Back to Common Ground Archive


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


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

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

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

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

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.


Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security