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Becoming Maya in Guatemala

Joe Quick

Last updated March 29, 2007

The Maya Movement is a loose coalition of Maya organizations and individuals who participate in efforts to engender Maya self-determination and cultural resurgence in the Maya communities within Guatemala. The movement is predicated on the pronouncement that Mayas have not and cannot “find themselves” in the language, religion, or culture of outsiders (Metz 2006: 275, Molesky-Poz 2006: 20). Rather, they must find themselves in the diverse forms of cultural expression that have been passed down to them from their own ancestors. The movement asserts that it is necessary and just that the Maya be granted the right to put those expressions into practice and that they be afforded self-determination as a means to guarantee that right.

The term “Maya,” as it is used in this context, is a relatively new construct. Prior to the emergence of the Maya Movement on the Guatemalan social landscape, the indigenous peoples of the region were conceived as “Indians” or “peasants” while the term “Maya” was reserved for the supposedly lost cultures that haunted the archaeological parks of the region. For instance, Q’eqchi’ was simply the language that was spoken by people who “would refer to themselves as being from a certain locality, community or municipality” (Wilson 1995: 268) and many distanced themselves from the ancient Maya, who they regarded as “savages” or “wild men” (Wilson 1995: 269). As Brent Metz points out, Mayaness is often still denied to Guatemala’s indigenous peoples on the basis of their alleged inauthenticity (2006: 6). It has required the florescence of a social movement that takes pride in the connections that its members maintain to their shared Maya past and emphasizes their shared present to break through the barrier of supposed inauthenticity and barbarity and redefine what it is to be Maya.

Indians and Peasants

Great efforts have historically been expended in Guatemala on efforts to “ladinoize” or assimilate the indigenous population into the “national culture.” This is a process in which an individual gives up traditional cultural markers such as clothing, religion, and language in favor of the ladino equivalents. It places indigenous people within a class-based framework and denies them their ethnic identity. This has taken the form of official state policies and development strategies, missionary efforts, and social ideologies as well as many other less notable cases.

Following independence, the Guatemalan government passed a resolution that directed priests to “extinguish, by the most prudent and efficient means possible, the languages of the indigenous peoples” (quoted in Wilson 1995: 27). Similar policies have continued, in official capacities and otherwise, into the present era. At the peak of the violence during Guatemala’s civil war, defense minister Mejía Victores declared, “We must get rid of the words ‘indigenous’ and ‘Indian’” (quoted in Wilson 1995: 27).

Economic and social development projects have traditionally worked with a similar attitude. Their approach has most often been one of either assimilation or integration of peasants and rural communities into the Guatemalan economy and the world market. Both approaches have the ultimate goal of ladinoization of the indigenous population and ignore the needs and realities of the people they target (Rodríguez Guaján 1996). Educational programs, too, have focused on Spanish language literacy to the exclusion of indigenous languages – students are taught “how wonderful it is to be a working-class Mestizo” (quoted in Wilson 1995: 28) but are never taught about how wonderful it is to be indigenous.

The Church has followed in stride. Programs such as Catholic Action were originally designed to eliminate indigenous culture and practices in order to bring the indigenous population more in line with the wishes of ladino Guatemala and orthodox Catholicism (Molesky-Poz 2006). The same is true for Protestant initiatives such as the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Conflicts, particularly the civil war, have also been framed in exclusively class-based terms. During the war, the guerillas urged ladinos and Mayas alike to shed their ethnic false consciousness in favor of class-based struggle (Metz 2006: 8). At the same time, government forces committed widespread ethnocide in the name of routing the communist threat.

These ideologies bounce back and forth between identifying Mayas as Indians in need of ladinoization and peasants in need of incorporation, but the two are largely equivalent. Whether Indians or peasants, the indigenous population has historically and consistently been denied its own identity. The Maya Movement has taken great strides in an effort to move away from the framework and to regain and rework Mayaness.

