Maya Nationalism

September 25, 2007

ONE WOULD HARDLY HAVE EXPECTED Maya self-determination to be the rallying cry to rise out of the ashes of Guatemala's holocaust. Indians, after all, were the main targets of the violence in the 1980s-and still are today, though now dozens rather than hundreds are murdered or disappeared each month. But increasing numbers of Maya are, in fact, being drawn to "nationalist" as opposed to "popular" politics, two causes which until recently were considered one and the same. What I tentatively label a "Maya nationalist move- ment" is so young that it is difficult to know exactly what it is and where it is going. But it will likely play a major role in the future of this country where nearly one quarter of the population of nine million wears the colorful clothing emblematic of Maya status, more than one third speaks a Maya language as their first tongue, and at least half thinks of themselves as members of a Maya commu- nity, defined in terms of location, tradition, language or self-identification.' Maya nationalism became an identifiable cause in the early 1970s, was quiescent during the violence, and today is emerging as a real political movement-partly as a radical alternative to the traditional Left. 2 Though troubled about the economic exploitation that Indians suffer more than any other group, Maya nationalists, few of whom were public figures before the end of formal military rule in 1986, are more concerned with the cultural oppression rife ever since "Guatemala" came into existence. As they see it, cultural and racial discrimination are at the base of the economic exploitation of Indians and the cultural impoverishment of all Guatemalans. Those who retain the symbols of their Maya identity-languages, community forms, clothing, religious practices-are not only excluded from positions of power and respect in the nation, but are derided for their backward "traditional- ism," even by political progressives, whether Liberals in the nineteenth century or Marxists in the twentieth. The movement is not explicitly Right or Left. Maya nationalists' stance on the material significance of culture distances them from the traditional Guatemalan Left. And their stance on political tactics-which they try to model on grassroots communities-distances them from the revolutionary vanguard. But there are Maya nationalists who would agree with the Left on most other issues, and none that I know would ally with the Right. A prominent spokesperson for today's Maya national- ists is Demetrio Cojti Cuxil, the first self-identified Maya VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) CarolA. Smith teaches anthropology at the University of California at Davis. She is the editor of Guatemalan Indians and the State, 1540 to 1988 (U. of Texas, 1990). 29The First Nations to obtain a doctorate, and one of the first to teach at the national University of San Carlos. Born in a rural village near Tecpin and educated by Jesuits, Cojtf now runs a "permanent seminar" on issues of importance to the substantial number of self-identified Maya studying at San Carlos. For Cojti, Maya nationalism means challenging the colonialist ideology embedded in progressive as well as conservative Guatemalan thinking about the Maya. For Guillermo Rodriguez Guajdn, until recently the director of adult education in the western highlands and currently the director of the Mayan Research Center (CISMA), Maya nationalism means combining "modern" science and technology with "traditional" Maya knowledge of language, medicine, farming know-how and community life, in order to develop new forms of Maya knowledge. And for Ricardo Cajas Mejia, Indian activist and 1990 candidate for mayor of the country's second largest city Quetzaltenango, it means taking charge of Maya political organizations and economic development and scholar- ship programs without paternalistic intermediaries-be they Ladinos (mestizo Guatemalans) or gringos.' Three types of people currently make up the move- ment, almost all of them literate, self-proclaimed Maya: students and intellectuals; community-based profession- als (teachers, agronomists, health workers); and members of local NGOs and cooperatives, often supported by foreign sources including UNICEF, OXFAM, Inter- American Foundation, and even U.S.AID. Few Maya nationalists are "men of maize"-the illiterate peasants, plantation workers, traders, and artisans who constitute the majority of Guatemala's native people. 4 Nationalists argue that encouraging Maya to define themselves as Maya, even in non-traditional or elite roles, opens up opportunities for all Maya. Cultural freedom, they point out, implies more than an arena for the expres- sion of peasant folklore; it implies the right to channel change and diversification according to self-determined guidelines. Without leaders or the possibility to differen- tiate and grow within one's culture, they argue, a people is consigned to the dustbin of history-as time and moder- nity eradicate the rural, the peasant, and the illiterate. CONCERN ABOUT SIGNIFICANT DECLINE IN Maya language use first sparked the movement for self-determination. In 1986 the Academy of Mayan Lan- guages (ALMG) was founded to encourage the use of native tongues in state schools and other