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Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala

Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala

Essays on the pan-Maya movement by virtually all the leading U.S. experts on contemporary Maya communities and the top Maya scholars working in Guatemala.

Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies University of Texas at Austin
December 1996
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255 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 maps, 7 figures, 2 tables |

Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala marks a new era in Guatemalan studies by offering an up-to-the-minute look at the pan-Maya movement and the future of the Maya people as they struggle to regain control over their cultural destiny. The successful emergence of what is in some senses a nationalism grounded in ethnicity and language has challenged scholars to reconsider their concepts of nationalism, community, and identity.

Editors Edward F. Fischer and R. McKenna Brown have brought together essays by virtually all the leading U.S. experts on contemporary Maya communities and the top Maya scholars working in Guatemala today. Supplementing scholarly analysis of Mayan cultural activism is a position statement originating within the movement and more wide-ranging and personal reflections by anthropologists and linguists who have worked with the Maya over the years. Among the broader issues that come in for examination are the complex relations between U.S. Mayanists and the Mayan cultural movement, efforts to promote literacy in Mayan languages, the significance of woven textiles and native dress, the relations between language and national identity, and the cultural meanings that the present-day Maya have encountered in ancient Mayan texts and hieroglyphic writing.

  • Acronyms
  • 1. Introduction: Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala (Edward F. Fischer and R. McKenna Brown)
  • 2. The Politics of Maya Revindication (Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil)
  • 3. Induced Culture Change as a Strategy for Socioeconomic Development: The Pan-Maya Movement in Guatemala (Edward F. Fischer)
  • 4. Maya Culture and the Politics of Development (Raxche' [Demetrio Rodriguez Guaján])
  • 5. Reading History as Resistance: Maya Public Intellectuals in Guatemala (Kay B. Warren
  • 6. The Discourse of Concealment and 1992 (Enrique Sam Colop)
  • 7. Old Writing and New Messages: The Role of Hieroglyphic Literacy in Maya Cultural Activism (Circe Sturm)
  • 8. The Workshop for Maya on Hieroglyphic Writing (Linda Schele and Nikolai Grube)
  • 9. Maya Clothing and Identity (Irma Otzoy)
  • 10. Women, Weaving, and Education in Maya Revitalization (Carol Hendrickson)
  • 11. The Mayan Language Loyalty Movement in Guatemala (R. McKenna Brown)
  • 12. The Role of Language Standardization in Revitalization (Nora C. England)
  • 13. Prescriptive Grammar and Kaqchikel Revitalization (Judith M. Maxwell)
  • 14. Maya Education: A Historical and Contemporary Analysis of Mayan Language Education Policy (Julia Becker Richards and Michael Richards)
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Edward F. Fischer is professor of anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University. R. McKenna Brown is Associate Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at Virginia Commonwealth University.


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By Edward F. Fischer (Vanderbilt University) and R. McKenna Brown (Virginia Commonwealth University)

We will always be liable to be seen (correctly) as old colonizers in a new guise as long as we understand critical, emancipatory anthropology as doing our critique to help them—be they the Third World, the working classes, the disinherited, women.... Who are we to "help" them? We need critique (exposure of imperialist lies, of the workings of capitalism, of the misguided ideas of scientism, and all the rest) to help ourselves. The catch is, of course, that "ourselves" ought to be them as well as us.

—Fabian (1991)

This book takes a new approach to a recent phenomenon and in so doing marks a new era in Guatemalan studies. The essays that follow all deal with an emergent movement among the Maya of Guatemala, variously called Maya nationalism (Smith 1991), the pan-Maya movement (Fischer 1993, 1996), the Maya revitalization movement (Wilson 1993; Sturm, this volume), or, simply, the Maya movement (el movimiento maya being the preferred term among Maya activists themselves). This diversity in nomenclature reflects both the many facets of the movement and the varied views on the nature and impact of its efforts.

The idea for this volume grew in part out of a desire to present the work of a recent generation of Guatemalan Maya scholars, the first generation of Maya Mayanists, pioneers in what Kay Warren calls the field of Maya studies (1992: 192). Over the last several years, the work of these Maya scholars has become generally highly regarded among North American academics, and though analytical disagreements between Maya and North Americans exist, scholars writing on contemporary Maya culture in Guatemala widely cite Maya authors in their English works (e.g., England 1992a; Smith 1991; Tedlock 1992; Warren n.d.; Watanabe 1995; Wilson 1995). This volume presents English translations of original works by four of Guatemala's top Maya scholars, making their scholarship directly available for the first time to the English-reading scholarly community. Complementing the four chapters written by Maya are ten others written by a total of ten North Americans and one German, including anthropologists, linguists, and an art historian. In bringing together scholars from different cultural, disciplinary, and theoretical backgrounds, we hope to give the reader a look at the complexity, richness, and multifaceted nature of contemporary Maya activism.