Development of the Maya Movement

Scholars find the roots of the Movement in a number of changes that took place during the period of civil war that loomed over Guatemala for more than three decades beginning in 1960. Jean Molesky-Poz traces the birth of the Movement to the efforts of a small group in Quetzaltenango during the 1960s. Norma Quixtán, a leader in that group expressed their purpose as a “process of sensitizing the population to the theme of Mayan culture” (Molesky-Poz 2006: 26). This effort included such initiatives as multilingual radio programs and set the stage for organizations that began to develop during the 1970s around the subject of Maya cultural revitalization. These first organizations focused primarily on the K’iche’ community, as they were based in the K’iche’ communities, but many other organizations followed in the years to come.

During this same period, Catholic Action had a number of important effects on the Maya population of Guatemala. Catholic Action was designed with exactly the opposite purpose of the Maya Movement: it was meant to instill a more orthodox Catholicism in indigenous communities by destroying the artifacts and customs of local practice. Its development programs were wholly class-based and ignored cultural development. Nevertheless, the initiatives of the Church opened the door to many opportunities for the community leaders who would be the seeds of the Maya Movement. Molesky-Poz points out that catechists trained by Catholic Action were able to redefine their relationships with the ladino community and begin to network with Mayas from other regions (2006: 27). What is more, Catholic Action initiated community development projects such as health centers and educational programs that would later serve as an important part of the infrastructure employed by Maya activists (Molesky-Poz 2006: 27).

Finally, the conditions of the war itself helped to set the stage for Maya activism. In the words of David Stoll, the great majority of the indigenous population was caught “between two armies” (1993). Both sides of the conflict were opposed to Maya self-determination: “the modernist Right saw the Indians and their culture as an anachronism and hindrance to development, and the orthodox Marxist Left condescendingly believed that to put ethnic struggle ahead or on par with class struggle was false consciousness” (Metz 2006: 8). The environment was such that indigenous rights had no place in it.

When forced to choose the lesser of two evils, some Mayas chose a third option entirely. They rejected the explicitly anti-ethnic framework that was held in common by both sides of the conflict that raged around them and reworked their own struggle in terms of cultural revitalization. This choice has spilled over into the political realm, in which “the heart of Pan-Maya activism is the project of rendering ‘national culture’ explicitly problematic” (Warren 2003: 171). Mayanists such as Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil argue that the belief that all Guatemalans share a single culture is patently false, that the assumptions of those who promote ethnic assimilation of the Maya into ladino culture are false (Cojtí Cuxil 1996) and that “‘Guatemalan culture’ cannot be other than a confederation of cultures and languages in which each preserves its originality” (Warren 2003: 170).

The 1990s saw a rapid expansion of the Maya Movement in Guatemala; several factors played into this. The Columbus quincentenary in 1992 was marked off by a series of conferences in Guatemala and abroad that helped the Maya to create networks that spanned the globe. International support for indigenous rights campaigns became more widespread at the same time that the Maya were catapulted into the spotlight following the Nobel prize awarded to Rigoberta Menchú in 1992. Perhaps most importantly, the peace process opened the door to the creation of the Accord on Identity and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the official formation of the Secretariat of the Peace, which is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the provisions outlined in the 1996 Peace Accords are implemented satisfactorily.

The ongoing Maya movement continues to be led primarily by educated Western Mayas and has formulated a long list of demands in the area of cultural and economic development. Included in their goals are self-government; freedom of cultural and religious expression through language, clothing and religious practice, reappropriation of archaeological sites to the Maya community, and economic development that is sensitive to the needs and traditions of the indigenous community (Cojtí Cuxil 1996, Fischer 1996, Metz 1998, Metz 2006, Rodríguez Guaján 1996, Warren 1998). They also demand parallel rights for the other non-Maya indigenous groups contained within Guatemala’s borders – the Xinca and Garifuna (Fischer 1996).

Participation in the Maya Movement

Participation in the Maya Movement is an important and multifaceted decision for those who join the many organizations that form the Movement. As Brent Metz (1998) points out, many Mayas, particularly Eastern Mayas, are reluctant to join the movement. Many have never thought of themselves as “Maya” and are unsure about who the Maya are. Distrust of leaders, both indigenous and ladino, continues to be widespread, and many Mayas are uncomfortable with the public discussion of rights (Metz 1998: 337). What is more, the common identity that the Movement claims for all Mayas may feel rather contrived to many indigenous communities because they otherwise do not identify with Mayas from other regions who might look very different in terms of their dress, religion, or other markers of identity. In order to garner support for their cause, the Movement has needed to be able to offer clear benefits to those who participate and to mobilize a sense of common identity and common history among the many dispersed indigenous communities of Guatemala.

