britain and served as the district surgeon and district commissioner of the Cayo District, British Honduras, starting in 1892. Gann’s successor, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson, implemented a more methodical approach, and was able to establish the region’s first ceramic chronology.

Pic 9: “El Castillo” pyramid at Xunantunich. The first modern explorations of the site were conducted by Thomas Gann in the mid-1890s
Pic 9: “El Castillo” pyramid at Xunantunich. The first modern explorations of the site were conducted by Thomas Gann in the mid-1890s (Click on image to enlarge)

Turns out that I was following in the footsteps of one of Britain’s great explorers, as I, too, wanted to explore the unknown wonders of the Maya. My search has evolved into a life-long passion.
While in Belize, I had two encounters with an old Maya woman who was the local “curandera” – the village healer and midwife. Once, a poor single mother was living in a shack down by the river at the lower end of our property. Chayito was a friend, and I would pass by to talk with her; she liked to laugh. She had a small child and a baby, and called upon the curandera when the baby had a strong fever. The old woman burned copal incense, brushed the baby all over with fresh herbs, and sang songs that were petitions to the Maya gods. She then asked the mother for a chicken egg. She broke the egg and placed everything but the shell under the baby’s head. The baby sleep deeply, and in the morning the fever had abated and the egg was cooked!

Pic 10: Remarkably well-preserved friezes that represent Maya deities, the “tree of life’, and astronomical symbols, adorn the eastern and western sides of El Castillo
Pic 10: Remarkably well-preserved friezes that represent Maya deities, the “tree of life’, and astronomical symbols, adorn the eastern and western sides of El Castillo (Click on image to enlarge)

When we lived in Belize, our land was up on a mountain ridge between two towns, along the Mopan River. Besides the Maya family helping us to build the yoga lodge, the father and his three sons also taught us the traditional “slash and burn” method of agriculture – to grow our own corn, beans, and squash. We would get up early, at dawn, with the awakening chorus of insects as our natural alarm clock. We’d sweat and toil for about four hours, until the heat was intolerable (at least for us gringos!). Then we’d make a lunch, and head down to the river to relax and bathe for a couple hours.

Pic 11: The Maya site of Caracol (Spanish for “snail”) is the largest Maya city in Belize and is home to the biggest man-made structure in the country
Pic 11: The Maya site of Caracol (Spanish for “snail”) is the largest Maya city in Belize and is home to the biggest man-made structure in the country (Click on image to enlarge)

Over a period of a week or more, I noticed a strange sensation deep inside a single spot on my upper shoulder, where a large pussy lump was also forming. I mentioned that to Chayito, and she notified the curandera. A few days later, the old woman appeared, and she asked me to take my shirt off and sit in a chair. She burned some copal incense and brushed herbs across my shoulder. She asked if I smoked cigarettes and I replied in the affirmative. She then asked for what you might refer to as a fag, and I handed her one that I had in my top pocket. She removed a small quantity of tobacco, spat on it, and attached it onto the lump with a band-aid. She said some words in Mayan, and told me to go and sleep on it.

Pic 12: In this shaded spot along the Mopan River, we would eat, bathe, swim, tube, (and do our laundry!). I also caught little minnows (anchovies) in a submerged wine bottle in which I placed some tortilla dough
Pic 12: In this shaded spot along the Mopan River, we would eat, bathe, swim, tube, (and do our laundry!). I also caught little minnows (anchovies) in a submerged wine bottle in which I placed some tortilla dough (Click on image to enlarge)

I had the misfortune of enduring the experience of having a Botfly larva munching on my inner tissue. Word is that down by the river, a Botfly had attacked a mosquito, and laid some of its eggs on the legs of the mosquito. When the mosquito bit me and tasted my blood, eggs were absorbed down into the bite. But with the help of the curandera, in the morning, I was able to easily squeeze out the inch-long critter. Overnight, the nicotine had killed the larva; the wound soon healed… and I was cured.

Pic 13: FUN FACT: That creature named the Mosquito: In this illustration from a Late Classic Maya vase, the mosquito wears its weapon on the front of its headdress and dribbles blood from its underside
Pic 13: FUN FACT: That creature named the Mosquito: In this illustration from a Late Classic Maya vase, the mosquito wears its weapon on the front of its headdress and dribbles blood from its underside (Click on image to enlarge)

These experiences opened my eyes to the secret world of the Maya. To me, the work of the curandera was spiritual in nature. I started investigating Maya shamanism. And luckily, or was it fate (?), there was an American woman who had been trained by a local Maya power man living nearby. She had some property on the Macaw River in the same Cayo District – just 14 kilometres from our place. I made it my mission to seek her out. And over the decades, Rosita Arvigo and I have become good friends; I consider her to be one of my mentors.
The quest for the treasure of the Belize rainforest was Rosita’s magnificent obsession. She believed that if she could locate and study with a natural healer trained in the old ways, she could begin to unlock the knowledge that would help people the world over regain their health. Like most great adventures, that was easier said than done, and often takes half a lifetime.

Pic 14: Rosita and Don Elijio searching for medicinal plants. Panti passed onto the white road to Xibalba in 1996, at the age of 101
Pic 14: Rosita and Don Elijio searching for medicinal plants. Panti passed onto the white road to Xibalba in 1996, at the age of 101 (Click on image to enlarge)

Rosita’s healing career began in the USA where she became a Doctor of Naprapathy; this is a science of bodywork similar to chiropractic manipulation. In the 1970s, she went to Mexico and studied with traditional healers. In 1981, she went to Belize to search for a “h’men” (one who knows). The h’men is a doctor-priest/priestess who has the ability to heal in both the physical and spiritual realms. After some time of not finding a healing mentor, she was almost ready to leave when she met Don Elijio Panti, believed to be the last survivor of the great h’men trained in the ancient knowledge.
During her 13-year apprenticeship with Don Elijio, Dr. Arvigo learned the ancient Maya system of healing that employs medicinal plants, massage, acupuncture, herbal and sweat baths, and prayers to effect cures on a wide range of maladies. She opened a facility on her property to share her knowledge named the IxChel Tropical Research Centre. She maintains the Panti Maya Medicine Trail, which I have strolled along on numerous occasions, that exhibits many of the healing and curative plants and herbs of the Belize rainforest.

Pic 15: The North Acropolis at Tikal, featuring Temple 1. A well-attended Maya ceremony is taking place in the plaza… they’re burning lots of copal incense and spiritual offerings
Pic 15: The North Acropolis at Tikal, featuring Temple 1. A well-attended Maya ceremony is taking place in the plaza… they’re burning lots of copal incense and spiritual offerings (Click on image to enlarge)

Appropriately, at the start of the trail, grew a giant Ceiba tree – the sacred world tree of the Maya, believed to be “Yax Che,” or the first tree on earth. The Maya believe that its roots reach through the centre of the Universe into the nine levels of the Underworld, its trunk into the thirteen levels of the Upperworld, and its branches into Heaven. At its crown sits “Hunab-K’u,” the creator, contemplating his world.
Rosita stated that Don Elijio studied under Maya curanderos in the jungles of Guatemala and Belize when he was a chiclero collecting sapodilla tree resin (chicle, the base for chewing gum) for companies such as Wrigley. He received international recognition for his vast body of knowledge and service to humanity with awards such as “Distinguished Contribution to Science” (The New York Botanical Gardens), and was made a Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Pic 16: Don Elijio’s mention in The London Gazette, 16th June 1995
Pic 16: Don Elijio’s mention in The London Gazette, 16th June 1995 (Click on image to enlarge)

Rosita, ethnobotanist and spiritual healer, is the author of six books on traditional healing in Mesoamerica. On my bookshelf is a copy of Sastun, her biography of Don Eligio. I learned that a “sastun” (sas-toon) is a divination tool cherished by the h’men, and the name means “Stone of Light.” Through this stone a shaman communes with the spirit world of the Maya to divine things that are hidden, not unlike the Old Testament Hebrew prophets who used the Urim and Thummim, meaning “Lights and Perfection” as seer stones to divine the will of their God (Exodus 28:30).
Rosita writes, “It is folly to ignore the sacred in life or medicine. Skirting the spiritual has had a shattering effect on every dimension of contemporary existence”.
While in Belize, my friends and I lived just 2 kilometres from the Guatemalan border. On occasion, we would pass through the border to drive just 50 kilometres to the grand Maya site of Tikal. At that time the road was still unpaved, and clouds of dust would rise up behind us. The dirt road was known as “Bandito Highway”, as there were rumors that one could be stopped by some not-so-nice opportunists. But, we always had good luck on our adventures in and out of the jungle. We stayed at Tikal, not in hotels, but in hammocks, hanging from the trees in the camping area, once again under a canopy of beautiful stars.

Pic 17: Temple 1, Tikal, viewed across the main plaza from Temple II
Pic 17: Temple 1, Tikal, viewed across the main plaza from Temple II (Click on image to enlarge)

On one occasion, we entered the site together, but when we entered the great plaza of the North Acropolis, we spilt up. My friends wanted to venture off to explore the pyramids in an area known as “Mundo Perdido” (Lost World). I decide to climb Temple 1 and meditate in the room high above. Within the large doorway at the top of Temple 1, there are three successive rooms. I sat in the Lotus position, with my back propped up against the inner back wall. I began meditating and “om-ing”; my oms in just my normal volume voice. I was lost in my own Mundo Perdido.
Later in the day, when we regrouped for lunch, my friends asked me if I had climbed Temple 1. They asked if I was om-ing up there. I replied in the affirmative and pondered, “why do you ask?” They replied that they could hear me, and the sound of my oms was loud and carried all across the great plaza! I had discovered the amazing sound acoustics that the ancient Maya had built into many structures across the Mayalands. It would take scholars and researchers decades to suggest what I had witnessed on my own. Certainly a memorable spiritual experience for me!

Pic 18: Map of British territory in the Yucatan from 1840 that features the Belize of that time. (From the Berghaus Physikalischer Atlas)
Pic 18: Map of British territory in the Yucatan from 1840 that features the Belize of that time. (From the Berghaus Physikalischer Atlas) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Belizean–Guatemalan Territorial Dispute
As an aside for you History buffs, I’d like to share some little known facts that I gleaned from contributors to online resources and enhanced with my own experiences. The Belizean–Guatemalan territorial dispute is an unresolved territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala, neighbours in Central America. The territory of Belize has been claimed in whole or in part by Guatemala since 1821.
The present dispute originates with imperial Spain’s claim to all New World territories west of the line established in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. England, like other powers of the late 15th century, did not recognize the treaty that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. After indigenous Maya tribes had massacred Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in Tipu and surrounding areas, shipwrecked English seamen, then English and Scottish Baymen, settled by 1638, making their presence permanent by 1779, with a short military alliance with Amerindians from the Mosquito Coast south of Belize, and often welcoming former British privateers.
Tipu is a Maya archaeological site in the Maya Mountains near the Belize–Guatemala border. This site is situated near the Macal River. Further downstream is located the Maya site of Chaa Creek, and as another tie-in, Rosita Arvigo’s land backs up to Chaa Creek!

Pic 19: Benque Viejo in the 19th century
Pic 19: Benque Viejo in the 19th century (Click on image to enlarge)

Guatemala declared its independence from Spain in 1821, and Great Britain did not accept the Baymen of what is now Belize as a crown colony until 1862, 64 years after the Baymen’s last hostilities with Spain. This crown colony became known as “British Honduras”. A series of meetings, begun in 1969, ended abruptly in 1972 when Britain, in response to intelligence suggesting an imminent Guatemalan invasion, announced it was sending an aircraft carrier and 8,000 troops to Belize to conduct amphibious exercises. Guatemala then massed troops on the border. Talks resumed in 1973, but broke off in 1975 as tensions flared when a Guatemalan tank entered the plaza of Xunantunich! Guatemala began massing troops on the border, and Britain responded by deploying troops, along with a battery of 105mm field guns, anti-aircraft missile units, six fighter jets, and a frigate. Following this deployment, tensions were defused, largely as a result of many Guatemalan soldiers deserting and returning to their homes. At the time, Britain continued to protect Belize from Guatemala, with a force consisting of an army battalion and No. 1417 Flight RAF of Harrier fighter jets.
Here is where I enter the picture, as I was living near the border in 1975. I personally witnessed British troops digging their “fox-holes” along the flat, sandy areas along the Mopan river below the town of Benque Viejo. Their rifles were pointed upstream, towards Guatemala. On more than one occasion, I saw Harrier jets fly overhead (with their load of bombs tucked neatly under their wings).

As with most of Belize, history shows that the Maya have been occupying Benque Viejo for more than 2,000 years. After the Maya, in the early 17th century, British settlers arrived in the country attracted to the abundance of hard woods in Belize’s dense rainforests. British loggers settled in the area near the banks of the Mopan River to cut the valuable logwood. As the demand for logwood decreased, the British set their eyes on the next prized hard wood – mahogany. The logs were floated downstream the rivers to Belize City where they were gathered and exported to England for the construction of exquisite train carriages and fine furniture. By 1878, Benque Viejo is described as “an Indian Village” like this photo (pic 19) from the town’s archives, but it was not until 1904 that Benque Viejo was officially recognized as a town by the colonial government.

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This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 17th 2020

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