Taken as a whole, the volume is an elaborately constructed dialogue between Maya and Western scholars over the future of Guatemalan studies and of the Maya people. John M. Watanabe has called for just such a dialogue as an answer to the postmodern dilemma of multivocality; he argues that dialogues should be created "through texts, not just within them," and that the development of an indigenous tradition in Maya anthropology needs to be encouraged, because

in a world rife with multiple voices, contested meanings, and situated, emergent cultural realities, anthropology must still hold the courage of its convictions enough to address its others directly and to admit their replies.... Maya anthropologists would bring to anthropology a personal, pragmatic, and passionate engagement that goes beyond scientific objectivity or literary self-reflection. The courage of their convictions would remind all anthropologists that anthropology sometimes does matter in the real world. (Watanabe 1995: 41)

What Watanabe foresaw has already come to pass. A growing number of Maya students and professionals are turning to the social sciences to upport their political advocacy for the Maya people, and their approach does indeed go "beyond scientific objectivity or literary self-reflection." These Maya scholars (like human beings everywhere) have varied, sometimes competing allegiances. They are at once erudite scholars, upwardly mobile members of a social minority group, and advocates for the well-being of their ethnic group as a whole, though they themselves probably would not compartmentalize their social roles in a like fashion. Indeed, there is a general reluctance on the part of these Maya scholars/activists/individuals to erect clear boundaries between the discrete (from a Western scientific point of view) social domains in which they live and work, and this blurring of public and private, personal and corporate, political and scholarly frequently confounds the Western observer who strives to separate the objective from the subjective and the political from the scholarly.

The Maya have long been denied a voice in academic representations of their culture and history, and Maya scholars are resentful of the manner in which their culture and history have been appropriated by the non-Maya academy, noting that much "objective" and seemingly apotical scholarship has had dire political consequences for the Maya people. (There can be no doubt that control over the representation of culture and history has practical implications in Guatemala; Ladino elites, for example, often cite the violence of precontact Maya society and the uncivilized nature of modern Indian culture as justifications of the brutality of contemporary counterinsurgency campaigns directed against the Maya people.) The politico-scholarly agenda of Maya cultural activists is based foremost on regaining at least partial control over scholarly and popular representations of the Maya people, for many of its critiques of the present Guatemalan state are based on historico-cultural comparisons. In establishing the historical and cultural basis for their political agenda, Maya scholars have tended toward the sort of essentialist analyses widely employed by U.S. and European academics well through the first half of this century (Watanabe 1990, 1992) and still popular among non-Indian writers in Guatemala. Hobsbawm (1983), Anderson (1983), and others have pointed out the importance of "invented" (and reinvented) traditions in establishing ethnonational unity, and such traditions typically seek definitiveness, leaving little room for contentious representations.

As Maya scholars have turned to essentialism, North American and European academics have begun to reject this traditional analytic style, striving instead for more fluid paradigms that focus attention on the ambiguity and the many layers of contested meanings that underlie cultural data and its collection. This analytical and stylistic divergence notwithstanding, many North American Guatemalanists are sympathetic to—if not actively supportive of—Maya causes, continuing, albeit in novel form, the tradition of advocacy in Guatemalan anthropology that started with Sol Tax in the 1930s. Indeed, the much-discussed "crisis of representation" in Western social sciences is closely associated with an increased emphasis on the ethical implications of fieldwork and scholarly representation. Over the last few decades a growing number of anthropologists have adopted a stance of advocacy, seeing their role as presenting and interpreting indigenous political agendas for a wider audience, involving those studied more fully into the research process (gathering information from "collaborators" rather than the "informants" of yesteryear) and simply trying to empower marginalized peoples by writing sympathetic ethnographies that better represent (in the foreign anthropologist's eyes) the native's view of things (see England 1992a; Osborne 1993; Watanabe 1995; Wilson 1995).

Westerners' attempts at empowerment of indigenous peoples, however, are inherently delicate situations, because, while well-intentioned, they often appear to the intended beneficiaries as simply the old colonialism in a new guise (Fabian 1991: 264): Western scholars, simply because they are from the United States or Europe, are part of the academic tradition that has suppressed indigenous representations in the past, and so their attempts to empower native peoples have paternalistic implications to which Maya scholars are understandably very sensitive. Ironically, as they seek to proffer the elixir of empowerment, postmodernists are actually eroding the epistemological basis for the authoritative voice central to Maya scholarly activism through their rhetoric of multivocality and relational values, which denies authority to individual representations.

Native peoples around the world (be they peasants, ethnic groups, or, more simply, Others) are no longer unaware of the larger political, economic, and social systems of which they are (willingly or not) a part. Nor are they unaware of the power cultural analyses have in influencing these larger systems. From the Kayapó of the remote Brazilian Amazon to impoverished native Americans living on reservations in the United States to the Maya of Guatemala, native peoples are using culture as a powerful political tool to resist unwelcome meddling by neocolonial entities. The development of current Maya cultural politics owes much to the efforts of foreign (mostly U.S.) scholars to empower the Maya people by training them in the social sciences. Due to the structural position they occupy in Guatemalan society, the Maya have needed, accepted, and benefited from the assistance of non-Maya social scientists. Yet, as is common in such relationships of tutelage, a break in the connection between Maya and foreign scholars seems imminent as Maya scholars begin to contest more vigorously the validity and ethical implications of non-Maya scholarship on the Maya. Ideally, the outcome of such a break would be the initiation of a dialogue in which Maya scholars enjoy more equal footing with their foreign colleagues. The present volume seeks to foster just such a dialogue, while offering a partial solution to the problems of voice and multivocality that trouble contemporary ethnographic writers, by dividing its pages between Maya and Westerners, letting the Maya speak for themselves alongside foreign social scientists.

The differences between Maya and North American scholarship are many, as will be apparent to the reader in the following chapters. The most conspicuous difference is simply in the style of presentation. The articles by Maya authors have been translated from Spanish (which is their second language), and the formal rhetorical style employed by most Maya writers has been left largely intact. To the North American, the Maya style may at first seem a bit pompous: Maya authors write with the authority allowed them by their position as cultural insiders, and thus they often feel justified in making bold statements about the Maya people as a whole. Their ends are, of course, twofold, and the political is at least as important as the poetic. This duality is mirrored in the value of contemporary Maya scholarship: it is at once studied social analysis and primary document, for it tells us about the workings of Guatemalan society while giving us a rare insight into contemporary, urban Maya worldview and philosophy.

While this book examines the particular case of the Maya in Guatemala, the chapters look beyond the specificity of surface events to tease out underlying processes, thus revealing much about the nature of cultural politics in the postmodern world. The post-cold war era ushered in a period of cultural awakening for the many ethnic groups whose interests had been long subjugated to the necessities of fighting Communism or capitalism, as the case may be. Under Soviet rule, ethnic groups throughout the Eastern bloc were denied their own histories as cultural differences were subjugated to Soviet-style nationalism. In Guatemala, the United States and its allies (most notably Israel and Germany), in their battle against international Communism, provided financial and ideological support for ethnocidal campaigns aimed at Guatemala's Maya population in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Carol Smith writes that "one would hardly have expected Maya self-determination to be the rallying cry to rise out of the ashes of Guatemala's holocaust" (1991: 29), and yet that is exactly the case. Maya from all over Guatemala are uniting around a variety of causes. Language, for example, is central to the Maya movement, and treatment of it provides a common thread in the diverse chapters of this book. Language has long been recognized as a powerful political tool (see Fishman 1988), and it is being mobilized by groups around the world, from the Croats (who, in their ethnic cleansing movement, employ historical linguistics to rid their language of Serbian influence) to African Americans (who are creating new personal names based on morphemes borrowed from various African languages). Maya activists seek objective linguistic changes in Guatemala (e.g., co-official status for Mayan languages and the use of the unified alphabet) and also subjective changes in how the linguistic phenomena of Guatemala are understood. For example, the Mayan languages are often criticized in Guatemala as "incomplete" or "defective" because their many loanwords from Spanish—easily recognized by Spanish speakers—are seen as evidence of inferior expressive capacity. However, Maya activists find it empowering to point out that loanwords are the result of cross-linguistic contact present in all languages, and that if Ladinos were to converse in Spanish among Arabic speakers the same supposed lack of expressive capability would be noted in the thousands of Spanish words borrowed from Arabic. The Guatemalan case also demonstrates how seemingly innocuous linguistic issues can provide an effective legislative venue through which subjugated peoples can pursue human rights claims, an issue we take up again below. The Maya movement in Guatemala offers an example for the world of how ethnic claims can be successfully pursued in a nonviolent manner, even in the most extreme of circumstances. The nonviolent—though not pacifistic—strategy of Maya activism is a model worthy of emulation, as the miseries of violent ethnic insurgence of the 1990s make clear.


Guatemala is a country rich in geographic, biological, and cultural diversity. Within its relatively small territory (108,889 square kilometers), Stuart (1956) identifies eight natural regions, each encompassing a number of microclimatic variations (map 1). These may be grouped into three basic zones: a highland area comprising a chain of volcanic mountains cross-cutting the country from west to east, flanked to the north by a large, forest-covered lowland expanse and to the south by a low, narrow strip of Pacific coastline. Ecologists classify the forests of the northern lowlands as quasi rain forest, because although average rainfall is about eighty inches, there is still a pronounced dry season with little or no rain (Morley, Brainerd, and Sharer 1983:39-40). In this region the Classic Maya (A.D. 250-900) built the famous city-states, where they enjoyed the several hundred years of unparalleled development in political organization, the sciences, and the arts for which they are most remembered today by the rest of the world. To work this fragile environment, the Classic Maya employed a variety of agricultural techniques, ranging from simple slash-and-burn methods to complex systems of irrigated raised fields. Around A.D. 900, due to years of increasing population and overproduction that led to environmental degradation and escalating political tensions between Maya polities, this period of florescence came suddenly to a halt, as one Maya city after another "collapsed" (Culbert 1973).

The Classic Maya are perhaps most famous for their elaborate calendrical system, and several of the chapters that follow give dates in both the Maya and Gregorian calendars. The Classic Maya, as well as some of their predecessors, possessed several systems for naming days and ascribing dates. Of these the most important are the sacred 260-day calendar used for divination (the tzolkin or cholq'ij), the 365-day solar year (the haab or 'ab), and the Long Count (or Choltun) system, which assigned a unique designation to any given day. The Long Count system fell out of use, as far as we know, around A.D. 909, while use of the 260-day calendar and, to a lesser extent, the 365-day calendar is still maintained by Indian priests in much of Guatemala's western highlands. Today, Maya activists and scholars are resurrecting the Long Count and using it along with the 260-day and solar calendars in their writings.

The Long Count, like the Gregorian calendar, records the number of elapsed periods from a given starting point marking the beginning of the current era. In the Gregorian calendar the starting point for the present (or Christian) era is 1 January of the year A.D. 1. The Maya Long Count begins on a date of unknown importance that corresponds to the Gregorian date 11 August 3114 B.C. The passing of time since that date is counted in the following periods: Q'ij (I day), Winäq (20 days), Tun (360 days), K'atun (7,200 days), and B'aqtun (144,000 days). These periods are related to the Maya vigesimal system of numeration, which is based on 20 rather than 10, as is our decimal system. The period of the Tun deviates from a purely base-20 count (it is equal to 18 times 20 rather than 20 times 20) so as to more closely align the Tun with the solar year. The other periods, however, are all equal to 20 times the previous period (e.g., 1 K'atun is equal to 20 Tuns, and 1 B'aqtun is equal to 20 K'atuns). Thus, the Maya date 12 B'aqtuns, 19 K'atuns, 1 Tun, 14 Winäqs, 14 Q'ij is equal to 12 x 144,000 + 19 x 7,200 + 1 x 360 + 14 x 20 + 14 x 1 (or 1,865,454) days after 11 August 3114 B.C., which corresponds to 3 July 1994 in the Gregorian calendar. The 260-day count and the 365-day solar calendar mesh to form what is called the Calendar Round, expressing days and months in numerals combined with day and month names (e.g., 5 Ahua 8 Kumku).

A common assumption is that the Spanish encountered in Guatemala culturally pristine societies whose cultures were contaminated and invalidated by their presence. Yet the highland Maya cultures that flourished during the Postclassic period (A.D. 900-1200) had been profoundly affected by repeated invasions from Mexico for at least a thousand years before the Spaniards' arrival. As Lutz observes, the highland Maya had been "Mexicanized and Toltecized before they were ever Hispanicized" (1976: 50). These cultural intrusions would affect most strongly the urban populations, while the rural peasantry would be least affected. This pattern of response to foreign influence continues to modern times.

The material and ceremonial aspects of highland Maya culture were most affected by the repeated invasions, while linguistic behavior remained (relatively) untouched. Suarez remarks that "linguistic contacts were primarily among the upper classes and ... their potential effects reached lower groups only sparingly" (1982: 92). Hence amid the constant intercultural contact fostered throughout Mesoamerica's history of trade, migrations, and warfare, a large proportion of the lower strata apparently carried on in linguistic isolation. This hypothcsis is supported by the linguistic fragmentation found in present-day Mesoamerica.

