Original Air Date: November 18, 1997
Rebroadcast Air Date: June 2, 1998
Program 9746/9822


Members of Guatemala's Mayan communities and
other representatives of governmental and nongovernmental organizations

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground. In Guatemala, 60 percent of the people are descendants of the Mayan Indians. For five centuries, ever since the Spanish conquest, the Mayan people of Guatemala have been discriminated against, their lands taken away, and they've been brutally victimized. Some of the worst repression occurred during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended only in December 1996.

TEK ITZEP PASA: (translated) On May 24th of 1980 the army arrived on market day. The army began a massacre that killed 325 people, including children, women and elders. It all happened within an hour-and-a-half.

DAVIDSON: The peace accords signed at the end of the war addressed the need to incorporate Guatemala's indigenous people into mainstream society.

EDGAR PINEDA: What we are looking for is to open new channels, new ways to incorporate the indigenous people to the development process.

DAVIDSON: On this edition of Common Ground, we continue our series following the end of Guatemala's civil war, by looking at the attempts to redress centuries of discrimination against the Mayan people. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Mary Gray-Davidson.


DAVIDSON: Tek is praying in Mayan Quiche for peace and justice. Tek is from the Guatemalan highland region of Los Cimientos. He's in the United States to tell the story of the destruction of his village during the civil war, a war that left more than a hundred thousand people dead and another 40,000 disappeared. A million people, one-tenth Guatemala's total population, became refugees, including Tek's entire community.

TEK ITZEP PASA: (translated) I was living in the mountains in the region of Los Cimientos with my family my parents and my grandfather. In 1980 a war began that killed thousands and thousands of Mayan people in Guatemala. In my area alone, more than 220 villages were completely destroyed, many with just a few people surviving. I was a child when I witnessed the war. My community would regularly go to the market to sell our produce. On May 24th of 1980 the army arrived on market day. The army began a massacre that killed 325 people, including children, women and elders. It all happened within an hour-and-a-half. Fourteen of my own community died, including a pregnant woman. This massacre is unforgettable for us. We were driven from our land by the army and our houses were burned to the ground. The community was split up into three parts; some went to Mexico, others to the mountains, and the rest were sent to live in the government's model villages. The government drove us into these model villages and the army forced the men to make civil patrols like vigilante groups. The government announced that it was voluntary service but it was not voluntary service. It was forced on us.

DAVIDSON: Tek and his community have been petitioning to return to the land, that he says his family has legally owned for over a century. When they were forced off the land, he says, the army moved in another group of Mayan Indians, of the Ixil ethnic group. It was a sort of divide and conquer technique. This is a group that was equally devastated by the army's campaign of terror. This group of Ixil, Tek says, later accepted weapons and the protection of the army.

TEK ITZEP PASA: (translated) In this year, 1997, we are still in a very difficult situation. We live on only a small part of our land. The Ixil occupy the rest. We are trying to raise some crops but the Ixil have sent their children and their cattle into our cornfields to trample them. They've even cut down our corn. It's very sad. The Ixil are of an evangelical religion; just recently a missionary project gave water to the Ixil. This water was the drinking water of the Quiche community. They not only built a cement water tank on top of a spring sacred to the Quiche, they also cut a path through a cornfield to build it, destroying 3,500 dollars worth of Quiche crops. The missionary group brought women and children with them. I asked, "What kind of example is this to children?" This is a great sadness for us, like a thorn in our hearts.

DAVIDSON: Despite years of negotiation, Tek says, the Ixil are still on his land. And the peace accords, for him, have not yet erased the climate of fear and mistrust that decades of violence created.

TEK ITZEP PASA: (translated) The reality is that the Ixil have their own land with their own homes, where they were living before. But they want our land and the produce from our orchards, and they have guns in their hands. The whole world has heard that a peace accord has been signed in Guatemala. Many themes of the peace accord are about indigenous people, that they can return to land they've been displaced from. But so far we have not seen any results from this.

