By Erika Webb
It really should be a prerequisite for college professors to be captivating -- like Bob Sitler.
He doesn't need to be introduced as professor, doctor, director or author -- even though he's all of those.
That's because he is extremely -- squared -- humble and unaffected. It's a way of life for him, a way of being and there is proof it transfers to his students.
But for the sake of correct reporting, Robert Sitler, Ph.D., professor of modern languages, chair of Stetson's Latin American Studies and chair of Stetson's Values Council, is the recipient of this year's Hand Community Impact Award.
"(It) celebrates the achievements of faculty serving the needs of the community -- the Stetson community as well as the community beyond campus," according to Stetson Today.
Dr. Sitler will say he teaches Spanish.
What he doesn't say is he bridges gaps, teaching students to embrace other cultures. It's safe to say he enchants them into it.
When Dr. Sitler describes traveling with his father through Europe and Spain -- not at the Madrid Hilton, but camping -- the listener visualizes a young boy mesmerized by distant lands, maybe looking at a theater of stars from a sleeping bag, imagination on fire.
But in his uncomplicated manner, Dr. Sitler summed it up this way: "I have a very good fortune in terms of travel."
Later on, as a teenager, he was embraced by Mexico. He's been going back to the Yucatan Peninsula on a yearly basis for decades.
"I got very comfortable with other languages, especially Spanish," Dr. Sitler said. "I fell in love with Mexico, particularly the native people, in my late teens. It's been a huge part of my life."
In the mid-1970s, he visited the Ch'ol villagers in the rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico. It was there he began a lifelong quest to delve into the ancient, and present, world of the Maya.
Dr. Sitler completed a doctorate in Hispanic Literatures at the University of Texas-Austin in 1994 with a dissertation on Maya-related Criollo fiction. He has embarked on numerous immersion experiences with his family among Maya from a dozen language groups in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, according to Stetson's website.
He said the most intriguing aspect of Mexico early on for him was the way people raised their children and the favorable results they achieved.
"There is extreme nurturing in infancy," Dr. Sitler said. "They don't use bottles; all babies are nursed and they're carried wherever they go. They don't sleep in separate rooms; they sleep with their parents."
"Babies are virtual appendages of their mothers for the first two years of life," he added.
Members of our modern society might frown upon these practices, thinking that such would make children too dependent.
"It actually makes them very independent," Dr. Sitler said. "They are very self-assured."
He explained other cultures have moved away from natural ways of doing things.
"The aberrant is what we're doing now -- the way we raise children, the food we eat, the way we live our lives. We have lost a respect and understanding of our animal heritage," he said.
He's not referring to howling at the moon. He means our inherent connection to the earth.
The much talked about disappearance of Mayan civilization has been mythologized, or at least blown out of proportion.
"It's a big misunderstanding that Mayan society disappeared," Dr. Sitler said. "In the classic period, Mayan civilization was widespread. Urban societies fell apart in many ways, not all of them ... I would say there are more Maya living today than there ever have been, mostly in Guatemala."
He said the rumored-to-have-vanished actually were "victims of their own success."
"Like we're dependent on petroleum, they were dependent on wood resources," Dr. Sitler said. "They took down the forest which caused a prolonged period of drought -- around the same time we see these cities collapsing."
At its core, he said, it ended up being an environmental crisis, "because they cut down so much of the forest."
At that time, wood was used for just about everything.
"They used it to make mortar, lime and stucco for buildings," Dr. Sitler said. "They used it for saunas where they bathed, what we would think of as sweat lodges today."
In his book, "The Living Maya," Dr. Sitler explored the people, their history and customs, spiritual beliefs and the parallels of their past to our own imperiled society and planet.
"Maya people are very diverse people. They speak 30 different language groups," Dr. Sitler said. "Even within those groups they have different cultures."
There are only 7 or 8 million people willing to call themselves Maya, he added.
"If you're an indigenous person, you're the victim of extreme racism," he explained.
In his book, he also interpreted the 2012, end-of-the-world hoopla in a sensible, informative manner, steering away from drama more toward truth.
"As Mayan friends familiar with 2012 have reminded me, the coming shift of 13 Pik affords humanity an opportunity for reflection and a chance to change direction on humanity's journey," Dr. Sitler wrote. "We can and must transform ourselves and our societies; and the ideals of Mayan culture provide an experientially proven framework for beginning this radical renovation. The invaluable lessons from the living Maya are not esoteric messages from the stars or complex prophecies hidden in hieroglyphic texts that we must struggle to interpret. On the contrary, they are gems of wisdom drawn from thousands of years of human experience."
Spiritually, there are many things he admires about the Maya, Dr. Sitler said.
"They see the entire world as divine; there is no non-God," he said. "In the Maya world everyone's orientation is humility. They accept everything, what the day brings with its tragedies and everything. These people have plenty they could complain about. Strangely, they don't."
As for his students, Dr. Sitler said he shares himself openly with them.
"I have a genuine affection for them," he said. "I love the students. I love Spanish. So it's a good combination. My whole interaction with the Maya world has been in Spanish, so I tell them Spanish has opened new worlds for me."
At Stetson's recent commencement ceremony, where the recipients were awarded, Provost Beth Paul reasoned why each was recognized.
She said Dr. Sitler's work on behalf of environmental initiatives and his commitment to the Latin American community both here and beyond, is an "orchestra of outreach, cultural understanding, and development that draws town, gown and others together."
"Bob's commitment to both is immersive and comprehensive: his impact on the community has been profound," Provost Paul said.