The late Postclassic period began some ten generations prior. to the Spanish invasion when Toltecs from the Tabasco-Veracruz region of Mexico entered Guatemala and eventually controlled large sections of the central highlands (Fox 1978). The Toltecs had a profound influence on their new subjects, who in turn absorbed their new rulers. As Lutz notes, though the Toltecs "introduced many new forms and customs in architecture, secular administration and religious practice ... they themselves adopted the local Mayan languages" (1976: 50). The Toltec invaders became priests and rulers of many of the highland groups, including the K'iche' and Kaqchikels. The Popol Wui mentions them as founding fathers of the K'iche' kingdom and alludes to their linguistic assimilation:

And then the speech of the tribes changed;
Their speech became different,
No longer clearly
Could they understand each other
When they came to Tula,
And there they separated. (Edmonson 1971: 163)

By A.D. 1250, the highland Maya were organized into five Toltecized groups: the K'iche', Poqomam, Tz'utujil, Mam, and Kaqchikel. The largest and most cohesive of these was the K'iche' polity, whose military expansionism had brought under control many neighboring groups by A.D. 1450 (Carmack 1981). Around 1470, the K'iche' kingdom had grown administratively cumbersome and suffered periodic revolts by its subject peoples. Taking advantage of this growing instability, the western Kaqchikels, formerly K'iche' allies, embarked on their own campaign of military expansion. At the time of European contact, the Kaqchikel rulers of Tecpán controlled over forty surrounding towns and were in military and political ascendance (Fox 1978).

The Spanish invasion and subsequent European migration superimposed Spanish hegemony on a fluid and complex web of Maya ethnic/ linguistic groups, the legacy of which still rules ethnic relations in Guatemala. The country's Maya population comprises twenty-one separate language groups concentrated in the western highlands (map 2). In contrast to official government statistics, most scholars believe that of Guatemala's approximately 10 million inhabitants, between 50 and 60 percent are Maya. Much smaller groups of Garífuna (blacks of African/ Caribbean origin), Germans, and other European and Asian immigrants make up less than 1 percent of the total population. Ladinos, most easily defined as everyone else, make up between 39 and 49 percent of the population and dominate national political and economic systems (see Paz 1993).

While Ladinos consider themselves to be a biologically distinct group and heirs to the Spanish/European cultural tradition brought to the New World by Spanish colonists, the demographics of immigration during the colonial period show that they are mostly of mixed Spanish and Maya blood. Carol Smith writes that "what has distinguished Indians and non-Indians over time has not been biological heritage, but a changing system of social classification, based on ideologies of race, class, language, and culture, which ideologies have also taken on different meanings over time" (1990b: 3). Nonetheless, in Guatemala these ethno-cultural categories are often discussed in terms of race, blood, and biology. Indians are commonly called the "indigenous race," and presumed European blood lines and the accompanying phenotypic features (e.g., light hair and skin, thin lips, narrow nose, etc.) are highly valued by Ladino elites.

The study of ethnic relations in Guatemala has traditionally relied on Fredrik Barth's (1969) concept of ethnic boundaries, seeing a bipolar ethnic landscape in Guatemala in which rigid structural boundaries separate the categories Maya and Ladino. In defining these boundaries, scholars have focused on the distinctiveness of cultural elements unique to each group, going so far as to characterize ethnic categories as "inverse images" of one another (Hawkins 1984). The dominant ideology in Guatemala does indeed define the category Ladino in opposition to Maya ethnic markers: Indians wear typical dress (traje), Ladinos do not; Indians speak an indigenous language, Ladinos speak Spanish; Indians practice indigenous New World folkloric culture, Ladinos practice European high culture. Recent research on Guatemalan ethnicity has shifted focus from defining boundaries to recording the fluidity of boundaries and the changing system of meanings assigned to cultural symbols (Warren 1978, 1992, 1993; Watanabe 1992, 1995; Wilson 1995). This new approach recognizes the essential continuity of the Maya cultural tradition while noting that "new criteria of identity gravitate around traditional signs of community, even though at times they may express opposite meanings" (Wilson 1995:11). A focus on the practice as well as the structure of ethnic identity is especially relevant to the study of the Maya movement. As the chapters that follow make clear, Maya cultural activism is centrally concerned with assigning new meanings to traditional symbols in an attempt to construct a unified, internally defined pan-Maya identity.

