Back to top

The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town

The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town
Revised Edition
Foreword by Davíd Carrasco

This classic study of cultural continuity and change in an indigenous Guatemalan community is now updated to reveal how the forces of globalization are shredding the very fabric of communal and religious life.

April 2011
Add to cart
249 pages | 6 x 9.25 | 21 b&w photos, 3 line drawings, 5 maps, 8 charts/graphs |

This compelling ethnography explores the issue of cultural continuity and change as it has unfolded in the representative Guatemala Mayan town Santiago Atitlán. Drawing on multiple sources, Robert S. Carlsen argues that local Mayan culture survived the Spanish Conquest remarkably intact and continued to play a defining role for much of the following five centuries. He also shows how the twentieth-century consolidation of the Guatemalan state steadily eroded the capacity of the local Mayas to adapt to change and ultimately caused some factions to reject—even demonize—their own history and culture. At the same time, he explains how, after a decade of military occupation known as la violencia, Santiago Atitlán stood up in unity to the Guatemalan Army in 1990 and forced it to leave town.

This new edition looks at how Santiago Atitlán has fared since the expulsion of the army. Carlsen explains that, initially, there was hope that the renewed unity that had served the town so well would continue. He argues that such hopes have been undermined by multiple sources, often with bizarre outcomes. Among the factors he examines are the impact of transnational crime, particularly gangs with ties to Los Angeles; the rise of vigilantism and its relation to renewed religious factionalism; the related brutal murders of followers of the traditional Mayan religion; and the apocalyptic fervor underlying these events.

  • Foreword: Complex Performance in Santiago Atitlán (by Davíd Carrasco)
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One. Establishing Place and Imagining Community
    • 1. What in the World Is Going On in Santiago Atitlán?
    • 2. The Atiteco Mayas at the End of the Twentieth Century
    • 3. The Flowering of the Dead (Coauthored with Martín Prechtel)
  • Part Two. History, Peripherality, and Social Pluralism
    • 4. Conquest and Adaptation in Santiago Atitlán
    • 5. On Enlightenment, Liberalism, and Ladinos
  • Part Three. Death of Community, Resurrection of Autonomy
    • 6. Under the Gun in Santiago Atitlán
    • 7. When Immortals Die
    • 8. Season of the Witch: The New Millennium in Santiago Atitlán
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Robert S. Carlsen recently retired from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, where he taught for twenty years, and is now an independent researcher. He conducted twenty-five years of field research in Atitlán, where he learned Tz'utujil, was accepted in a local cofradía (Mayan/Catholic religious society), and was a firsthand witness to la violencia.


On October 2, 2005, as the remnants of Hurricane Stan reached Santiago Atitlán, a gentle rain began to fall on the town. Although Stan had moved steadily westward since it began to form off the coast of Africa in mid-September, once it arrived at Lake Atitlán it seemed to stop dead in its tracks. Within hours of Stan's arrival, the gentle rain had become a deluge that converted the streets of Santiago Atitlán into cascading rivers. Two days later the downpour only intensified. That day, October 4, is the annual celebration of Saint Francis of Assisi and, although the deluge had considerably slowed the pace of life in town, in Atitlán the Saint Francis celebration went on in the religious sodality of the same name, Cofradía San Francisco. While significantly more will be said about cofradías in due course, for the present suffice it to say that in Atitlán, they are superficially Catholic and substantially Mayan religious organizations based on costumbre, the "Old Ways." Cofradía members conceive of their town as the "Umbilicus of the World," which is to say the center of all existence. They associate each of the town's ten cofradías with different aspects of human existence, from food to water to life itself. It is significant that Cofradía San Francisco, often simply called Animas (souls), pertains specifically to death.


As is the custom, the members of Cofradía San Francisco spent the night of October 4 drinking "canyon water" (moonshine) and dancing to marimba music. A few months later the head of the cofradía, the alcalde, and his son told me that, late that night, the ancestors who inhabit the surrounding mountains began singing songs to the celebrants in the form of lightning. The alcalde and his son recounted that the songs warned of impending death. The ritual drinking, the dancing, the lightning, and the rain continued into the early morning hours of October 5, long after most of the town was sound asleep. Suddenly the noise of the marimba and the storm outside was drowned out by a deafening roar that lasted for several minutes, followed again by the sound of the rain. Everyone in town would soon learn that the saturated side of the Toliman Volcano, which towers above Santiago Atitlán, had given way, sending a half-mile-wide and ten-to-twenty-foot-deep avalanche of mud, car-sized boulders, and shredded trees down into the outlying part of the town known as Panabaj. Although many hundreds of people were killed the morning of October 5, the exact number will never be known. Following a couple of days of recovery efforts, the sheer volume of rubble and the threat of disease finally forced authorities to decide to leave most victims where they lay. The entire area has officially been declared a cemetery.


