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6 x 9 in.
224 pp., 6 line drawings, 17 halftones, 4 maps, 7 figures

ISBN: 978-0-292-71194-5
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The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town

By Robert S. Carlsen
With a contribution by Martín Prechtel
Foreword by Davíd Carrasco


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Table of Contents

  • Foreword: Complex Performance in Santiago Atitlán by David Carrasco
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One. Establishing Place and Imagining Community
    • 1. What in the World Is Going On in Santiago Atitlán?
    • 2. The Atiteco Mayas at the End of the Twentieth Century
    • 3. The Flowering of the Dead Coauthored with Martin Prechtel
  • Part Two. History, Peripherality, And Social Pluralism
    • 4. Conquest and Adaptation in Santiago Atitlán
    • 5. On Enlightenment, Liberalism, and Ladinos
  • Part Three. Death Of Community, Resurrection Of Autonomy
    • 6. Under the Gun in Santiago Atitlán
    • 7. When Immortals Die
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index


On New Year's Day 1994 the world awoke to the surprising news of a massive Mayan revolt in Chiapas, Mexico. As stunning as the "Zapatista" uprising itself was its coincidence, to the day, with the implementation of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. In hindsight, the uprising perhaps should have come as no surprise whatsoever. Amid incessant heralding of the widespread benefits that free trade must inevitably bring, even proponents of NAFTA confessed that its implementation would entail certain "adjustments" for some of those involved. Simply put, the Mayas who took to arms in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas believed that they themselves were in danger of being adjusted, and that confessions such as these constituted little more than euphemism for the sacrifice of their already marginalized way of life and of any right to self-determination. As the uprising demonstrated, they refused to cooperate.

The history and very culture of the Mayas might also have forewarned of the Chiapas uprising. In fact, in the eighteenth century one of the more notable Mayan revolts took place in the same area as the 1994 Chiapas uprising and involved the same group of Mayas. That incident, the Tzeltal Rebellion of 1712-1715, was itself an extension of Mayan rebellions in the Yucatdn Peninsula. Over a century later in Guatemala, Mayan rebels were instrumental in the War of the Montañeses, which put peasant leader Rafael Carrera into power as Guatemala's head of state. A primary rebel target was free trade-oriented laissez faire economics which threatened their way of life. Resonating with the 1 January 1994 Mayan "counter-adjustment," Carrera's montañeses underscored the potential consequences of failing to reconcile economic theory with social reality (see McCreery 1990:100). Supplementing the historical record, a legacy of resistance and rebellion remains apparent in contemporary Mayan religious, social, and artistic expressions. This is, for instance, given graphic display in an unmistakably anti-Catholic dimension of certain Mayan religious images, as discussed in the pages and chapters which follow.

In short, like scores of uprisings, layers of Mayan cultural behavior corroborate what over two centuries ago Guatemalan Archbishop Cortés y Larraz identified as the Mayas' "invincible tenacity" (in Garcia Añoveros 1987:72). Commenting on the Archbishop's view, Spanish historian Jesds Maria Garcia Añoveros writes that while the Mayas did not accept Christianity, "they accepted and submitted to the colonial order even less" (1987:157). Intrigued by such characterizations, and with a primary focus on the Tz'utujil Mayan town of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, in this book I look into the complexities of Mayan "tenacity."


Although I am quite aware of the limitations of any single community to exemplify the vast population of Mayas—contemporary Santiago Atitlán alone is remarkable for the scope of its own internal diversity—I am nonetheless prepared to argue that data from Atitlán illuminate general cultural mechanisms utilized by otherwise disparate groups of Mayas to address the demands of their post-(European) contact existence. It is clear that the Mayas of Atitlán, hereafter called Atitecos, have been neither passive witnesses to their own existence nor powerless in determining the nature of their relations with external sociopolitical interests. While the range of strategies has included outright confrontation, more commonly the Atitecos have turned to less vulnerable mechanisms, such as those offered by what James Scott (1985) identifies as "weapons of the weak." Scott explains that "individual acts of foot dragging and evasion, reinforced by a venerable popular culture of resistance and multiplied many thousand-fold, may, in the end, make utter shambles of the policies dreamed by their [the rural poor] would-be superiors in the capital" (1985:xvii). As The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town explains, even the Atitecos' utilization of syncretistic religiosity has demonstrated significant potency in subverting the agendas of would-be superiors.

Underlying much of the following discussion, however, is recognition that the capacity of Mayas to successfully adapt to their sociocultural environment has limits and cannot be accepted as a mere given. Quite simply, Mayan tenacity has proven less invincible than Cortés y Larraz once thought. In the case of Atitlán, outside intervention into the town's affairs has fueled economic instability and severe ecological imbalance and has triggered destabilizing factionalism within the local populace, particularly along religious lines. Yet even under those conditions, recent events in Atitlán, as described in some detail in this volume, demonstrate the error in dismissing the local populace's capacity to adapt, to resist, and to subvert.

The primary goal of this book is the explanation of sociocultural realities in contemporary Santiago Atitlán. That requires situating the present in a larger historical context. Only this type of historical perspective can realistically be expected to provide the points of reference needed to accurately evaluate change. Equally important for the task at hand, taking the long view provides a context in which to develop this book's discussion of conquest. At first glance, it may seem peculiar to situate a critique of Mayan conquest in a study designed primarily to explain contemporary dynamics in a highland Guatemalan town. After all, the Conquest of Mesoamerica, that "most astonishing encounter of our history" (Todorov 1982:4), occurred nearly five centuries ago. In this volume, however, the Conquest as a historical event, so remarkable that convention has it spelled with a capital C, is contrasted with conquest as a process, the subduing and the controlling of a given population. To confuse the two is to risk both mistaken finality and artificial neatness. As the Mayas' post-Columbian history demonstrates, the process of conquest may demand hundreds of years. Moreover, to be successful conquest must be implemented on multiple levels.

In a remarkably candid statement, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier in the Conquest and the primary chronicler of that event, writes, we came to the New World "to bring light to those in darkness, and also to get rich" ([1568] 1968 2:366). As this appraisal implies, aside from a military component, conquest entails an economic dimension. Moreover, at least in the case of Mesoamerica, it attaches what Robert Ricard identified as "spiritual conquest" in his classic 1933 study Conquête spirituelle du Mexique. Although this book pays considerable attention to multiple aspects of conquest, past and ongoing, consideration of spiritual conquest in particular provides a backdrop to much of the ensuing discussion.

Adding to the complexities of conquest is that the process of subduing and controlling a given population is subject to regional variation. As Ricard argues, conquest, spiritual and otherwise, may have been nearly total in core areas of central Mexico, though even that contention is debatable. (Incidentally, Ricard, a Catholic, endorsed the spiritual conquest of Mexico.) In the Mayan region, however, a culture area which, according to Ricard, has its own history and personality and has been particularly prone to rebellion, the reality has been quite different. Yet dynamics which earlier accounted for the disintegration of indigenous societies in areas of central Mexico, and their eventual reintegration into an identifiably European political, economic, and religious order, are now highly evident throughout the Mayan region. It is useful to recall the earlier assessment of Spanish political and spiritual control of the Mayas, defining aspects of conquest: "While the Mayas did not accept Christianity they accepted and submitted to the colonial order even less." In light of that assessment, it is revealing that at present much of the Mayan region, particularly in Guatemala, is fully militarized, and that over the past couple of decades millions of Mayas have fully embraced fundamentalist Protestantism or orthodox Catholicism. The implications for assessing conquest are abundant.