Nonetheless, in looking beyond static representations of the diametric opposition between the categories Maya and Ladino, John Watanabe cautions scholars not to forget that "while the subtleties and ambiguities of actual relations between Maya and Ladinos belie such stark oppositions, these racist stereotypes pervade—and shape—Guatemalan life" (1995:30). Because Guatemalan stereotypes categorize individuals as Maya or Ladino based on a few conspicuous cultural traits (most prominently dress and language), Maya are not naturally (phenotypically) precluded from integrating themselves into the Ladino community. Indeed, the fluidity of Guatemala's ethnic boundaries is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that many Indians have chosen to become Ladinos in an effort to avoid cultural discrimination and to facilitate their integration into the national education system and regional commercial networks controlled by Ladinos. Successful "passing," however, requires not only that Indians adopt Ladino cultural traits and identify themselves as Ladino, but also that others recognize them as Ladino. Thus it is often hard for a Maya to successfully make the transition to being Ladino while living in his home community. If, however, his Spanish is good enough and his adoption of Ladino ways is convincing enough, a Maya may move to another community where he is not well known (ideally a large city) and integrate himself into the Ladino community. The newly ladinized person's upward mobility is nonetheless still limited by a glass (though not completely transparent) ceiling that excludes not only all Indians but also most Ladinos from the close-knit network of elites that effectively controls the upper levels of the Guatemalan government and national economy.

Guatemala's demographic situation and highly unequal distribution of wealth have contributed to the long-standing fear of the country's Ladino elite of an Indian uprising. Sam Colop (chap.6) suggests that this fear results from Ladinos' projecting their own racism onto the Maya people. Regardless of its cause, one concrete result of this fear is that the Guatemalan state has consistently attempted to culturally integrate Indians into Ladino society as an underclass in an ethnically homogeneous, modern nation-state rather than a distinct ethnic group with its own political agenda. Even the casual traveler in Guatemala can see that the government's efforts to eradicate Maya culture have failed. There are twice as many Indians in Guatemala now as at the time of the Spanish invasion (Lovell and Lutz 1992), and the Indian community is ubiquitous throughout the western highlands.

The biggest threat to the status quo in Guatemala for the last three decades has been the country's armed revolutionary movement. Yet this movement has failed to offer a feasible solution to the country's ethnic problems. Like the establishment it seeks to overthrow, the revolutionary leadership sees assimilation as the answer to Guatemala's ethnic conflicts. When it started in the 1960s, Guatemala's guerrilla movement, led by disenfranchised Ladino labor activists and leftist intellectuals, was based in the eastern part of the country, which is mostly populated by Ladino peasants. After suffering a crushing defeat in the late 1960s, the guerrilla movement went into a several-year-long hiatus, reemerging in the early 1970s in the Indian-populated western highlands. While the guerrillas' base of support became largely Indian, their ideology remained firmly rooted in the idea of class struggle, leading them to underestimate the importance of the ethnic/cultural issues. Guerrillas believe that ethnic affiliations disguise exploitative class relations and inhibit the unification of Ladino and Indian peasants and workers, and that ethnic concerns can only be addressed after a classbased revolution (Payeras and Díaz-Polanco 1990; Fernández Fernández 1988). As the guerrillas made inroads in the Indian highlands, the Ladino elites' cold war-inspired fear of Marxist revolutionaries converged with their long-smoldering fear of an Indian uprising, creating an ideological justification for ethnocidal campaigns directed by the military. Ostensibly the military effort aimed to stamp out Marxist revolutionaries, though it targeted not only active subversives but also potential subversives, a category often understood to include all Indians.

The military's brutal counterinsurgency campaign reached its height in the early 1980s, leaving tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands in exile. In 1986, nominal civil rule was reestablished with the election of Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo. In 1991, the presidency was passed between two freely elected civilians for the first time in Guatemalan history when Jorge Serrano Elías took office. In early 1993, Serrano, mimicking Peruvian president Alberto Fujimora, conducted an autogolpe in which he disbanded Congress and the Constitutional Court and gave himself broad powers. Serrano, however, seriously misinterpreted the country's political climate, and within two months an unlikely coalition of leftists, unions, businessmen, Maya groups, and the military leadership forced him into exile in Panama, where he is reported to be living a life of luxury after coming into office nearly bankrupt. In an equally surprising turn of events, Ramiro de León Carpio, then the government's human rights ombudsman, was elected by Congress, with the military's explicit blessing, to continue Serrano's term. Contrary to the high hopes that his election raised, reports of human rights violations (to both the government Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Catholic Church's Human Rights Office) sharply increased during de León Carpio's rule. Further, de León Carpio refused to disband the notorious civil patrol system, which the military supports and which de León Carpio himself criticized while he was human rights ombudsman. Throughout these civil governments, the military has kept a tight rein on the government's workings, leading to widespread pessimism among the Guatemalan populace about the prospects for democratic change. This pessimism is reflected in growing voter absenteeism. The 1985 presidential elections had an abstention rate of about 30 percent, in the 1990 election more than 40 percent abstained, and in the 1994 national consulta popular, in which voters were asked to approve sweeping constitutional reforms, less than 20 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot.