The most obvious of the benefits that the Maya Movement offers to its participants is a voice. As is the case for indigenous movements around the globe, it is hard for a single Maya community or individual to find a voice in the political and social structures that exist within the established hierarchy of the Guatemalan state – individuals are easily lost in a sea of voices and indigenous peoples are often forced to shout from the back of the crowd. The Maya Movement provides a voice to its members through collective action. By drawing in communities from across the country, the Movement is able to give voice to the common obstacles and concerns that those communities share and it is able to do so much more loudly than any of those communities would be capable of individually.

The Movement has also been successful in its efforts to encourage Mayas to make use of their individual voices. Metz highlights a meeting at which participants were met with “resounding applause for overcoming the shame of talking in public” (1998: 340). In other arenas, he notes, Ch’orti’s are now much less reluctant to make their voices heard on issues of human and cultural rights. “Whereas a few years ago their answer would have been ‘nothing’ or ‘to be left alone,’ they now demanded fair salaries, soil conservation, bilingual education in well-equipped schools with responsible teachers, latrines, electricity, roads and bridges, rural health posts, and potable water” (Metz 1998: 341). Similar transformations can be observed in small and large-scale organizations in aldeas across the country.

The Maya Movement also provides several spiritual and emotional outlets to its participants. Spiritually, the Movement has given its participants the opportunity to find themselves in an identity that is otherwise denied to them. It has opened a space in which Mayas can rediscover “a spirituality corresponding to their own social and religious meaning” (Molesky-Poz 2006: 29). Emotionally, the Movement has created a type of safe space for the Maya to vent their resentments and criticisms of ladino and Maya leaders alike (Metz 1998: 338).

Many of the criticisms of ladinos that have been voiced through the organizations that make up the Maya Movement have amounted to outright indictments of the ladinos and their Spanish forebears. The magazine Ixim, published in Maya languages as well as Spanish criticized ladinos for their ethical degeneration and highlighted issues such as ethnocide and cultural discrimination (Fischer 1996: 61-62). In Eastern Guatemala, a group of Ch’orti’ gathered for a conference identified the motives of the Spanish conquest: “‘to enslave,’ ‘to wipe out our race,’ ‘to rob land,’ and ‘to rape women’” (Metz 1998: 339). Such expressions are cathartic for frustrated Mayas and help to mold the Movement into a powerful force both by identifying the enemy and by revealing the sentiments that are held in common by the diverse participants.

Metz points out that this same space is used for criticisms of parts of the Maya community from within (1998: 339). Elders criticize the youth for forgetting their traditions. Youth criticize elders for failing to pass on their traditions and for not doing more to protect their environment. Women criticize men for not allowing them full participation. Such vocalizations are immensely valuable to the articulation of the demands stipulated by the Maya Movement because it helps to shape the Movement’s goals around the needs of the community.

Common Mayaness

Much of the allure of the Maya Movement to Guatemala’s indigenous populations is found in the Movement’s appeal to the common heritage that is shared by the diverse Maya peoples of the region. They have undergone similar hardships and encountered similar stigmas against their vulture and themselves. They find affinities between their languages and religious practices. They share common ancestors. Each element is a fiber in the “invisible thread of ethnicity” that “involves identification with a group having a common history, its own culture, a collective memory, religion, ways of dress, and future aspirations – in short, a deeply felt essence no one else shares” (Warren 2003: 173). That thread helps to draw people into the Movement and serves to further strengthen the message and the resolve that the Movement promotes.

This discourse about the cultural elements that are held in common goes hand-in-hand with the Maya Movement’s criticism of ladinos. Were it not for the discrimination practiced by outsiders, leaders argue, the Maya would not find themselves in their current marginal position. The ladinos are blamed for the loss of “central elements of Maya traditions, like language, surnames, history, cosmovision, music, dress, crafts, and the number system” (Metz 2006: 277). Mayas’ common marginalization at the hands of a common enemy, thus ironically creates a sense of solidarity within the Movement, which in many ways helps to actually create Mayaness.

