The Maya are an indigenous Mesoamerican civilization whose influence reaches into modern-day Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Southern Mexico, and the Yucatán Peninsula. Most records date the Maya civilization’s origins to 2600B.C., though there is evidence of inhabitants in the Mesoamerican Maya region from even earlier than this. They developed their own language, art, architectural styles, as well as calendar, mathematical, and astronomical systems. Maya cities reached their peak during what is called the “Maya Classic Period,” which lasted from 250-900A.D. At its peak it was one of the most densely populated and culturally sophisticated societies in the world. Many people in this region continue to identify as Maya today, speaking their own languages and maintaining a wide variety of cultural practices.
Archeological finds from the Maya Classic period show many highly-developed cities and trade routes leading to other Mesoamerican civilizations. The Maya of the Guatemalan Highlands controlled the jade and obsidian sources for trade. The extent of these ancient Mesoamerican trade routes continues to astound archeologists today, indicating the extremely intricate and sophisticated connections between indigenous civilizations throughout Central and North America. Gold from Panama has been found in Maya ruins and ancient Maya chocolate has been found as far north as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
|Three hours’ drive from Jacaltenango the Zaculeo ruins, refurbished in the 20th c.,
are an example of this impressive work.
The Classic period of Maya civilization saw great feats in architecture and city building. At that time, the empire consisted of many independent city-states ruled by monarchies. They had highly developed religious ceremonies intense agricultural practices, and sophisticated governmental systems. Most notable among the accomplishments of the civilization during this time are the stepped pyramids. These functioned as palaces of the Maya rulers and religious centers for the Maya, and continue to hold religious significance for Maya people today. Ruins of these architectural wonders are spread throughout Guatemala, Honduras, and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. What is most remarkable about these pyramids is that they were built entirely without metal tools, animals necessary for any wheel-based movement, and even pulleys. Building without any of these technologies readily available could only have required tremendous manpower.
|Mayan carvings in Honduras
The decline in the Maya civilization began around 900A.D. During this time the Maya Empire began to shrink. The real causes for this decline remain an archeological mystery, though the leading theory is that years of serious drought, and perhaps overuse of farmland, led to inadequate food to support the empire.
The Maya continued to face hardship during a period of Spanish colonialism and repression. In 1523, Pedro de Alvarado, a Spanish conquistador under Hernan Cortés, arrived in the Maya territory. He was known for his cruelty towards the Native Americans and proceeded with a campaign to exert Spanish rule over the Maya. Because of the Maya city-state structure, which made independent Maya strongholds further spread apart, the Spaniards’ conquest of the Maya took about 170 years. This was far longer than the conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires. During this time thousands of Maya were cruelly killed and enslaved. Oppression of the Maya continued for centuries.[ top of page]
During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), the Maya again faced extreme adversity and racism. A guerilla group called the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) rose up to fight the military dictatorships that prevailed following the U.S. backed coup of 1954. The Highland Maya largely kept out of the fray, yet because they were poor and suspected to be likely to revolt against the Guatemalan armed forces, they were often the targets of some of the worst violence and human rights violations during this time. The New York Times estimates that more than 100,000 people were killed during this 36-year conflict. Other estimates place the number of dead closer to 200,000. Another 40,000 people were ‘disappeared’, and are presumed to be dead. The country is covered by clandestine graves that are still being exhumed to recover these bodies. Read the whole NYT article on Guatemala’s secret cemeteries.
|Paintings by Don José Cupertino Delgado Camposeco. Images from his 30-painting work “No Más Guerra” (“No More War”),
depicting the violence in Guatemala of the 1980s.
During the repression of the 1970’s and 80’s, horrible times of human rights abuses among the indigenous people of Guatemala, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan people fled as political refugees. Likely because the U.S. backed the 1954 coup and the Guatemalan military during the civil war, very few Guatemalans were granted asylum in the U.S. The U.S. government openly discouraged Guatemalans from applying for asylum, and categorized these refugees as economic refugees, and therefore ineligible for political asylum. Canada, in contrast, gave asylum to thousands of Guatemalan refugees, including families from Jacaltenango, where Brother Towns was made. Read more about this period of time and Canada’s Refuge for Central Americans.
In what became known as the “Sanctuary Movement” thousands of churches and religious orders openly defied the U.S. government’s stance on these refugees and opened their doors and places of safety for these immigrants. Read more about the “Sanctuary Movement”.
The human rights atrocities against indigenous Guatemalans became more widely recognized in 1992 when Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan Quiche Maya woman, received the Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work during the Guatemalan civil war. Her book, entitled I, Rigoberta Menchú. An Indian Woman in Guatemala (ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. New York and London: Verso, 1984), describes Menchú’s own memories, and those of her community, living through this civil war.
This civil war ended in 1996 with signing of the “Agreement on identity and rights of indigenous peoples”, brokered by the UN. These peace agreements allowed for the recognition of the Guatemalan nation as “multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual in nature”. It mandated respect for the identity and cultural rights of the Maya, and other indigenous peoples. One particular measure outlined in the Accords was to recognize 23 indigenous languages as official national languages and to promote their use when providing State social services at the community level, and to grant official status to them so that they can be used in courts of law throughout the country. Read more about these peace accords.
The Guatemala Human Rights Commission was established in 1982 to monitor and report on human rights issues in the country. It has worked to advocate for survivors of the human rights abuses since the 1980s.
Learn more about this organization.
Though the Maya empire has decreased in size since the Classic period, the civilization by no means disappeared. Today millions of people, especially in Highland Guatemala, identify as Maya. Over half of Guatemala’s 13 million people identify as Indian. A pan-Maya identity, one that embraces the diversity of the Maya, across language and cultural difference, is growing in this region of Central America, allowing the celebration of both ancestral Maya culture and present day Maya diversity. Currently there are 23 officially recognized Maya groupings in Guatemala.
To read more about this emerging pan-Maya identity, look at Maya Intellectual Renaissance by Victor Montejo, University of Texas Press, 2005.
Jacaltenango is in the Western Highlands of Guatemala and has a population estimated to be over 40,000. Nearly three-quarters of the population identify as Maya. Many Jacaltecos speak Popti’, one of the country’s officially recognized indigenous languages. According to the Encyclopedia of the world’s Endangered Languages there are about 32,000 Popti’ speakers. Source: books.google.com.
Jacaltenango has its own particular Maya practices, such as music and dance ceremonies, and sites, such as Yula’, the birthplace of the first father and mother of Jacaltenango, and En Q’anil, both of which are seen in the film. Jacaltecos have their own indigenous dress as well. The town’s patron is the Virgin de Candelaria, and she is celebrated in a week-long fiesta beginning February 2nd each year. The Fiesta includes Catholic and Maya elements of celebration, ranging from a blessing from the town’s bishop to the running of the ‘torritos’, costumes made to look like bulls that are covered in fireworks.[ top of page]
As Jacaltecos migrate to Jupiter, Florida, they take their culture and traditions with them. In turn, the places the Maya live, like Jupiter, are enriched by the influx of Maya culture. Corn Maya is a non-profit in Jupiter, Florida, originally founded to assist refugees from the Guatemalan Civil war. Now it works as an educational organization within El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center. It also sponsors cultural and educational events, sharing their Maya traditions with other communities in Jupiter. In particular, it hosts a Fiesta de Candelaria, the large festival of Jacaltenango, which celebrates Jacaltenango’s patron saint, each year in February in Jupiter, Florida. In this way the towns are linked through their celebrations and cultures, sharing across thousands of miles a cultural connection that binds them together.
Learn more about Corn Maya here.
In August of 2005 the mayors of Jupiter, Florida and Jacaltenango, Guatemala, signed a Sister City agreement. The two towns pledged a commitment to cultural exchange between their communities, working to create a global community of understanding. They also pledged to share information and to work together to improve the quality of life for the people in both communities. Their informal agreement of friendship and cooperation is part of the groundwork in moving towards a future of understanding between our two countries.[ top of page]