Language and the Politics of Self-Expression


Between 1978 and 1985, Guatemala was engulfed in intense internal warfare, la violencia as it was called in the country. The poor were caught in the middle. The guerrillas sought to radicalize them, and the army to punish them so they would not collaborate with or join the opposition. During the height of the violence, and estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people were killed; half a million people out of a national population of 8 million became internal refugees; 150,000 fled to Mexico as political and economic refugees; and 200,000 found their way to countries such as the United States. Many of the people affected by the civil war were Mayan Indians. In the western highlands, they faced the total destruction of some 400 hamlets and municipal centers; periodic sweeps, repression, and selective killings; forced participation in community-based civilian patrols; mass evangelical conversions; and economic devastation.

Although the military turned over the reins of government to civilian authorities and electoral democracy in 1985 and guerrilla groups have sought a peace agreement to end the conflict, selective Killings by the military continue. Civilian patrols still report on local affairs to military authorities and abuse their own people through unchecked assaults, robbery, and extortion.

Although many observers expected that violence and poverty in Guatemala would drive Mayans to assimilate - to attempt to pass as non-Indians outside their home communities - quite the opposite has occurred. In a country with the lowest physical quality of life index in Central America and the third lowest (after Haiti and Bolivia) in all Latin America, Mayans are attempting to promote their own development by revitalizing Mayan culture, identity, and languages. This article traces the special relevance of language for Mayan cultural renewal and for images of nation-state relations.

Mayan Indians are currently promoting cultural revitalization and national unification through an innovative network of research centers and grassroots education programs. Their goals for the 60% of the Guatemalan population that is indigenous are twofold.

First, they are working to foster a distinctive sense of pueblo, that is, a community of interest for all Mayab' as "a people" or "nation." Second, they are proposing a pluricultural (multicultural) model for participatory democracy.

According to the Council of Mayan Organizations of Guatemala, a pluri-cultural model would recognize multiple national cultures rather than the current hispanic standard, historically established by the Spanish colonizers and later transformed and modernized by their Ladino descendants. A pluricultural model would define collective cultural, linguistic, and political rights for Mayan citizens and legitimize claims for cultural and political space in national educational, judicial, and administrative systems (COMG1991).


Culturalists such as Luis Enrique Sam Colop and Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil argue that in Guatemala language must be read as a double voiced political code: "as indicators of the existence and the political position of Mayan communities" (Cojtí 1991:65-6). Their context-sensitive notion of language-as-practice in culturalist writings examines the regional distribution of language groups in Guatemala; patterns of monolingualism and bilingualism in community and national affairs; the stakes in producing standardized written versions of Mayan languages; state policy with regards to the "official" language for administration, the courts, and educational systems; and the ideologies inherent in existing arrangements.

The first reading of language-as-practice reveals patterns of internal colonialism central to present-day Guatemala. Culturalists observe that language represents key dimensions of the surrounding political and economic worlds: it is an indicator (indicator) of the relative position of Mayans and Ladinos. Demetrio Cojtí (1991:72) notes the powerful mandate ramifications of constitutional provisions designating Spanish as the official language in Guatemala:

The wide scope of the [constitutional] articles that institute Spanish as the language reserved for education, high culture, official communication, general public administration...implies that Mayan languages should carry out secondary functions, domestic and informal (popular culture, family life). We can say that the constitution constitutes linguistic inequality by giving a higher rank and formal responsibility to Spanish.

A 1978 law established literacy as a universal right and obligation. Literacy, however, was constructed as synonymous with "castellanización" - that is, teaching Spanish as the path to hispanic culture, a policy that had begun in 1935 (Herrera 1987:16). Culturalists argue the oral status of Mayan languages reflects colonial barriers to their written representation and the "subaltern" status of their communities (Cojtí 1991:67). Indigenous language literacy became a priority in 1981 when the protestant Summer Institute of Languages (SIL) suggested this approach might ease the transition to Spanish for monolingual children (Sam 1983:53-54).

Today, although Mayan children from dispersed hamlets often arrive at school with little back ground in Spanish because their families speak an indigenous language at home, Guatemalan education is overwhelmingly in Spanish. In some schools, the transition becomes an abrupt only language of instruction inside and outside the classroom. In others, Mayan languages are used as a "puente de incorporación," a bridging transition during the initial years of schooling to foster subsequent incorporation into the "real" Spanish curriculum later in school.

