The Pan-Mayan Movement: Mayans at the Doorway of the New Millennium

The Mayans have struggled for centuries against marginalization and the lack of educational and economic opportunities. Besides the internal warfare which lasted more than 30 years, Mayans had to deal with other forms of indoctrination, fear, and death as a result of guerrilla warfare, army scorched earth policies, and civil patrols. It is important to examine the current struggles of Mayan people in an effort to make our presence visible during the national reconciliation. There are several trends in which the revitalization of Mayan culture has taken form as an effective and non-violent method for historical reconstruction. The revitalization of the language, Mayan religion and spirituality, native knowledge, Mayan schools, and political consciousness are among the most expressive forms of this Pan-Mayan movement. This movement and the major changes in Maya political views were generated during the brutal repression they endured. The elders remind the youth "Mach xhqiloq stzoti'heb' ya' kom-am komi yinh qanma. Hatik'a sb'elen heb'ya ha' b' ay xhkawxi kok'ul." "Don't forget the teachings of the ancestors. In their paths we will find hope for the future."

Mayan Political and Cultural Awakening

The massacre of the 100 Q'eqchi' Mayans in Panzos, Guatemala in 1979, marked the beginning of a strong politicization of the Mayan population. News of the massacre spread, condemning the Guatemalan army for its criminal actions. Poems and songs were written honoring the victims of the massacres and denouncing the violation of our human rights. This was the wake-up call for Mayans who lived with terrible restrictions and few opportunities. Also, the murder of radio personality, Timoteo Curruchiche, had a national impact. His radio program was directed to the Mayan population, sometimes used the Mayan language, and addressed the problems of violence in the nation. The death of a voice, with which people identified, symbolized the death of our own voices. Mayans became more silent and fearful of death squads during the government of General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia.

The cultural revitalization taking place in most Mayan communities during the 1970s became stagnant and its leaders were silenced. University students, professors, missionaries, and politicians who denounced the aggression against peasants and indigenous people were persecuted. The death of Congressmen Alberto Fuentes Morh and the ex-Mayor of Guatemala City, Manuel Colom Argueta, was the turning point of political violence implemented by the government. Mayan organizations such as the Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC) were under attack and most of its leaders went underground and became guerrillas to survive.

During this period, the numbers of young Mayans pursuing careers in vocational schools with scholarships from the Catholic church increased. This changed the educational structure in Mayan communities from having school teachers who did not speak or share the indigenous culture to having Mayan school teachers who taught in their own linguistic communities. There was an increase in the awareness of Mayan values and pride in our cultural heritage.

Mayan intellectuals began to organize their efforts for our cultural survival and revitalization. In this process, the work of Mayan writers became important as a way of ensuring the Mayan culture and world views were passed on effectively from one generation to the next. During the early 1980s, this organized effort aided the creation of the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala (ALMG). The recognition of ALMG in 1985 as an autonomous institution funded by the government was a major achievement for Mayan self-representation. The ALMG is a Pan-Mayan institution which, according to Kay Warren, is represented by the 21 Mayan linguistic communities in Guatemala.

The so-called "popular organizations" have a more political Pan-Mayan view. The Mayan umbrella organizations such as COMG and the Coordinadora del Pueblo Maya de Guatemala (COPMAGUA) had a strong input in the outcome of the negotiations for peace. Although there has been division of leadership within and among these organizations, their tenacity in mobilizing the masses for demonstrations has been effective. They are recognized as institutions that voice the demands of indigenous people about the implementation of the peace accords.

Another important development in the Maya awakening was the Assembly of Civil Society (ACS), which pushed indigenous issues on the table for discussions between the army and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). More recently, the formation of the Truth Commission ( Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico de Guatemala), with the participation of Mayan intellectuals, have been called to rewrite Mayan history with a focus that goes beyond survival.

Mayans: A New Force In Guatemalan Politics

Mayans are becoming interested in politics, even though some are akin to the ideologies of the old right-wing political parties. During the past elections, most indigenous populations supported mayoral candidates who were postulated by civic committees. In reality, these parties were not interested in having Mayans in political positions of power. Some committees had links to the newly formed Frente Democrático Nueva Guatemala (FDNG), organized and led by the popular movement leaders. The FDNG was seen as the democratic force that could construct peace and reconciliation in Guatemala and was successful in winning a few seats. Nevertheless, little has been achieved by the opposition parties since the ruling party, Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN), has the majority of representatives in congress.

During the last election in Guatemala, many political parties died out (e.g. Partido Institucional Democrático or PID) because they no longer provided a means for change and democracy in Guatemala. This has had a positive result in the Mayan communities because the old caciques no longer manipulated the local or regional Mayan communities. Mayan leaders from the caciques were loyal to their parties and feared by the communities. They distributed communal lands among their close followers to maintain political ties. Their places are now taken by young political leaders (some intellectuals) who have no loyalty to any political party These leaders can shift from one party to another without loyalty Their interest is to become mayors of towns, a position which they use for personal gains. Another problem is that the ruling party, PAN, has not fulfilled its promise of having Mayans in political position of power.

