September 25, 2007

NATIONALISTS MAY FOCUS ON CULTURE rather than economic or political issues for tactical reasons. But it is not tactics that drives them to distance themselves from the traditional Left, whom they consider as culturally imperialistic as the Right. Before 1984 no Guate- malan Left organization supported Maya territorial or politi- cal autonomy. In fact, the received Left wisdom was that Maya did not qualify for the status of "nation" because they were so fragmented and divided.* Severo Martinez Peliez, exiled member of Guatemala's orthodox communist party (PGT) and a major intellectual leader of the modern Left. put forward the revolutionary position on Maya/Indian culture in especially stark form in his 1971 book Lapatria del criollo. He introduced the notion that the Maya died with the Conquest and the servile "Indi- ans" of the modem era are creatures of Guatemala's colonial past. What's more, he argued, because of their divisive colo- nial culture-separate unintelligible languages, restricted marriage communities, community-distinct dressing-and because they see Ladinos as their oppressors, regardless of class, Indians are the cause of the country's continued backwardness. The revolutionary task, he concluded, is to *In 1984, a splinter group from the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP)-Revolutionary October (OR)-did call for territorial au- tonomy. Indeed, rumor has it that OR broke from the EGP (whose cadre were mainly Maya but whose leadership was mainly Ladino) precisely over such issues. Influenced by Nicaragua's proclamation of regional autonomy for Indians, the OR statement emphasized cultural rights while underplaying economic and political rights-as did the Sandinista autonomy platform. eradicate the colonial barriers dividing Guatemalans, such as the community-specific clothing styles imposed on Indians by their Spanish overlords. His line of reasoning implies Indians will be freed from their chains when they unite behind the battle fatigues of the guerrillas. The issue of Indian clothing is a classic way in which Marxists have devalued the cultural symbols of the Maya. It is true that Ladino weavers produced the skirt cloth that Indian women wore after the Conquest, possibly as part of the colonial version of counterinsurgency strategy. But Maya women continued to weave much of theirclothing, with each generation elaborating new patterns within the tradition. Fifty years ago, moreover, Indian weavers (mainly from Totonicapin) took over Indian skirt weaving, reintroducing the brilliant color combinations emblematic of Maya artistry and culture. The constant elaboration of weaving design among contemporary Maya is an authentic expression of Maya art that continues to evolve as a living tradition, not frozen in a timeless pattern that is either classic Maya or colonial. Modern Maya women wear their woven garments with pride as a statement that they belong to particular Maya communities-into which they were born and into which they will marry. When such women put on Ladino garb, they are stating that they are available as women for the conquer- ors rather than for the men of their own community. Given the powerful statements that clothing makes about class, community, identity, art, and sex, it is hardly surprising that "modern Maya" find Martinez's interpretations of "modern Indian" culture, which is widely assigned in Guatemalan secondary schools, insulting. It is, indeed, instructive that his "Marxist" analysis fits as comfortably in the curriculum of schools under right-wing governments as into required read- ing for left-wing study groups.

Tags: Maya, cultural politics, indigenous politics, identity

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