The Pan-Maya Movement

Current Maya activism seeks a culture-based solution to Guatemala's many problems. The approach is two-pronged: to work for the conservation and resurrection of elements of Maya culture while promoting governmental reform within the framework of the current (1985) Guatemalan constitution and international law. The production and control of history and prehistory are of central importance to the movement's cultural promotion because of the widely held view, found in early Western scholarship and influential today among Maya and non-Maya alike, that "true" Maya culture consists only of those features surviving from the precontact period (see Watanabe [ 1990] for a review of this view among Western scholars). In this light the centuries of exposure to European and African culture are seen as "contamination," and the incorporation of non-Maya elements is seen as a weakening or polluting of Maya culture. Consequently, the search for aspects of Maya culture to promote as objects of ethnic pride becomes fueled in part by a craving to establish concrete links with the pre-Hispanic past. For the modern Maya, the most conspicuous link to that past that is indisputably non-Spanish is found in Mayan languages.

The Mayan languages represent a uniquely authentic cultural possession for their speakers. As a banner for ethnic pride, the Mayan languages are appropriate because, unlike many other cultural elements, they have remained largely intact throughout the centuries of foreign incursions and upheaval in Guatemala. In addition, Mayan languages serve as an effective marker of in-group allegiances: one who does not speak a Mayan language cannot participate in discussions in that language and so is excluded from being part of the group. Thus language use, maintenance, revival, and expansion have become a focal point for cultural activism (see the chapters by Brown, England, and Maxwell in this volume). Similarly, the study of ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing and of precontact and early colonial manuscripts written by the Maya is taking on increasing importance in the movement's attempts to revitalize Maya culture. For Maya scholars, hieroglyphs provide concrete data on the workings of precontact Maya society while acting as powerful symbols of the splendor and literacy of that culture (see the articles by Sturm as well as Schele and Grube in this volume). Early colonial documents have likewise become an important source on autochthonous Maya culture and provide the only first-person Maya accounts of the Spanish invasion (see Warren, chap. S). As Sam Colop (chap. 6) shows, these documents are also used to combat the ethnocentrism inherent in the histories of Guatemala written by Ladinos. Interestingly, other cultural elements unique to Maya culture, such as dress, have not been similarly emphasized among the male leaders of the movement, though they remain a principal symbol of female Maya identity (see Otzoy, chap. 9).

The strategy of the movement differs significantly from other such ethnic movements that appeared around the world in the early 1990s. Like members of these other movements, Maya activists are taking advantage of decreased tensions in current world politics to revive and strengthen their cultural heritage, which has been submerged by centuries of colonialism (external and internal, overt and covert). Their strategy differs from that of, say, the Croats (in the mid-19908) in that the Maya are seeking a peaceful solution to their problems and trying to work within the framework of the current Guatemalan constitution and international law. In chapter 4 in this volume, Raxche' writes that "integral development of the Maya must be consistent with the constitution of the Republic of Guatemala" (see also Cojtf Cuxil, chap. 2). Maya activists also employ international treaties to justify their agenda, particularly Convention 169 of the International Labor Office and the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights. This strategy of working within the existing legal framework evolved from their experiences during the recent (officially undeclared) civil war between the Guatemalan army and revolutionary groups, in which many Maya leaders were killed because of their perceived sympathies with revolutionary politics.

Focusing first on national recognition and legal change, Maya organizations have been able to carve out a small space in which to work within Guatemala's tangled bureaucracy and legal system. In the last decade, Maya activists have successfully petitioned the government to officialize the unified alphabet for writing Mayan languages proposed by Maya groups; they have been instrumental in working for reform within the structure of the Ministry of Education (Alfredo Tay Tocoy, appointed minister of education in 1993, is the country's first Maya cabinet member); they have participated in presidential election debates; and, perhaps most surprising, they have called for Maya territorial autonomy within the Guatemalan state (see Cojtí Cuxil, chap. 2) without suffering the violent repression that would have answered such a proposal ten years earlier.