institutions, and to promote the use of a unified alphabet for writing the 21 Maya languages.' It was granted official recognition in 1990 as an "autonomous state entity," with a mandate to "promote the knowledge and use of Maya languages and to research, plan, program and implement relevant lin- guistic, literary, educational and cultural materials." The ALMG is now a vehicle for expanding the struggle for self-determination beyond language-to the revitaliza- tion of "traditional" dress and customs, for example.' and resilience lie in its increasingly localized nature. Most educated Maya support these goals, but differ on how to move toward them. Some advocate mandatory bilingual, bicultural education at all levels for all Guate- malans; others think this is a fantasy. Some believe the ALMG should regulate who can work in Maya areas, restricting jobs to those who speak the local language; others think this would ghettoize Maya, dividing and constraining their national opportunities. And many Maya oppose all cooperation with the Ladino state. The first Maya group to broach the loaded issue of economic and political autonomy may have been the non- governmental organization, Cakchiquel Center for Inte- gral Development (COCADI). In their 1989 treatise on the "politics of rural development," COCADI called for a pluralist or multi-cultural range of rural development goals, which would allow "political space for encounter and dialogue among the different Guatemalan cultures (Maya and non-Maya) that would assure the civil, cul- tural, political, and economic rights of the Maya."'Whether the group advocated autonomous political and economic territories is not clear. An umbrella organization of Maya NGOs and cultural organizations was founded this year, the Council of Maya Organizations (COMG); its membership includes both the ALMG and COCADI. COMG pushes much farther into economic and political terrain, demanding territorial, legal, civil, and military autonomy, in order to "guarantee the Maya people their right to seek their own destiny."' COMG even brings up the taboo subject of army repression, and specifically requests participation as Maya in the dialogue currently taking place between the govern- ment and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) guerrillas. As they see it, the Ladino state and Ladino guerrilla commanders should not decide the fate of the Maya traumatized by the actions of each. REPORT ON THE AMERICASInfluenced by indigenous movements in other parts of the globe, the political program promoted by Maya na- tionalists has grown more radical, taking advantage of the small political opening offered by Guatemala's civilian regime. As it takes on a more militant stance, the move- ment grows ever more apart from earlier forms of Maya resistance, which to date have guaranteed the strength and resilience of Maya culture. S NE REASON MAYA CULTURE IS SO RESIS- tant is that it has never been monolithic. The 21 Maya languages still spoken in modem Guatemala, most of which divide into several (often dozens) of distinct dialects, reflect pre-conquest political divisions. 9 On the basis of language alone, one could count dozens of mod- em Maya ethnic groups; but because of the community focus of individual Maya identity, these could number in the hundreds. While the fragmentation of Maya identity is usually seen as a weakness, by both leftists and Maya nationalists, it is actually a source of cultural resilience, which allows for a variety of adept responses to changed circumstances, and prevents the state from assaulting all Maya commu- nities at once. Modem Maya communities today, for example, have many different economic bases-urban commerce and manufacturing, trading and trucking, crafts production, as well as "traditional" plantation labor and corn farming. They have dozens of different political forms, from stan- dard electoral politics to the "traditional" council of informally selected elders. And they engage in a wide variety of religious practices (often simultaneously), some of them fashioned by local communities before the Con- quest, others "Mayanized" only recently. Though always repressive and despotic, the Guatema- lan state never controlled civil institutions in Maya com- munities, which have variously been controlled by the Catholic Church, the lawless oligarchy, or Maya commu- nities themselves. Given its relative weakness, the state has historically been ever more coercive, attempting to force rather than persuade conformity among the ruled. Civil society has responded by strengthening local forms of resistance-revivified and increasingly localized forms of Maya culture-which then provoke the state to greater repressiveness.'" Viewing Maya culture as plural and localized rather than generic and monolithic, and the state as weak and coercive rather than strong and hegemonic, reveals a pattern to Maya resistance and state repression in Guate- mala. The general state policy has been to target Indians for work, ignore their "backward" traditions, allow a few of the more "civilized" to become Ladinos, and brutally mow down any who pose a direct challenge to Creole or Ladino dominance. The general Maya response has been to push for economic advantage wherever openings or weaknesses exist, Mayanize