Maya of Guatemala

Name: Mayan Indians
Alternative names: various ethnic groups: Achi, Aguacateco, Cakchiquel, Chorti, Chuj, Itza, Ixil, Jacalteco, Kanjobal, Kekchi, Man, Maya-Mopan, Pocoman, Pokomchi, Quiche, Rabinal Achi, Sacapulteco, Sipacapense, Tacaneco, Tzutujil, Uspanteco
Location: The Highlands of Guatemala; also Mexico, Belize
Population: 3-5.6 million
% of population: 38%–70%
Religion: Indigenous beliefs, Catholic, Protestant
Language: various Indian languages including Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel, Kekchi

The Maya are the indigenous people of Guatemala and refer to themselves as the “natural” people. They are the pure-blooded descendents of the Mayan architects of the “lost” jungle cities of Central America and are speakers of 22 Mayan languages. Most live in the western Altiplano (highlands) but they inter-mix in many areas with ladinos, people of mixed Indian and Spanish descent. It is not always easy to define an Indian but the crucial factors are language and culture rather than biology. Indians hold traditional Indian values which are woven into a code from which there is little individual deviation, are subsistence farmers and have an attachment to their land which is spiritual, and an all-pervading sense of the magical and supernatural.

The problem of definition means that there have been widely differing estimates of the total numbers of Indians in Guatemala. The 1981 census puts it at 38% but independent estimates range up to 70%. According to Guatemalan government censuses, the proportion of indigenous people in the national population has declined from 78% in 1774 to 43% in 1964, but these figures are widely distrusted and the census officials admit that there is a 12% error margin. Another reason why the proportion has dropped has to do with increasing “ladinoization” and assimilatory pressures but even if the proportion is decreasing, over the years the numbers of Indians have increased.

The Maya were conquered by the Spanish conquistadors in the early sixteenth century but the potential culture shock was cushioned by the fact that for the majority of Indians the Spanish hierarchy took the place of the Mayan lords and priests. The symbols of the Catholic religion had parallels with Mayan beliefs and were adopted by the Maya who used them to maintain an adapted but still very Indian way of life. The Indians were parcelled out with Spanish encomiendas (land grants) as virtual slaves and herded into congregaciones (settlements). Submission to the patron became a way of survival against overwhelming odds. Independence in 1821 did not greatly change the Indian situation except for removing some of the regulations on the treatment of Indian labour and communal lands, which were often expropriated and given over to new cash crops such as coffee.

These factors resulted in increasing loss of Indian land to ladino landowners, a factor which continues today. Land has been divided into smaller and smaller plots. The reforming government of President Arevalo which attempted to redistribute land and encourage political and labour organization among Indians was overthrown in 1954 by a right-wing coup. Afraid of communist influence, the Catholic Church launched Acción Católica, a lay catechist movement designed to re-establish Catholic orthodoxy among the Maya. It achieved notable success but even more successful were the Protestants who in the last 15 years have converted at least 20% of the population. The Catholics won favour and acceptance by showing respect for indigenous culture and helped reform some destructive practices and encouraged education and literacy, and their influence was generally a radical one. The Protestants also organized education and campaigned against alcohol but their impact was a generally conservative one, especially the small fundamentalist American-based sects, who preached obedience to authority.

In the 1960s and 1970s important changes were taking place in traditional Indian life. Population pressure meant larger numbers of small farms and many Indians migrated to the coast to work on coffee plantations in terrible conditions. The market economy became more important, co-operatives, established during the Arbenz period, taught new skills and techniques. All of these factors lead to a new awareness among Indians that they had rights; there was an increasing demand for health care and education and new forms of political organization. These factors were intensified by the February 1976 earthquake which killed 27,000 people (overwhelmingly Indians) and made a million people homeless.