DAVIDSON: While the refugees are slowly rebuilding their lives, the government and the international community are attempting to sort out all that happened during the war, the truth behind stories such as Tek's, and the overall magnitude of the destruction. Fortunately, in some parts of Guatemala, positive changes are taking place. In the country's second largest city, for example, there is a new mayor, a Mayan Indian mayor. The first in the history of the city of Quetzaltenango, where the mixed race Ladinos have always ruled. Rigoberto Queme is most interested in four basic issues addressed in the peace accords.

RIGOBERTO QUEME: (translated) One is the special treatment of those directly or indirectly affected by the war. The second aspect is the identity and rights of the indigenous population. A third issue is the participation at all levels of society in political, economic and social affairs. The fourth element relates to the social and economic aspects of Guatemala in general. These four aspects synthesize what the peace accords are all about. We believe the peace accords are good, because they ended the conflict. And because they deal with four important issues that are necessary for the construction of a democracy. We are, however, cautious, and do not think the peace accords represent the solution to all the problems in the country.

DAVIDSON: It's a slow process, meeting all the terms of the peace accords. More profound changes, like ending racist attitudes, will take a very long time. Rigoberto Queme's election two years ago was greeted with racist graffiti in the city, telling the dirty Indians to get out.

RIGOBERTO QUEME: (translated) I believe it's going to take a long time to wipe out all the racism in Guatemala. At the beginning of this administration we felt this racist aggression very strongly, especially from those who still have a truly colonial mentality. It will take a long time to eliminate this racism. But it's going to change. And at this time, after 20 months in office, my administration is seeing more and more collaboration among the many sectors—indigenous and non-indigenous—which can only serve to strengthen this multicultural society.

DAVIDSON: Rigoberto Queme, who is a university professor, says his goal is to make local government truly representative of all the people.

RIGOBERTO QUEME: (translated) In Guatemala City there is a lot of theoretical debate about how you build a multicultural state. Here you have a concrete example of how to do that. The civic committee that elected me had a multicultural objective. Everything we do tries to incorporate indigenous and non-indigenous alike, along with women, youth, and the private sector. We strive for multicultural involvement and the implementation of our policies. Before, there used to be a real polarization among the people in our city.

DAVIDSON: While Rigoberto Queme feels the interests of the Mayans living outside the capital city are still not fully represented at the national level, the Guatemalan government says it is working to include Mayan voices in the national debate. Eduardo Stein, Guatemala's Minister of Foreign Affairs, says overcoming the racism even in the government has not been easy.

EDUARDO STEIN: The second week of government I received in my office a delegation of indigenous elders. When they were about to leave one of them told me, "It is the first time since I can recall that we have been received in the Foreign Minister's office. Ever. And I say, "Why?" "We don't know, but we've asked for years to be received at the Foreign Minister's office and we were never granted an interview or an appointment." I gathered my directors of the different departments and asked them, spontaneously, and they were all very appalled by the fact that I had received a delegation of indigenous elders before the endless list of appointments that several other organizations has asked for. And their argument was, "the indigenous themes have nothing to do with the foreign minister's agenda." And I say, "Wait a minute. Guatemala has over 60 percent of its population coming from indigenous peoples. I bothered to read the constitutional framework in which my job operates. And I understand to be, outside of the country, a legal representative of my country. So I do represent that 60 percent as well." Whenever you confront a Guatemalan saying, "At some point half of our National Assembly will be comprised of indigenous congresspeople, or "diputados o diputadas indigenous" it's still too much for the parametal structure of our own society. When the first indigenous congresspeople assume their posts and they went to Congress in their own indigenous dresses many people were, you know, "como se dice calofrio" shuddering? They didn't like that at all. They rejected the very image of "Los Indios in El Congresso!" My goodness! Because the image that we grew up with, that we were educated in, were that the indigenous peoples were servants. But it's bound to change.

DAVIDSON: We'll pause here for a short break. You're listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation. This is part three of a series about Guatemala's attempts to rebuild the society after a 36-year civil war. The Stanley Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program, and at the end of the broadcast, I'll give you details on how you can order.

Three of every four Guatemalans and 92 percent of its Mayan population, live in poverty. If the relative peace in the country right now is to be lasting, many Guatemalans and members of the international community recognize that they must address the profound poverty and inequality in the country. In the highland village of San Martin, where the people have traditionally raised sheep, they've been working to add value to their products. Through a small loan from the government and with some training, these villagers were able to buy the necessary carding equipment and spinning wheels to process the raw wool into thread. Previously they received less than a penny per pound for the raw wool. The processed wool now brings about $2.50 per pound. The whole community gets involved. Even the small children help by holding spools of thread for the spinning wheels. Now, the community has raised enough money to buy looms to actually make blankets and ponchos and the other colorful goods that Guatemala's Mayans are known for.


DAVIDSON: Teodora Lopez has invited us into her one-room house to see where the community keeps its looms. Inside the dirt floor house it's dark and chilly because Señora Lopez has neither electricity nor heat, and this is the damp, rainy season in Guatemala. But this is a big step forward for her. And she's proud the community can use her house to improve their lives.

LOPEZ: (translated) I represent a group of woman who are working together on this project with the men. This is a great opportunity for me because I'm a widow and I don't have a mother or father. I only have my five little girls. I am happy that my daughters are also able to help and learn about this type of work that we're doing.

DAVIDSON: This weaving project is being done with the assistance of the United Nations Development Program. Edgar Pineda, an advisor to UNDP, explains why the UN is focusing its efforts on the Mayan people of Guatemala.

PINEDA: What we are looking for is to open new channels, new ways to incorporate the indigenous people to the development process, to have a seat, to have chair in the discussion of the local things and in the discussion of the Development Council. That's not so easy because historically and traditionally they were marginalized. In our projects we always emphasize gender and indigenous participation.

DAVIDSON: And were you saying that as the altitude increases you find more indigenous communities?

PINEDA: Yeah. That's because in the process of marginalizing the people, the indigenous people, they had to go up and up looking for land because the more productive land downhill were taken by Ladinos. And were taken by the Spaniards. So the indigenous, they had to, came to these very poor soils, landscape.

DAVIDSON: In addition to raising the standard of living of the Mayan people, many of them are working to restore a sense of pride in Mayan identity, a challenge after centuries of discrimination. Schools like this in the Department of Quetzaltenango have recently opened and classes are taught in Spanish, the national language, and Mayan Quiche, the language of the local people. This teacher is explaining a lesson shapes for the class of 30 children ranging in age from 6 to 10. Maria Olga de Perez works for the United Nations Development Program, which is helping the Guatemalan Ministry of Education meet its goals of 70 percent literacy and bilingual education by opening schools where none previously existed. The goals are a challenge because textbooks don't exist yet in all 21 Mayan languages that are spoken in Guatemala.

MARIA OLGA DE PEREZ: But bilingual education has been a concern for a long time. It is difficult; it has several setbacks due to the lack of teachers well-trained for covering both areas; due to the lack of materials in all languages. But it is growing and it has the support of many other international agencies, USAID being one of the main supporters.

DAVIDSON: Are there many communities that you know of that have not yet been reached?


DE PEREZ: Oh, yes. It is a large country and it's mostly rural and you have places like this all over. And my personal feeling is that we are both, the government and the international agencies, tend to concentrate in this part of the country, which is most affected by the violence. But Guatemala is poor all over. And we should be looking after more equity in geography and starting things, starting processes like this in other communities that might not be as poor as this, but that they still do not have the funds or the possibility of access to the formal education system.


DAVIDSON: Another class in this three-room school is singing Guatemala's national anthem in Quiche.


NORA ENGLAND: The Mayan languages are being lost in increasingly large numbers in lots of communities where they are spoken.

DAVIDSON: Nora England is an American anthropologist who recently received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for her work documenting the 21 Mayan languages that are spoken in Guatemala. Many of these languages had never been written down before.

ENGLAND: I would say the vast majority of the languages are still very viable and still very much alive. But you see more and more communities where kids are no longer speaking a Mayan language. It's not just the school that affects this. But it is the school in very large part. But it's not just that the school is teaching only in Spanish, because that's been going on for 400 years without any language lost. What's happening that's changing though is that more and more kids are going to school and more and more parents are supporting their kids throughout school and believing that they should go to school because they're seeing economic advantages for them to go to school. Up until fairly recently Mayan kids didn't go to much school. They went to a year or two or three and that was it. And the number of children who actually graduated from even elementary school was very, very low. Today, more and more and more children are getting through elementary school and more are going even on to high school. And that helps provide a situation in which Spanish is of increasing value for these children. Another thing that happens is if the first people in a family to go through school start off without being able to speak Spanish, and those children are subjected to enormous ridicule in the school for not being Spanish speakers, when either their younger brothers and sisters or their own children go to school, they're quite desperate to avoid having their brothers and sisters and children go through the same situation of being ridiculed, so they try to teach them Spanish before they go to school. A lot of parents and a lot of older brothers and sisters then speak to the younger children now in Spanish. And I think a lot of Maya parents have the notion that their children will learn Mayan languages because they're Mayas. And they just naturally, as Mayas, have to learn a Maya language. But they fail to realize that if these kids don't hear a Mayan language at home, or among their playmates, they will not in fact learn it. And so some people are sort of waking up to the fact that their now grown up children or adolescent children, do not speak a Mayan language and they can't quite figure out how it happened. So people are abandoning the language not in, a necessarily intentional way, but as a, as part of the process of making sure that their children or their younger brothers and sisters acquire Spanish.

DAVIDSON: Sounds very similar to what happened in this country early in the century when we had the mass influx of immigrants who wanted their children to succeed in this country and so really didn't attempt to teach them their native language.

ENGLAND: Right. It is very similar to that, with a major difference which is that these people are not immigrants, they are the original settlers or inhabitants of that region, and therefore their choice is being made in a, in a somewhat different way. But some of the same things are happening. There is at the same time, though, a small, but fairly powerful movement for the preservation of Mayan languages. And this is coming from a, principally a Maya leadership that is very thoroughly involved in cultural preservation in general. And they tend to be the political leaders or many of the political leaders among Mayas, and certainly the intellectual leaders. And that movement, because it is being spearheaded by people of great respect in the community, even though it's small, is having a certain affect. And it will be interesting to see in the, in the years that are coming up right away, whether that kind of movement will have the power to counteract the sort of natural tendency for shift that is going on.

DAVIDSON: Is there an issue of restoring pride in Mayan identity after centuries of discrimination and repression?

ENGLAND: Yes. That's certainly one of the issues, to restore pride or to promote the pride that many Mayas naturally feel and to promote a future which includes Maya ways of doing things and where the only model for a political future or progress in the future, is not restricted to the assimilation of Mayas to a non-Maya or Western model of life. But includes the possibility for Mayas maintaining their own language, maintaining their own culture and participating in the national society at the same time. And so there's a very strong movement for the regaining or the promotion of Maya cultural pride which is known fairly widely now as the Maya Movement. And it's recognized by, it's spoken of by Maya leaders as well as outside scholars like myself. And so it's terminology that is becoming quite widespread. One of the first very major symbolic statements I think by this movement was to take the word Maya as a word for all of the peoples who are descended from the ancient Maya. Previously they had largely been known by their individual language names rather than as a whole group. And now it's very commonplace for Mayas to talk of themselves as, to call themselves Mayas. Rather than Quiche or Mam or any of the other number, any of the other names of the individual groups. And that's a very new thing and it's been symbolically quite important in fact.

DAVIDSON: Back in the Mayan school the class of teen-agers wants to sing Guatemala's national anthem again. They sing the anthem this time, flawlessly and from memory, but this time in Spanish.


DAVIDSON: For Common Ground I'm Mary Gray-Davidson. In the final part of our series on the end of Central America's longest war, we'll look at the efforts to uncover the truth about what happened during the war in Guatemala.


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