The movement is truly a national, at times transnational, phenomenon. This is in sharp contrast to the community-based allegiances that have long characterized Maya social identity (see Tax 1937; Wolf 1957; Warren 1978; Watanabe 1992). The movement promotes association based on linguistic groups and then, building on that base, hopes to foster a pan-Maya, even pan-Native American, identity. By so doing it hopes to peacefully unite Guatemalan Indians into a power base that can exert a proportional influence on Guatemalan politics and so claim social and economic justice for all Maya people.

Accompanying the movement has been a florescence in Maya scholarship in Guatemala over the past ten years. Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil (1984, 1990a, 1990b, 1991) has published several eloquently argued theses on the problem of a Guatemalan national identity, the political implications of linguistic research on Mayan languages, and the faults of Guatemala's national census data. Starting with COCADI's (1985) volume, El idioma, centro de nuestra cultura (Language, center of our culture), a number of publications have focused on what can be called "political linguistics." These publications have two goals: first, to produce scholarly linguistic analyses, and second, to use these data to support their political agenda (see López Raquec 1989; Oxlajuuj Keej 1993). Early colonial manuscripts have also received the attention of Maya scholars who are trying to take back control of—or at least have a say in—the production of their history. Sam Colop (1991, chap. 6 this volume) references a number of colonial documents, written by both Maya and Spaniards, to deconstruct the history of contact espoused within the Western tradition in general and by Ladino academics in specific. Alfonso Tzaquitzal Zapeta (1993) has translated the colonial document Titulo de los señores Coyoy, giving a contemporary Maya commentary on this early Maya document (see also Warren, chap. 5, for a discussion of Maya translating early documents). Irma Otzoy (1988, chap. 9 this volume) has written on the role of Maya women and their traditional dress in contemporary Guatemalan society and within the context of the Maya movement.

A Note on Editing Conventions Used in This Volume

The spelling of the names of Mayan languages follows the alphabet proposed by the Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala and officialized by the Guatemalan government in 1987. The unified alphabet eliminates many of the misleading spellings based on Spanish orthography, changing, for example, the Spanish qu and c to k to represent the phoneme /k/ (see López Raquec 1989 for a complete review of alphabets used to write Mayan languages). As a result, the familiar spelling of the names of some language groups has changed: Quiché is written as K'iche', Cakchiquel as Kaqchikel, Kekchí as Q'eqchi', Acatec as Akateko, Jacaltec as Jakalteko, Teco as Tektiteko, Kanjobal as Q'anjob'al, Uspantec as Uspanteko; Chortí as Chorti', Aguacatec as Awakateko, Uspantec as Uspanteko, Sacapultec as Sakapulteko, Pogomam as Poqomam, Pocomchí as Poqomchi', and Tzutuhil as Tz'utujil. Toponyms derived from Mayan languages have been left in their traditional spellings for clarity. Thus, the department named after the K'iche' nation is written El Quiché. The K'iche' colonial document known as the Popol Vuh is written here as Popol Wuj, although in chapter 12 Nora England argues for an alternative spelling.

In translating the articles written in Spanish for this volume we have had to tackle a large number of semantic pitfalls. Our primary desire has been to accurately translate the ideas of native Maya speakers writing in Spanish into fluid English. Toward this end we have decided to leave a few words in Spanish. Traje, which in Spanish can mean a man's suit, clothes in general, or a woman's dress, is used here in its most common Guatemalan interpretation: traditional indigenous dress, comprising a huipil, or woven blouse, and a corte, or thick, woven skirt. Mestizo may be read as a synonym of Ladino; its use accentuates the historical cultural and biological mixing that produced this group. The noun mestizaje refers to the crossing of races or cultures, while the verb ladinize refers to the unidirectional adoption of Ladino cultural traits by Maya.

Finally, this volume is dedicated to the Maya scholars who grace its pages and the many more like them who have dedicated their lives to the practice of anthropology.


“The book effectively captures nascent efforts by largely urban, university-educated, and professionally trained Maya to reclaim the rightful place of all Maya, rural peasant and city professional alike, as full but nonetheless Maya citizens of Guatemala.... a rich case study detailing the inseparability of culture and politics and the cross-cutting affinities of ethnicity, class, and ideology in indigenous rights movements emerging throughout contemporary Latin America.”
American Anthropologist


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