Mayan Projects of Cultural Revival: The Pan-Mayan Movement

Mayan cultural revival and achievements are astonishing because they developed in restricted space and with limited resources. The new Mayan movement is emerging from the ashes of the 36 year-old armed conflict which finally came to an end last December. This revival responds to the extreme pressure posed upon indigenous cultures during the civil war in which massacres caused ruptures within Mayan worldviews and traditions. The present revitalization of Mayan culture also reflects the continuous mobilization of indigenous people towards self-determination, On cultural, linguistic, political, and religious levels, Mayans are unifying the different Mayan nations in a Pan-Mayan movement.

Pan-Mayanism is a cultural movement or self-understanding and validation of our Mayan heritage. Carol Smith calls this political process of redefining Mayan identity within the global identity, "Mayanness." Mayans prefer to call our own efforts a process of self-determination and autonomy which will help to create a pluralistic Guatemalan nation-state. Mayans must take pride in our culture in order to understand its dynamic history. The negative stereotypes or images embedded in the minds of the different non-Mayan cultures must be radically changed to appreciate Mayan history and culture, past and present. The construction of a Guatemalan nationalism must come from a compromise between Mayans and non-Mayans. If Guatemala proclaims its uniqueness as a nation using Mayan elements and symbols, it must recognize the Mayan culture as an integral part of the nation's development.

All Mayan voices must be listened to so all sectors of the Mayan population can be heard. Mayans must understand the political environment not only at the local level, but also at the national and international levels. The world is changing dramatically and we must strengthen our national feelings through the recognition of other ways of thinking. The distinctiveness and cultural expression of each Mayan culture is recognized and valued within the Pan-Mayan understanding. The diversity of Mayan culture should be seen as an advantage for the continuity of Mayan culture instead of an obstacle.

Some Basic Goals of the Pan-Mayan Movement

The recognition and value of each Mayan linguistic group make the Pan-Mayan identity very strong and complex. Pan-Mayanism argues for a common Mayan identity while also recognizing that this diversity makes Mayan culture very strong for its continuation. This is not a political imposition that dictates the role that each Mayan group must play, but an involvement of mutual recognition.

Developing a Pan-Mayan cultural identity is important to reaffirm the fact that we are Mayans, just as our ancestors, because we are strongly linked to this millennial tradition. Pan-Mayanism is an effort to make all Mayan cultures strongly visible as we reaffirm our presence as Mayans in the current century. Pan-Mayanism is also an inter-ethnic movement to value and recognize diversity and unity of Mayan culture. Rootless violence affecting a particular Mayan linguistic group must be considered an attack against the Mayan culture as a whole in order to gain international attention. Existing stereotypes among different Mayan ethnic groups are the result of our forced isolation from other Mayan communities. All Mayans should understand and recognize that there are different ways of being Mayan. The defense of our cultural patrimony must be seen as a global concern of all Mayan linguistic communities. With this cultural pluralism, we will be able to defend our indigenous rights against national and transnational threats.

This cooperation will provide the basis for a more permanent peace. Obviously, we do not want to isolate ourselves into individual "nation-states." We do not need to create another former-Yugoslavia or replicate ethnic warfare and tribal conflicts similar to those in Africa. All Guatemalans, Mayans and non-Mayans, must coordinate our efforts in the construction of a pluralistic Guatemalan nation-state.

In the construction of a Pan-Mayan ethnic identity, the role of Mayan organizations and media information is essen-tial as they help to promote the revitalization of Mayan culture. Among these organizations dedicated to the diffusion of Mayan ideas and information is the Cholsamaj Press and the multilingual weekly newspaper, El Regional. Similarly, the work of Mayan leaders at the national and international level is also important. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchú has helped to bring indigenous issues to the forefront of discussion in Guatemala and the Americas. It is my hope that the current demands of indigenous people for our self-determination and the support of the United Nations will help Mayans to coordinate efforts to know and value our own uniqueness, a great asset for the development of a multicultural Guatemala.

There is still much to be done by Mayan organizations. At this point, we are aware of our cultural patrimonies and are focusing on the revival of institutions and ceremonies. Unfortunately, the Mayan movement is divided and has a weak leadership. There are at least 360 Mayan organizations in Guatemala with multiple agendas. Some are offshoots of political parties, members of NGOs, and religious Mayan and non-Mayan organizations. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that those who are in Congress have not considered the demands of the Mayan population.

COPMAGUA has organized multidisciplinary commissions to study and present proposals and projects relating to the rights and identity of indigenous populations in Guatemala. Another project being contemplated by Mayans is the creation of a Mayan university that can develop Mayan leaders who have a critical vision of current Guatemalan history and could integrate Mayan world views and knowledge into the national education system. Similarly, a Mayan political party seems appropriate at this time, after realizing we were used by political parties, institutions, and contenders in the armed conflict. We must bring our creativity to the forefront to make our presence felt at the national and international level.

In order to achieve any level of political and cultural autonomy and self-determination, the Guatemalan Mayan movement must engage in rupturing our silence. Mayans must speak and write about everything. Mayans need lawyers, anthropologists, priests, educators, politicians, poets, and writers. We are a civilization that must flourish with all of its creative expressions. All Guatemalans must recognize that the Mayan culture plays a vital part in the efforts to lead the country to sustainable development and positive change. This is the challenge that Mayan organizations are confronted with at the doorway of the new millennium.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: