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Democratizing what? Some reflections on nation, state, ethnicity, modernity, community and democracy in Guatemala (1).

Abstract. This article explores the roots of the difficulties encountered in constructing an effective democracy in Guatemala that meets the needs of Mayan people and Mayan communities. It explores the successes apparent in fostering the acceptance of the idea of Guatemala as a multilingual and pluri-ethnic entity. Nonetheless, it suggests that there has been tremendous difficulty and significant opposition to effective incorporation of those ideas. It explores this opposition in the context of two areas of contestation: attempts to change the Guatemalan constitution and conflict over community justice and linchamientos. The article argues that the roots of this difficulty stem primarily from a conflict between a locally based identity and the needs for legibility and uniformity on the part of the state. It argues that the conflict in Guatemala suggests a more generalized difficulty between local identity and the demands of liberal democracy that needs to be addressed in any exploration of the indigenous peoples and the challenges of democracy in Guatemala.

Resume. Cet article explore les raisons de la difficulte pour le Guatemala d'etablir une democratie veritable qui puisse satisfaire aux besoins du peuple et des communautes mayas. Meme si l'acceptation de l'idee du Guatemala en tant que societe multiculturelle et multiethnique semble avoir ete favorisee, on constate que son incorporation concrete a fait l'objet d'enormes difficultes et d'une opposition considerable. Dans le contexte de deux domaines de contestation, a savoir les tentatives de modification de la constitution du Guatemala et les conflits relatifs a la justice communautaire et aux linchamientos, l'analyse d'une telle opposition permet de conclure que ces difficultes prennent racine dans le conflit entre l'identite locale et les besoins de visibilite et d'uniformite de l'Etat et que cette contradiction suggere l'existence d'un conflit plus general entre l'identite locale et les exigences de la democratie liberale, conflit dont il faut tenir compte dans toute exploration des populations autochtones et des defis de la democratie au Guatemala.


It has been commonplace to talk about a "democratic resurgence" in Latin America for much of the last two decades. It is also fairly common to find concern about the fragility of such democratic openings and to worry about their ability to endure differing amounts of social stress. The levels of hope and despair seem to fluctuate almost weekly as rapidly unfolding events in Latin America point in one direction or the other. In the later half of 2000, observers were alternatively encouraged by events in Mexico and Peru, as the PRI and Fujimori both lost power, and discouraged by events in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

One of these countries caught between hope and despair is Guatemala. There, ten years of a strange four-way game of teeter-totter among the military, civilian governments, civil society variously defined and the URNG (the umbrella organization for Guatemala's four revolutionary groups), ended with the signing of comprehensive peace accords in December 1996 and the growth of many expectations of a strengthening of democracy in Guatemala. The record since then has been mixed at best.

To understand the very limited progress made in creating an enduring democracy in Guatemala requires an exploration of some fairly fundamental concepts. I would suggest that we need to reconsider the nature of, and the necessary interconnectedness among, the concepts of nation, state, ethnicity, community, modernity, and democracy to understand the roots of the fragility of the democratic opening. Unless we do so, we are left discussing democracy in a vacuum; we are left with no suitable answer to the question, "Democratizing What?" I will try to suggest some answers to this question in the context of Guatemala by looking at the quite remarkable strides that have been made for incorporating Maya culture and ethnicity within a reconstituted Guatemala. I will explore the severe limits to this incorporation, however, by examining two distinct, but linked, areas of contestation: the first is the passage of Convention 169 in 1996 and the attempts to change the constitution through referendum in 1999, which will help us examine ideas of nationalism and ethnicity; and the second is the question of community identity and customary law, which will help us examine concepts and practices of state and community. In the conclusions, I will return to the question of modernity and democracy.

Breaking the Chains of Discontinuity!

The coastal highway between Coatepeque and Retalhuleu runs through the boca costa, the heart of Guatemala's modern agricultural region, full of efficient plantations of export crops and bustling service towns. As befits a "modern" region there are also lots of billboards advertising many different products: ferocious looking John Deere tractors commanding us to DOMINE LA TIERRA (dominate the earth), innumerable advertisements for cement blocks, modern pesticides, and chemical [begin strikethrough]fertilizers, and lots of motels. Tucked[end strikethrough] away among all these symbols of modernity is a slightly faded, sky-blue sign put up by the government. It has a row of Mayan glyph symbols along the left hand side and reads, "We will make a great country; breaking the chains of discontinuity."

Breaking the chains of discontinuity. This is a rather strange (and strained) image. But I think it says much about how far Guatemala has traveled in recent years. To be sure, it is impossible to imagine that billboard on display a decade ago. At the same time it reflects the desperation with which some in Guatemala would try to build "a great country" or even "a country" at all. It also says much about the strained relationship between ethnicity and nation in Guatemala. On the one hand, building cultural linkages with ancient Mayan civilizations is a natural thing to do, and part of the cultural project of Mayan intellectuals and cultural activists. On the other, it is difficult not to see government support for tying current Mayan identity to civilizations of the past as a project to generalize Mayan culture, divorcing it from its community base and thus "sanitize" it, allowing the "Mayan" identity thus constructed to fit more easily into only slightly altered concepts of nation and state. To explore this proposal a little more fully, it is necessary to examine at least briefly historic and contemporary discourse surrounding nation and ethnicity in Guatemala.

The 15th of September 1821 marked Guatemala's independence from Spain. Typically, independence day is a time for Guatemalan editorialists to speculate on the nature and future of Guatemala. It is surprising to see how completely the argument that Guatemala is a "multiethnic, pluri-cultural" state seems to have permeated the consciousness of those who write about Guatemala. In September 2000, for example, while there were a few who trotted out tired stories of the elite politicians who declared the independence of Guatemala from Spain (but not from Mexico for two years, nor from the United Provinces of Central America for another 18 years), most took the opportunity to talk about the construction of a new Guatemala that would allow space and opportunity for people from all the various cultures located within the territory. For example, the lead editorial in El Periodico, one of Guatemala's major papers, argued:
 Guatemala is a state that contains within its bosom diverse
 communities that are demanding respect, recognition and
 participation. It is a state that faces the challenge of changing
 from being uniform and exclusive to multicultural and decentralized.
 Our great challenge, then, is to assure ourselves of a
 homeland that strengthens the personality of each community
 and rejects the alienating effects of homogeneity, a homeland
 that within the context of plurality and participation, justifies
 the necessity for distinct communities to remain together, facing
 a common destiny. (2)

For this argument to have so completely insinuated itself in the consciousness of many Guatemalans in the last decade is quite remarkable given the history of ethnic relations in Guatemala. It is common to talk about how racist Guatemala society has been and how completely marginalized indigenous culture has been in the history of Guatemala. Like all countries in the hemisphere, until at least the middle of the twentieth century, it was expected that indigenous people in Guatemala would become "civilized," embrace "national" culture, and ultimately disappear as bearers of distinct, identifiable cultures. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a parade of concerned, thoughtful, and sympathetic writers discussed the "Indian problem." A few examples will suffice to illustrate their sentiments. In 1893, the government held a convention and a contest to answer the question, "What would be the best means to civilize the Indian race?" One of those who sprang to the defense of indigenous people was Ignacio Solis, who campaigned against the prevailing system of forced labor and put forward the then novel idea that if finqueros paid Indians more and treated them better, they would work more readily. But even Solis argued, "to civilize the indigenous population which still remains in a semi-savage state is a double-necessity for the country. It cannot occupy its rightful place among the advanced nations, nor realize fully its industrial, economic, social, and political transformation, while the last vestiges of barbarity remain on its soil." (3)

In 1931, Fernando Juarez Munoz, described as "the most subtle and complete savior" of the Indian, echoed many of the prevailing views about indigenous people in El Indio Guatemalteco : Ensayo de sociologia nacionalista. They were full of vices: unsociable, fearful, lazy, bitter, hateful, and drunken. But Juarez also argued that they were the source of most of the wealth generated in Guatemala and developed an interesting approach to Guatemalan nationalism that was well ahead of many of his contemporaries. For Guatemala to develop into a "modern" state, he suggested, it needed to recognize both cultures that resided in its breast. "We are not a Nation in the ethnic sense of the word," he wrote, "and we will not be able to convert Guatemala into a uniform conglomerate that can give it the essential characteristics of nationality. If we have different races, we will not have the common force necessary to absorb the quantity of progress, culture, and civilization which is due us." To get rid of this racial difference, Guatemala had to enter the long and difficult work needed to "incorporate the Guatemalan Indian into modern civilization," keeping in mind the "cultural imbalance between both national groups, to mold one to the civilization of the other, with the necessary modifications required by the differences that exist between them".