In its critique, this book analyzes the wide-ranging expression of Mayan attempts at adaptation, and includes substantial consideration of economic and political concerns. However, lest the reader anticipate a political economy, I should note that in the attempt to situate the Mayas as meaningful participants in their own existence, past and present, the volume presents a rigorous exploration of indigenous cultural ideas and the causal interplay of those ideas in adaptive behavior. Yet, as "so much of Mayan activity and thought was intentionally hidden from the eyes and ears of Spanish writers," such an approach must inevitably have certain methodological limitations (Jones 1989:93). If based purely on historical accounts, which even under the best of circumstances have been quite biased against the indigenous population, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that post-Columbian Mayan cultural ideas and behavior expose "the most complete ignorance."

To overcome such limitations, this book exploits certain nontraditional approaches. As is demonstrated, the past can be recorded in ways other than conventional written history. While I have certainly used conventional historical data, I have added epigraphic data, myths, standardized prayers, indigenous conceptions of kinship and lineage, and other such types of data to cast light on the considered populace and on the diverse and sometimes ingenious expressions of Mayan philosophy and resistance. Similarly, I have used both conventional and novel stylistic approaches. In particular, the opening and closing chapters frame the volume's larger discussion within a narrative context. That is, I have narrated incidents which I contend stand out from daily existence in Atitlán not because they so differ from that day-to-day context, but because they have the capacity to illuminate it. A narrative approach also serves my goal of making the book accessible to a diverse readership.


Chapter 1 is primarily designed to orient the reader to the sociocultural climate defining current and recent Santiago Atitlán. I explain that much of the day-to-day existence has, in one way or another, been influenced by military occupation and political violence. Certainly not unrelated has been the fragmentation of the local population into mutually incompatible religious factions. Particular attention is given to the emergence of local fundamentalist Protestantism. Adding to the local social mix is a still potent "traditional" cultural background to the town, as best exemplified by members of the religious organizations known as cofradías. The chapter also raises certain theoretical concerns, particularly about the causality of cultural ideas. That theoretical section may prove formidable for some. However, the nonprofessional reader should be able to give it only a superficial reading without losing sight of the chapter's larger arguments. Building on the discussion of the local social climate, Chapter 2 analyzes defining physical characteristics of the town, including geographical setting and the town layout. Salient characteristics of the local population, such as linguistic and dress patterns, are also discussed.

The book continues by arguing in Chapter 3 that a defining characteristic of post-Columbian Santiago Atitlán is a distinct and identifiable continuity with the pre-Columbian past. In terms of an earlier point, the Atitecos, including many today, have successfully resisted their spiritual conquest. Reflecting collaborative efforts with Martin Prechtel, the chapter identifies an ancient Mayan core paradigm, called Jaloj-K'exoj by the Atitecos, that helped to shape the "reconstituted" Mayan culture, and which continues to have relevance. I argue that Jaloj-K'exoj proved to be a mechanism which integrated intrusive foreign elements into Atiteco culture, converting them to a form acceptable to the local Mayan population. However, I do not believe that culture in Santiago Atitlán in any way represents a pristine form of some ancient Mayan culture. Over time virtually no aspect of Atiteco culture was to be left untouched by European contact. Nonetheless, reflecting cultural resilience and transformative capacity, most aspects could be traced to the preConquest past.

Following arguments that post-Columbian culture in Santiago Atitlán is continuous with the pre-Columbian past, it falls largely on Chapter 4 to reconstruct the historical environment which explains how that continuity was possible. Although this book is largely based on my own field research in Santiago Atitlán, in the historical reconstruction of the town, represented in Chapters 4 and 5, I draw frequently on published primary historical documents and on the research of other specialists. Where they shed light on earlier existence in Atitlán, I include examples of contemporary Atiteco cultural behavior. In part to provide a baseline against which post-Columbian change can be measured, the chapter commences by considering aspects of local pre-Columbian society. Shifting the focus, first to the Conquest in 1524, and then to the culture which was to emerge from that event, I argue that fundamental changes of the local sociocultural configuration were neither necessitated nor did they occur. Rather the changes tended to be within that configuration, as best explained by Atiteco adaptive behavior.

Inspired by the core and periphery arguments formulated by Christopher Lutz and George Lovell (1990), and drawing on recent work by Ralph Lee Woodward (1993) and David McCreery (1994), Chapter 5 posits that beginning approximately 125 years ago, a series of events was unleashed which has ultimately led to fundamental sociocultural change in Santiago Atitlán and elsewhere in highland Guatemala. Triggered by a heightened foreign interest in Guatemala's economic potential, and the related consolidation of the Guatemalan nation-state, this change has resulted in a steady deflation of the Atiteco capacity to mediate intrusive and generally exploitative interests. Consequently, Atitlán is now engaged in a transformation which in many ways eclipses even that which followed the Conquest.

The final two chapters return to direct consideration of this book's primary concern, explaining and analyzing the sociocultural climate in contemporary Santiago Atitlán. In Chapter 6, I devote considerable effort to measuring the changes which have occurred, as well as to isolating any adaptive advantage that may be related to that change. (As with parts of Chapter 1, some readers may want to detour around the more technical parts of this chapter.) Based on quantitative data which pertain to economic and religious behavior over the past quarter century, I am forced to conclude that economic disarray, made worse by the destabilizing effect of the town's military occupation, has not been selective in the community's deterioration. In short, the local population has yet to establish an economic and cultural base to successfully answer the demands of its contemporary existence. This accounting leads directly to consideration in Chapter 7 of Guatemalan political realities. Interweaving elements of traditional religiosity, of local Protestantism, and of civil violence, this concluding analysis employs a narrative approach. I explain in detail how in December 199o the Atitecos were able to put aside their differences and force the Guatemalan Army to permanently and entirely vacate their town, in that way engineering a remarkable state of peace in a land of war.


The pages and chapters which follow reflect my work in Santiago Atitlán, which spanned more than fifteen years, including seventeen individual trips to the town and residence for approximately two and one-half years. Aside from political violence, which provided a nearly constant backdrop to all activities in Atitlán, perhaps the most unusual aspect of this tenure has been my direct participation for a year (1989-1990) in the town's cofradía system. I was informed by town elders (principales) that because of my extensive study of local cofradías I would become the fifth cofrade (r'uu') in Cofradía San Juan. The "invitation" was meant to be an honor and, along with the characteristic identifying headcloth (x'kajkoj zut), was received as such. Declining was not a viable option, and I dutifully fulfilled the position's obligations. To my knowledge, only two other non-Guatemalans have ever had this kind of formal relationship with any of the country's Mayan cofradías.

My participation in this regard, of course, raises questions. In particular, might not this experience have compromised my objectivity as an anthropologist? To be sure, the experience did influence my thinking. (But is not having one's thinking influenced a central point of doing fieldwork?) Moreover, the experience contributed to my respect for the local cofradía system, particularly as a cultural response to a specific set of ecological and socioeconomic conditions. That said, in no way do I believe that this participation has undercut my capacity to be an objective observer, or somehow rendered me a propagandist for the institution. This assessment is supported by my conclusion in this volume that as the local ecological and socioeconomic environment of Santiago Atitlán has changed, the cofradía system has become socially irrelevant, if not even dysfunctional. Anthropology's earlier faith in fieldworker neutrality and invisibility notwithstanding, over the course of extensive fieldwork, virtually any anthropologist will be confronted by multiple exceptional situations and experiences, any number of which may alter his or her thinking or behavior. Some such experiences may prompt the anthropologist's direct involvement, at times even virtually demanding concerted activist participation. In my own case, more relevant than the cofradía experience in this regard was the political violence in Santiago Atitlán, including the murders of several friends and neighbors, which ultimately triggered my active participation in human-rights efforts (Carlsen 1990, 1994; Loucky and Carlsen 1991). Yet, as I believe the chapters which follow bear out, when combined with critical thinking, the information gained from such intense and participatory experiences tends to enhance the anthropologist's capacity to arrive at accurate conclusions, not detract from it.

This leads to another concern. In light of the deconstructionist reverberations at the center of contemporary anthropological discourse, including a postmodern angst about the very concept of culture, could my time spent in the cofradía have been all that useful for ethnographic representation? A primary focus in cultural anthropology today is on internal disorder, difference, and inconsistency in any given society, to the point of arguing that anthropological claims about understanding another society or culture constitute little more than comforting illusion (e.g., see Crapanzano 1980; Rosaldo 1993).

Conspicuously absent in such discussions (not to dismiss their usefulness) is the simple fact that while internal disorder and inconsistency certainly exist, so do significant similarity and consistency. To be sure, from the outset this book makes abundantly clear that contemporary Santiago Atitlán resonates with the "nervousness" of an increasingly postmodern world, in fact that the Guatemalan Army has even engineered local disorder for strategic purposes. Yet even within such disorder, consistency abounds. For instance, to those sitting inside a cofradía (foreign anthropologists included) knowing that heavily armed soldiers are on the street directly in front severely beating passersby, a unifying characteristic is shared fear. To argue that such fear is experienced differently by those involved is to belabor a too-evident point of scarce value. Further demonstrating consistency, the Mayas sitting inside that cofradía, like those elsewhere in the town, are unified by characteristic and identifiable culturally determined conceptions of time and by understandings of their natural environment.

I am prepared to argue that perspectives which stress similarity within a society, like those which stress difference, are useful, just as they both have limitations. Accordingly, the present study pays considerable attention to difference in contemporary Santiago Atitlán, particularly as it concerns religious factionalism. At the same time, however, it makes use of the valuable information available in similarity. I have chosen to pursue the potential of these perspectives to enhance understanding of Atiteco culture rather than to be preoccupied by their limitations. As Clifford Geertz (1973:20) reminds us, "it is not necessary to know everything in order to know something."

My embrace of a concept of culture challenges certain prevailing orthodoxies about that concept and requires brief comment. Rather than interpreting Atiteco culture as a remnant of an exploitative past, as part and parcel of an ecology of repression, I have been impressed that across the centuries local Mayas have commonly utilized their own culture to help mediate exploitation. In this sense, I have turned to the origins of the concept of culture. In How "Natives" Think, an unabashedly titled polemic on postmodern/postcolonial ethnographic representation, Marshall Sahlins explains that the concept originated as a defense to eighteenth-century English and French rationalizations of their own imperialist exploits. Those rationalizations were embedded in the Enlightenment concept of "civilization," which, in contrast to the "barbarism" and "savagery" of those yet to be civilized, constituted a general and nonpluralizable ideal order of human society. In uncivilized neighboring Germany, at that time bereft of power and political unity, defense of the national Kultur became essential. In short, culture, the pluralizable "way of life of a people," originated in defiance of, and hence constituted a potential tool against, external hegemony.

Returning to the question posed above, my time spent in the cofradía was particularly useful for gaining insight into both similarity and difference in Santiago Atitlán as well as diverse aspects of Atiteco culture. Quite simply, not only did the camaraderie and trust born of the experience allow valuable access to information, but it also provided unusual opportunities for cross-checking. By variously checking information in cofradía and non-cofradia settings, I was able to gain a sense of sociocultural similarities and differences within and across Atitlán's faction lines. Within the cofradías, I found the information related to points of religious philosophy and cultural ideas to be particularly helpful.

Exemplifying the scope of the experience and of the information gained, and to bring closure to this brief introduction to Mayan resistance, an example of a "weapon of the weak" comes to mind. I am thinking of a particular Sunday morning visit to Cofradía Santiago, one of Atitlán's most important individual cofradías. Upon being informed that he had missed an Army-organized meeting of military representatives with local cofradía leaders earlier that morning, the leader (alcalde) of the cofradía became visibly shaken and let out an anguished groan; actions which were matched by other members of the cofradía. Immediately, however, exaggerated despair gave way to uproarious laughter, upon which the alcalde turned and said aloud, "Sometimes it's better to forget." The meeting, incidentally, was canceled by the Army when only two cofradía representatives showed up.


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