Over the weekend, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador took to Twitter to share — seemingly in earnest — a fantastical image of a mythological Mayan creature hiding in a tree, which the president claimed had been captured just a few days prior by an engineer working on a tourism pet project.
The "Mayan train project," an extensive intercity railway currently under construction in the Yucatán Peninsula, is nothing short of controversial. While the Obrador-pushed infrastructure initiative has been touted as a means of boosting economic growth, preserving "natural areas, ecosystems and the environment," and "promoting tourism and safeguarding local indigenous cultures," the reality is that activists, locals, and scientists alike have slammed the build as a hastily-approved environmental disaster.
"There will be more jobs for us guides," Miguel Ángel Díaz, a tourist guide in the area, told ABC News just a few weeks ago. "But it’s going to be a heavy blow to nature."
But it seems that Obrador would rather people pay attention to an almost-certainly-fictional creature. The photo was "taken three days ago by an engineer, it appears to be an aluxe," the Mexican leader captioned the photo, adding a whimsical: "everything is mystical."
If an aluxe — a legendary sprite-like being from Mayan mythology said to spread luck, or if spurned chaos and illness — really was captured chilling by the build, it would be very cool. Just one problem: netizens were quick to call out the fact that the very same photo, which according to The New York Times doesn't have any embedded metadata, has existed on the internet since at least 2021.
In a word: yikes.
The whole thing is bizarre, and while no one besides Obrador himself can confirm what his intent here really was, there is more important context beyond just the train at play. As The Washington Post reports, tens of thousands of Mexican citizens took to the streets over the weekend to protest an Obrador-approved bill that would dismantle the North American nation's national electoral institute, described by WaPo as a "pillar of Mexico's young democracy."
"If you throw a dead cat on the table, everyone's going to be talking about the dead cat on the table, right?" Northeastern University London professor of politics and international relations Pablo Calderón Martínez, who believes that Obrador was actually trying to draw attention away from the protests, told WaPo. "So that's what he does. He starts talking about the aluxe, the mystical elf in the forest."
Look, passing down mythologies is an important and necessary means of both celebrating and preserving indigenous histories; there is a chance, if slight, that doing so was Obrador's only intention, though with some MSN-level media literacy errors. But considering the many social and political controversies at play in the background, here, assuming that he didn't have any other motives feels fairly naive.
He's "quite a savvy political player," Benjamin Smith, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick in Britain, told WaPo. "I suppose you could see it as a clever way to show that the Mayan Train is in some way approved of... by the Mayan gods or something."
More on the Yucatán: Early Mayan Civilization Was Far More Advanced than We Thought, Scientists Say