Portal site

Searching for “Real Mam”:

Political Issues in Civil and Indigenous Rights Activities among the Mam-Maya People in Guatemala

Mitzub'ixi Quq Chi'j

The stories that I will present to you today were collected from my fieldwork experiences among Mam language-speaking Mayan indigenous people in San Marcos department, Guatemala. I call the town where I conducted fieldwork Txolnimtze' (literally meaning “among many trees”) which is a pseudonym. In my paper, I have described several examples of local political issues among people. Unfortunately, today I cannot present them all.

In the town of Txolnimtze' , even though all most everyone is bilingual, speaking Mam and Spanish, they are not conscious of their bilingual abilities, “bilingualismo” in Spanish, because of misunderstood propaganda reflecting central government language politics. The government says to be bilingual is using two languages, Spanish and English, not Spanish and an indigenous language. But in the local context it can be said, historically, this definition of bilingualism expresses national language politics because the government wants to educate indigenous people who can speak Spanish for assimilation into one nation.

In Txolnimtze', many local teachers of elementary schools are native and bilingual. They can teach in Mam, but they are required to teach in Spanish in their classrooms under the direction of the Ministry of Education, MINEDUC, except for teaching Mam language classes for only one or two hours per week. Even though there exists this kind of adversity, Mayan indigenous people maintain their own language. Native language competency is key factor for surviving inside of indigenous communities because their mother tongue provokes their primordial attachment, which as Geertz said, “is meant one that stems from the ‘givens’-- or, more precisely, as culture is inevitably involved in such matters, the assumed ‘givens’-- of social existence” (Geertz 1973:259).

Sophisticated language usage is not good for being respected culturally, but it is a necessary for defining one’s social positionality in the town. We can analyze various aspects of language usages not only from a cultural point of view, but also from political points of view as the following polarizing topics.

 (a) Monolingual versus Bilingual

In Txolnimtze' town, there are a few ladino families. Ladino means semantically mestizo people, “mixed blood of native Indians and Spanish conquers,” and etymologically Latin people, “latīnus” in Latin. Ladinos are traditionally monolingual. They have a typical identity of “not to be Indian people.” Historically, the racial stereotype has been that ladino might be acculturated Indians, meaning that all the ladino were Indians who had came to town and abandoned their own Maya culture. Apart from this fact, a few ladino people can speak Mam for maintaining relationships with Indians through their commercial activities. In fact, there is so much bilingualism in the town that there is a polysemic saying, “to be people of the town (Xjal te Txolnimtze') ,” “to be Mam,” “to be Maya,” and “to be Indian.”

(b) Catholic Action Catechists versus Maya Priests

The Catholic Action (Acción Católica, AC) originated from the fundamental innovative reform movement inside the Catholic Church in the 1960s after the period of the failure of the Guatemalan revolution from 1945-1954. The political connotation of Acción Católica means protecting devotees from communist political activities and calling attention to authentic Roman Catholicreligious life from folk Catholicism typical in Indian towns. In Txolnimtze' town, there was a strong ladino priest who had established the first normal school for young people and also organized Acción Católica catechist groups for devotee townsmen. The priest used native translators to translate from Spanish to Mam during mass, expelled traditional Mayan priests (“chimanes”) from the church, and prohibited performing traditional Mayan ritual inside the town. The priest’s ambitions were to transform the town from being monolingual Mam to monolingual Spanish. Native catechists used to use Spanish written in the bible even in monolingual villages. In the church, this priest established an FM radio station broadcasting bilingual programs for native devotees. But Mam language usage in church is not more sophisticated than in traditional Mayan ritual contexts because the former is pragmatically translated from Spanish and the latter’s usages always comes from the native way of life. Borrowing Basil Bernstein’s language use concepts, the former can only have restricted code, while the latter can have both restricted code and elaborated code (Bernstein 2003[1971]). Mayan priests are good at traditional usage and have rich vocabularies in both the secular and paramount worlds. In general, secular catechist’s usage of Mam tends to simplify on one side, the esoteric Mayan priest’s usage tends to complicate on the other.

(c) High Academic Achievement Professionals versus General Townsfolk

As Kymlicka (2001:218) wrote, “democratic politics is politics in the vernacular.” When I first attended a town meeting of open dialogue among a dozen of mayor candidates in 2007, all the candidates spoken in Mam, but their competencies were variable in Spanish. Because of the deficiency of political neologisms in Mam, we could hear many Spanish borrowed technical terms of modern politics in their Mam speeches. Nevertheless speech competency in their native tongue was very important. There were some young political candidates who had graduated from university, “licenciado” and civil engineer graduated at university or collage, “ingenieros.” Professionalism ideology had just reached in this town. Meritocracy had also just recently become familiar to almost townsfolk. The art of speech in public spaces became one important competency for mayoral candidates. This new type of leadership is now triumphing over traditional nepotism and/or clientelism politics even though people are familiar with conventional favoritism and/or patron-client relations.