useful Western imports, and eject the assimilated from their communities. Mayararely pose a direct challenge to state power; they limit it through economic and cultural diversification. A few examples from history illustrate the pattern. The colonial period saw no dramatic rebellions like the uprising of Tiipac Amaru II in Peru-an elite-led regional movement that directly challenged the colonial state and was brutally repressed by it. The best known example of an Indian revolt in colonial Guatemala is the Totonicapdn rebellion of 1820, one year before the Spanish empire collapsed." Indians in many parts refused to pay tribute after 1800, once it became clear the empire was in no position to force it out of them. The Maya of San Miguel Totonicap.n, one of the largest and wealthiest Indian communities of Guatemala (and the seat of the provincial government), stopped paying in 1810, and responded to the Spanish governor's demand for full payment ten years later by throwing him out of office and replacing him with a local Maya leader, Atanasio Tzul. They were unable to draw Maya from other townships into their cause, and they wrested power from the colonial state for a mere 30 days. When apprehended, the people labeled "leaders" did not defend their actions, but rather tried to put the blame on others. On these grounds the rebellion could be considered an ignominious defeat. However, there were very few casualties (the so-called leaders were released after nine months in jail), and the town never paid tribute again. What's more, many Ladinos and Spanish officials were so terrorized by the numerous insurgent threats to cut off their heads that many fled the township permanently. Guatemalan histories (several written by leftists, none by Maya) allege that during the revolt Atanasio Tzul crowned himself "King of the Quich6s," in an effort to reconstitute the kingdom defeated in bloody battle 300 years earlier. However, as North American historian David McCreery points out, Atanasio Tzul already held the office of "Indian governor" in Totonicapdn. Adding a crown to Tzul's other insignia of office may have been a signal that there was a Crown representative in the town- ship responsible for maintaining order in the wake of the Spanish governor's flight. This, at least, was Tzul's story to the court. McCreery also suggests the revolt was no different from hundreds of others in colonial Guatemala with limited, local grievances that achieved limited, local goals. The rebellion is renowned in the country mainly because it is misinterpreted as the "race war" Guatemala's Ladinos have always feared and expected. It deserves recognition as the kind of resistance that allowed Maya culture to flourish and diversify. McCreery's work on Guatemala's rural economy in the post-independence period provides a similar revision- ist history.'" The coffee plantation economy, introduced in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, did far more than any colonial institution to create exploitative relations between the Maya, Creole plantation owners, and Ladino "middle" men. Indian resistance was gener- ally strong, consistent, and rational. When violence brought VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) 31The First Nationse The First Nations unacceptably high casualties, Indians took matters up in court, and managed to hold onto most of their lands by titling them. In contrast, Indians in El Salvador put up a more unified (Ladino-led) resistance; this led to unified state repression in 1932 when thousands were killed and native culture was virtually eradicated. Even during the past decade, when the level of state repression was unprecedented, Maya in different parts of the country resisted the state in different ways, impeding the application of a coherent Indian policy. At the same time that Indians began joining the guerrillas in Huehuetenango and El Quichd, Indians in Totonicapin were challenging Ladino economic and political mo- nopolies by giving their business and support to Maya traders, labor recruiters, and politicians. To the former, the state responded with massacres and a scorched earth policy, driving many Indians out of the area. Through the latter, Indians managed to push virtually all Ladinos out of their territory by peaceful means. The Indian exodus was temporary; the Ladino exodus may be permanent. In recent years, Indians in both Huehuetenango and El Quich6 have followed Totonicapin's lead, driving out most Ladino traders, plantation labor recruiters, and poli- ticians. 