Posted by: Johan Normark | May 20, 2009

Ethnicity, the Bible and the creation of a pan-Maya identity

Edward Fischer claims that “ethnicity has eclipsed the importance of class identity in stimulating struggles of resistance” (Fischer 2001:24). This trend may have been fuelled by the “decentralization of capital accumulation at the global scale”, which has benefited marginal groups (ibid. 66).

The modern ethnification in the Maya region has its origin in the mid 20th century. Leading Ladinos in Guatemala tried to integrate the Maya population into the national state between 1944 and 1954, in the hope of a better economic development in Guatemala. This development frightened important, conservative, Ladino groups and the Ladino reformists were overthrown by the military, who were supported by the USA (LeBaron 1993:272-273).

In the civil war that eventually broke out, the Evangelists grew in importance during the 1960s and 1970s. Their success depended on social marginalization, lack of property, migration and urbanization. The Evangelist missionaries worked with the indigenous population in their own languages, which the Catholics had not done. The Evangelists were positive to the Maya languages and their clothes but they rejected the saint cult that had been central in the syncretic religion (Wilson 1995:169-170).

The civil war in Guatemala strengthened the consciousness of ethnicity among both Ladinos and Maya. This was partly due to the ethnic oppression of the indigenous people in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Fischer 1996:63). The government tried to integrate the Maya into the Ladino society as a second class, by destroying the indigenous identities, but this had the opposite effect (Fischer & Brown 1996:12; Wilson 1995:29).

In the old, local, highland Maya villages, where “mountain cults” had been predominant, the Bible became important and this initiated the idea of a more universal society (Wilson 1995:179-204). This led to a different view of the society and the search for a new identity.

The Evangelists’ success also affected the Catholics, who began to use the Maya languages in their mission. The Catholics, who held Bible studies at, for example, Coban in Alta Verapaz, taught that the Kekchi Maya were descendants of the Classic Maya culture. The ancient Maya’s social structure was idealized and it was argued that a collective had owned land and property. Alcoholism is believed not to have existed in the past. Central Mexican people or conquistadors were to blame for less pleasant social traits, such as human sacrifice and warfare (Wilson 1995:269). Such ideas are legacies from the Carnegie institution which created the dichotomy between the Maya and the central Mexican cultural areas. The Maya were thought to have given the Mexicans civilized culture, such as writing and art. The central Mexicans gave the Maya war (Castañeda 1996:140). The biblical courses also taught that the ancient Maya worshipped a Jewish-Christian god. The similarities between the depiction of the World Tree and the Christian cross were thought to be the evidence for this idea (Wilson 1995:270).

In short, Bible courses held at various places and the chaos of the civil war led to the formation of an imagined, pan-Maya tradition. These courses encouraged the re-creation of older traditions and a political agenda for the Maya movement.

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