This paper aims to use personal experience to convey that Indigenous Mayan culture from Guatemala continue to break barriers and are alive in spaces like Los Angeles and other transnational spaces. I will specifically take a look at Quiche communities. The use of knowledge both through community and nonprofits work together to keep this spiritually alive. Through examination and analysis of organizations, movements, and media they help provide a depiction of how these indigenous people that continue to keep Mayan spirituality alive both in Los Angeles and in Guatemala exist today.
My name is Brandon Mejia and I bare a Eurocentric-American centric first name along with a Spanish-centric last name which, conveys the memory, of perhaps, the rape of one my great grandmothers by a conquistador. Conquered, my name is a product of their reasoning. My skin color, my language resembles that of a white man. My family history is not well known, both at home and in the public sphere. But what is known is that my name and my physical characteristics resemble that of European descent. Without looking at me twice, the assumption that I speak Spanish, or whether my parents are from Guatemala are not there unless I state otherwise. However, I myself, did not know much about my family history until I took a one hundred level course at my university: Central American Studies. This class sheds light on a small piece of a dark world, a glimpse into one of which, I never thought about and nevertheless acknowledged its existence: my motherland of Guatemala. What began to unravel is a world that took years of rigorous courses to conceptualize the history of my people. The five hundred years of oppression and discrimination that takes place in Guatemala and as well in the United States and across Abya Yala. The indigenous term Abya Yala is the Kuna word for the entirety of the content of the “Americas,” and the terms do not identify with the conquest. I felt shame and embarrassment because I thought my identity is white. Eurocentric-American education led me to have internalized racism that is the legacy of colonialism as Giovanni Batz puts it (195). But no longer is this true, because I am awake now and Mayan spirituality is alive and thriving.
My paper will be about how indigenous peoples are continuing to break barriers not only in Guatemala but transnationally across borders. I am focusing on Quiche communities in Los Angeles, to be specific, and how they practice and demonstrate this in transnational spaces along with the larger subgroup known as Mayan. I will examine and analyze organizations, movements, and media to provide an analysis of these indigenous people that continue to keep Mayan spirituality alive. Indigenous resistance continues to keep their culture thriving transnationally.
This topic is significant because it is important to keep indigenous culture alive, after hundreds of years of oppression and genocides. Today, they continue to thrive. Even now there are still state interventions that exist to create barriers for indigenous communities to subside. This holds true both in Guatemala and Los Angeles. It is amazing how even after migration these indigenous groups continue to be oppressed. The majority are still not recognized in Los Angeles.
The definition of this transnational space is at the space in which migrants occupy in foreign countries, in this case Guatemala to the United States. Eric Popkin refers to the receiving countries as “host societies” (Popkin 672). Often the question of why people are migrating emerges. These host societies are in well off economic standing as to put “developed” countries as opposed to “developing” countries and in this case that would be Guatemala. This derives from Eurocentrism an attribute to the western rigid reasoning of polycentrism. This is what Ella Shohat refers to in her article, “From Eurocentrism to Polycentrism.” We must look at history and see how western modernity influenced how these countries function and operate today.
A brief history of Abya Yala are the genocides of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples. In some instances, complete elimination, like in the case of Argentina. In Argentina, all indigenous people were killed, a complete extinction of people took place. It is said that the Mayan, an abundance of people and due to the geography of the highlands, became difficult for the colonizers to eliminate them in this region of the Americas. This however marks the complex understanding of how oppression and discrimination began to impose its reasoning and its repercussions. The colonizer-imposed ideologies that create race, class, and language barrier onto the indigenous people. Terms such as “indio” arose and the subcategories of other ethnicities took place to create a society of the Europeans and separated everyone else. From top to bottom, a hierarchy that only favors the Europeans. And even after independence against Spain, oppression and discrimination against indigenous communities are still prominent throughout the Americas.
Associations like Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala are most notable in this region. They continue to challenge the state by having Mayan research centers, documentation, solidarity, and self-awareness movements.
Another important aspect of this is how indigenous culture continues to struggle. However, there is an entire other underlying problem to western modernity. That is indigenous communities face racism and Latino influence not only in Guatemala, but in transnational spaces like in the case of Los Angeles. The history of indigenous oppression extends from as far as the fourteen-hundreds when “America” was “discovered.” What is now known as South American and Central America. This oppression not only has affects indigenous culture then but continues to be prominent today. In the late twentieth century, another subcategory emerges to categorizes emigrants from the lower Americas as Hispanics. Then another category arose, one that represent persons from the lower Americas as Latino. But as Arlene Dávila writes in her book Latinos, Inc., this is another category that is Eurocentric and excludes indigenous communities. Also, in indigenous communities to resist and challenge western reasoning, they do not refer to the Americas as the Americas, however they refer to it as Abya Yala, the extension from the Northern parts of Alaska to the South points of Argentina as one land.
Today, this oppression and discrimination is still prominent. But, indigenous communities like the Quiche challenge this notion in transnational spaces and at home through the practice of their religion, clothing, and media. Eric Popkin describes the Mayan population in Guatemala as alive and thriving today post-civil war. He states, “emphasizing indigenous scholarship, the mobilization of ethnic markers (such as the use of traditional clothing patterns, dance, hieroglyphs), the implementation of agricultural extension programs, and the promotion of national cultural rights legislation,” (Popkin 18). This highlights how in Guatemala, the Mayan community, including that of the Quiche, the spirit is still alive. Associations like Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala are most notable in this region. They continue to challenge the state by having Mayan research centers, documentation, solidarity, and self-awareness movements. Within Guatemala there are many different types of indigenous people and languages. So, the Coordinación de los Pueblos Mayas de Guatemala was created in order to help organize and facilitate a space to be able to communicate within communities and spread awareness.
Respectfully, another association exists within Guatemala, the Asociación Maya-Q’anjob’al Eulalense this association as well gathers local teachers of the region and continue Mayan tradition. They teach language and inform the younger generation about their culture. This practice is essential in keeping Mayan culture alive. This goes against Spanish andLadino dominant spaces in Guatemala that are challenging the state. They challenge the state by teaching the language and providing general education classes in their language instead of Spanish.
In Los Angeles, this same organization and liveness of the Mayan and Quiche indigenous people are still witnessed. They revive and rejuvenate their culture despite facing barriers opposed by the state in the United States. Leaving Guatemala struggling to obtain a better life and leaving behind oppression, racism, and discrimination as well. The Mayan culture are not given recognition as it emerges into a transnational spaces and face the same obstacles. Mayan indigenous people endure this in Los Angeles by having to assimilate again to speaking Spanish or having to learn English to face further discrimination. The ignoration of the Mayan culture poses a problem within a larger context of other groups. The state limits them to identities such as Hispanics and Latinos. To the naked eye, Los Angeles illustrates a space were Mayan and Quiche communities are not alive and thriving, however they are.
The Los Angeles population for people who refer themselves to Guatemalan is 1,044,209, this number has nearly doubled since the signing of the peace accords. Los Angeles is home to about twenty five percent of all Guatemalan persons residing in the US from the original census in 2000. According the 2010 census, that number is 231,304. Which makes it the biggest population of Guatemalans that live outside the homeland of Guatemala. But because of the discussion that indigenous people have made in Guatemala, they do not consider themselves Guatemalans because that would be subduing to colonialism. Considering to be Guatemalan would be to hide their culture. They would be assimilating to the colonizers. So, the number of indigenous people like the Mayan and the Quiche people in Los Angeles is unknown.
Popkin’s however estimates that there are 118,069 Guatemalans residing in Los Angeles, and of whom 10,000 are Mayan (Pokin 23). Another attributing factor is Los Angeles does not offer a subgroup for these indigenous people to identify as either Mayan or more specifically Quiche. So, in order to obtain an approximate number for the number of Quiche people now residing in Los Angeles is impossible. However, the Mayan spirit is alive in Los Angeles. They keep their culture alive through their music, their food, and their clothing.
They continue to organize through associations Fraternidad Eulalense Maya Q'anjob'al which in the late 1980s and early 1990s took place. A group of indigenous persons from Guatemala establishing and forming a community under the name Fraternidad Eulalense Maya Q'anjob'al. This was the first step in creating a space in Los Angeles that facilitates a space for the Quiche and other Mayan indigenous groups to thrive. This space allows the Mayans to teach the young children and new arrivals from the motherland, to continue their culture and most importantly a safe space to practice it. They began by offering Marimba classes and prayers and soon classes of their own language. Eventually, this association was able to train others and break into other small gatherings throughout Los Angeles. Language plays an important role in keeping indigenous culture alive. In an interview by Batz, he writes: “On a practical level, some Maya may be incapable of speaking their language because of the absence of others from their linguistic communities in their lives. Carlos, a Q'anjob'al, reports that while there are other Maya in his church, they come from other linguistic groups and communicate in Spanish. It was not until he met his wife, also a Q'anjob'al, that he was able to speak Q'anjob'al in Los Angeles” (200). This passage highlights the importance of education and teaching of their language. To also allow them to be a safe space for this practice. Without it, it could be detrimental to indigenous culture. In the summer of 2009, a language course for students began to offer languages such as K’iche', Q'anjob'al, and as well as Maya spirituality teachings. Some even pass on the knowledge by listening to tapes of their elders. This is key to using media and movements to keep Mayan spirituality alive.
