Politics & Law

Maya presence

Rosemary Joyce

Now that the world hasn’t ended, it’s fine to return to ignoring the conditions of millions of Maya people living in Mexico and Central America.

That has to be the conclusion drawn from the deafening silence of the majority of the English-language media, obsessed almost a week ago about a non-story about the “end of the world” that has been debunked for decades, when a real story with implications for the Maya people happened on December 21.

The story you did not read: thousands (estimates vary, from a US government source claiming a few thousand to activist sources reporting tens of thousands) of indigenous supporters of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) from throughout Chiapas, Mexico, marched silently to San Cristóbal de las Casas and Ocosingo, the major government centers, as well as to other towns: Las Margaritas, Comitán, and Altamirano.

Spanish language news coverage linked the march to the transition from the previous bak’tun, 13, to the present one, the 14th. These sources reported that the march was intended to mark the continuing relevance of the Zapatista movement, and their still unfulfilled demands for work, land rights, health services, and recognition of indigenous culture and rights in the Mexican constitution. The towns where the marchers gathered are those where the movement initially declared itself at war with the Mexican government, on January 1, 1994.

These declarations initiated an armed conflict that led to negotiations between the Mexican government and Zapatista representatives. But these broke off when the government refused the demand for constitutional recognition. Since then, Zapatista groups have maintained control of parts of the state of Chiapas. Travelers there driving to visit Classic Maya Bonampak pass hand-lettered signs declaring the autonomy and administration of the zone by the EZLN.

So add the EZLN to the other Maya voices trying to turn the hype about the end of the 13th bak’tun into what one recent reporter suggested to me that it should be: a “teachable moment”. But it is hard to see how the demonstration by the EZLN will have the impact intended, when the same media who last week wanted to talk about non-existent prophecies of the end of time have barely reported the demonstrations that took place in Chiapas.

An Associated Press story by Manuel de la Cruz ran in the Sacramento Bee and other newspapers, but it provided little of substance. The sketchy outline offered two reasons for the march: marking the end of the bak’tun; and commemorating a 1997 mass killing of 45 Zapatista sympathizers in Acteal, Chiapas in December of 2011. At the time, The Economist described the incident in graphic terms; the victims

were fellow Indians, mostly women and children, all unarmed, and they seem to have been butchered precisely because they had found hope in the Zapatist cause. They had fled their villages in recent weeks fearing armed groups linked to local PRI bosses.

Officials had been warned of trouble. Why did they take no notice? The state’s governor admits he received calls alerting him to the butchery as it happened. He did nothing, he says, because the police, when he inquired, reported nothing unusual. Why, later, did officials claim the killings had sprung from family feuds? Witnesses say the killers wore state-police uniforms. Some carried machineguns.

Maya peoples exist today; they suffer from conditions that deny them basic opportunities, and they have been actively mobilizing in all the countries where they live. Globally, some news media did take the time to foreground the conditions experienced by the contemporary Maya. The Australian Adelaide Now wrote

there are currently an estimated 20 to 30 million direct descendants of the ancient civilisation living in southern Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the indigenous group is most prevalent.

In Guatemala, ethnic Mayas often find themselves on the margins of society, with limited access to education, health care and other basic services. Their native languages are not officially recognised.

Within the indigenous community, which accounts for 42 per cent of Guatemala’s 14.3-million-strong population, the poverty rate is 80 per cent.

Nearly six in 10 indigenous children suffer from chronic malnutrition, and the infant mortality rate has hit an alarming rate of 40 per 1000 live births, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

… ethnic Mayas paid perhaps the heaviest price during Guatemala’s civil war that pitted the army against leftist guerrillas from 1960 to 1996….More than 600 massacres of indigenous communities were recorded during that period and tens of thousands of Indians sought refuge in southern Mexico from the brutal counter-insurgency by the military, according to a 1999 UN report.

Under the “scorched earth” policy conducted by the regime of ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt (1982-83), entire villages were wiped out.

Today, areas that are home to indigenous peoples have seen an influx of troops as part of the government’s war on drugs.

And once again, Mayan descendants are being expelled from their lands – this time, to make way for hydro-electric, mining or farming projects.

There is a lot more that could be said, even about Guatemala. The World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples provides reports for Maya people in each of the countries that promoted hysteria about the end of the Maya calendar for profit. In Belize, they note that

The current issues affecting the indigenous minority of Belize are mainly related to continued encouragement by the Government of Belize of non-indigenous settlement, large scale logging and petroleum development on traditional Maya lands, despite stated intentions to address these matters. This not only continues to threaten Maya communities but also the natural environment upon which their culture and livelihood depends.

The issues facing Honduras’ Chorti people are similar, but their effects have been fatal:

Maya Chorti have demanded that the central government return nearly 35,000 acres to indigenous people as was promised in an eighteenth-century agreement with the Spanish colonial government. This has put Maya Chorti indigenous rights advocates at great risk and two leaders were assassinated in 1997. The Maya Chortis claim that both men were killed by order of local landowners. The Honduran police have made arrests and laid criminal charges. Few believe, however, that justice has actually been served and it is claimed that those really responsible have still not been held accountable. In 1997, in response to massive protests by indigenous groups – including a blockade of the Maya ruins of Copán – the Honduran government signed a legal agreement with Maya Chorti for the titling of 14,700 hectares of land but has since failed to deliver fully on that promise. Since 1997 the Chortis have blockaded the entrance to the ruins numerous times. In 2000, after a four-day blockade, the Honduran army tear-gassed protestors from a low-flying helicopter, despite an agreement to end the occupation. The injured, including those who were imprisoned, were denied medical treatment until a human rights lawyer effected their release.

The report on Mexico’s indigenous people explores the impact of the EZLN over time since 1994. It would be a fine beginning point for any reporter who wanted to pay some attention to what did happen last Friday.

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Comments to "Maya presence":
    • TJ, I think the comment is from what is called a “troll”. Someone who doesn’t actually engage with the content; who is expressing generalized rage and thus not accountable for their writing. I do not think that the implication is that the hype of the Maya “apocalypse” that I am critiquing was somehow right wing.

      But there is one interesting point to make here: the claim that the change of the baktun on December 21 was linked to an end-of-the-world prophecy never made sense in terms of Maya cosmology. It does, however, fit the apocalyptic end-times narratives that I would argue are part of broader U.S. culture, and which might be loosely connected to millenarian Christianity.

      [Report abuse]

    • Rose

      Why is the media great when it bashes right wing politics, and UC berkeley faculty delite in agreement, but when the same media does not do what Democratic ideology supposes’ itself to do, you people start to complain and cry. Double standards are always transparent, and we will react in kind! WORD.

      [Report abuse]

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