This philosophy governs an educational system in which 70% of the schools offer classes only through the fourth year of primary school and 92% of the population over 15 years of age never finished primary school, according to 1987 statistics (Herrera 1987:13). Illiteracy rates are extremely high: 42.9% for rural males and 59.3% for rural females over the age of 15, according to 1989 statistics. These averages mask other disparities: for departments (that is, states) where Mayans are the majority, illiteracy rates range from 52-75% of the population. Fewer than one-third of all Mayan women have received any formal education at all; so it is not surprising that Mayan women are three times more likely to be illiterate than Ladina women (Herrera 1987:13; Nunez et al. 1991:15).

A substantial percentage of the population still retains Mayan languages as their dominant mode of communication, speaks limited utilitarian Spanish, and is illiterate in all languages. Those with more education are often bilingual in Mayan languages and Spanish. Estimates of the percentage of Mayan speakers are variable, ranging from 36% to 70% of the national population (Herrera 1990: 30; Sam 1983: 10, 12); estimates of ethnic Mayans are considerably higher, ranging from 42% to 87% of the national population (Coji 1991:56).

The second reading of language-as-practice traces history through Mayan language development and emphasizes the modern persistence of Mayan languages as grassroots resistance to internal colonialism. The reconstruction of proto-Mayan by linguists stand as a symbol of the unity of Mayan origins and a rationale for current cultural unification.

At present, twenty Mayan languages are spoken in Guatemala (see diagram 2 for rough estimates of the number of speakers of each). Dialects of the major languages are now often seen as community-specific identity markers for Guatemala's 326 municipios (counties, which function as the units of community).

As early as 1945, Adrián Inés Chávez proposed a unified alphabet for indigenous languages in Coban, and members of the Academia de la Lengua Maya-Quiché disucssed another alphabet in 1959 and proposed it to the government three years later. The suggestion was rejected in favor of alphabets produced by the SIL and the Instituto Indigenista Nacional (IIN) (Sam 1983:29).

Nevertheless, culturalists worked through the 1970s and 1980s to produce dialect surveys, dictionaries of major languages, and a unified alphabet. These were important steps in the longer process of language unification. As the projects advanced, linguists such as Enrique Sam Colop began to find: "a great deal of similarity among the following language families: Chuj, Konjobal, Acatec and Jacaltec; among Quiché, Sipacapec, Sacapultec, Tzutujil, and Cakchikel."

Standardizing the written forms of Mayan languages is the ambitious next step language unification. The choice of a standard dialect is obvious in only one case: for Kekchí speakers the Copán dialect is widely accepted as having special prestige. In other cases, standardization will be based on common denominators across dialects (Sam 1983:24). Standardization will allow for mass dissemination of cultural materials, news, creative writings, and texts for formal and nonformal education.

Culturalists are seeking to displace common images of the limits and inadequacy of indigenous "tongues" (lenguas), by providing explanations of existing patterns and their underlying power structures and imagining alternative models for the future (Cojtí 1991: 68-69, 96-97; Oxlajuuj Keej 1993).


Culturalists want to open space for consideration of alternative educational systems and constructions of bilingualism. Several alternative constructions have emerged and no doubt others will be articulated. One alternative is the current official system - bilingualism as fluency in Spanish - which has driven the national school system since 1964. Culturalists view it as a form of institutionalized colonialism in which children are taught their maternal "tongue" is inferior to Spanish and individual education and mobility inevitably involve assimilation and ladinoization:

Castellanizació is an educative process which tries to give the indigenous population necessary knowledge for understanding and using Spanish with the goal of facilitating communication and living together in the country. (Sam 1983: 54, emphasis his).

An alternative culturalist plan calls for a strategic equilibrium in language use between maternal and second languages. This option envisions universal bilingualism in the schools as the institutionally favored goal, with monolingualism (in either Spanish or Mayan languages) as a option for specific cases (Sam 1983:48).

According to this model, the first two grades of elementary school would be taught in the language of the region. Third and fourth grades would involve a transitional period during which the ratios of maternal to second language would be 75/25 with the goal of a 50/50 split in the fifth year of primary school through the university. The plan would reinforce rather than undermine the basis of community authority:

Teaching in one's own language, moreover, will make it so that parents contribute more resolutely to the process of teaching and learning. One of the causes of school absenteeism is that a foreign language [i.e..Spanish] creates needs that are incompatible with the community. Children will also like [the new system] because the school will no longer be a torture chamber. And right afterwards, one enters the process of "castellanización," or teaching in Spanish as a second language. Next, one continues in school using both languages, without hierarchy and with their respective cultural contents (Sam 1983:98).

Culturalists acknowledge that not all Ladinos would be interested, so some monolingual schools would operate in the departmental and national capitals. The development of monolingual regional Mayan universities would be another future possibility (Cojti nd, Otzoy 1988).

In regional affairs, this model of bilingualism would be accompanied by the officialization of indigenous languages in the courts and administration. In national and international affairs, however, Spanish would still be the official language. The model is designed to prepare indigenous students to deal linguistically with transregional worlds (Sam 1983:98-112).

Another culturalist view, however, sees bilingualism as ethnocide, particularly when introduced through primary education in situations of political and economic inequality. Instead of bneing enriching or additive, second langauge acquisition is seen as subtractive, creating a zero mandated threatens children's linguistic development and, in the long run, the integrity and existence of the manternal language.

Decentralizing school systems so that most education is carried out in the appropriate regional language is the culturalist solution to this dilemma. The goal is to foster monolingualism in Mayan languages accompanied by instrumental Spanish given its role in state administration. Spanish as a second language could be offered early in school but would never be given more than 5% of classroom time. Or, alternatively, the introduction of Spanish could be held off until secondary school.

Linguists argue Mayan languages will have to be standardized and modernized to take on this role, particularly in scientific technical fields, and school materials will have to be developed to reflect Mayan culture (Cojtí 1991). Organizations such as the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala and Oxlajuuj Keej Maya' Ajtz'iib' have taken on the technical project of linguistic standardization. Schools themselves would be contributors to standardization.

As Demetrio Cojtí asserts, this type of education cannot be enacted without prior commitments to regionalization, decentralization of development projects, Mayan autonomy in determining cultural affairs, and the recognition of Mayan languages as the official languages for their regions. In departmental capitals where Ladinos and Mayans from a variety of language groups reside, the desired formula could be achieved by having specialized schools, separate classrooms in the same school, or bilingual instructors depending on the numbers of students for each language in question. Until Mayan universities are available, advanced education would be in Spanish, but when this is changed, then students might be given the choice of a variety of second languages, including English. The ultimate goal of this model is the dominance of Mayan languages in regional affairs (Cojtí 1991: 128-140).


At the heart of culturalist concerns is a problematization of "national culture." National legal and educational systems have not shared this concern; for them, national culture is synonymous with contemporary Ladino culture. By contrast, culturalists argue that such self-satisfaction only masks a submerged identity crisis:

"National culture" is the set of habits that Ladinos practice, a sum of North American-Hispanic elements that do not diminish [national culture] yet render it dependent. Jean Loup Herbert says of this culture: "They look endlessly for a definition of national culture: mestizo, Hispanic-American, Iberian-American, Latin american or modern - empty terms that reflect the alienated search of a minority. Paradoxically they hope for and predict the disappearance of indigenous culture into this historic nothingness." (Sam 1983:61)

This skepticism deconstructs the rightful authority and authoritativeness of existing constructions of "national culture" to represent the country. It is clear to culturalists how Ladinos have been able to reproduce the illusion of a hegemonic national culture - through their monopoly of the schools, church, and mass media.

As Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil announces: "Guatemala is a multinational society.... That is to say `Guatemalan culture' cannot be other than a confederation of cultures and languages in which each preserves its originality" (1991:6,84).

Mayan analyses of language and politics have important implications for models of national political organization. Culturalists and others are proposing new models for democratic organization that range from territorial autonomy, to administrative regionalization, to class-based within existing forms of participatory democracy. For culturalists, the emerging metaphor is "nation" as contrasted with "state". Enrique Sam Colop (1983:35) defines nation in the following terms:

Nation is a state of social consciousness, a psychological phenomenon. It is collective loyalty that units a society with its collective past and involves it in common aspirations. It is cultural identification, sentiment, and a common means of communication: language.

