Mayan Culture Struggles in a TV World Guatemala's Peace Allows for More Cultural Expression, but Modern Influences Distract

By Robert M. Press, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

Mayan Culture Struggles in a TV World Guatemala's Peace Allows for More Cultural Expression, but Modern Influences Distract


Robert M. Press, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In a tropical forest in northern Guatemala, steep, narrow stone steps lead up the pyramid-like tomb of an ancient Mayan ruler. The structure towers above the tall trees, physical evidence of a once-mighty culture.

Now, after centuries of repression by the Spanish, dictatorial governments, and a just-ended 36-year civil war, Guatemala's Mayan descendants may be poised once again to assert their culture, having finally won government recognition of their legal and cultural rights.

The peace accord dealing with Mayan rights was reached earlier, in March 1995. Since then, the number of books, radio programs, and newspapers in local Mayan languages has increased. In the fall of 1995, Rigoberto Keme, a Quiche Mayan was elected mayor of Quezaltenango, Guatemala's second-largest city. Several Mayans were elected to Congress in late 1996. And a number of Mayan cultural and political organizations have been formed. The accord may be coming just in time. Interviews in various parts of the country indicate that just as the doors to greater expression of Mayan culture are swinging open, many Mayans, especially children, are losing their ability to speak their local language. And few adults show interest in traditional Mayan religious practices and healing methods. "TV has ruined the country," says Carlos Rolando de Leon Valdes, a Guatemalan doctor in this busy, commercial city, and a scholar of the Mayan culture. "We are in a new age," he says in his small office. "We have to think in a new way. My children don't think in Kakchikel {the original language of his Mayan wife}. They watch TV every day." And, he adds, his wife is not teaching them her Mayan language. "The peace accords will not bring change" in the Mayan culture in Guatemala, he contends. While most Mayans cannot afford TV, antennas are sprouting widely, and often attract crowds who watch through a window. Meanwhile, schools still teach in Spanish instead of one of the more than 20 Mayan languages. "A child enters school speaking his or her mother tongue, but in six years of primary education, leaves without being able to speak it and still not speaking good Spanish," says Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez, a Mayan author and scholar living in Guatemala City. Children learn their local language only in the family, and sometimes not even there. Far to the north, in the jungle community of La Esmeralda, near the town of Dolores, in the Peten region, a Mayan priest has built a small temple of sticks on a hilltop. But "very few" of the residents in the settlement come to his ceremonies, says the priest, Martin Gutierrez. …

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