Haviland is one of those people who glow with presence, a combination of confidence and fierce intelligence mixed with vitality and the swift grace of the very tall. He inhabits himself fully. It's not hard to imagine him as a 19-year-old, walking into a small Mayan Indian town without knowing either Tzotzil, their language, or even very much Spanish, with the intention of studying the traditional music of the Zinacantec people. It's not hard, either, to see how that grew into a lifetime commitment to Tzotzil, to the Zinacantecs, and to Mexican anthropology.
Haviland's first trip to Chiapas in 1966 as a Harvard senior majoring in philosophy was sponsored by the Harvard Chiapas Project. The Harvard project became infamous in Mexico, said Haviland, because "it came in completely from the outside and had very little contact with any kind of established Mexican anthropological academic institutions and brought students in from the outside who did their work and then went away." This effect of this kind of "academic imperialism," which does nothing for those who live in the country under study, is part of the reason why Haviland and his wife, linguist Lourdes de León, now feel an obligation to contribute actively to research in Mexico on language and culture.
During that first trip a Harvard field leader in Chiapas introduced Haviland to a village elder, one of the community's important musicians. "The field leader took me to the house of this musician, in this village of about 500 people," said Haviland. "It was deliberately late in the afternoon; he figured if this guy agreed to let me stay, then I would be dropped right off and it would be a trial by fire. The field leader walked in and said, `Here's this guy. He's an American student. He wants to learn to play music, and he's willing to pay you a little bit of money for the food he eats, and he's going to stay here with you if you let him.' And the guy hemmed and hawed and finally said yes. So they left me."
Haviland stayed with him for a time, then moved in with another senior musician. He ended up spending much of his time with these older men who held high-level ritual positions. The senior musician taught Haviland to play the Indian violin, harp, and guitar. That summer of 1966 he earned both his Zinacantán nickname, Xun Jvabajom-John the Musician-and his identity as a trusted person who was often seen in the company of these religious leaders. Haviland proved himself in his participation in the village's rituals, which went on "every weekend for all of Saturday night and most of Sunday morning. They were long, long exercises in stamina. My being there was good for the musicians: they would take a little snooze and pass John the Musician the harp or the guitar."