On the one hand, culturalists differentiate between "state" - as a sovereign instrument of administration and control over a territory - and "nation" - which does not always have juridic or political power or even territorial expression (Cojti 1991: 4; Sam 1983: 36). The Jews were recognized as a nation before the State of Israel, Enrique Sam Colop reminds us. Elements of nation emerge from the "hilo invisible de la etnia" (the invisible thread of ethnicity) which 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 (esencia) no one else shares. Constitutions and statutes do not have the capacity to argue against this essence, for theirs is another nature: as texts they are vulnerable and ephemeral, as Guatemalan political history certainly shows. A common judicial system does not unify distinct nations into a singularity because this imposed abstract uniformity fails to relate to the cultural reality of the indigenous majority (Sam 183: 37-39; Cojtí 1991: 11, 20, 36-39).

In imagining a multinational state, Demetrio Cojtí (1991: 68-71) suggests a new role for Mayan languages, as indicators of regionalized cultural identities, or nationalities, which would serve as the basis for subdivisions and self-administration (see diagram 3). As such Mayan languages would become the basis of political mobilization to break with existing models of internal colonialism which subdivide the country into departments without attention to the ways local culture and history shape the landscape (see diagram 4).

Cojtí (1991: 12-13, 70-76) validates an image of Guatemala as a federation of nations, each with its own government, territory, laws, and means for cultural development. Public administration would speak the language of those governed, not the other way around, as is presently the case; state government would routinely translate documents into regional languages. Representatives from national subunits - Mayan and Ladino - would make up the overarching government of the state. So far these issues have fallen outside the scope of all political persuasions:

We have to admit that until now the problem of nationalities has not been resolved by any revolution or counterrevolution, by any reform or counterreform, by any independence or annexation, by a coup or countercoup (Cojti 1991: 13).

The problem is more than recognizing different nationalities or assuming an abstract language of rights will easily transcend diversity. Rather it involves conceiving a formula "to federate diverse nationalities [and] articulate diverse national identities democratically" (Cojtí 1991:13). Without legitimacy, the risk is violence, as those who govern seek to impose their system and those who want to evade domination push for radical decentralization. Lebanon is a case in point for early culturalist writings, although the world abounds with more recent examples which prove their point. Without a concern for the multinational character of the country, regional development plans that seek decentralization are bound to be insufficient (Cojtí 1991:13, 15).

Culturalists use comparative examples to make their case for the viability and necessity of national reform. First, they show that a range of European societies - all high status and democratic - have already achieved what some would dismiss as an apocalyptic goal for Guatemala. Latin American examples are included to establish that reforms have been attempted in New World countries with substantial indigenous populations. Second, they illustrate that peoples caught in much more dramatic diasporas have reunified through the thread of a common consciousness to create viable nationstates. Finally, they show that suppressed ethnicities do not disappear when the larger system mutes them. The failure to negotiate pluricultural alternatives has torn other states apart. Mayan comparative politics shows another dimension of nations as "imagined communities;" other systems, perceived as counterparts, can be evoked as political leverage to demonstrate the feasibility of imagined alternatives and the dangers of the existing social order. The threat as real as it is oblique.

In their publications and public forums, culturalists have concentrated their efforts on cultural revitalization and education rather than on political action. But it is clear that their analyses have important implications for the organization of Guatemala society. They are working toward inclusive definitions of "nation" to counteract what they see as continual transformations of a singular ideology of coercive assimilation.

Current government policies and private- and public-school experiences with Mayan education will influence future debates about appropriate educational models and the politics of education for a multicultural nation. August 8-11 1994 marked the First Congress on Mayan Education, sponsored by the newly established Council for Mayan Education in Guatemala. 250 Mayan leaders came together for four days of meetings about their organizations and agendas. To mark the importance of the event. President Ramiro de León Carpio and Minister of Education Alfredo Tay Coyoy, the first Mayan in his position, celebrated the inauguration of the conference. Vice-Minister of Education, Manuel Salazar Tetzajüic, a Mayan activist in education, spoke at length about the importance of Mayan culture in the schools.

While the Guatemalan government has been frustratingly slow to enact and finance educational reforms, a range of international organizations with European, Latin American, and North American roots have supported Mayans working on models for decentralized school systems. UNICEF and European donors have been most interested in the promotion of Mayan languages as well as Spanish. The form school decentralization will take in Guatemala is still very much up in the air. What is striking in the 1990 is how central Mayan voices have become to national educational debates.

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