Cultural Activism in Mesoamerica: An Assessment of Recent Movements


Since 1521 the Indians in Mesoamerica have been oppressed by Europeans and later by their ladino/mestizo governments.  Cultural resistance in Mesoamerica has varied in extent and force over time and between countries.  There were sporadic but unsuccessful revolts during the colonial period in Mesoamerica.  Resistance continued into the 19th century, the Caste War among the Maya of the Yucatán peninsula (1848-1902) being the most notable (Langer 2003 xiii).  In the 20th century governments took on the policy of forced integration of these indigenous peoples into the nation as “citizens”, but with no respect to their distinct ethnic origins.  This policy towards the Indians has been termed indigenismo (Tresierra 1994:200).

This paper focuses on the period between 1970-2003, where due to changing circumstances we see a significant rise in cultural activism. Varying pockets in Mexico and Guatemala where activism was most prominent will be analysed.  Indigenous peoples make up half of the population in Guatemala and 10% (including non-Mesoamerican) of the population in Mexico (Hill, personal communication 2003).  The largest indigenous group in both these countries is the Maya, their population is around 6 million in total, of which 1 million are in Mexico and 4.5 million are in Guatemala (Cuxil 1996:21).  The Maya who speak languages of the Mayan family are divided among 30 ethnic communities that define themselves primarily by language. Nineteen are located in Guatemala or Mexico, the remaining straddling national borders with Belize and Honduras (Cuxil 1996:20).  The Maya historically lived in northern parts of El Salvador and Honduras and also Belize, but today there is only a minimal population living in these areas (Hill, personal communication 2003).

There are varying forms of cultural resistance namely, nativism, revitalization and using “weapons of the weak”.  Nativism can be defined as the subordinate society wanting things “how they used to be”, trying to move back to the “good old days”. This form usually involves violent revolution such as the 1994 Chiapan revolt or the guerilla organisations in Guatemala.  Revitalization is seen as forward looking, in consciously preserving features of the subordinate culture while incorporating the aspects of the dominant culture (Hill personal communication 2003). The Maya movement in Guatemala can be seen as a revitalization movement.  The “weapons of the weak”, an alternative method of resistance (Scott 1985), is defined by everyday forms of peasant resistance such as foot-dragging, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance and so forth.  These are examples of how disempowered groups subtly exert political and economic power.  The colonial Cakchiquel in the highlands of Guatemala used these ‘weapons’ to great effect in resisting oppression under the domination of the Spanish (Hill 2002:123).  This form of resistance has persisted to the present day and can lead to significant results.  A poignant example comes from the municipio of Cantel, in the highlands of Guatemala during the civil war.  When military officers at a local meeting tried to organise “voluntary’ civil patrols”, the locals all turned their backs and started whistling.  After a few minutes of this, the military left.  A week later the military tried again and they were met with the same response.  Civil patrols were never organised in Cantel (though not without removal of local leaders by the army) (Smith 1990a:278).

Challenges in Forming Resistance Movements in the Maya area

Forming a global, regional or a community level resistance organisation in the Maya area is a formidable challenge.   The Maya population actually covers 5 countries with differing political regimes.  In general, movements tend to work better on a regional or national level.  It is much more difficult to try to form a cohesive organisation where different groups are constrained under different governments, and a particular technique of resistance will have different consequences under the respective governments.  Maya groups speak many different dialects and also inhabit isolated regions, such as rural areas in the highlands or jungle areas in Chiapas, which makes communication difficult.

The “closed corporate community”, the traditional form of town organisation in Mesoamerica, impeded the formation of regional movements.  The Indians of a particular town identified more with their community than with any larger ethnic or linguistic unit.  There is the traditional idea dating to the preconquest period that your town was the centre of the earth, thus travelling away from the town was dangerous (Hill 2002: 155).  This belief continued into the 20th century whereby people of a neighbouring town were seen as more inferior and harmful.  Likewise, people living further away were considered to be even more dangerous.

The closed corporate community had broken down by the seventies, but the sense of superiority and inwardness amongst towns remained.   Each town believed that its ‘costumbres’ (traditions) were the best.  Each community wore very different costumes and the people did not see themselves as similar to other native groups (Langer 2003 xvii).  When an artisan from Totonicapán was asked in the seventies why the town did not recruit cheaper labor from other areas, the response was, “well they are different from us (‘tienen otra costumbre’)…people from other parts are different from us, they have other customs” (Smith 1990b:216).  The problem here then was not that several artisans would lose their trade in the community. Rather, having “foreigners” working in the village meant the “destruction of their community as a unified political front against the outside world, this unity based on the specific ethnic identity of the Indians in Totonicapán and their ‘costumbres’ “(Smith 1990b:216-217).  When the same man was told that his town’s customs were not all that different from the people in Santo Tomás, a neighbouring hamlet, his reply was, “that is not true.  Those people are quite unlike us.  It is true that they speak Quiché, but we Indians are not all the same.  Each people has its own traditions, its own way of doing things.  In Santo Tomás, the people are more humble than we are, they do not have our sense of pride” (Smith 1990b:221).

Remnants of these sorts of attitudes construe real problems for resistance movements trying to unite neighbouring towns in a common cause.  A movement’s strength relies on alliances between towns but even though, “the people of Santo Tomás are Indians too and also mistreated by Ladinos, they do not defend themselves the way we do.  Not like Totonicapeños” (Smith 1990b:221).  The closed corporate community psyche prevented the identification with other indigenous peoples in similar political and economic conditions.  Communities then resisted in differing ways rather than as a united force.  The irony here is that the Maya have similar histories of struggle, practice similar beliefs and work ethics, suffer discrimination in similar ways, and have a common culture and tradition (Metz 1998:343).  The fundamental power of the Mayan population lies in communities, thus it is essential for these communities to unite together to make any impact nationally for their civil rights.

The adoption of Protestantism and other evangelical religions has caused internal divisions within communities.  There was particular success in the establishment of these religions after the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala that killed 20,000 people and injured another 100,000, causing massive population displacement in the highlands (Annis 1987:79).  Although the presence of missionaries aided in the breakdown of the closed corporate community, they also created factions within these communities. The Protestants limited their participation in community affairs and rituals causing a rift between themselves and the “costumbristas”. Consequently, the community is unable to form a unified front in a time of crisis (Hill, personal communication 2003).

Sponsorship of Resistance Movements

Since the seventies, international organisations have funded the development of resistance movements in Mesoamerica, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), the United Nations, the Catholic Church and NGO’s (Langer 2003 xxi).  The ILO Convention 169 in the 1980’s proclaimed the rights of native peoples throughout the world and to help protect those rights.  Many indigenous groups have based their right to organise and preserve their cultures on the law stated in this document (Langer 2003 xxii).   However, the United Nations has assisted in only a limited way, as certain members of the committee are the very perpetrators against the indigenous peoples.  The Catholic Church has played a significant role particularly since 1971. The World Council of Churches meeting that year, focused on the “liberation of the Indian” (Lee Van Cott 1994:6).   A good example of catholic efforts can be seen in the bishop of San Bartolomé de las Casas being the mediator in the 1994 Chiapas conflict (Womack, Jr 1999:234-244).

Alliance with nonprofit organisations (NGO’s) can help put pressure on the respective governments.  These organisations have been useful in funding and providing the legal expertise for lawsuits, which can help in tangible issues such as land rights, but not for the preservation of traditional culture.  Nonprofit organisations, such as Amnesty International, can also bring the plight of the Maya to a wider international audience, by building networks of support outside the country of origin.  In the context of deforestation and logging of the Petén forest, environmental nonprofit organisations, such as Greenpeace, have collaborated with native peoples against this encroachment (Langer 2003 xix).

Another major contribution in the creation of resistance movements since the nineties is the use of the Internet; native groups can now communicate directly with the outside world on their own terms.  They can present themselves to other organisations they never could before and have access to previously difficult to obtain information.  As mentioned, international organisations can help immensely and so the Internet has provided the opportunity in getting the world’s attention that no other medium has.  The rise in tourism has also contributed to the spread of Internet cafes in these countries. The only problem is that urban people need to be part of the movement, urban connections are necessary as peasants by definition are remote from places with these facilities, the majority being illiterate and lacking the computer knowledge (Langer 2003 xxvi).

Resistance Movements in Mesoamerica

As noted the situation of the Maya is complex and the organisation of a resistance movement is daunting.  Each ethnic group from the varying countries have different, albeit at times interwoven issues.  Land, political participation and cultural survival are the rights demanded by all native groups.  There appears to be confusion amongst the indigenous leaders in the relation between ethnicity and class.  By definition the indigenous people are poor, subsistence farmers (campesinos), in the lower strata of society and so political leaders may rally against class oppression, the poor against the rich leaving cultural identity by the way side.  These people are discriminated against first and foremost because they are indigenous peoples, thus the focus must be redirected to ethnicity as the primary cause for concern.  The view that discrimination in Mesoamerica is based on ethnic or cultural identities rather than physical or racial, as for example Afro-Americans in the US, does not minimise in any way the harshness of the discrimination.  Furthermore, within the countries it is a racial rather than a cultural issue, between the ladinos/mestizos and the natives (Hill, personal communication 2003).  

Campbell (2002) describes three current political possibilities that are available to indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica today; ethnically based armed revolution (as illustrated in the guerilla organisations in Guatemala or the Chiapan revolt), ethnic nationalism (the nonviolent Maya movement), and ethnic electoral politics (the Zapotec movement).  These three methods of organisation all relate to and interact with one another.  Each movement will be discussed in reference to their strengths and weaknesses.

La Violencia in Guatemala

Since the 1970’s there has been a proliferation of movements in Guatemala concerned with particular issues facing the Maya (Figure 1).  The CUC (Committee for Campesino Unity) founded in 1978, became one of the first and most active organisations defending political and economic rights of the poor (Adams 1994:163).  In the 1980’s, the two main guerrilla groups that worked mostly with Indians in the Western Highlands were the EGP (the Guerilla Army of the Poor), and the ORPA (Organization of the Revolutionary People in Arms).  These groups made an attempt to deal with Ladino forms of oppression against Indians, but saw the principal problem as being a class problem, ethnicity being secondary  (Thirakaroonwongse 2001:14).

Figure 1: Departments and Major Cities of Guatemala (Fischer and McKenna Brown 1996 Map 1)

A signalling of a new and important change in the incorporation of Indians into guerrilla movements was the delegation of the CUC, who visited the capital to ask the president, General Lucas García, to stop the repression in the Ixil area where three thousand army troops were stationed.   The president refused to receive them, so the group peacefully occupied the Spanish embassy on January 31, 1980 to gain international attention to their plight.  In response, the government burned the embassy down with the group inside (Arias 1990:253).   Indians reacted to this atrocity by joining activist organisations such as the CUC, or the more extreme guerilla organisations.

Soon after this event, a meeting was held by the Indian leaders of the CUC at the Iximché ruins, near Tecpán, which resulted in the creation of a document popularly known as the “Declaracíon de Iximché”.  This document was virtually a declaration of war against the regime, which ended with a quotation from the Popul Vuh, an ancient Quiché Maya book (Arias 1990:254).  The Guatemalan army correctly saw the danger, not in the military capacity of the guerrillas, but the massive mobilisation of Indians in the highlands and this was why a campaign of genocide was organised against the Indian population in November 1981 (Arias 1990:255).

The government’s retaliation to guerrilla mobilisation was to attack any Indian settlement where any form of popular mobilisation had taken place.  The “period of terror” ran from 1980-1983 and involved the burning of villages, assassinations of rural leaders, torture and indiscriminate violence, and displaced nearly half the Indian population of the highlands (Smith 1990a:272).  In defence, communities joined the guerillas against the army, between 250,000 – 500,000 highland Indian people participated in the war in one form or another (Arias 1990:255).

At least 50,000 indigenous people were killed and 150,000-250,000 people were forced into permanent exile.  By the end of 1982, 32,800 native Guatemalans were living in 28 refugee camps along the Mexican border.  In January 1985, Guatemalan newspapers reported that 116,000 orphans had been tabulated by the judicial branch census throughout the country, the vast majority of them from Indian townships of the western and central highlands where la violencia had occurred (Davis 1988:11).  

The subsequent set up of the government’s civil patrol system incorporated nearly one million men and included virtually all male Indians in the western highlands between the ages of sixteen and sixty (Smith 1990a:272).  Men conscripted were required to undertake unpaid service for eight to twenty-four hours every four-fifteen days, depending on the size of their community.  This was a heavy burden and an enormous financial drain on the household.  The government’s economic measures also exploited the people, from relocating natives into villages set up by the government, refusing farming access to original plots of land and refusing employment outside the area, to taking over the direction of all developmental efforts in the western highlands, public and private (Smith 1990a:273).

Various support organisations emerged after la violencia.  The Mutual Support Group, founded in 1984, consisted of mainly Maya woman concerned with those “disappeared”.  The National Widow’s Coordinating Group of Guatemala (CONAVIGUA) was founded by Maya widows from Quiché, Sololá and Chimaltenango and spread to neighbouring Departments.  Mama Maquin was formed in 1990 as an organisation of woman refugees in Mexico.  On return to Guatemala they negotiated for woman’s access to co-ownership of land (Maria Domingo, co-ordinator in Alta Verapaz, lecture on October 27, 2003, Tulane University).  The National Guatemalan Council of Displaced Persons (CONDEG) represented thousands of rural peasants, mainly Maya who had been displaced by the violence of the 1970’s and 1980’s (see Adams 1994, pp.162-167 for an extensive list).  The best known and most active of the various Maya cultural organisations is the Council of Maya Organizations of Guatemala (COMG), a coordinating body set up in 1990 that brought together 15 different organisations (Adams 1994:166).  It would be interesting to research the effect of these support movements and la violencia on the breakdown of the closed corporate community psyche.  Communities started working together and supporting each other and the government’s retaliation in flattening villages, the primary units of Indian cultural integration and economic activity, would have dramatically disoriented village life and its “costumbres”.

On 31 March 1995 the Guatemalan government and the UNRG (the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity), the unified spokesgroup for the guerilla organisations, signed the Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Both parties acknowledged that the Guatemalan state was founded on discrimination against the Maya, therefore ethnic identity and civil rights were fundamental issues towards forging a harmonious society (Metz 1998:337).

This agreement became part of the peace accords signed on December 29, 1996, between the government and the URNG that put an end to armed conflict (Montejo 2002:127).  This was a momentous act giving the Maya the opportunity to speak freely without fear or reprisals.  The accords dealt with demilitarisation, postwar reconstruction and democratisation, including the restitution of lost “ejidos” (lands) to rightful communities.  However, they were not in fact binding agreements but calls for further discussion, congressional legislation, and constitutional reform (Warren 2002:158).  Furthermore, members of the Council of Mayan Organisations of Guatemala were particularly upset when they were not consulted, as the peace agreement concerned the “identity and rights of indigenous peoples” (Adams 1994:166).  These indigenous peoples are still awaiting the implementation of the agreement.

It is important to note that it is not clear whether the majority of indigenous people voluntarily teamed up with the guerillas or were coerced in joining their cause.   Stoll (1993:15) states that in Nebaj, the department of El Quiché in the Western Highlands, people were coerced as much as by guerrillas as by the army.   Ironically, the army’s reaction actually incited the people to turn to guerrillas in defending themselves, not because of revolutionary impulses but because of extreme government repression.  Therefore, there is no strong evidence that the native peoples were in support of the guerrillas’ violent approach to change.  Rather, the guerillas may have been seen as the lesser evil.  Communities united together against the army’s encroachment on their cultural identity and livelihoods.  Yet, armed revolution was not a viable method of resistance in Guatemala and the consequences were horrific.  The Indians did not have the resources at hand to withstand the Guatemalan army.  Little seems to have been gained from guerilla movements but deaths and the institution of civil patrols that caused divisions and suspicions within the community (illustrated in Todos Santos, Hill, personal communication 2003).  After la violencia, few communities could stand up to government repression, the only weapons used were the “weapons of the weak”.  A striking exception occurred in Santiago Atitlán in 1990.   Tired of the kidnapping of townspeople and the murder of 14 members of their community, the villagers demanded that the military garrison leave the town.  The situation received national and international publicity and for the first time in recent history the military backed down in the face of civilian pressure and left (Adams 1994:167).

Another weakness of the guerilla movements and also the varying Maya organisations in Guatemala, is their fragmented number (Table 1).  There were 149 indigenous organisations in Guatemala by 1994 each with its own agenda (Adams 1994).  These varying groups did come together to discuss indigenous rights, for example, all the Maya organisations united in the Coalition of Organizations of the Maya People of Guatemala, in 1994, to voice their views on the indigenous rights accord being discussed by the government and the URNG (Campbell 2000:58).  Yet, this was a unique event and because of the quantity of movements, there was an absence of one prominent leader or of one overarching organisation that could bring the demands of the people to national and international attention. 

Table 1: Indigenous Organisations in Guatemala, by Department (Adams 1994 Table 7.3)

Rigoberta Menchú has been presented as a leader of the indigenous peoples.  This K’iche’ woman first came to notice with the publication of her autobiography in 1984, giving an eyewitness account of the genocide of her people, and her participation in the EGP (Guerilla Army of the Poor).  Her book helped to bring indigenous issues into the forefront and evoked widespread international interest and sympathy.   Rigoberta Menchú received the Noble Peace Prize in 1982 (Adams, 1994:170).  However her testimony has been questioned in recent years, there is evidence that her family history had been distorted and there is contention over her assertion that the majority of the natives joined the guerrillas “voluntarily”.  Stoll (1998) states for example, that Rigoberta’s father had not been a traditional villager who had lost his fields to the ladino landlords, but a wealthy man who made a living from his lands, and that her brother was not deceased.  Furthermore, the community where she lived, Chimel, actually questions her version of events.  Stoll also states that the guerillas should accept their own responsibility in la violencia.  Stoll has infuriated many anthropologists primarily because his writings have undermined the genocide that occurred (see Smith 1999, Chinchilla 1999 and Sanford 1999).  The upshot is that his views caused extensive media coverage and has tainted Menchù’s reputation and that of the people she represents.  In response Menchù has written a second book, “La Nieta de los Mayas” in which she campaigns against her first, receiving much criticism from Maya intellectuals for this action (Burgos 1999:87).  Currently, there is no single leader to speak of that unites the varying movements in Guatemala.

The Maya Movement

The Maya Movement, or as it is sometimes called the Maya revitalization movement, is seen as a form of ethnic nationalism, that is a call for a rebirth and revaluing of Mayan culture and civil society (Campbell 2000:55).  The movement is a non-violent endeavour, led primarily by professional, educated Maya from Western Guatemala and is funded largely by international sources (Fischer and Brown 1996:1).  The leaders want equal participation and cultural-specific recognition in a multi-ethnic Guatemalan society, as opposed to the state’s view of national culture, which is based solely on urban Ladino culture.  The modification of the current Department divisions to correspond to the real ethnic regions is essential as it ignores language and cultural divides, resulting in further Maya political fragmentation and localisation of the dialects (Warren 2003:176).   Pan-Mayanism also argues for a common Mayan global identity, recognising the diversity in the unity of Mayan culture.  It extends its membership to all Maya peoples of Mexico, Belize and Honduras (Montejo 2002:144).  The movement is composed of various organisations working at different levels and issues but all linked to the main concern for cultural identity.

Accomplishments of the movement can be illustrated in the revitalization of Mayan languages, the introduction of Mayan schools and adult educational programs, and a new sense of self-worth and political consciousness as Maya Indians (Warren 2003:176).  The movement has produced indigenous scholarship, mobilised ethnic markers such as use of hieroglyphs and traditional clothing designs, and implemented agricultural extension programs.  There is also contemplation of a Mayan university and a political party (Fischer 1996:69).  For the Ch’orti’s, the Maya Movement gave them a ‘renewed sense of self-worth, optimism and motivation’ (Metz 1998:341).  The leaders convey a moderate message as the movement is more centred on educational programs, meetings, and workshops than mass demonstrations or armed revolt.