These organizations began to develop smaller committees in Los Angeles that support the indigenous communities both in Los Angeles and Guatemala. They have their own doctors, lawyers, and committees dedicated for funds and arrangement of funerals. This is important because it demonstrates the same organizational presence in Los Angeles that mirrored Guatemala. This also shows that the transnational spaces the organizations and movements have keeps the Mayan spirit alive.
Proyecto Pastoral Maya another association that emerged that reflects Catholic Mayan communities that hold a space in Los Angeles and continues to organize within the city. This is another important association that keeps linkages in transnational spaces alive because they bring out leaders from Los Angeles to teach, lead and vice versa to Guatemala. The circulation of newsletters in both spaces keep the Mayan consciousness alive. Through continue organization throughout Central America and in the United States, the spirit may continue to stay alive and thrive. But what is still strong that perhaps sending and hosting states will continue to attempt to control this community (Batz 205). In Los Angeles today, the Maya Vision and Centro Cultural Techantit thrive and are present transnationally and keep ties to their homeland. The Centro Cultural Techantit mission statement is as follows, “Es promover la cultura, el arte y la educación a través del rescate de nuestras raíces ancestrales, cosmovisión y tradiciones para mejorar la calidad de vida en nuestra comunidad.” Demonstrates how important it is for this community to keep their culture alive, to better lives here in this host society of Los Angeles. Sister organizations Maya Vision and Tonatierra are also alive and present in Los Angeles.
A statement from the Festival De Marimbas as follows:
“Pisom Q’aq’al Elenvoltoria de la sabiderua queno es otra cosa más que el secreto de vivir con respeto procurando el equilibrio y la armonía con todas las demás formas de vida que nos rodean y complementan nuestra existencia pero sobre todo sincronizado con el tiempo [. . .] A pesar de la INvasión, Colonización, Imposición de Fronteras y Gobiernos Coloniales que han consumada los más grandes genocidios contra la humanidad de nuestros pueblos nosotros seguimos más vivos que nunca y nos negamos a desaparecer o ser absorbidos por la cultura Occidental que pretende aniquilar lo nuestro, para imponernos otro Idioma, otro pensamiento, otras creencias y costumbres de vida no compatibles con nuestra cosmovisión, valores y principios propios,” (Policarpo Chaj 4).
This conveys the significance of living in the traditional way and the importance in practicing Mayan culture. It highlights living with respect and striving for balance and harmony with all other life forms around us. Just like in the Popol Vuh. Despite colonization and impose identities and categories by western reasoning, we will continue to keep our culture alive and thriving as Policarpo Chaj states. An important thing to note that Centro Cultural Techantit creates a space where indigenous and non-indigenous citizens feel respect and welcomed. This statement holds true as I was able to be present at the 2018 Marimba Festival Nahuat Pipil Festival honoring Indigenous Peoples Day in Los Angeles. I was able to experience this enriching feeling through my body as I entered the space. I could literally feel the music as the marimba changed tones as if it were mimicking my heartbeat. In front of the performers were a group of different Mayan indigenous people wearing the huipil dancing but had on very distinct huipil’s representing which region from Guatemala they were representing. But simultaneously here is this space in time, they were working as one coalition to express their culture and spirituality right in the heart of Los Angeles. I sat down and observed this intensifying, beautiful experience. Having the want to get up and join I did not to respect this space. But soon enough, I was invited, grabbed by the hand to take part in this experience. I felt the spirituality. And even though I was thousands of miles from the motherland, I was home.
This is how the Mayan and Quiche indigenous communities break barriers not only in Guatemala but in transnational spaces in Los Angeles as well. Despite the hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination by the state, these indigenous communities continue to challenge the categorizes and identities set forth by practicing their spirituality, religion, dancing, and clothing in all spaces throughout Abya Yala. Although the fight is not over, the resistance is still here. Mayan Spirituality is still alive and thriving.
Census. Census, 2010, www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-04.pdf
Centro Cultural Techantit. Festival De Marimbas K'Aslemal Te Mike Tay Tupal. Festival De Marimbas K'Aslemal Te Mike Tay Tupal, Techantit, 2018.
Batz, Giovanni. “Maya Cultural Resistance in Los Angeles: The Recovery of Identity and Culture among Maya Youth.” Latin American Perspectives, vol. 41, no. 3, 2014, pp. 194–207., www.jstor.org/stable/24573923.
Dávila Arlene M. Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. University of California Press, 2001.
Popkin, Eric. “The Emergence of Pan-Mayan Ethnicity in the Guatemalan Transnational Community Linking Santa Eulalia and Los Angeles.” Current Sociology, vol. 53, no. 4, July 2005, pp. 675–706. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/0011392105052721.
Shohat, Ella. “Unthinking Eurocentrism.” 2013, doi:10.4324/9781315002873.