Common History

Among the first appeals to common history came from the Partido Indígena de Guatemala “as subjects seeking our own history and destiny” (quoted in Fischer 1996: 62). Though the party was short-lived in its original form, it took the first steps in tying together the historic fate of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. Later, Maya leaders would come to be recognized “as people whose empathy, sensitivity, and common understanding are based on a similar historical experience” (Metz 1998: 343).

Though local differences have abounded, the Maya communities have been subjected to the same colonization by the Spanish empire and the Guatemalan state, the same pressures from the Catholic Church and later by Protestant missionaries, the same institutionalized racism of Guatemalan society, and the same horrors of a war that was not theirs. More particularly, the Maya are mobilizing on the grounds of the common stigma that has been applied to them as “Indians” for the last five hundred years (Metz 1998: 338). They recognize that they all “come from the same branch” (Metz 2006: 275) and that their common past makes them part of the same family.

Common Religion

Common religion and religious practice have also defined an important arena for the Maya Movement. Richard Wilson (1995) suggests several reasons for this: religion, as it is expressed at the local level, is among the lest controlled sources of alterity that are available to the Maya; religion in the form of the Catholic Church has been a prominent agent of contact between the Maya and external influences since the first years of Spanish contact; and religion as a primary source of identity has been inherited by Maya communities from their pre-Columbian ancestors. In practice, these come together to offer Mayanists a powerful source of identity that very clearly positions them in contrast with the ladino community and stands out as uniquely Maya. Metz notes the power of religious ideas that are discovered to be held in common to draw participants into the Maya Movement: “[the Ch’orti’s] were surprised to hear western Mayas speak unabashedly of animistic beliefs, such as the reified powers of the sun, wind, moon, earth, and corn, that Ch’orti’s thought only they themselves held” (1998: 338). The Ch’orti’s were thus drawn into the Maya fold, a group with which they had not previously identified.

Religion is, of all the areas of commonality that members of the Maya Movement find between themselves, perhaps the most dangerous for the Movement: such strategic use of religion has the attached risks of over-generalization and idealization. For example, the oft used couplet, “heart of sky, heart of earth” of the western Maya (who continue to compose the majority of the Movement’s leadership) does not fit into the cosmogony of the Ch’orti’. They know these same forces by different names and invoke them in different ways (Metz 1998: 341). To impose religious homogeneity across such a heterogeneous population as the Maya is in fact to work against the goals of cultural diversity that are promoted by the Movement (Watanabe 1995).

Common Language Family

Language, too, provides an enduring bond between diverse Maya communities. The first efforts to standardize the writing system used to transcribe Maya languages were undertaken by Adrián Inés Chávez during the 1940s (Fischer 1996: 57). It has since fallen out of use but another system has taken its place and Mayas have begun to discover more innate connections between their languages. One of Metz’s informants provides an example: “For dog we say ‘tzi’ and almost every ethnic group and Maya language it’s the same” (Metz 2006: 275). Linguists have done much to encourage this type of discovery through their study of the Maya glottochronology and modern Maya languages have even been used to help decipher the glyphs of the ancient Maya, providing yet another connection to a shared past (Coe 1992). Individuals have also found confidence in the Movement’s encouragement of the use of Maya languages and in so doing, “have ‘found’ their Maya identity” (Metz 1998: 341).

The Transformation into Mayas

The transformation from “Indian” or “peasant” to “Maya” is an intricate and sometimes problematic process for Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. It requires both institutional and cultural changes on the part of the broader Guatemalan society as well as a number of personal adjustments on the part of would-be-Mayas. Drastic as these changes might at first seem, none of them require the public or the individual to actually lose anything in terms of culture; in fact, Mayanists argue that all parties have much to gain from such transformations.

The term “Maya” had to first be reevaluated in the public consciousness. This process began with the efforts of a few people to make Guatemalans more aware of the presence and power of indigenous cultures that had been carefully obscured by the “national culture” of the state. Their efforts induced a greater consciousness of indigenous culture within Guatemala among Guatemalans and foreigners and they set the stage for a revaluation of indigenous customs, but it was not until Mayas declared themselves Mayas that Mayaness could begin to be applied to them. This has involved a long, as yet unfinished campaign to reappropriate indigeneity and the term “Maya” from the state and to imbue it with new meaning – such is the driving force behind calls to turn over control of archaeological parks to indigenous oversight. The reimagining of Mayaness is not yet complete, as is noted above, but it has gone far in opening a new space for the indigenous peoples of Guatemala to find themselves and to proudly share their culture and beliefs with one another and with others.

