Weaving Mayans Into The Fabric Of Society

One Sunday morning not long ago, I stepped out of a cafe on the central square in Antigua, the old Spanish capital of what is now Guatemala, and straight into a stunning profusion of bright, animated colors. Over the next few hours, several thousand Mayan women streamed into the square and the cobblestone streets leading to it. They had come, I was told, from all but the most distant of Guatemala's 22 departments. And they were dressed, most of them, in huipil, the tunics Mayans weave in vivid patterns that identify their tribes (among much else).

A mass ensued in a nearby church. But the gathering's true theme was clear from a canvas banner stretched across one side of the square. It depicted scenes of gruesome violence from the long civil war that engulfed Guatemalans, especially the Mayan majority, until four years ago. There was a crude mass grave, a burned village, survivors wandering homeless in the altiplano, the Guatemalan highlands. At the top was an affectionately rendered picture of the late Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was assassinated in 1998, after he finished Guatemala: Never Again!, the first comprehensive report on the violence. Next to Gerardi's smiling portrait were two slogans. "Let's teach our children that justice is the fruit of truth," one said. And the other: "People, don't forget your history."

"That was brave," a friend said later when I told him of the gathering. And so it was. The civil war is over--leaving 200,000 killed during 36 years of carnage--but the threat of right-wing violence is still never far off. A "culture of fear," as many Guatemalans put it, remains a pervasive feature of public life here--which is understandable, given that opponents of the army and the ruling elite are still "disappeared," though not in the numbers of previous years.

TAKING ROOT. In this grim political climate, though, something bright and promising--as salutary as all those multihued huipil in Antigua--is beginning to take root. After centuries of poverty, neglect, exclusion, and abuse, the Maya are insisting on a proper accounting of what many consider an attempted genocide by the army and its paramilitary allies. They are also claiming a place at the political table and reasserting the validity of Mayan culture and languages.

The Maya make up close to 70% of Guatemala's 11 million people. So as they rediscover their identity, they will also redefine the nation's. At issue, to use an awkward but commonly used term, is the meaning of "Guatemalan-ness."

The ladino minority here, which includes people of European or mixed blood, have traditionally been less than generous in defining that notion. To put it plainly, the Maya have been the victims of systematic racism since the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Mayans were enslaved until the practice was abolished in 1824. Fifty years later, "land reforms" dispossessed them. And 50 years after that, Miguel Angel Asturias, a ladino law student, asserted that "new blood"--crossbreeding--was the only hope for the Maya. Asturias went on to write brilliant novels--imaginative celebrations of the Mayan world that earned him exile and, in 1967, the Nobel prize for literature. But in that early phase he epitomized the local oligarchy's view: "The stagnation of the indigenous race, its immorality, inaction, and rude way of thinking," he wrote, "have their origin in the lack of bloodlines that will push it vigorously toward progress."

He did say "rude way of thinking," didn't he? Well, let's mind our manners and conclude simply that Guatemalans are learning to look at progress differently. Here, as elsewhere around the planet, progress in our era is understood to lie not in the obliteration of difference, but in acknowledging varied pasts, traditions, and beliefs--different blood, if you like. "We know we are a multicultural country, and that is a big change for us," says Oscar Clemente Marroquin, the ladino director of La Hora, a small but influential newspaper in Guatemala City. "The challenge is for Westerners and Indians to build a new society together."

FRACTIOUS SOCIETY. There is no shortage of resistance to the new thinking, but the foundations of such a society are getting built nonetheless. Mayans occupy senior positions in President Alfonso Portillo's administration, and several hold seats in the Congreso, the national legislature. In the countryside, nongovernmental aid organizations seem as abundant as Mayan maize. And as the NGOs struggle to repair the civil war's damage, they are helping Mayan villagers and townspeople awaken to their shared heritage and their place in the national polity. It makes for a fractious society: Discombobulated is a kind word for the Portillo government, and conservatives in the capital consider the NGOs a provocation. After a time, though, you recognize you are witnessing the reinvention of a nation, and advances of such scope never come easily.

That certainly holds for OKMA, an organization that operates out of an old Spanish house a few blocks from the central square in Antigua. The acronym stands for Oxlajuuj Keej Maya' Ajtz'iib', which translates roughly as "Mayan scribes of 13 deer"--that is, a group of writers and linguists named for a day on the Mayan sacred calendar. The spirited, articulate young men and women at OKMA have been laboring for a decade to produce the first standard grammars in various Mayan tongues--of which there are 21. After the primers will come dictionaries. In effect, OKMA is preparing for a multilingual Guatemala that some think has already arrived but others believe is still some years off. Multilingual education is now a matter of law, but--as is drearily common here--there are no official or professional organizations to implement the law.

"We're part of a political and social process--but a slow process," says an OKMA coordinator named--well, that's complicated. He's Ruperto Montejo Estaban in Spanish and Saqch'en in the language of his tribe--which used to be called the Kanjobal, but in OKMA's standardized spelling are the Q'anjob'al. "We're trying to erase a negative image of our people and our languages," Saqch'en says, "and that means reversing an old historical pattern, which had the effect of telling us to forget who we were."

There are many decades of thought and effort behind that observation. Estuardo Zapeta, a young, outspoken Mayan commentator in Guatemala City, traces the Mayan resurgence to the 1940s, when Guatemala launched institutos indigenistos, modest efforts to bring Indian culture out of the shadows. "It started as an elite movement among educated Mayans," says Zapeta, who tends toward a conservative view in these matters. "And it's an elite movement even now."

True--up to a point. In its current phase, the forward edge of the movement lies in projects such as OKMA, intended to spread the Mayan resurgence among ordinary villagers. This shift began during the civil war, when the guerrilla movement, though largely ladino-led, encouraged awareness of indigenous rights and unity among Mayan tribes. Rigoberta Menchu, the controversial activist who won the 1992 Nobel peace prize, is the movement's noted chronicler of this period.

Weaving Mayans into the Fabric of Society (int'l edition)

Seven years ago, a Mayan scholar named Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez published A Mayan Life. It is the story of a Q'anjob'al Mayan who is born into the typically harsh life of an isolated village in the northern highlands. In 1998 came Return of the Maya, the tale of a war orphan. These are not great books, fair to say. But they are important, for they are the first truly Mayan novels. And as much as the Maya of Guatemala need education, opportunity, political leadership--and peace--they also need a story of their own. "We must gather up those loose threads," Gonzalez writes in his second book, "and tell the world that our roots have not died." So they have begun to tell us.

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