Even so, a little over a decade later, Ovidio Rodas Corzo opined in La Hora in 1945:
 To strengthen the Indian culture, is to condemn our country
 to eternal weakness, a perpetual cultural dualism, to be always
 a nation of irredeemable Indians without a continental personality.
 Because of this our Indians must be westernized or destroyed,
 but we should not keep them in their entrenched static
 state because we will then be only a country for tourism; of
 curiosities, a kind of zoo for the entertainment of tourists; but
 never a nation. (4)

Other commentators talked about the "desperate, horrid, fearful sadness" of living with "a totally alien world" within the country. (5)

But these arguments don't necessarily reflect a more racist society than anywhere else in the Americas. What is different, of course, is that few countries in the Americas had such a large percentage of the population that was indigenous. This population has been growing since before independence. In the 1890s, while others were talking about the Indian disappearing, Antonio Batres Juaregui was pointing out the consequences of the fact that Indians had double the birth rate of Ladinos (non-Indians). (6) Indigenous population levels have been a source of debate since that time. Estimates of the number of Maya in what is now Guatemala, both historic and current, are suspect for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it is clear that the demographic recovery has been dramatic. A pre-contact indigenous population of about 2,000,000 was reduced to close to 120,000 by 1650. In the next 250 years, the indigenous population regained half of its lost numbers, reaching a million by 1921. At some point in the late 1950s this population had recovered from the demographic consequences of conquest, officially reaching 2,000,000 by the census of 1964. In the next 30 years, the number of indigenous people in the country tripled, reaching approximately 6,000,000 (of 11,000,000) by 1991. Moreover, this recovery had specific regional characteristics. By the 1990s, the core highland departments of Guatemala were as exclusively indigenous as they had been at any time in the history of the nation. (7)

Perhaps the most important aspect of the attempts to define the nature of Guatemala given the context of this demographic recovery was the government and military-controlled violence directed increasingly towards the indigenous population in the 1970s and early 1980s. The reasons for and results of this violence have been discussed at length elsewhere and don't bear reiterating here. From our perspective what is important to note is that there is little doubt that, as the Guatemalan Comision para el esclarecimiento historico (Commission for Clarifying History) proclaimed, aspects of that violence were genocidal in nature, directed at the bearers of a particular culture and particular lifestyle. (8)

Both the targeted nature of the violence and the demographic recovery helped insure that as Guatemala began to emerge from the horrific violence of the 1970s and early 1980s, indigenous concerns and indigenous conceptions of the future of Guatemala became important parts of the "national project" in a way they had never been before. The work of three sets of indigenous activists (cultural activists, popular sector, and community leaders)--distinct but interrelated--has played an important role in fostering democratic change and in offering alternative conceptualizations of a "democratic" Guatemala. It was substantially their efforts that propelled Guatemala down the difficult road to peace in the 1990s, culminating in the signing of the Peace Accords in December 1996. One important accord perhaps the most important--of the seven substantive accords--was the Acuerdo sobre Identitidad y Derechos de los Pueblos Indigenas (Accord concerning the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples) signed on 31 March 1995.(9)

Despite this amazing success, despite the fundamental alterations to the nature of the Guatemalan state and the deeply democratic nature of the accords, the record since the signing of the peace accords has been not very inspiring. No substantial progress has been made in meeting the conditions of most of the substantive accords. Guatemala continues to be convulsed by popular protests and many people believe there is a crisis of governability in the country as a whole and within many municipalities. (10) A clear and palpable sense of fatigue is felt among the more progressive political sectors and among sectors of civil society. Few of the measures outlined in the indigenous accord have been implemented, except for very moderate efforts to promote community schooling and to allow more use of indigenous languages. Despite the accords, the increased presence of indigenous sectors in Guatemalan society, and the overwhelming weight of numbers, Guatemala has passed fewer specific measures to benefit the indigenous population than any other country in Latin America with a significant indigenous population. (11) Much of this crisis of governability stems from unaddressed and serious questions about the nature of Guatemalan society, most especially in the intersection of nation, ethnicity, state, and community. To help understand these issues more clearly, I would like to look at the two areas of contestation mentioned earlier.

Guatemala as Yugoslavia: Nation and Ethnicity

Perhaps nothing has demonstrated the conflict between those who continue to cling to an idea of a unitary, homogenous Guatemalan nation and those who argue for pluri-ethnicity than the struggle over Convention 169 and the later failed referendum on constitutional change. Convention 169, the "Convention Concerning Indigenous Peoples and Tribes in Independent Countries," was proposed by the International Labor Organization in 1989. It is a broad-ranging convention that commits signatory countries to respect indigenous rights to control over indigenous territory and communities and over resources, to customary justice, to traditional lands, to appropriate political organizations, to culturally affirming education, and to language.

When the convention was first proposed in Guatemala in early 1992, it provoked little reaction and quickly passed the first two readings in congress. The Catholic Church immediately supported it, as did some members of congress. Virtually all Mayan groups dedicated themselves to pressuring for its passage. However, as the significance, both real and imagined, of the convention began to be discussed, the level of conflict escalated and its passage through congress stalled. The debate over the convention became a starting point for a debate over Guatemalan nationalism, community, and the acceptance of diversity.

Private sector associations, especially CACIF (Comite Coordinador de Asociaciones de Comercio, Industria, y Financiera) and the large landowners' association (AGA) immediately opposed it, arguing that the accord would threaten private property. (12) Conservative politicians and commentators warned that the convention violated the constitution of 1985. One particularly rabid editorial by Mario Antonio Sandoval warned that this declaration would push Guatemala back into a dark and feudal past. Its provision respecting religion would be a "tacit approval of idolatry" and the land provisions would not only mean that private property owners in towns in "indigenous" regions could have their property confiscated but would raise "false hopes" among indigenous peoples that Guatemala City, Mexico City, and even Manhattan would be returned to them. (13) In a slightly earlier editorial he raged that the Convention gave international law priority over national law and "constitutionally establishes discrimination among Guatemalans by benefiting indigenous groups." Moreover, he argued, if we accept the existence of a
 people with their own territory all they need is political
 organization to transform themselves into a state. The Kechi state,
 let's say. And along with that, the twenty-two states of Guatemalan
 Indian ethnicities. This will be the real result of the application
 of Convention 169, the Yugoslavization of Guatemala. (14)

Even the influential, progressive journalist Julio Godoy argued that "the minds that support [169] intend to turn this Maya land into Yugoslavia" and suggested that "we cannot support a convention in which we are practically recognizing the existence of two types of citizens in Guatemala."(15) Indeed, the spectre of Yugoslavia arose so often in the public debate around Convention 169 and the Constitutional amendments, that one is tempted to argue that those Guatemalans opposing multi-ethnicity would have had to invent it if it did not exist. (Of course, in this context the conflict in Yugoslavia was, indeed, invented.)

The focus of most of the opposition to the Convention revolved around the question of equality and, thus, prefaced the debate surrounding the constitutional accords. This argument was perhaps most succinctly expressed by the Minister of Defense in 1992 when he said, "Here there is only one nation and we must not talk about indigenous, ladinos, mestizos, and the rest, when all together we make up Guatemala." (16) This was an argument that most who favored the Convention ridiculed. One of the most interesting politicians in Guatemala, Rigoberto Queme Chay, currently major of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city, argued,
 Guatemala is socially, culturally, economically, politically, and
 religiously multiply fragmented. Of what unity do they speak,
 those who say they fear Mayan secession? There is no unity,
 and they proclaim its existence. Where there is so much cultural
 diversity, they deny that it exists. It would be easier to
 reverse the situation, denying that unity exists in order to find
 it, and recognizing diversity in order to make unity possible. (17)

Edmund Mulet, former president of congress, underscored the futility of those who opposed a recognition of diversity when he commented, "You can't block the sun with your finger. I've said many times that the only way to maintain unity is to recognize diversity. If we don't recognize this reality now, we face a century of ethnic confrontation." (18)

Convention 169 was eventually passed in Guatemala in March 1996, but this was accomplished only after enormous opposition and conflict. The Convention had been sent, initially, to the Supreme Court, which first needed to rule that it did not violate the existing constitution created under the watchful eye of the military in 1985. Even after this ruling, the Convention was passed only when an amendment was added at the last reading saying that it was accepted only insofar as it did not contradict the Constitution. The day congress passed the Convention thousands of Maya attended the debates to put pressure on the deputies. While a number of opposition politicians spoke out against the restricting amendment, in the final analysis they were compelled to accept the amendment to assure passage of the accord. The resignation with which many faced the vote was expressed by Aura Marina Otzoy, a Maya deputy from the FRG party, when she said, "The war was the high price we had to pay so that those with power would move just a little." (19)