1 3 The authors of resistant Maya culture typically have not been pan-Maya elites or organizations that attempted to create a unified and coherent Maya culture. Rather, they have been grassroots communities that create mul- tiple forms of Maya culture, responding to multiple forms of oppression with diversification and creativity. In this way, Maya have not defined themselves in opposition to their Ladino oppressors (which would make their culture dependent and derivative), but have defined themselves in ways that allow Maya to continue determining their particular local destinies. This raises many questions about the kind of Maya politics that have been taken up in recent years. T HE GUERRILLA INSURGENCY OF THE 1980S, in which many Maya participated, was not the kind of resistance described above-limited in goals, leader- less. localized. There was a clear strata of leaders, most of them middle- or even upper-class Ladinos, who had little experience with Maya culture or people. The issue for the guerrillas was class, not ethnicity. The guerrilla leader- ship, in fact, insisted that poor Ladinos and poor Maya had the same interests, despite resistance to this idea from both. And the insurgent strategy was to attack the Guate- malan state directly, with the aim not just of weakening it, but of replacing it with a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist state. From interviews with guerrilla leaders, as well as their own accounts, it seems fairly clear that they chose to recruit in the Maya area; Mayas did not seek out Ladino leaders for their own insurgency. Mario Payeras, a leader of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), describes his small (and mostly Ladino) group's deliberate attempt to incorporate Maya in the struggle by moving to western Guatemala (the Maya region) in the 1970s, after their failures in the eastern Ladino region in the 1960s. 4 Both Payeras and Gaspar Ilom of the Revolutionary Organiza- tion of the People in Arms (ORPA) have discussed how difficult it was to enlist Maya, but how recruitment snowballed after army repression began.'" It is now widely recognized that many Mayajoined the insurgency after they were attacked by the army for merely living in places the guerrillas visited. For these people, following the guerrillas into the montafia was little more than an act of self-preservation. We do not yet know what revolution meant to those who joined the insurgency as voluntary participants, since Maya ac- counts of the 1980s are mainly those of victims rather than rebels. We can, however, document a great deal of change in the revolutionary program after Maya joined up, sug- gesting that their political agenda might have differed from that of the original Ladino guerrillas.' No Maya nationalists I know claim any direct experi- ence with the guerrillas, but they all have strong opinions about the revolutionary movement. Time and again they emphasize three points: (1) Ladino leaders were so con- sumed by class (as opposed to ethnic) issues that they did not even know the most likely areas and issues for Maya recruitment; (2) the Ladino leadership was unable to take seriously any cultural issues of importance to Maya, like Maya women's clothing; and (3) Maya take tremendous risks if they follow non-Maya leadership in any political venture, evident in the terrible costs paid by Maya "inno- cents" in the latest round of state repression. Nationalists are most insistent on the last point, from which they draw two conclusions: First, in an apartheid- like state where Ladinos have a complete monopoly on political power, Ladinos and Maya cannot have the same political objectives; Ladinos simply cannot understand political powerlessness. And second, rather than chal- lenge the state itself, it is preferable to challenge particular arenas of state power in local communities and civil society--community politics, family relations, control of language, education, and thought. Not only is the state less likely to exact brutal repression against those who resist in this way, but it is more vulnerable to this form of opposition. Most importantly, fragmented, non-confron- tational forms of resistance would not have to acquire the machinery of state domination, which inevitably comes to mirror that which was oppressive in the original state and society. Perceptive as this critique may be, it fails to address how such a strategy could transform the oppres- sive conditions suffered by the vast majority of Maya. M AYA NATIONALISTS ARE ATTEMPTING TO create and sustain a Maya culture that will remain vital and alive even as small peasant communities suc- cumb to the pressures of war and modernity. A full generation ago there were more Maya traders, artisans, and workers than corn farmers." Today there are more Maya living in cities, plantations, and refugee camps than in the traditional self-enclosed communities of the past. And soon, unless the nationalist movement is effective, there will be more Maya literate in Spanish than fluent in their native tongues. The cultural inventions of Maya nationalists-literatures in Maya languages, cross-com- munity dressing of hand-woven garb by both men and women, renewed and reinvented forms of religion-may produce a cultural repertoire that will reflect the protean experiences and practices of these new Maya. On the other hand, if they impose a rigid orthodoxy-if they no longer tap into the diverse local sources of Maya cul- ture-their own version could become incapable of rep- resenting anyone. The novelty of nationalism as a form of Maya resis- tance raises two other important issues: Chief among them is whether a pan-Maya program, led by an educated Maya elite, will be able to reform state policy without being coopted.'" For the first time, Maya leaders are attempting to use their bicultural knowledge to find a position for Maya within the Guatemalan state. Hence the problem of being absorbed in the discourse they are attempting to resist is a real one. The other major question