Soon after the October 5 mudslide, government experts descended on the town to study the tragedy. Why did the side of the mountain give way, and what could be done to prevent it from happening again? An initial suspect was deforestation. As the population of Atitlán has grown, slash-and-burn horticulturalists have pushed steadily up the sides of the surrounding volcanoes. Government geologists quickly dismissed this theory, as the mudslide had begun well above the deforestation line. Nonetheless, overpopulation was certainly a contributing factor in the tragedy. Explosive local population growth has led to dense inhabitation throughout the immediate area. As a result, a mudslide just about anywhere in the region is certain to take a significant toll on human life. The geologists concluded that the independent variable in the tragedy was the torrential rain unleashed by Hurricane Stan.


But many people in town begged to differ. In stark contrast to the scientists' ecological explanations for the event, several competing religious explanations soon emerged. In Cofradía San Francisco, the alcalde told me that the slide was a result of the local Mayas' abandonment of the Old Ways in favor of Protestantism. In turn, many Protestants quickly pointed fingers at the town's cofradía members. I heard various accusations of witchcraft. While these explanations may seem to be at odds, it is ironic that they might not be. In Chapter 8, the new chapter in this edition, I explain that some Working People believe that slain aj'kuna (shamans) have joined the rain gods on their mountain thrones surrounding the town. From there they create the rain and lightning which can either water the fields or smite enemies, even their own killers. It is precisely those slain shamans that the Protestants consider to be witches. These explanations are indicative of a town that is out of balance. Accusations of witchcraft, particularly when those accusations lead to actual witch "cleansings" as in contemporary Atitlán, often occur when there is significant social disharmony. Clearly, the war for the heart and soul of Santiago Atitlán rages on.


This book looks at the efforts and mechanisms employed by local Mayas, known as Atitecos, to adapt to their post-European contact existence. In the first edition (Chapters 1 through 7 in the present volume) I show that, by employing a varying strategy of resistance and accommodation, Atitecos were for centuries remarkably successful in refusing their own conquest, spiritual and otherwise. Where the initial challenge presented by the Spanish Conquest was staged by Europeans, any clear demarcation of Mayas versus outsiders soon blurred. An example is the cofradía. That institution was originally brought by the Spanish and was unquestionably Catholic. Over time the local population in Atitlán, as elsewhere in Guatemala, southern Mexico, and Yucatán, refabricated it into a distinctly indigenous institution. Throughout the region, local indigenous populations subsequently utilized the superficially Catholic but now largely indigenous cofradías as weapons in their struggles against outside interests. This model no longer applies. In the new chapter of this book, "Season of the Witch: The New Millennium in Santiago Atitlán," I demonstrate that the war for the heart and soul of Santiago Atitlán is no longer a struggle of the town versus the outside. Rather, Atitlán has turned in on itself. I show that, even among followers of the Old Ways, the infighting is vicious and sometimes fatal. I also look at the remarkable ascendance of one of the chief protagonists, the local Protestant megachurch Iglesia Palabra MIEL. At first glance it may seem that, as a Protestant church, MIEL must represent outside intervention in the form of missionization from the United States. This is true only in a historical sense (Garrard-Burnett 1998:117). While MIEL's roots ultimately wind back more than a hundred years to the United States, it is now what is termed in Protestant studies a "native church." In other words, it is entirely weaned from any foreign mother church. In fact, I show that, in a most remarkable turn of events, MIEL in Santiago Atitlán is now the mother church to nearly a hundred congregations of the same name in the United States, as well as to many more throughout Latin America and even Europe.


Although the religious conflict being played out in Santiago Atitlán today may be a local affair, it certainly does not exist in isolation from the world outside. On the contrary, contact with the outside is a primary cause. The first edition of this book argues that, historically, the town's—and indeed the region's—capacity to resist acculturation was largely a function of the relative disinterest of global economic powers in Guatemala's economic potential. The resulting environment allowed Mayan towns like Atitlán to employ religious beliefs and cofradía-based civil-religious structures to maximize autonomy. The first edition also shows how, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, the world economic system began increasingly to intervene in Guatemala. The rise of Guatemala's coffee economy and the subsequent consolidation of the Guatemalan state gradually overwhelmed the adaptive capacity of towns like Santiago Atitlán. In terms of religion, the changed social landscape eroded cofradía hegemony while opening the door to Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The new chapter of this book picks up these themes. I argue that the momentum for change has only accelerated with the ascendance of that multifaceted dynamic known as "globalization." While I look at how various secular aspects of globalization have affected Atitlán—including the effect on local weaving traditions of thrift-store donations in the United States, international crime and the rise of Atiteco gang culture, and the introduction of the Internet—I give particular attention to the religious implications.


For the revised edition of The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town I have added this preface, a revised acknowledgments section, and a new concluding chapter. I have resisted the temptation to make any changes to the original chapters of the first edition.



Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse