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Less Than Zero: Modern Maya Know Why Trump's Refugee Limit Makes No Sense

SUBLIME CIVILIZATION: The ancient Maya king Pakal the Great


We’re locked in yet another Trump-era moment that forces us to ponder the Ugly American.

Right now it’s President Trump’s alleged efforts to bully countries like Ukraine into dishing dirt on his political rivals. Last year it was his Oval Office whining about immigrants from what he called “sh—hole” countries.

But this week an obituary reminded me there was a time when Americans recognized, even celebrated the dignity of people from those countries.

READ MORE: Guatemalan Girl Power: A Maya Baby Makes It to South Florida - and Life-Giving Surgery

On Monday, news broke that U.S. archaeologist Michael Coe died. Coe opened the world's eyes to what a gloriously advanced civilization the ancient Maya were. He was the real-life Indiana Jones whose excavations and research in Mexico and Central America left no doubt the Maya were the Greeks of the New World.

In books like “Breaking the Maya Code,” Coe conveyed the sublime astronomy, architecture, literature and mathematics they developed. Thanks to scholars like him, American teachers like Jaime Escalante – the calculus wizard of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver” – can tell their Latino students: “Did you know that neither the Greeks nor the Romans were capable of using the concept of zero? It was your ancestors, the Maya, who first contemplated it.”

The Maya were the first to use the mathematical concept of zero – which, tragically, is the number of refugees President Trump wants to welcome to America.

That itself is something Americans should contemplate as they absorb the news that the Trump Administration is slashing the number of refugees the U.S. will accept – including the descendants of the Maya, be they from southern Mexico, northern Guatemala or central Honduras. Three years ago the U.S. took in 85,000 refugees from around the world; next year it will admit only 18,000.

That represents a de facto closure of America’s doors to people escaping war, famine or genocide. No country, of course, can take in every refugee that knocks on its door. But when a country is as large and wealthy and immigrant-oriented as the U.S. is, a spitefully xenophobic policy like this wreaks of Ugly American.

It also evokes the Dumb American. It cluelessly assumes that because the places these refugees are fleeing are troubled, the refugees themselves are bringing that trouble here. Nothing could be further from the truth – and the work of people like Coe can be a helpful window into why.


Today’s Maya are best known as the Mesoamerican migrants at the U.S. border, fleeing narco-gang rule in their neighborhoods and climate change-induced starvation in their fields. Contrary to the demonization Trump has heaped on them, the Central Americans who’ve settled in the U.S. are more of a social and economic asset than a liability. They’ve filled necessary low-wage jobs most Americans won’t take, and they’ve even helped revive some small rural towns.

A big part of the reason they flourish in the U.S., according to what they so often tell journalists like me, is that here they can live the pride they take in their ancestry – and the industrious, law-abiding values they take from it. The modern Maya don’t need Coe to tell them what a magnificent past they possess; they just need to free themselves from the awful circumstances, especially the corrupt governments, that blight their present.

Credit Estate of Michael Coe
ARCHAEOLOGICAL ANTI-TRUMP: Michael Coe with an Olmec statue in Mexico.

The same goes for Haitians who come to the U.S. – so many of whom Trump wants to strip of Temporary Protected Status and deport back to Haiti. They too bear a heroic DNA: history isn’t exactly full of successful slave revolts that built full-fledged republics, as Haiti’s founders did in 1804. It courses through Haitian expats here like Palm Beach County’s mayor, Mack Bernard, who escaped the brutal Duvalier dictatorship as a boy.

Ditto the Muslim refugees fleeing apocalypses like Syria’s civil war. Trump has worked especially hard to shut them out. Still, their Arab forebears were inventing algebra when Europeans were fleeing Vikings. That legacy has helped make Muslims among America’s most successful immigrant groups – especially here in South Florida, where they represent some of the strongest tech talent.

Or put it this way: there’s no difference between the modern Maya, Haitians or Arabs and the immigrant dad in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” His American success is fueled in large part by an ebullient reverence for his ancient Hellenic roots. “Give me any word,” he likes to say, “and I’ll tell you its Greek origin.”

The contemporary Greeks of the New World could make the same boast with, say, mathematics. Like the concept of zero. Which, tragically, is the number of refugees Trump wants to welcome to America.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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