is whether a more unified form of Maya resistance will, like the more unified guerrilla struggle, lead to even greater state repression. Maya nationalists are extremely alert to this possibility, one reason they raise political and economic issues so tentatively. But cultural issues, as the nationalists them- selves argue, are not innocent of political consequence. Like all modem states, Guatemala seeks to rule more effectively by imposing its cultural hegemony on the ruled. Thus it may find in Maya nationalism a form of resistance it cannot ignore, despite the movement's lack of direct political challenge. This last possibility weighs heavily on the shoulders of current Maya leaders. When talking about this article with a Maya friend, I was surprised at the degree to which he was worried about even calling Maya nationalism a movement. He was also somewhat offended by the na- tionalist label. "Why do you call us nationalists?" he asked. "We have no aspirations to take state power or to create a separate state. We are not fighting for our culture-we already have it. We want only our rights: the right to peace, the right to define our own path to devel- opment, the right to educate our children in our own languages and traditions, and the right to represent our- selves and our culture." Maya Nationalism I. Any time those ef us who are part of the dominant, hegemonic culture drown out the voices of the marginal "others" with oar own, we are oppressors-regardless of our sentiments or politics. For this reason I have added to my narrative some of the comments Maya made in response to it. 2. Ricardo Falla, "El movimiento indigena," Estudios Centroamericanos, no. 351/352 (1978), pp. 437-46 I. 3. For statements from some of these and other movement leaders, see Cultura Maya y Politicas de Desarrollo (Chimtaltenango: COCADI, 1989);: Demetrio Cojti Cuxil, Configuracidn del Pensamiento Politico Maya (Quetzaltenango: Taller 'El Estudiante,' 1991). 4. Leftists, in fact, often impugn the credentials of Maya nationalists for being a small Indian elite (a petty bourgeoisie), whose grassroots ties are weak. But organic intellectuals of any downtrodden group are almost always sepa- rated by their very intellectual pursuits from those they represent. Think of Lenin or Che Guevara. Rigoberta Mench6, who is not a Maya nationalist but an Indian leader of a popular organization, no longer works on cotton plantations. Nor would we hear her if she did. How distant Maya nationalists are from ordinary Maya has to bejudged by other criteria-such as how closely their program hews to the needs and interests of those they represent. 5. Prior alphabets for writing Maya languages, produced mainly by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (Wycliffe Bible Translators), were distinct for each language; SIL control of Maya linguistics came to symbolize to nation- alists the foreign appropriation of Maya culture. The way SIL used its knowledge to convert and assimilate Maya people, in fact, fueled the nation- alist sentiment surrounding the ALMG. See Nora C. England and Stephen R. Elliott (eds.), Lecturas sobre la Lingiiistica Maya (Antigua: CIRMA, 1990). 6. Diane M. Nelson, "The Reconstruction of Mayan Identity," Report oit Guatemala, Vol. 12, no. 2 (Summer 1991), p. 6 . 7. COCADI, Cultura Maya, p. 18. 8. COMG, "Derechos especificos del pueblo Maya," (Guatemala: Cholsamaj, 1991). 9. England and Elliott (eds.), Lecturas. 10. See the various articles in Carol A. Smith (ed.), Guatemalan Indians and the State, 1540-1988 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990). 11. See David McCreery, "Atanasio Tzul, Lucas Aguilar, and the Indian Kingdom of Totonicapdin," in Judith Ewell and William Beezley, The Human Tradition in Latin America: The Nineteenth Century (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1989), pp. 39-58. 12. David McCreery, "State Power, Indigenous Communities, and Land in Nineteenth-Century Guatemala, 1820-1920," in Smith, Guatemalan, pp. 96-115. 13. CISMA, "An analysis of economic variation, development projects, and development prospects in the highlands of western Guatemala," unpub- lished report to the Inter-American Foundation, 1990. 14. Mario Payeras, Los dias de la selva (Mexico: Nucstro Tiempo, 1981). 15. Ibid. See also, M. Harnecker, Pueblos en armas (Mexico: Era, 1984). 16. See Carol A. Smith, "History and Revolution," in Smith, Guatemalan Indians. Ultimately, the kind of revolution Maya sought made little difference to the state. It punished all Maya for simply appearing to threaten state power. 17 See Carol A. Smith, "Local history in global context: social and economic transitions in western Guatemala," Comparative Studies in Society and History', no. 26 (1984), pp. 193-228. 18. The issue of cooptation is not a simple matter of corruption. By accepting the terms of discussion offered by the colonial state, the limits and attributes of the movement may come to reflectcolonial interaction more than autonomous, localized sources of determination. For how this occurred in India, see Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World-a Derivative Discourse? (London: Zed Books, 1986).

Tags: Maya, Guatemala, indigenous politics, resistance, ALMG

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