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Ch'orti'-Maya Survival in Eastern Guatemala

Indigeneity in Transition

Brent Metz

Publication Year: 2006

Scholars and Guatemalans have characterized eastern Guatemala as "Ladino" or non-Indian. The Ch'orti' do not exhibit the obvious indigenous markers found among the Mayas of western Guatemala, Chiapas, and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Few still speak Ch'orti', most no longer wear distinctive dress, and most community organizations have long been abandoned.

During the colonial period, the Ch'orti' region was adjacent to relatively vibrant economic regions of Central America that included major trade routes, mines, and dye plantations. In the twentieth century Ch'orti's directly experienced U.S.-backed dictatorships, a 36-year civil war from start to finish, and Christian evangelization campaigns, all while their population has increased exponentially. These have had tremendous impacts on Ch'orti' identities and cultures.

From 1991 to 1993, Brent Metz lived in three Ch'orti' Maya-speaking communities, learning the language, conducting household surveys, and interviewing informants. He found Ch'orti's to be ashamed of their indigeneity, and he was fortunate to be present and involved when many Ch'orti's joined the Maya Movement. He has continued to expand his ethnographic research of the Ch'orti' annually ever since and has witnessed how Ch'orti's are reformulating their history and identity.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. vii-ix

With the completion of a book as drawn out and overdue as this one, I am not sure whether to thank or apologize to all the people I leaned on along the way. I would not be publishing this book, much less continue to survive in academics, if it were not for the...

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Introduction: What’s Indigenous, What’s Maya?

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pp. 1-11

In August 2001, Guatemala’s little-studied eastern Department of Chiquimula emerged from the shadows when international headlines reported ghastly scenes of a Central American famine. Dozens of international reporters invaded a local hospital and scoured the countryside...

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1. In Search of Indigeneity in Eastern Guatemala

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pp. 13-35

On my first visit to Guatemala as a college student in 1984 I suffered acute culture shock. Stepping out of Aurora Airport into a steamy Guatemala City night, I was overwhelmed by throngs of ragged, dark-skinned children struggling to carry my luggage in exchange for a tip. In...

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2. History of the Jocotán Parish, 1524–1930

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pp. 37-56

I had set out to find a Ch’orti’ culture and identity opposed to amoral, modern capitalist individualism. What I seemed to find was a destitute, divided group of campesinos ashamed of their indigenous heritage and desperate for any opportunity that came their way. My investigation...

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3. Las Ruinas

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pp. 57-90

Guatemala in the second half of the twentieth century looks very different from the Right and Left. For the Right, Guatemala faced the problems of small, developing countries but with the added burden of an indigenous population preferring to live in the Stone Age. The...

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4. A Sense of Centrality

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pp. 91-140

It would seem that after such a long, brutal history, including various waves of religious persecution, that Ch’orti’s would have abandoned their distinctive indigenous lifestyle and integrated with the Guatemalan nation for self-preservation. Exploited like burros, exterminated...

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5. The Dis-Integration of Subsistence Cultures

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pp. 141-182

When I initially set out to investigate the relationship between religion and the market economy, I presumed that Ch’orti’ campesinos had a choice between self-subsistence and making money, including wage labor, marketing, and craft production. It did not take...

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6. Excluded from “Nuestra Patria Guatemala,” Our Fatherland

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pp. 183-225

On the face of it, it seems like a good idea that Ch’orti’s question their traditions and abandon the notion that they are God’s chosen people. Any ethnic group that believes it is God’s chosen should be “brought back to earth” with the rest of us. After all, is it not better to “melt” into...

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7. New Opportunities, Identities, and Challenges in the Global Market

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pp. 227-267

The Ch’orti’ predicament may seem hopeless, especially considering that the subsistence lifestyle, the Ch’orti’ safety net for centuries, is no longer a viable option and ethnic shame thwarts initiative. Many Ch’orti’s some of the time accept their fate, place responsibility on God, and resign...

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8. The Ch’orti’ Maya Movement

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pp. 269-296

Richard Adams (1996) has identified a pattern of indigenous ethnic abandonment in Guatemala. In townships where Ladinos, or non- Mayas, constitute over 15% of the population—as is the case throughout the Ch’orti’ region—distinctive indigenous culture and identity tends...

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Conclusion: Indigenous Maya Ch’orti’s

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pp. 297-307

I set out on this project searching for indigeneity in eastern Guatemala with the foundation of Wisdom’s and Girard’s works in the 1930s and 1940s. Obviously, much has changed since then, causing me to question not only whether these campesinos are still indigenous, but also the very...


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pp. 309-312


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pp. 313-339


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pp. 340-346

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826338815
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826338808

Page Count: 356
Publication Year: 2006