The Maya movement has several weaknesses.  Active participation is limited to a small, urban, geographically restricted, relatively affluent and well-educated sector of the Maya population.  The movement needs to expand support to include subsistence farmers, who by definition are Maya, as well as the small commodity producers (Montejoy 2002:145).  The 1999 referendum on indigenous rights made this need glaringly obvious.   The referendum was designed to measure civilian support for a wide range of reforms many dealing with indigenous issues and the redefinition of Guatemala as a  “multicultural, ethnically plural, and multilingual state” (Warren 2002:149).  It was defeated by 53 to 47%, with a striking 81% absentation rate, the majority of the electorate choose not to vote at all.  The results of the referendum were pivotal as it showed that the benefits of the reforms, which were apparent to the Maya movement, were not so apparent to the majority of the Maya population (Warren, 2002:159).  The referendum was complex and no prominent political group was satisfied with the final product as the well-known Mayan journalist Estuardo Zapeta, stated, “this was the consulta where no one was consulted” (Warren 2002:171).  The voting process may show that the majority of Maya were interested more in local politics and did not trust the government.

Resources are also scarce, there is a strong reliance on outside funds for the running of educational programs and schools.  Thus, for long term survival the movement needs to become self-reliant.  For the indigenous peoples, poverty is a pressing issue, Indians cannot devote much time to activism if they are not remunerated with money or food.  Not surprisingly talk of ‘rights’ is still dangerous in the rural communities and the military and extreme right-wing factions within the government remain real threats to the movement.  There is also a weak and divided leadership, the various organisations need to be much more cohesive (Metz 1998:341).

Lastly, the movement should be wary of idealizing the Maya with their long-standing traditions that go back to the ancient Maya. The modern Cakchiquel for example are very different to the Cakchiquel of colonial times, and even more so to their predecessors in the Pre-conquest period.  Much of this is to do with necessary change and adaptation to dominant rule (Hill personal communication 2003). The contemporary Maya are constantly recreating their culture and redefining themselves (Montejo 2002:129), as a necessary adaptation to governmental repression.  Therefore how legitimately can they be associated with an enduring tradition? Ironically, it is precisely in publicising this long-standing tradition, that the movement receives media support for cultural rights.

Resistance Movements in Mexico

The state’s policy towards the Indians in Mexico was similar to Guatemala, being termed indigenismo.  The ultimate objective of this policy was to assimilate the indigenous peoples into the Mexican nation-state (Tresierra 1994:201).  Organisations were set up in the late sixties and throughout the seventies mainly in response to the agricultural crisis, victimisation by the Mexican government, economic pressures such as the inequalities caused by PEMEX (Petróleos Mexicanos) oil booms, and the debt crisis (Campbell 2000:52).  Similar issues were at stake for the indigenous peoples: land, production, cultural identity and political representation.  Government violence can be observed during the student movement in 1968 that ended in the Tlatelolco Massacre.  Hundreds of supporters were brutally murdered by government agents.  In consequence, underground guerrilla groups were set up, the most active being between 1970-1975.   There was continued military repression and many activists ‘disappeared’, over 1,000 being killed (Hansen 2002:18).  Between 1982-1989, 870 assassinations occurred in rural Mexcio, mostly directed against indigenous leaders (Tresierra 1994:204).

The Zapatista National Liberation Army

The creation of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), more popularly known as the “Zapatistas”, was the outcome of the extreme political and economic marginalization of Mayan peoples in Chiapas (Figure 2).  Indigenous people in Chiapas had a life expectancy of 44 years, 75% were malnourished and 30% of children did not attend school (Lewenstein 2000:2).  In Altamirano, one of the cities the Zapatistas seized, 75% of the households had no electricity and similar figures can be given for Las Margaritas and Ocosingo (Wager and Schulz 1995:3).  Yet Chiapas is a rich land, natural gas resources account for 47% of the country’s total production and the state produces 55% of Mexico’s electricity.  Chiapas is also the country’s second largest producer of beef and corn (Wager and Schulz 1995:3).  The issue here is that the distribution of wealth is extremely uneven.  Problems such as population increase and arrival of fleeing Guatemalans from the civil war only exacerbated conditions.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army was founded in 1983, consisting of various language groups including Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Tojolabal and had been organizing for some time before they became known internationally (Wager and Schulz 1995:6).  The army openly avowed armed struggle against the state and on January 1, 1994 (the day marking the start of NAFTA), they did just that.  The Zapatista National Liberation Army seized the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and 4 other towns in the state of Chiapas calling for “jobs, land, housing, food, health, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace” (Wager and Schulz 1995:2).  After the group had occupied 5 county seats in Chiapas, the Mexican army became involved.  Heavy fighting lasted only 12 days but the event received much international attention.   The revolt also sparked guerrilla activity in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango, Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, Michoacán and Chihuahua (Wager and Schulz 1995:27).