Having claimed Mayaness for themselves, it fell to the Maya Movement to recruit others to the cause. If the movement were going to be a truly pan-Maya initiative (as it is sometime called), then it would need to reach out to Mayas of all ethnic groups and represent the needs of all of them. “Maya” was therefore an appropriate choice of terminology. The term “Maya” had previously been reserved for the ancient inhabitants of such cities as Tikal and Quiriguá, the forebears of the modern indigenous populations in Guatemala (except for the Xinca and the Garifuna). The Maya Movement reached back to this common ancestor to demonstrate the connectedness of the populations that they wished to unite under their banner.

It is not enough to simply claim that the Maya are all Maya, however. Participants must buy into the claim. People who identified as Atitecos (from Santiago Atitlán) and Trixeños (from San Andres Xecul) and Jakaltecos (from Jacaltenango) all had to reimagine themselves as a part of a larger community in which all are Maya. This could be accomplished only through a demonstration of the common threads that tie the diverse indigenous communities of Guatemala together in a shared history and culture. Due to the limited contact between those communities and the secrecy with which many cultural expressions came to be practiced, their commonalities have required explicit vocalization in cases such as the case of the Ch’orti’ who thought that their animistic beliefs and ritual practices were theirs alone. Success on this front has been widespread as is demonstrated by the examples cited above.

At first glance, such changes seem quite radical, but they do not need to be. On the level of personal identification, “Maya” is simply another layer of identity that piles on top of other forms of identity that have already been established. One need not give up being a Trixeño to be a K’iche’ nor give up either to be Maya. None of these identities prevent the individual from being Guatemalan.

This extends to the level of national politics. Politicians who oppose the Maya Movement are prone to resort to the claim that the Maya seek to tear Guatemala apart at the seams through their calls for autonomy. This is not what Mayanists claim, however. Cojtí Cuxil explains that self-determination may be accomplished in two different forms: “within the framework of the Guatemalan state (internal self-determination) or outside of it (external self-determination)” (1996: 27). Internal self-determination is compatible with all but the most radical claims of Mayanists and is entirely compatible with the wishes of the great majority of Mayanists.

Mayas want to be included in the Guatemalan state – they do not want to be assimilated by the state. This means a reorganization of territorial boundaries within the state (Cojtí Cuxil 1996) and it means a rethinking of development projects to better meet the needs of the Maya peoples (Rodríguez Guaján 1996) but it does not mean the deconstruction of the state. Rather, Mayanists call for the re-construction of the state to better meet the needs of its people. There is nothing to lose except the discrimination of the current system and everything to win through the “reflorescence of the cultures of the Maya and, with it, pluralistic development and true democracy” (Rodríguez Guaján 1996: 88).


Beginning as “Indians” or “peasants,” who were thought to be greatly in need of development and assimilation, the indigenous peoples of Guatemala have reclaimed their Mayaness in the face of institutionalized racism, ongoing cycles of violence and a history of disempowerment. The Maya Movement claims cultural rights on the basis of a heritage that is shared by the many diverse communities of Mayas from different language and ethnic groups across the Guatemala. Its focus has therefore been on discovering and promoting those links that bind those groups together in their common Mayaness. This strategy has not only won the movement a place in the political sphere, but has also been extremely important in the recruitment of indigenous peoples to the cause as they too make the transition from Indians and peasants to Mayas.

Sources Cited

Coe, Michael D.
1992	Breaking the Maya Code.  New York: Thames and Hudson.

Cojtí Cuxil, Demetrio.
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	Fischer and R. McKenna Brown, eds. Pp. 19-50. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Fischer, Edward F.
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Fischer, Edward F. and R. McKenna Brown, eds.
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Metz, Brent E.
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Molesky-Poz, Jean.
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Stoll, David.
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Warren, Kay B.
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Watanabe, John M.
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Wilson, Richard
1995	Maya Resurgence in Guatemala: Q’eqchi’ Experiences.  Norman: University of Oklahoma