The battle over Convention 169 was a prelude to an even more divisive and frustrating conflict over the attempts to pass constitutional amendments to abide by the peace accords in May 1999. The Accord Concerning the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed in March 1995 was in many ways a strange document signed in bizarre circumstances. Like the other accords, it was an agreement between the URNG and the government; no indigenous person was at the table for either side and both sides had a peculiar history in their relation with Maya pueblos. However, the Assembly of Civil Society, in consultation with the Council for Organizations of the Mayan People of Guatemala (COPMAGUA), helped frame the initial draft. The accord was very much a compromise among various contesting visions: between cultural activists and Mayan popular organizations and (most assuredly) between those intent on ensuring there could be no challenge to the territorial integrity of Guatemala through the accord and Mayan groups intent on both the recognition of a pluri-cultural state and at least limited self-determination in Mayan regions and communities. Issues of community or regional autonomy and historic land rights could not be agreed on, and were dropped from the accord. Nevertheless, the accord is fairly far-reaching. It commits the government to recognize constitutionally the pluri-cultural, multi-linguistic nature of Guatemala. It committed the government to approving Convention 169 and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to introduce culturally reinforcing education in Mayan languages with curriculum controlled by the community. It focuses directly on the role of the community, recognizing the importance of consensual decision-making and supporting communal ownership of land. It commits the government to protecting community land and to compensating communities for the land taken from them. (20)

The indigenous accord, more than any other element of the peace agreement, envisioned what has been called a "new national project." (21) Most of the accords, however, have no force in law; attempts to implement constitutional change to reflect them have provoked intense debate, readily accessible in the confrontations played out in the columns of Guatemala's major newspapers. Two of the most influential cultural activists, Demetrio Cojti Cuxil and Luis Enrique Sam Colop, publish frequently in academic circles, perform various semi-official roles in government-supported organizations, and write regular columns in Guatemala City newspapers. A third, Estuardo Zapeta, also has a column. Most have received advanced academic degrees from outside Guatemala and all three have been active in the Academia de Lenguas Mayas (Academy of Mayan Languages). Cojti Cuxil and Sam Colop strike measured and careful stances. Zapeta is the wild card, regularly belittling the Mayan left and Mayan traditionalists, readily embracing globalism and neo-liberalism, and writing in a colloquial Spanglish/ mix that often includes delightfully funny plays on words. Any regular reader of the national newspapers is well aware of the ideas and opinions of these three and those of an involved set of Ladino columnists on major points. The result is rarely sterile; rather there is a lively debate about the future of Guatemala which contributes to the ability of Guatemalan society to reconceptualize itself.

The political arguments presented by the cultural nationalists are complex and varied. They argue that Guatemala is not, nor will it ever be a homogenous national state as most Ladinos have wished for or pretended since independence. All attempts at assimilation have failed and will continue to do so. In the words of Demetrio Cojti, the Maya will "frustrate the dreams of those who look to 'construct a nation' over the bodies of the Maya nations." (22) They have turned the traditional arguments about the discontinuity and incompleteness of Mayan culture on their head, asserting instead that Ladinos have no national culture. Consequently, they say Ladinos have attempted to create identity through emulating Europe or in asserting a negative identity, that of being non-indigenous. Cojti points to the confusion apparent in Ladino national symbols and holidays. The result, they argue, is an insecure identity which seeks to find existence through the humiliation of the Maya. (23)

The Ladino responses to these arguments have been surprisingly defensive. The most prolific defenders of the Ladino nation in the press were the troika of Karin Escaler, Mario Roberto Morales, and Mario Alberta Carrera, spanning the traditional political spectrum from the far right to the left. Mario Alberta Carrera is the most thoughtful of the three. He, nonetheless, took exception to many of the arguments presented by the Mayan activists. He was particularly incensed when a Mayan commentator attacked the writings of that great hero of the intellectual left in Guatemala, Miguel Angel Asturias.(24) On another occasion he adopted the line favored by another of Guatemala's most cherished academics on the left, Severo Martinez Pelaez, arguing that the "Indian didn't exist before the 12 of October 1492." As Indians and Ladinos were, by definition, created together it was impossible to determine who was and who was not an "Indian" in Guatemala. Given this, "Wouldn't it be simpler and more logical for us all to call ourselves Guatemalans" and to struggle for common rights together? (25)

This theme, that the new Guatemala needed to treat everyone equally, was echoed in other writings. Escaler, a well known supporter of the military, argued that the common good required the rejection of all special privileges, including those provided for the Maya in the indigenous accord. (26) Again, Maya and supportive ladinos consistently pointed out that this argument was shortsighted. Carlos Molina Mencos, one of the delegates involved in framing the 1985 constitution, argued in the Prensa libre in 1998 that proposed changes were discriminatory and suggested that all that was needed was "that one tries to explain their rights to the indigenous population, but that doesn't mean we need to change the rules of the game." Sam Colop responded,
 The ex-member of the constituent assembly says ... that the
 reforms indicated in the indigenous area will generate divisions
 in the country. In what country does Mr. Molina Mencos
 live? The social division already exists, and it was fomented by
 constituent assembly members and legislators who have ignorantly
 slashed the collective rights of the diverse pueblos that
 co-exist in Guatemala. The unity about which they talk so much
 is legal, superficial, but it is not real. (27)

The most vehement opponent of the accords and constitutional change was Mario Roberto Morales; he is also, in some respects, the most interesting as he has most determinedly championed a distinct Ladino identity. He continually argues that Guatemala, as a nation, has been a Ladino construct, with Creole influences, and of that Ladinos should be proud. He does not oppose Mayan attempts to organize; rather, in inflammatory language, he exhorted Ladinos to do the same. He predicted the coming of an ideological and legal "ethnic war" and warned: "We need to engage in it, brother Ladinos, or else we will have lost our identity before we have begun to defend it." In this struggle, "Ladinos must negotiate from the position of power they have acquired over the course of centuries and they cannot renounce their global conquests in any area (the cultural, the political, the economic.) We cannot accept that Guatemala is Maya, but mestizo." (28) If the Maya activists were correct in arguing that they were a majority in Guatemala, then Ladinos were an ethnic minority and they should struggle for the ethnic rights they have been denied. Most especially he asserted his right as a Ladino to appropriate whatever aspects of Mayan culture he thought appropriate. "My ethnic group and I," he argued, "will defend our right to the indigenous culture with the same favor that we defend our right to the European culture." I will applaud the indigenous movement, he said, "when they stop using us as the negative counterpoint for their positive alternative." (29) The unique nature of Guatemalan culture is to be created not through the protection of a distinct and exclusionary set of rights for indigenous people but in the articulation of the differences between Ladinos and Maya. (30)

These opposing viewpoints came to a head when the Arzu administration sent a series of constitutional changes, meant partly to reflect the peace accords, to a referendum in May 1999. Some 30 reforms to specific articles of the 1985 constitution were proposed. For the purposes of the referendum they were divided into four distinct questions dealing with "the nation and social rights," the Legislative Assembly, the executive, and justice. Each of these sections was assembled on a different colored ballot and people were asked to vote "yes" or "no" for each section. There were important aspects to each of these sections, perhaps most notably the section on the executive which dealt with the military. However, it was the first question, on the nation and social rights, that attracted most attention. This section started by declaring "the Guatemalan nation is a solidarity, within its unity and the integrity of its territory, it is pluri-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual." It also promised that the state would respect the identity of Maya pueblos, their ways of life, social organizations, customs and traditions, languages and traditional authorities, "privileging the integrity of territory and the indivisibility of the Guatemalan state." It also sought to establish different Mayan languages as official languages in parts of the country. (31)

Given the severe limits to any fundamental change that these provisions represented, it would be tempting to reiterate Marina Otzoy's frustrated response to the conditioned passage of Convention 169. Nevertheless, all the major political parties (although the FRG only reluctantly), all the Mayan activists and leaders of popular organizations (with the noteworthy exception of Estuardo Zapeta), and a large number of progressive Ladino columnists supported the proposal. The combination of forces in favor of the reforms led some pundits to suggest that the "yes" vote would win by a margin of at least two to one. (32)

However, the proposed constitutional changes prompted a storm of opposition. A number of journalists opposed the reforms and the major private-sector associations did so as well. CACIF argued that "to give special privileges to indigenous groups would generate divisions" in Guatemalan society and, accordingly, they funneled large amounts of money to two organizations in opposition to the reforms: a small political party, ARDE, headed by an evangelical pastor, and a civic committee which called itself the LIGA Pro-Patria. Both argued that the reforms "violate the principle of equality, dignity, and rights for all Guatemalans and give privileges to the Mayan, Xinca, and Garifuna ethnicities" and that the recognition of indigenous languages would destroy "the common sentiment and unity" promoted by a common language. (33) More ominously, two days before the vote, two well-known proponents of the "yes" side were assassinated as they campaigned for the vote. (34)

In the end the proposed reforms were soundly defeated, 366,000 votes to 328,000. All four questions lost. An analysis of the vote makes it clear that its very nature marginalized the Maya yet again. Over four million people were eligible to vote; only 18% of them did so. In every department with a Mayan majority the "yes" vote won soundly on the first question. However, close to one-third of the total votes cast in the country as a whole were cast in the capital city (which has about one-tenth of the total population); there, the first question lost soundly. The votes of the largely Ladino capital city tipped the scales in favor of those opposed to the reforms. (35) Many commentators tried to put this loss in the best light, arguing that the rejection was primarily the result of disillusionment with political leaders or with the process itself. The more honest analysts made it clear that the vote was primarily a rejection of Mayan demands. As Luis Morales Chun argued in an editorial the day of the vote, before the results were known, "in the final hours of the campaign against the vote, it was left completely clear that on the part of some political groups there is a permanent attitude against the indigenous people, against the peace accords, against the right of Guatemalans to live in a legal system that can end racism and discrimination." (36)

Guatemala's major newspaper defended the "no" vote, but did so in an argument that suggested the problems Guatemala was still to face. The paper argued that those proposing the reforms had lost sight of the forest for the trees, suggesting reforms without understanding what those reforms would do to "the total national project." It went on to suggest that politicians now had to champion "serious national projects"--in contrast, one supposes, to the frivolous ideas expressed by the Mayan activists, Convention 169, and the Peace accords. (37)

The failure of the constitutional referendum, and particularly the virulent opposition inspired by question one, requires a more complex explanation. Why did it generate so much opposition? Why did it inspire so little support when it actually came time to vote in highland Guatemala? One answer has to do with the nature of the construction of ethnicity and nationalism, which will be discussed later. But part of the answer to both these questions lies in the uncomfortable mix of state and community.

Derecho Consuetudinario and Linchamientos: State and Community in Guatemala

In virtually all the alternative visions put forward of a reconstituted Guatemala, community plays an important role. The central place of community in the proposals put forward by Mayan activists reflects a complicated and complex relationship between community and state, community and nationalism, and community and ethnicity.

The historical roots of community identification in Guatemala, and the importance of community in Mayan culture, are the subjects of major dispute in the literature. Until recently a widely accepted historical argument was that most indigenous communities in Guatemala were formed through the congregaciones in the sixteenth century and were thus primarily a Spanish crown and church invention. The conquest, disease, and colonial policy disarticulated community and local culture and a broader Mayan group identity, further fragmenting the 22 different Mayan linguistic groups. Symbols of community identification, like the distinctive huipiles worn by a large percentage of Mayan women in the countryside, can be traced to colonial policy designed to facilitate Spanish control and domination. In his highly regarded masterpiece of colonial history Severo Martinez Pelaez has argued that these pueblos de indios functioned primarily as jails, where Indian labour was kept when it was not needed by the dominant society. Thus Guatemalan pueblos became not only the clearest symbols of the distortion of native society in the process of turning them into "indios," but their isolation and false independence was the most obvious obstacle in the consolidation of both "nation" and "state." Proof of this was the prominent role these communities played as the site of localized (thus backward) rather than class-based (thus modern) resistance to state demands. (38)

Other, generally more recent research, suggests that there is more continuity in the cultural roots of community in Guatemala. While often given legal representation through the medium of the congregaciones, they most often reflected, if imperfectly, existing Mayan communities. Mayan dress and customs, while influenced by church and crown, had roots in pre-conquest culture. Mayan community organization reflected pre-conquest political organizations, again changed through time and refracted imperfectly. Most importantly, it is argued, Mayan community identity bore a strong historical continuity through commitment to place and adherence to locality. (39)

In the national period, this contradictory relationship among state, culture, and community continued. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Liberal governments that dominated in Guatemala for the next century sought to construct modern nation-states and to control and digest independent communities. On the other hand, the particular type of capitalist development that occurred in many parts of Guatemala and dominated the state structure found no obvious and immediate imperative in destroying the cultural basis of highland communities and some advantage in maintaining them in a state of material deprivation. Thus a contradictory relationship of assimilation and appropriation on the one hand and tolerance and protection on the other raged until the middle of the twentieth century. The Guatemalan revolution's (1944-1954) relationship with highland communities was different, but no less contradictory. It sought modernity in a different fashion, tying the community to the state through bonds of paternalism and class organization, while providing community members with increased resources on the one hand, and attacking community control of resources and land on the other.

Following the Liberation in 1954, indigenous communities became increasingly marginal to the Guatemalan economy and to conceptualizations of the Guatemalan nation. As Guatemala industrialized and agriculture "modernized," the products from highland communities became less important. While labor from the highlands continued to be important, it was less embedded in the community relationship to export agriculture and the state, pursued on a more individual basis, and increasingly disarticulated from cultural and community norms. Increasingly in the 1970s and 1980s, one major way highland communities related to the state was as recruits for either the military or the guerrillas. The common denominator through all of this was the construction of an exceptionally centralized state. Whether highland communities were to be imperfectly incorporated, suppressed, or ignored, the ideal political organization seemed to lie in centralizing control and bureaucracy in Guatemala City.

In the repressive violence that engulfed Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s, one clear strand of the counter-insurgency, state-building effort by the military and military-controlled governments was the destruction of the independent basis of indigenous communities, while enveloping both community and a version of indigenous culture in the state. Military policy in this period is interesting and much more subtle than is often suggested. The military destroyed, by its own count, more than 400 villages and sought to control completely most aspects of the community through the civil patrols, which at one point integrated almost a million men in the highlands. The military as an institution understood the nature of internal divisions within Guatemalan communities and used them very effectively in the counterinsurgency campaign, often pitting traditional authority against young catechists. One of the most interesting, if least discussed, aspects of military policy in the highlands through the 1980s and into the 1990s was the military's attempt to construct a homogenous indigenous culture. On one level the civil patrols can be seen most importantly as the imposition of a comprehensible and controlled alternative system of authority in the community. Evangelical missions, abetted at least some times by the Guatemalan military, can also be seen as attempts to homogenize Mayan belief systems and to remove or at least soften local differences.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this desire was the brief attempt by the military to champion its fictional, cartoon indigenous mascot, Polin Polainas, in the poles of development, the area in which the army was most active in redefining society. According to the military's cultural magazine, it didn't matter where Polin originated from, he was marked by the homogenous character traits that make up a good--in Jennifer Schirmer terms, "sanctioned"--Indian: "the love of study, desire for peace, development, and the supreme yearning for national unity." (40) Softening local differentiation, creating a "sanctioned" Indian with national characteristics who could be used in the construction of an alternative national project was perhaps the most essential characteristic of the military projects in the countryside during the 1980s and 1990s. (41) Thus, the military--more than any elected governing institution--sought to incorporate indigenous representatives into the governing structure of the country. The military-appointed council of state from 1983-1984 had twice as many indigenous representatives as any governing body before and more than any since. (42)

The relationship viewed from the other perspective--from the perspective of community members--was equally complex. In 1955, the comuneros of the Santa Maria Joyabaj complained to the new agrarian officials: "Each one of the political changes that has occurred in our nation has filled us with anxiety and dread because we know that individuals who say they represent the interests of the state rush to our community to fill our peaceful existence as agriculturists with confusion and disorder." (43) Anxiety and dread, confusion and disorder: one interpretation of the relationship of community with the state focuses on these ideas, arguing that indigenous communities sought mostly to be left alone, retreating whenever possible in culture constructs made deliberately unfamiliar and obtuse and an economic organization stubbornly communal and uncapitalist--deliberately impenetrable in all possible ways to those from outside. (44)

This is, of course, too simple. The very people who complained about confusion and disorder appealed to the state for roads, joined national peasant organizations, took cases to national courts, petitioned for schools, and engaged in endless treks to the capital to beg favors, request documents, and visit officials. For these people, the problem with the state lay not in its intrusion, but in its distance. This is not uniquely Guatemalan. As Taussig has suggested, the state contains a "double helix of attraction and repulsion." (45) In the Guatemalan context, it is clear that indigenous villages have been confronted by the worst possible state: centralizing and intrusive yet inefficient and ineffectual; oppressive and opposed to local expressions of diversity and distinctiveness yet unsure of the elements of the national culture with which it wished to replace more localized cultural expression; opposed to local autonomy and yet unable to extend state services to substitute for local initiatives. In the words of Jean Piel, they were "coercively surrounded by an insufficient state apparatus." (46)

Some of the arguments about the building of national culture have focused primarily on the incorporation of locality and its "memory." Alon Confino has argued that the construction of nationhood in Germany was "a product of collective negotiation and exchange between the many memories that existed in a nation." Both Confino and Benedict Anderson stress the importance of linking localized monuments and architecturally rendered symbols to nationalism and the state. (47) Obviously, the ability to fold local memory into a national memory depends on many factors, including not least of all the historical interpretation of the events which go into the forging of local memory. As both Confino and Florencia Mallon point out, the state very often "sets the discursive boundaries within which such remembering could take place." (48) Still, it is difficult to see, for example, how such a process of negotiation could be made more acceptable through local monumental symbols in Cantel, where a venerated local symbol is a plaque which commemorates the killing of all the members of the local indigenous ayuntamiento (municipal government) by government troops when they opposed the expansion of a textile factory in the late nineteenth century. The plaque reads, in part, "Here lies the remains of a municipality." Highland Guatemala is littered with similar if less official reminders of one aspect of the relationship between community and state, many of them still to be exhumed and the dead counted.

All of these somewhat contradictory aspects of state/community relations have found their expression in recent attempts to reimagine the state in Guatemala. They have had the same limited success as reimagining the nation. The first significant steps were outlined in the 1985 Constitution, which required that 8% of the national budget be given to municipal governments and committed the government to a process of decentralization. Since that time, few administrations have actually transferred that amount of money, and there has been constant conflict over the transfer of the money, central government attempts to control how it is to be spent, and allegations of corruption in numerous communities. By 1993, alcaldes (municipal authorities) from over 260 municipalities were on strike over disputes concerning the 8%. (49) To underline their complaints about the lack of funding, Guatemalan municipalities even began to sign "international" agreements with neighboring communities in the countries surrounding Guatemala, without recourse to the state itself. (50)

A number of proposals concerning decentralization were debated in Guatemala during the late 1980s and 1990s. One of these was presented by Demetrio Cojti in Siglo veintiuno in 1994 to try to help focus discussion in the Asemblea de la Sociedad Civil (Assembly of Civil Society) concerning the indigenous accords. He presented an image of Guatemala with a series of Mayan regions with limited autonomy (within a unitary state, of course.) Within these regions, however, municipalities would have significantly more power and autonomy than they now have, the regional governments would serve as "intermediaries between central authorities and municipalities." Cojti Cuxil calls this "something more than administrative decentralization and something less than federalism." (51) While no official document adheres to as complete a plan as this, Convention 169 and the peace accords commit the government to a process of decentralization and both the Arzu administration and that of Alfonso Portillo, which replaced it in 1999, at least rhetorically embraced aspects of decentralization. Despite these commitments, virtually nothing has been done to date to advance significantly the decentralization process. It is as completely--and not coincidentally--unfulfilled as other commitments in the indigenous accords. (52)

One of the important areas of conflict surrounding community in the last few years has to do with derecho consuetudinario (customary law) and its links, at least in popular perception, with a wave of vigilante justice (linchamientos) in the countryside. Replacing national and state laws with "indigenous" or "community" law, at least for some categories of crimes, has been an important part of the demands for decentralization and strengthening community. In 1997, a national commission on derecho indigena (indigenous law) was formed and through 1998 a series of seminars held both in Guatemala City and in major indigenous towns throughout the highlands to explore the idea and to develop proposals for constitutional change. Leonardo Cabrera, a member of the commission on derecho indigena in COPMAGUA, explained the differences between it and "official" justice in this way: "State law is written, onerous, it is not consensual, it focuses on punishment rather than reparation, it is rigid, disintegrative, and requires endless paperwork; while indigenous law is oral, is not onerous, is consensual, preventative, flexible, and seeks to maintain family and communal unity, moreover, it is quick." (53) Recognizing derecho consuetudinario became a major component of what people began to call poder local (local power) and proposals for doing so were present, in a diluted form, in the constitutional reforms that failed in 1999. Discussion of derecho indigena in congress in 1998 in preparation for the constitutional proposals was heated and virulent. Its inclusion was one of the reasons for the solid defeat of the fourth question, on justice, in the constitutional accords.

Why should derecho consuetudinario create such concern? Part of the reason relates to the issue of discrimination and an argument that all Guatemalans must be treated equally before the law. According to one well-known Guatemalan lawyer, Walter Robles, these laws "attempt to apply norms and procedures exclusively to certain people in society. Politically and socially they will come to create division and discrimination ... and signify a backward step in recognizing the equality of the indigenous population and will contribute to racism and the alienation of these communities from the rest of the country." (54) Another reason is the challenge community justice presents to the jurisdiction and power of the state. Laura Nader has argued that community justice, at least in the context of rural Oaxaca, is a means for protecting a measure of community autonomy from governmental control, a counter-hegemonic tool. (55)

In Guatemala popular perception links community justice to vigilantism and the wave of linchamientos that have afflicted Guatemala for the last decade. According to one estimate 600 linchamientos have occurred in the last decade. In the first nine months of 2000, in the department of El Quiche alone, 19 linchamientos were officially reported, with 13 people killed. These actions are the subject of much horror and fascination in Guatemala City papers. Most often reports on the linchamientos are provided in a sensational manner. For example, the report on the killings in El Quiche ran under a banner reading Tierra Rebelde (Rebel Land). Fascination with these events increased when they were accompanied by accusations of witchcraft and reports of suspected baby-stealing, as was the case in May 2000 when a Japanese tourist was stoned to death in Todos Santos. While some newspaper stories make the effort to explain the links between linchamientos and the recent violence, especially pointing to the role of ex-civil patrol leaders in instigating the attacks, most people and most stories associate the linchamientos with communal justice. They also frequently associate "extreme" punishments, such as public whipping, with both linchamientos and community justice. (56)

The reasons for linchamientos are complex and are not particularly relevant here. What is interesting is why there should be such a willingness to conflate the two issues on the part of so many people and some newspapers. Why, as one example, should an informed Guatemalan academic, in a private conversation, be deeply upset about reports of a whipping in an indigenous community in a country that has over 30 prisoners on death row? I believe the answer to that question lies in a combination of the fear of "anarchy" with any challenge to the rule of law of the state, an aligned perception of indigenous communities as the reservoir of pre-modern superstition, and a vague apprehension that to provide official recognition for community justice would open the door to the acceptance of a whole slate of inextricably linked practices, norms, and perceptions that are deemed to be incompatible with any "national project," what Foucault described as "an insurrection of subjugated knowledge": local, informal, unapproved. (57) Recognizing community justice would be one more step in abandoning the ideal of a homogenized, decipherable indigenous culture that for many is the next best thing to a homogenized national culture.

So What About Democracy?

Donna Lee Van Cott, in the preface to Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America, says,
 We must ask, which is more destabilizing to democratizing
 societies: the efforts of an ethnic group to emphasize its
 distinctiveness or the strategy of a state to forcibly create a
 unitary, homogenous "nation" from a diverse, multiethnic,
 multilingual population? For students of democracy, the key question
 is, which policies are more likely to reinforce democracy: those
 that protect the interests of distinct subcultures, or those that
 strive to unify national interests? (58)

As interesting and valuable as this question is, I think this obscures the issue in the Guatemalan case by making the question too simple. To explore the challenge indigenous people in the Americas present to democracy, and the challenge democracy presents to them, we must unpack certain key terms and examine the assumptions behind them: nation, state, democracy--and do so, I believe, through the medium of community. We must more completely answer the question: Democratizing what? What does our exploration of the historic and current contestation of these terms in Guatemala suggest?

I think, first, we need to examine the ideas of nation and ethnicity more fully. In most of the discussion surrounding these terms in Guatemala, a binary opposition is proposed: there is a Ladino ethnicity which has dominated the state but failed to create a "nation," and there is a Mayan ethnicity that has been excluded from effective participation in the state, but somehow is more "complete" (i.e., distinct?) and on the way towards creating a national consciousness or national consciousness'. This deserves exploration.

Ethnic consciousness always develops in relation to another, most often in conflict with another. It also develops in relation to each non other; that is in a dual conflict/collaboration both between the ethnic group and another and among members of the ethnic group. Ethnic identification is not "given," rather it is constructed through these relationships, for specific purposes. It is always a product of a certain type of identity politics. But, it cannot be constructed from whole cloth; that is, it needs to embrace distinct traits and symbols of identity that already exist. (59) There is absolutely nothing inherently conflictual about the existence of distinct ethnic identities in modern states. The conflict is generated, when it occurs, when "core" ethnic traits for one group are thought to be incompatible with those for other ethnic groups and with the interests of the state.

What are the seeds of this incompatibility in the Guatemalan context? One normally speaks of the Guatemalan state being dominated by Ladinos . Since the nineteenth century, census-taking has divided the population between Ladinos and indigenas (indigenous peoples). What does this mean? Who fits into these categories? The normal scholarly convention is to define Ladinos as non-Indian or non-Maya. It is this non-existence that prompted Guzman Bockler in one of the standard historical works on identity in Guatemala to define Ladino identity as "ningunidad," the state of nobody-ness.(60) The nature of Ladino identity deserves some exploration.

Both Jim Scott and Benedict Anderson talk about the census as a sculpting tool. Jim Scott in Seeing Like a State uses the powerful image of scientific forestry to explore how states determine what are important and unimportant categories--in the case of scientific forestry, "useful" trees and waste--and through determined application of the state's view of the forest, they slowly transform the real forest into one that bears greater resemblance to the imagined forest of the state forester. Human society is less susceptible to such reimagining, but the state's tools are powerful and through the use of a myriad instruments designed to count, classify, catalogue, and define its citizens, the state also at least partially shapes them to its image. Benedict Anderson argues that the three major characteristics of the census--first, the impressibility of fractions, (people can't be 1/2 or 1/3 or 1/10 something, they need a classification of their own); second, its anonymity (which "shores up the census's truth"); and third, its pretensions to totality (it professes to capture all that is important about all citizens; if the census doesn't capture it, it isn't statistically important)--provide the census with an enormous amount of power. At one and the same time, it by necessity distorts reality and redefines it. (61)

It is clear in the Guatemalan context that the term ladino, in the way it has come to be understood, is a creation of such state tools. Through the colonial period the concepts of Indian and Ladino were uncertain, impermanent, and often contradictory. The meaning of the term derives from "those who can speak another language" and was most commonly applied in the early colonial period to indigenous people who could speak Spanish. The use of the term was gradually enlarged to include those who were educating and "civilizing" themselves. But the application of the term was always somewhat ambivalent. For example, in an 1817 Royal Assessment in Quetzaltenango, this rather contradictory observation was presented:
 As a result [of their dedication to work and the fact that they
 didn't drink too much] they [Indians in the community] respect
 authority ... and are becoming Ladinos. It is the opposite
 with the Ladinos, only a tenth of whom apply themselves
 to agriculture and commerce with honor and Christian
 thoughts. The rest of them lie, drink, gamble, and deceive. It is
 shameful to see their children without clothes, confused, poor,
 and sick. (62)

One is, of course, left with the confusing perspective: if an Indian in giving up drunkenness and laziness and in respecting authority becomes a Ladino, does a Ladino who doesn't respect authority, drinks, and is lazy become an Indian? This, of course, does not happen--the transition to modernity, even in 1817, went in only one direction. The distinction between Ladino and Indian, given such indistinctiveness, made sense only in a local context and was of absolutely no use to the state as a defining tool. (63)

Even after independence and through much of the nineteenth century, while becoming Ladino was still the path to modernity for "civilizing" Indians, the Ladino was neither to be emulated nor the foundation for a national modernity. In 1868, one official's description of Ladinos said "[a]ll these people, by general rule, have no sentiments of morality, nor of patriotism, of honor, nor of anything good. They are the mortal enemy of the civilized white race and not least of the humble and inoffensive indios." (64) Of course, three years later the Liberal revolt brought a new set of coffee-planter elite to power in Guatemala. This revolt, which is typically said to have ushered Guatemala into the modern era, was also, according to one German commentator, a victory of the Ladino population over the Indian one. (65) In a sleight of hand performed by the new Liberal state through the magic of the census, the new state became a ladino one, la raza blanca (the white race) disappeared, and Guatemala was divided between Indians and non-Indians (Ladinos).

But, of course, neither side of this censal dichotomy captured reality. La raza blanca didn't disappear. Marta Casaus Arzu, a member of one of Guatemala's richest, oldest and "whitest" families, detailed both the incest-ridden control over the Guatemalan economy and politics shared by Guatemala's richest 22 families, and the depth of their attachment to their white, not Ladino, roots. Most often, discussions of this book--which created quite a stir in Guatemala--focused on the racist attitudes it revealed about Indians. But, like government commentators in the nineteenth century, the book revealed similar contempt for Ladinos. Occasionally the tip of the "white" iceberg is revealed in rare glimpses, most often in vague references to a continuing Creoles elite. For instance, one commentator in the weekly magazine, La Cronica, in 1993 identified the most pervasive threat to democracy as "la tribu politica criolla" (the political Creoles tribe) that centralized power and wealth in the country. (66)

The Ladino remains ill-defined and unclear as an ethnic category, let alone a national project. They are neither Indian nor white; they are neither oppressed nor in control of the state. There has been little attempt to develop a mythology of the mestizo (mixed-blood), the cosmic race, as there was in Mexico; no attempt to define Ladino by origin, because that origin is indistinct, neither racial nor cultural. Amidst all this confusion there is one constant, and it resides in the interplay of community and state. Indeed, both the origins and the elaboration by the state of a "ladino identity" have their roots in mobility, nationalism, and attempts to control and integrate community. In the colonial period the term Ladino was often used for indigenous people who had been driven from their communities, as well as mestizos who were officially excluded from highland communities. By the nineteenth century, at least in the western highlands, the term Ladino became associated with mobility, with "an articulation with the national society and not local." Isabel Rodas argues that by the nineteenth century, the vision of a modern nation elaborated by the national elite became increasingly attached to ideas of progress, capitalism, and modernity. Indigenous communities, with their self-sufficient agricultural economies, were considered to be the major obstacle to realizing this vision. Ladinos, as a conceptual category, begin to take concrete shape when these people started to play a major role in the construction of a modern, progressive nation. This occurred as they took control of indigenous communities, bringing about the integration of indigenous people into the dominant society and partial disintegration of these communities. The very origin of Ladino as an ethnic category lies in its opposition to community. (67)

But, the other side of the censal dichotomy in Guatemala is no less hazy and indistinct. We don't need to buy into arguments about Mayan culture disappearing with conquest to recognize that the construction of a Mayan ethnicity is a project fraught with contradictions and complications. Mayan identity is not, most assuredly, the "inverse image" of Spanish colonial and modern Ladino culture, as John Hawkins would have us believe. But, it is neither ancient nor crafted without its opposing other. The great difficulty in crafting a Mayan ethnicity is also its most distinctive characteristic: the strength of locality. This is not unique to the creation of a Mayan ethnicity. Benedict Anderson argues that creating an "ethnic" identity and playing ethnic politics requires a very great sacrifice. People "have to learn and think and act [as part of an ethnic group]. Yet the costs of going ethnic, that is, participating in ethnic politics and economics within the nation-state, are not to be underestimated.... They occlude and often submerge non-ethnic local identities in the very process of attempting to defend them." (68) To understand the "costs of going ethnic" for the Guatemalan Maya we need to examine both the external and the internal contestation which helps shape the ethnic consciousness.

It is often too easy to forget that the formation of ethnic identity even among the Maya--as the least advantaged side of the binary couplet in Guatemala--is also, at least partially, a construction of an ethnic elite. Paul Brass reminds us that the symbols of ethnic differentiation are chosen, and that most often these choices are encouraged by an ethnic elite and are used to their advantage. Greg Grandin has shown that through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Quetzalteca K'iche elite used both their privileges within an ethnic identity and a ready embrace of the structures of modernity and nationalism to defend their economic and political positions against non-elite K'iche and local Ladino elite. They were eventually unsuccessful in promoting a view of Guatemalan nationalism that included a complex vision of indigenous identity partly because their position within an indigenous community (even a large one like Quetzaltenango) conditioned their ability to martial labor and resources. As an indigenous elite, they were able to command access to certain amounts of indigenous labor, which they were able to use in the first half of the nineteenth century to their economic and political advantage. Yet this position also required that they recognize a "bedrock of subsistence rights" that helped prevent them from embracing the particular type of modern, capitalist society that developed in the Guatemalan highlands in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Their ethnic position also prevented them from expanding significantly the range of their economic operations, joining a national or even regional elite as did many of the formerly local Ladino elite. They remained both embraced and bound by community.

Most contemporary influential Mayan cultural activists share certain traits: they are--by any definition--an elite, they have a professional attachment to language and education, and they have spent a significant portion of their life away from their local community. This has helped to determine that language, education, and cultural rights play the most important part in determining the cultural traits that are exemplified in the struggle to create ethnicity and to turn that ethnic identity into a contesting nationalism. Those interested in constructing a functioning ethnicity that can "play politics" are, like the government, attempting to break the "chains of discontinuity" by focusing on language and culture, both elements that transcend locality and can be traced historically--albeit with some difficulty--to a pre-conquest existence. These ethnic traits are also, I believe, those least likely to cause conflict with the Guatemala state, those most easily encompassed by a modern, democratic state, and most compatible with existing constructs of nationalism. (69)

But, it is also clear that an important component of any construction of Mayan culture must be locality, an attachment to place and community that is entwined with the sinews of the culture in inextricable ways. Admittedly the importance of place in Mayan culture is contentious, wrapped up as it is with colonial policy, congregaciones, and national policy that saw Maya as only peasants and thus attached to the land. Still, the connection with place cannot be ignored. John Watanabe has argued, from his observations of Santiago Chimaltenango, that "[t]he worldview embedded in the Maya conventions of community ... implies that being Maya involves not just viewing the world in particularly Maya ways but doing so from particularly Maya places in the company of particularly Maya neighbors. Affinities of place and people imbue the resulting sense of identity with the moral force intrinsic to the conventions that convey it." (70) Watanabe's assessment of the importance of place in Chimbal identity is echoed by anthropologists and by Maya from all over the highlands. This attachment to place is often deeply intertwined with religious concepts that are particular to each community and locality. As mentioned, it is also reflected in virtually all the proposals for reconstituting nation and state in Guatemala. This attachment to place does not mean that a Mayan ethnicity cannot exist when people are detached from place, nor that it cannot be constructed when people move to other places. Orin Starn, for example, has warned against subscribing to the "sedentarist metaphysics" often attributed to peasants, at least in the context of highland Peru. (71) But the importance of locality in constructing identity for indigenous people in Guatemala does suggest two very important points: the difficulties in constructing a "Mayan" ethnicity, and an unavoidable conflict with state and modernity and, I believe, liberal democracy.

Obviously, if the sense of identity is constructed by a complex interplay of particular people and place, it is difficult to weave that identity into an "ethnicity" that has resonance beyond that locality. I believe this helps explain the relative lack of success in translating the Mayan majority into effective political participation, most especially in the low participation rate of the Maya in the constitutional referendum of 1999. While there were geographic and physical constraints on Maya participation in the vote, these constraints are always there--indeed, they are a part of everyday life for most Maya. I believe the low participation for Maya in the highlands was the result, primarily, of the failure of the constitutional proposals to capture the imagination of a large percentage of the Maya because they didn't deal enough with community issues and desires for community control. Mayan cultural activists, community leaders, and popular sector actors have worked very hard and imaginatively to construct a vision of a Mayan ethnicity that is both a plausible alternative or complementary nationalism and grounded in community and locality. But this is a difficult process; a Mayan ethnicity without such a core construct makes little sense. However, this is the most contentious aspect of a reimagined Guatemala. It is the local imbeddedness of a Mayan ethnicity that makes it so difficult to digest into a modern nationality, a modern state, and democracy.

John Berger in Pig Earth provides this description of a village:
 The life of a village, as distinct from its physical and
 geographical attributes, is perhaps the sum of all the social
 and personal relationships existing within it, plus the social and
 economic relations--usually oppressive--which link the village to
 the rest of the world. What distinguishes the life of the village is
 that it is also a living portrait of itself: a communal portrait, in
 that everybody is portrayed and everybody portrays. Every
 village's portrait of itself is constructed out of words, spoken
 and remembered: out of opinions, stories, eye-witness reports,
 legends, comments and hearsay. And it is a continual portrait;
 work on it never stops. (72)

It is often too easy to romanticize visions of community. They are almost always, it appears, also the locations of constant and bitter conflict. Indeed, David Sabean has argued that what distinguished community in Germany was that everyone was engaged in the same argument; it was the discourse of dealing with conflict which helped form community. Guatemalan indigenous villages have been, especially in the last few years, particularly conflictual locales.

What distinguishes the community is that to function inside it one requires a toolkit of local knowledge, flexibility, embeddedness, and belonging that is both the antithesis to the state's need for simplification and legibility and decidedly unmodern. If modernity means anything concrete, it must mean a mix of social changes distinguished by the disembeddedness of social and productive relations, the "freeing" of labor from the social, communal, and cultural bonds which gave it meaning in a pre or non-modern context. Modernity takes shape around the linked concepts of state, nation, and new freedoms. Benedict Anderson has argued that one of the distinguishing characteristics of modernity is "the decline in the currency of locality" (73) Modernity takes its form through "new forms of collective identity" associated with both the nation and the state and the application of liberal ideas about individuality and equality. Habermas has suggested that modernity is marked by "shrinking the domain of the sacred." and replacing the authority of traditional allegiances with allegiance to, and adherence to the rules of, the state. Old forms of association are replaced by "the abstract liberties of citizens," and the modern state is distinguished by "the degree to which it can exert its hegemony over the every day life of its citizens." (74)

In this way, of course, both modernity and the modern state are essential in facilitating the development of capitalist relations of production in communities. Partha Chatterjee has argued that modernity becomes a global phenomenon at the intersection of the nation-state and capital, and its sacrifice must be community:
 It is the narrative of capital that can turn the violence of
 mercantilist trade, war, genocide, conquest, and colonialism into a
 story of universal human progress, development, modernization,
 and freedom. For this narrative to take shape the destruction
 of community is fundamental ... which in its various forms
 had regulated the social unity of laborers with their means of
 production. Thus community, in the narrative of capital, becomes
 relegated to the latter's prehistory, a natural, pre-political,
 primordial stage in social evolution that must be superseded
 for the journey of freedom and progress to begin. And since
 the story of capital is universal, community too becomes the
 universal prehistory of progress, identified with medievalism
 in Europe and the stagnant, backward, present in the rest of
 the world.

Modern civil society becomes "the space for the diverse life of the individuals of the nation" rather than emanating from community. Within such a modernized civil-society, there is room for only a "sanitized, domesticated" version of community. However, pre-modern community "continues to lead a subterranean, potentially subversive life within it, because it refused to go away." (75)

It is, I believe, the continued existence of "unsanitized community" that makes democracy so problematic in so many parts of the formerly colonized world. In these places no conceptualization of a nation or nationalities has emerged through the contentious interplay of ethnicities sufficient to imbue the state with enough authority and power to insure that this modern vision of the individual will hold sway. Much of the most interesting recent work on Africa, for example, has argued that what makes Africa distinct is not tribalism, but the stubborn refusal to disembed social relations from productive relations. Thus, the difficulties with democracy do not stem from unnatural borders constructed by colonial masters but with the concepts of nation and state themselves. (76)

It is this concern as well that, I believe, makes Mayan resurgence such a challenge for Guatemala and for democracy; not because it posits a competing ethnicity, which can be easily incorporated into a modern state; not because it challenges historically cemented types of discrimination; not even because it threatens certain economic arrangements that have benefited small numbers of people immensely. Guatemalan society is neither so racist, nor so controlled by the tiny elite who benefit from the current economic arrangements that it could not overcome these objections. Rather, the resurgence of indigenous identity is problematic for two reasons: the competing nationalism (Ladino) was forged, at least in much of Guatemala, deliberately and specifically as a tool for opening indigenous communities to the demands of the state; it is, thus, especially difficult for an ethnic nationalism based on the strength and, at least to a certain extent, the exclusive nature of communities to be accepted. Most importantly this community-based ethnicity challenges the very basis of currently conceptualized ideas of the state, nation, and democracy. It creates difficulties that go beyond often-expressed concerns about the intersection of individual and collective rights, by arguing that different forms of collective rights need to be recognized for differing localities. A quick glance at various conceptualizations of community in Guatemala readily suggests ways in which these rights might clash: over land, labor relations, justice, and forms of local governance.

Community-based collective rights suggest that people (or at least a substantial percentage of them) will not be equal before the law, will not be individual citizens of an imagined community, and will not be part of a disembedded civil society. Rather they will be members of a community in which law and citizenship and all else that matters is determined by their membership in that community and by a complex web of social and productive relations from which they cannot divorce themselves and which are not necessarily democratic in any sense of the way we use that term in modern political thought. If we continue to mean "liberal" democracy when we talk about strengthening democracy in Latin America--a liberal democracy in which we champion the rights of the individual, excluding the often competing set of rights of community--then we are being hypocritical in supporting arguments about diversity and pluriethnicity along with democracy.

The challenge, thus, is that we need to try to rethink both democracy and the state, to allow for the flourishing of pre-/non-/post-modern communities within the confines of existing states, and to encourage the construction of new ethnicities that do not require homogeneity or a softened locality. We need, finally, to broaden our conceptions of democracy beyond a particular type of societal organization and a particular conception of progress.


(1.) The author wishes to thank Max Cameron and other participants of the "Threats to Democracy in Latin America" conference held in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Some of the research for this paper was supported by a SSHRC grant.

(2.) El Periodico, 15 September 2000, p. 10.

(3.) Edgar Barillas, "El problema del Indio durante la epoca liberal" (Unpublished Manuscript, 1988), pp. 22-24.

(4.) Richard Adams, "A Report on the Political Status of the Guatemalan Maya," in Donna Lee Van Cott, Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), p.151.

(5.) Jim Handy, Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-1954 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. 45.

(6.) Julio Soria Pinto, "Una lectura etnica de Miguel Angel Asturias" Revista de la Universidad de San Carlos 5/6 (julio-diciembre 1999): 115.

(7.) George Lovell and Chris Lutz, "Conquest and Population: Maya Demography in Historical Perspective" (Paper presented at the Latin American Studies Association, Los Angeles, 1994).

(8.) Comision para el Esclarecimiento Historico, "Las violaciones de los derechos humanos y los hechos de violencia," in Guatemala : Memoria del silencio, vol. II (Guatemala City: MINUGUA, 1999).

(9.) Jim Handy, "Reimagining Guatemala: Reconciliation and the Indigenous Accords" (Paper presented at "Dilemmas of Reconciliation: A Research Network and Conference" held in Calgary, 2-6 June 1999).

(10.) Siglo veintiuno, 30 March 2001, p. 4

(11.) Alison Brysk, From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 253, 269-274.