The government offered to negotiate, which resulted in a thirty-four-point peace plan that proposed extensive socio-economic concessions designed to ameliorate the hardships of Chiapan society.  The Zapatistas rejected the terms, nothing less than fundamental political reform on a national level would do, including the resignation of president Salinas (Wager and Schulz 1995:28).  The government in trying to undermine support for the rebels, in less than 6 months poured over $220 million into the state’s social development and infrastructure projects, the largest recipients by far being the four towns seized, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Altamirano, Las Margaritas and Ocosingo.  At the same time the Mexican army had carefully surrounded the Zapatista forces in Chiapas with some 20,000 troops (Wager and Schulz 1995:29).

The movement had a very charismatic leader, Subcomandante Marcos, who was seen as a “worldwide folk hero”.  He used tremendous sophistication in dealing with world news media and modern communication systems, which was one of the main reasons for the EZLN’s success (Campbell 2000:52).  No other movement of the nineties articulated the demands of indigenous peoples so well.  Although the Zapatistas did not win the war against the government they did win over the people, forced indigenous rights to the national stage, encouraged other areas to rise up, and negotiated with the government for improved conditions in Chiapas.  In the Eastern lowlands where ELZN has its greatest strength, many of people assumed a new pan-Mayan solidarity instead of the closed corporate community identities of the past (Campbell 2000:53).  Chiapan Mexicans also aided many Guatemalan refugees in support for the common cause (Earle 1988). Unlike the guerilla organisations in Guatemala, the Zapatistas were not annihilated by the army. Perhaps the end of the Cold War had an effect on the Mexican government in its dealings with the Zapatistas (Hill, personal communication 2003).

Yet the success of the movement left an indelible mark on local peoples; hundreds of Chiapan Indians were killed as a result of the Zapatista uprising and military counterattack, and 22,000 local peasants lost their homes (Campbell 2000:60).  There were also problems within the movement in that Indians were not the decision-makers in the top echelon of the organisation.  The fact that Marcos himself was non-Indian reflected the lack of indigenous empowerment.   Marcos’ hesitancy to take political advantage of his vast popularity in 1994 limited the Zapatista’s ability to influence political policies on a national level (Campbell 2000:54).  When elections were held in 1994, the indigenous people still voted for the PRI and Zedillo, indicating that natives although unhappy with the government, were unwilling to risk more instability and violence (Wager and Schulz 1995:29).

The Zapatistas are still active today.  In March 2001 they organised a protest rally from Chiapas to Mexico’s capital involving 250,000 people demanding Indian civil rights.  The president, Vicente Fox, partly in response to the demonstrations, endorsed constitutional reforms that promised self-determination for the natives.  However, it was blocked in the Mexican legislature with the resulting compromise being rejected by the Zapatistas (Hayden 2002:15).  The challenge for the Zapatistas now is converting themselves from a mobilised guerrilla army into a political and social movement.

The Zapotec Movement

The Worker-Peasant-student Coalition of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (COCEI) in Juchitán, Oaxaca, is a form of “ethnic-orientated electoral politics” (Campbell 2000:60).  The political movement has at least 50,000 supporters in Oaxaca, consistently wins local and state elections and remains a powerful political force.  The political movement that is “steeped in local indigenous culture and addresses the needs of the peasantry and working classes” was established in 1973 (Campbell 2000:58).  Various tactics were used: strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, building take-overs and highway blockades.  The actions of the movement prompted a cultural revival; Juchitán’s Casa de la Cultura became the centre for Zapotec artists, poets and scholars.  The Zapotec political movement won Juchitán municipal elections in 1981, being the first city in Mexico to be controlled by the left since the Revolution of 1910.  In 1983 the Mexican government threw the COCEI out of office and imprisoned many of its members.  This led to the publication of an Amnesty International report on human rights abuses, which received support from abroad and from urban intellectuals as a symbol of Indian peasant resistance (Campbell 1994:xvi).