In my original draft, I have discussed the conflictive political situation relating with their speech acts – performative aspect of language use – by describing portraits of people of Txolnimtze'. I demonstrated how local people think about what is political autonomy under the decentralization condition at the national level by describing an example of a minor local conflictive debate between town’s mayor fraction and the rebellious local council fraction. Today, I will summarize my thesis in the following two points.

1. Within the Guatemalan nation, including the indigenous community, the idea and legislation of decentralization policy has escalated from the end of 1996 when the Peace Accord between the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the Guatemalan government was signed.

2. Generally speaking, both transparency of voting system and the central government’s decentralization policy can be seen as a kind of old liberal policy, not a neoliberal one. We can find this type of policy in the John Williamson’s (2003) Washington Consensus package that has been criticized by old liberal students.

Through my fieldwork experience, I have identified conflicts from factions pursuing hegemony under the political conditions after decentralization of the political system and “democracy from below” in municipalities. On one hand, the traditionalists use nepotism and clientism tendencies to pursue hegemony. On the other hand, the locals use bottom-up pressure to subvert hegemony. Some people have succeeded being supported by townsmen through presenting their own discourse, saying emotionally, for example, “Do not dispose easily and cheaply our ‘communal property’ to private and/or outsider agencies.” This type of speech-act was articulated in a very sophisticated form in their mother tongue, Mam language.

To become real “Mam” inside the town is completely different from the presentation of self to outside agencies both inside and outside the town. To examine this, I focused on the political activity and discourses of a new type of political leader I call Carlos. I do not evaluate his political ability and anticipate that he will be good “Mam” politician. But instead, my analysis found that he has the potential to be a new type of political leader in future in three modes of ideal types; Homo modernus, the modern human being, Homo chronus, the chronological human being, and Homo politicus , the political human being.

As Homo modernus, Carlos has at least three faces of modern “Mam”; a teacher of elementary school in the village, a leader of a traditional dance group of local teachers, and “Aj Q’i’j” (literally translated, as Counting Day shaman/priest). He was born as the son of a local merchant and graduated from the normal school founded by the priest of Acción Católica. He recounted his personal experience in his younger days saying, “It’s sad to see the disappearance of our traditional Mayan knowledge. Father disliked it and wanted to abolish it. It’s very sad. We should respect our ancestral knowledge and practice that we love harmony with nature and between human beings.” In his narrative, we can easily find out his modernist re-interpretation of traditional Maya philosophy. As dance group leader, he did not hesitate to recreate “invented” traditional form of dancing under his project participating in departmental competitions supported by of the Ministry of Education, because “the authentic traditional” dance styles had disappeared a long time ago. As Maya priest, firstly I learned from old local shaman then he had sought his mentor outside the town. At the same time he studied the art of traditional “custom” (costumbre in Spanish) in books. All the mode of his behavior seems very rational even when he sought to become a traditional priest.

Homo chronus, “chronological human being,” seems pedantic usage but I would like to use it because their chronological consciousness is a very important factor to distinguish themselves with other human group members. Generally speaking the Maya shamans/priests, as well as Carlos, depend on traditional almanac for planning rituals, sacrifices, and agricultural activities (e.g., sowing seeds). The traditional almanacs are published not only by private companies but also by government agencies, e.g., the Ministry of education. Carlos says that the major almanacs are written according the K’iche calendar system, so they need modify from K’iche system to the Mam system because their terminology of tzolk’in (combination with vigesimal numbers and thirteen cyclical numbers) and haab’ (365-day calendar system) is different from the K’iche one. Even though it is said that the Maya people share the same cosmology, there are differential discourses between them. The time counting folk methodology and their remembering techniques are very important concept to recollect painful history of political violence of early 1980s and before (Ikeda 2006).

And as Homo politicus, Carlos was a protagonist of a series of political conflicts of this town from August 2008 to September 2011. The significance of his discourses could provoke townsmen into a series of their reflective inquiries to be citizen, e.g., what is citizenship, why citizens have rights to protest against authority, what is public profit, who is a citizen, and so on. When Carlos recalled public memory of Father Castillo, he always characterized the father as a symbol of oppression of traditional weak people. He criticized the ideology which the Acción Católica had introduced because it functioned to destroy the traditional value of “our grandparents and ancestors” (de nuestros abuelos y antepasados). He observed that the traditional virtue was abandoned when the AC movement insisted that his people modernize their mentalities, not contradictory to being a “good” Roman Catholic but to be “custom maintainer” (costumbrista). For Carlos, restoration and performance of traditional rituals in this town means coming back to traditional virtue. I never observed him as a narrow-minded fundamentalist, but found that he engaged in culturally rational behavior. In other words, he was struggling for alternative value to be “real Mam,” the citizen in the prolonged post-colonial era of Guatemala.

Today, I have discussed only a few bottom-up civil and indigenous rights activities from androcentric points of view because of some limitations in the ethnographic data I have collected thus far. My task will be to collect more data on these activities in the future. Thank for your attention.

in highland Napal, not in Guatemalan highland

Copyright Mitzub'ixi Quq Chi'j, 2015