(12.) La Hora, 29 December 1992, p. 12.

(13.) Prensa libre, 2 November 1992, p. 10; 4 November 1992, p. 10.

(14.) Prensa libre, 26 October 1992.

(15.) Siglo veintiuno, 4 November 1992, p. 11.

(16.) La Hora, 5 October 1992, p. 2

(17.) Cited in Dianne Nelson, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 283.

(18.) Ibid., p. 334.

(19.) Marco Tulio Alvarez, "Cronica del 169," Noticias de Guatemala March 1996, pp. 3-4; Ruitzijol, September 1996, pp. 7-8.

(20.) Ruitzijol, 16-31 March 1995, p. 1; Kay Warren, Indigenous Movements and their Critics (Austin: 1998), pp. 56-57; Demetrio Cojti Cuxil, "Estudio evaluativo del cumplimiento del Acuerdo sobre identidad y derechos de los pueblos indigenas," in Los acuerdos de paz (Guatemala City: FLACSO, 1996), pp. 53-90.

(21.) Victor Galvez Borrell, Que sociedad queremos? (Guatemala City: FLACSO, 1997), p. 7.

(22.) Ibid., pp. 40-47.

(23.) Demetrio Cojti Cuxil, Configuracion del pensamiento politico del Pueblo Maya (Guatemala City, FLACSO, 1991); Borrell, Que sociedad queremos?; Warren, Indigenous Movements and their Critics.

(24.) Siglo veintiuno, 28 February 1997, p. 13.

(25.) Siglo veintiuno, 24 January 1997, p. 13

(26.) Siglo veintiuno, 4 May 1997, p. 15; also see Alfred Kaltschmitt, Siglo veintiuno, 5 April 1997, p. 13.

(27.) Prensa libre, 7 October 1998.

(28.) Siglo veintiuno, 10 February 1997, p. 13; Mario Roberto Morales, "Construyendo la identidad ladina," in Estudios sociales, segundo congreso de Estudios Mayas (Guatemala City: Universidad Rafael Landivar, 1998), p. 16.

(29.) Siglo veintiuno, 7 April 1997, p. 13.

(30.) Mario Roberto Morales, "La identidad y la patria del ladino," in Claudia Dary, ed., La construccion de la nacion y la representacion ciudadana (Guatemala City: FLACSO, 1998), pp. 411-460.

(31.) "Reformas a la consititucion politica de la Republica de Guatemala," 1999.

(32.) Lucy Barrios, "Si y No en recta final," Prensa libre, 10 May 1999.

(33.) Danilio Valladares, "Indigenas Entre el Si o No," Prensa libre, 12 May 1999.

(34.) "Matan a sec. gen. adjunto del FDNG," Siglo veintiuno, 14 May 1999.

(35.)"No se modifican la Constitucion," Prensa libre, 18 May 1999.

(36.) "Tiempo y destino," Prensa libre, 16 May 1999.

(37.) Prensa libre, 18 May 1999.

(38.) Severo Martinez Pelaez, La patria del criollo (Costa Rica: Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1970); Severo Martinez Pelaez, Motines de indios (Puebla, Mexico: Universidad de Puebla, 1985); John Hawkins, Inverse Images: The Meaning of Culture Ethnicity and Family in Post Colonial Guatemala (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984); Jim Handy, Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala (Boston: Southend Press, 1984).

(39.) Robert Hill, and John Monaghan, Continuities in Highland Mayan Social Organization (Philadelphia: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987).

(40.) Jennifer Schirmer, The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), p. 116.

(41.) Angela Delli Sante, Nightmare or Reality: Guatemala in the 1980s (Amsterdam: Thela Publishers, 1996); Nelson, A Finger in the Wound; Schirmer, The Guatemalan Military Project.

(42.) Richard Adams, "A Report on the Political Status of the Guatemalan Maya," in Van Cott, Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America, p. 173.

(43.) Handy, Revolution in the Countryside p. 167.

(44.) Jim Handy, "Anxiety and Dread: State and Community in Modern Guatemala," Canadian Journal of History 25, 1 (1991).

(45.) Michael Taussig, The Nervous System (New York: 1992), p. 111.

(46.) Cited in Rachel Seider, "Rethinking Democratisation and Citizenship: Legal Pluralism and Institutional Reform in Guatemala," Citizenship Studies 3, 1 (1999): 109.

(47.) Alon Confino, The Nation as a Local Metaphor (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 44; Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparison (London: Verso Press, 1998), pp. 67-70.

(48.) Florencia Mallon, Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), p. 282. (49.) Siglo veintiuno, 4 March 1993, p. 5; Siglo veintiuno, 16 March 1993, p. 5.

(50.) See the discussion of towns in Huehuetenango signing accords to export water to Mexican towns in return for electricity, in Prensa libre, 1 March 1993, p. 36.

(51.) Demetrio Cojti Cuxil, "Unidad del estado mestizo y regiones autonomas Mayas," in F. Birk, Guatemala : Oprimada pobre or princesa embrujada (Guatemala City: 1997), pp. 175-190.

(52.) Victor Galvez Borrell, Carlos Hoffman, and Luis Mack, Poder local y participacion democratica (Guatemala City: FLACSO, 1998); Morna MacLeod, Poder local : Reflexiones sobre Guatemala (Guatemala City: Oxfam UK, 1997).

(53.) Cited in Saqb'ichil, July 1998, p. 6; see also Prensa libre, 21 September 1998.

(54.) Cited in Tiempos del mundo, 7 September 2000, p. A3.

(55.) Laura Nader, Harmony Ideology: Justice and Control in a Zapotec Mountain Village (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

(56.) See Tiempos del mundo, 7 September 2000, p. A3. There were reports of linchamientos in communities virtually every week in Guatemalan newspapers. For some examples see El Periodico, 23 September 2000, p. 31; 25 September 2000, p. 4; 26 September 2000, p. 6; 2 October 2000, pp. 2-3; 3 October 2000, pp. 3, 10; 4 October 2000, p. 4; Prensa libre, 23 September 2000, p. 10; 26 September 2000, p. 12; 9 October 2000, p. 10; 16 October 2000, p. 12; for figures from El Quiche, see El Periodico, 28 September 2000, p. 6; and 2 October 2000, p. 2.

(57.) Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 81.

(58.) Donna Lee Van Cott, ed., Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America (New York: St. Martins Press, 1994), p.3.

(59.) From among a huge literature on ethnicity, I would point to both Frederick Barth, "Introduction," in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (London: 1969); Paul Brass, Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparisons (New Delhi: 1991); Manning Nash, The Cauldron of Ethnicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

(60.) Cited in Nelson, A Finger in the Wound, p. 229.

(61.) Jim Scott, Seeing Like a State (Yale: New Haven Press, 1998); Jim Scott, "State Simplifications" (Unpublished Paper, Department of History, University of Saskatchewan, 1997); Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparison (London: Verso Press, 1998), pp. 36-38.

(62.) Cited in Greg Grandin, The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 25.

(63.) Antonio Batres Jaurequi, Vicios del lenguaje y provincialismos de Guatemala (Guatemala: Tipografia Nacional, 1982).

(64.) Julio Pinto Soria, "El debate sobre la cuestion etnica en Guatemala, 1944-1970," CEUR boletin (March 1999): 50.

(65.) Julio Castellano Cambranes, Aspectos del desarrollo economico y social de Guatemala a la luz de fuentes historicas alemanas, 1868-1895 (Guatemala City: University of San Carlos, 1975), p. 81.

(66.) La Cronica, 17 October 1993, p. 17.

(67.) Isabel Rodas, "Ladino : Una identificacion politica del siglo XIX," in Estudios sociales, segundo congreso de estudios Mayas (Guatemala City: Universidad Rafael Landivar, 1998), pp. 43-56.

(68.) Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparison (London: Verso Press, 1998), p. 330.

(69.) Edwin Fischer and R. McKenna Brown, eds., Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); Warren, Indigenous Movements and their Critics.

(70.) John Watanabe, Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World (Austin: 1992), p. 16.

(71.) Orin Starn, Nightwatch: The Politics of Protest in the Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 43.

(72.) John Berger, Pig Earth (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), p. 9.

(73.) Anderson, The Spectre of Comparison, p. 70.

(74.) J. Habermas, Identidades nacionales y posnacionales, Paidos (Madrid: 1989); Tomas Perez Vejo, Nacion, identidad nacional y otros mitos nacionalistas (Oviedo, Spain: Ediciones Nobel, 1999).

(75.) Parta Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 234-247.

(76.) Serge Latouche, In the Wake of the Affluent Society: An Exploration in Post-Development (London: 1993); Basil Davidson, The Black Man's Burden: The Curse of the Nation State (New York: 1993); Mahood Mamdami, Citizen and Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Jean-Loup Amselle, Mestizo Logics: The Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).


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Author:Handy, Jim
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Geographic Code:2GUAT
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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