The movement has a solid base among local peasants and workers and a tight network of neighbourhood communities, and so was able to endure and maintain a strong electoral force in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  Since 1983 the COCEI has won the Juchitán mayoral elections three times and frequently elected state and federal deputies (Campbell 2000:59).  The Mexican government no longer views it as a serious threat and sends large federal subsidies to Juchitán for public work projects, in turn COCEI leaders have chosen to work within the Mexican political system.

Criticisms of the movement involve authoritarianism of the leadership, supposed acts of corruption, sexist-behaviors of the all-male directorate and the movement’s lack of attention to environmental issues (Cambell 2000:60).  The movement is a successful and seemingly permanent political presence, though its localised ethnic orientation while promoting Zapotec culture, has prevented growth outside of Oaxaca.  It can serve as a model for other Indian organisations in its combination of political activism and cultural revivalism.   The stress of the latter has given the movement identity and a cultural base that has helped it resist attacks from the government.

Summary and Conclusions

It can be concluded from this study that there are a variety of different movements and organisations in Mesoamerica, and a particular technique of resistance will have different consequences under the respective governments.  A unified nonviolent organisation with a strong leader, political representation, educational reforms, community support and national and international recognition, all are necessary factors of a successful movement.  Table 2 details these factors in comparison to the movements mentioned.  The success of the Zapatistas’ ethnically based armed revolution was in large part due to the local and foreign support, aided by their charismatic leader.  Although the army did not achieve their ultimate aim of the formation of a new national government, the Mexican government did pump money into economic and social programs in Chiapas.  Sadly, many people lost their lives and their homes.  Now, the Zapatista army needs to put down their weapons and form a national political movement.

Table 2: Comparison of Resistance Movements in Mesoamerica

As experienced in Guatemala, armed revolt is not the way forward.  Currently, Maya activism in Guatemala is a non-violent endeavour with a stronger focus on cultural revitalization issues and forms of ethnic nationalism.  The Maya movement has been successful in the revival of Mayan languages, the introduction of Mayan schools, adult educational programs, and the production of indigenous scholarship.  Though the concept of Maya identity occurs through higher education and has not yet filtered down to the grassroots level (Hill, personal communication 2003).  This can be demonstrated also in the Zapatista movement, the leaders bring the educated non-Indians.   Therefore, education is a cause for concern in extending the perspective of Maya identity from wealthy intellectuals to all Maya Indians.  Furthermore, political representation should be a top priority under a single or focused leadership.

Ethnically based armed revolution is not the way forward and ethnic nationalism is useful only if used in conjunction with ethnic electoral politics.  Ultimately, groups need to win local and state elections and obtain representation in local and national government to make the necessary reforms.  The Zapotec movement, in its combination of political activism and cultural revivalism, is the most appropriate model in achieving these ends.  We have a catch-22 situation though, in that movements need to assist peoples in their basic needs, namely land, food and education, as only when people have these basic rights can they devote their time to cultural activism. However, in trying to achieve these basic rights protest movements need to be formed.

The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica have been under repressive rule for almost 500 years.  They have resisted in various ways from outright revolt, to cultural revitalization, to using “weapons of the weak”.  The establishment of resistance movements in Guatemala and Mexico is quite a formidable task due to the closed corporate community psyche, fear of reprisals and poverty.  Fortunately, recent history has shown that communities can unite together in a common cause.   The various movements discussed in this paper all have had their successes and failures due to the different political situations in which they were embroiled.  There is still a long way to go for Indian civil rights but there is hope, inspired by the great changes that have occurred in the last 20 years.  It is now a waiting game for the 1996 Peace Accords to become operational.

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