Academic journal article Social Justice

Defending the Pueblo: Indigenous Identity and Struggles for Social Justice in Guatemala, 1970 to 1980

Academic journal article Social Justice

Defending the Pueblo: Indigenous Identity and Struggles for Social Justice in Guatemala, 1970 to 1980

Article excerpt

They have not a piece of earth to live on and ... were demanding their rights to what truly belongs to them, their lands.... For this they have been killed.... Tomorrow it could be us, verdad?

-- Candidate for indigenous beauty queen, June 1978, Carcha, Alta Verapaz (1)

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE LIVED OR STUDIED RECENT GUATEMALAN HISTORY, THE details of the Panzos massacre are all-too familiar. On May 29, 1978, members of the Guatemalan army shot indiscriminately into a crowd of Maya Kekchi campesinos who had gathered in the town square of Panzos, Alta Verapaz, to express demands for land. (2) With 53 dead and another 47 wounded, it was one of the army's first major assaults of the civil war era (the 1960s to 1990s) against a civilian population, fueled by a racism that equated "Indian" with "subversive" and became an integral part of the state's counterinsurgency mentality. (3)

An infamous episode in a conflict that claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced more than one million people, Panzos provides a window into a little-known subject of Guatemalan history: indigenous activism in the 1970s. Spurred to public protest by the brutality and racism of state actions, indigenas condemned the violence in a multitude of ways. They took to the streets as members of the Committee for Peasant Unity, or CUC, documented the massacre in the pages of a new ethnic rights periodical, Ixim, and contestants for reina indigena, or indigenous community queen, even engaged in vibrant discursos on stages throughout the highlands. These protests raise a number of important questions: How did diverse forms of indigenous mobilization emerge? What demands did indigenas make and how did these change over time? How were indigenous activists and their various struggles related to each other?

Scholarship on recent Guatemalan history tends to draw a sharp analytical distinction between class-based and "ethnic" organizing by indigenous activists. Studies that discuss CUC, the well-known campesino organization, focus almost exclusively on its class-based character, stripping it and its members of an ethnic identity that, together with class identities, shaped the organization and its struggle. The few works that comment on the emergence in the 1970s of what has been termed an "indigenous bourgeoisie" portray activists in racially defined movements like Ixim as marginal, even counter-revolutionary. (4) This article, while acknowledging markedly different emphases and approaches between class-based and race-based organizing by indigenas, argues that interpreting activists' struggles as motivated either by ethnic or by class identities in isolation greatly oversimplifies diverse efforts for change, efforts shaped by interrelated and evolving ideas about race, class, gender, and community.

This article explores the historical development of indigenous activism in the 1970s and the complicated and evolving relationship between "ethnic" and class-based organizing by indigenas. It examines the varied forms of protest that arose in the face of state violence in the latter part of the decade, from the Panzos massacre of May 1978 to the Spanish Embassy massacre of January 1980. A close look at the 1970s reveals three tendencies. (1) Indians were engaged in multiple and diverse forms of organizing, ranging from class-based to racially defined and gendered activism. (2) Despite significant differences between various forms of activism by indigenas, connections existed between them and most indigenous activists of the 1970s; women and men took part in struggles reflecting and often combining class and ethnic identities and concerns. (3) The context of an intensifying civil war in the late 1970s and early 1980s had profound and contradictory effects on relationships among activist indigenas. While the logic of revolutionary struggle reified divisions between racially defined and class-based activism, the tremendous violence and racism of state counterinsurgency ultimately pushed together indigenas of diverse political persuasions, as differences for many blurred in the face of state terror aimed at the pueblo indigena in general. …

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