Political repression in Guatemala grew, especially during the regime of President Arana Osorio in 1970–73. From 1972 guerrilla armies began to organize among Indians, previously considered poor revolutionary material, and resulted in the emergence of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) in Ixcan, the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) in the Sierra Madre mountains and the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) in the northern jungles of Petan and Alta Veraz. Indians joined the new guerrilla forces, especially the EGP’s Local Clandestine Committees and Local Irregular Forces, in response to the army occupations of Indian towns and villages, and kidnappings, murders and “disappearances”. Attacks on Indian communities combined with the elimination of Indian community leaders convinced many that the government was waging an ethnic genocide and cultural annihilation of Mayan peoples. Many Maya felt that joining the guerrillas was their only hope of survival. Non-rural Indians organized into unions, slumdwellers’ committees and community groups and the formation of both the National Committee of Trade Union Unity (CNUS) and the Peasant Unity Committee expressed some of these aspirations.

Greatly intensified repression began after March 1982 when General Garcia was forced to resign and was replaced by General Rios Montt who launched a massive counter-insurgency campaign against the guerillas’ base in the countryside. “Plan Victoria 82” ruthlessly hunted down Indian “subversives”, homes were burnt and villages destroyed. Perhaps 10,000 Indians were killed. Over 700,000 civilians, largely Indians, were recruited into civilian militias, forced to fight in the front line against the guerrillas. Many families were left destitute as their men were taken by the army and they were deprived of their land and herded into so-called “model villages” controlled by the army. Over 200,000 Maya fled as refugees to Mexico, Honduras, Belize, the USA and elsewhere. Many others became displaced persons in Guatemala City or in remote jungle areas outside army control; perhaps half-a-million Maya were internal refugees within Guatemala. The total impact of this and later campaigns has been devastating for the Maya and can be described as genocidal; the most sustained attempt to destroy them and their way of life since the Spanish conquest.

Guatemala’s appalling human rights record drew international criticism and this may have been one factor in the restoration of civilian government in 1982 when the Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo became President. But the power of the military still remained intact in the countryside. Councils of Development became the main method of control, and projects, model villages and civilian patrols remained under tight military control. At first it did appear that there was a fall in the number of human rights abuses but by 1987 there was again a significant increase in killings and “disappearances”. Indigenous peoples joined with ladinos in monitoring and campaigning on human rights issues — most notably in the Mutual Support Group (GAM) where of the 1,000 members, 850 were Indian women. In 1958 came the Council of Ethnic Communities (CERJ) — “Runujel Junam” (meaning “everyone is equal” in Quiche). Just as significant has been the formation of the National Association of Peasants for Land (ANC) which demonstrated for land reform and by 1989 had 15,000 members. Four Indians won seats in the constituent elections in July 1984, one of them being the first elected representative of an all-Indian party.

Within Guatemala, Indians remain at the very bottom of all socio-economic indices. Life expectancy for an Indian is 16 years lower than for a ladino. Indigenous infant mortality rates are as high as 134 per 1,000 compared to a national average of 80 per 1,000, while 82% of children under five suffer from malnutrition. The government does provide health posts and medical centres in rural areas but there is an almost total lack of materials and staff. Only 19% of indigenous people are literate compared to 50% of ladinos, and in any case most education is in Spanish rather than indigenous languages. Real incomes have fallen precipitously in the last decade and 43% of the Guatemalan population live below the official poverty line. Ethnic discrimination is very basic; Indians are often equated with animals or sub-humans. Such racism is made even more insidious by state proclamations of equality and concern for its Indian citizens. Mayan culture is appropriated and exploited for national symbolism and tourism.

Mayan Indians are still under threat in Guatemala. At the end of 1987 the army launched an “End of the Year Offensive” which continued until well into 1988 and killed many Indians, displaced 7,000 more and forced 3,000 others hiding in the mountains to surrender to the military. Yet despite the overwhelming odds against them in the past they have managed to adapt and survive while retaining the basis of their beliefs and attachment to the land. As one of the largest Indian nations in the Americas and one of the few indigenous peoples anywhere in the world still to constitute a majority within a state, sheer numbers should ensure their physical survival. But their cultural survival still remains in the balance.

(See also Amerindians of South America; Mexico’s Indians; Miskito Indians of Nicaragua)