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On Their Own Terms

Published: January 12, 2011, Author: JayTaber

Residing on the north side of the Golden Gate, I daily encounter young Mayan mothers pushing strollers through the park where I walk my dog; Mayan children perhaps outnumber all others at our neighborhood elementary school. I often wonder what stories their parents have to tell.

Reading the anthology titled The Anthropology of Globalization last night, I came across an essay by Linda Green, associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. In her Notes on Mayan Youth and Rural Industrialization in Guatemala, I caught a glimpse of the life they, their parents, and grandparents might have lived.

Professor Green’s examination of the Mayan youth struggle for identity and integrity, while working in free-trade zone garment factories or hanging out with gangs that have supplanted many of the communities torn asunder by colonialism and a 25-year civil war that targeted Mayan civilians, speaks to both Mayan resilience, as well as the diminished ability of indigenous societies to weather the relentless assault on collective cultures by global capitalism. Unable to practice their subsistence economies, social dislocation was inevitable. As Green explains, collective culture is territorial, and dependent on collective practices, specifically the practice of growing and grinding corn. It is in the fields working with elders where Mayan stories and values are passed down; with the disappearance of collective practices, the Mayan will never be the same.

As Green looks at the dual legacies of political repression and racism that reinforce existing inequalities in Guatemala, she draws on a larger historical framework of manufacturing powerlessness in Mayan communities–one that includes the not insignificant CIA coup in 1954, in which Guatemala’s efforts at reaching a meaningful reconciliation between its indigenous and non-indigenous peoples was violently terminated. Creating a future within their diminished world, says Green, is a challenge that includes making sense of themselves and their surroundings within the onslaught of globalized mass communication.

The legacy of structural and political violence has reworked the identity of Guatemala’s Maya; kinship structures targeted by state violence have been impaired. The exploitation of indigenous labor under globalization has intensified. The privatization of their communal lands has undermined their sites of social and cultural reproduction. Repression and surveillance in their rural communities remain strategies of state control.

With the massive dislocation of Maya from the Guatemalan highlands during the civil war in which 150,000 Mayans were killed, and the US flood of agricultural exports undercutting Guatemalan farming, international migration has become a principal economic survival strategy. How the Mayan diaspora will remain connected with their ancestors and sacred spirits is an unanswered question.

Western consumerism and evangelical churches now vie with state repression in disorienting Mayan youth attempting to re-work what it means to be Indian on their own terms.

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