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  • Constructing Ethnic Bodies and Identities in Miguel Angel Asturias and Rigoberta Menchú
  • Arturo Arias

This essay is concerned with explaining the ethnic and gender contradictions in Guatemala as represented in two books, I, Rigoberta Menchú and Mulata, that are emblematic of this country’s two Nobel laureates, Miguel Angel Asturias (1967 Nobel Prize for literature) and Rigoberta Menchú (1992 Nobel Peace Prize). The essay argues that both writersarticulate a politics beholden neither to the nation-state nor to transnational politics, but rather reorganize the ethnic question altogether through a process of “resemantization” that transforms ethnic identities in a way that destabilizes racial and gendered hierarchies. —aa

At the first conference on Maya studies in Guatemala City (August 1996), Luis Enrique Sam Colop, a K’iché Maya academic, public intellectual and newspaper columnist who debates politics in the national press, accused the country’s most celebrated Ladino writer, novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, of racism on the basis of ideas he expressed in his graduate thesis in 1923. When Ladino conservative pundit Mario Roberto Morales defended Asturias in turn, Mayas in the audience heckled him and agreed with Sam Colop. Their support for Sam Colop attests to the radical position many Mayas take regarding ethnic identity and to the leading role Sam Colop has played in debates on the subject since 1991, when he began to expose the historical roots and perniciousness of racism in the country.1 Sam Colop made his statements about Asturias not simply to attack an obscure work that the Nobel laureate had written when he was still a student, before he had published anything literary or left for Europe, where he gained his insights on Maya culture, but as part of a strategy to challenge those who have presumed to speak for Mayas. His intervention created a public controversy in the Guatemalan press, because, as Kay B. Warren has pointed out, Sam Colop’s attitude generalized essentialist constructions to all non-Mayas, suggesting that all non-Mayas are racist (21). This controversy dragged into 2003, when K’iché Maya poet Humberto Ak’abal became the first Maya writer in Guatemala to be awarded the Miguel Angel Asturias National Prize in Literature, an honor he declined. He said that he refused to accept the prize because it was named for a Ladino writer who had made racist comments against indigenous peoples, this despite the fact that it was bestowed upon him by the country’s first Maya Minister of Culture, Otilia Lux de Cotí, a member of Ak’abal’s same ethnic group though of a different social and professional class, who defended the name of the award.

The stance adopted by the group surrounding Sam Colop implicitly disqualified Asturias’s creative attempts to portray Guatemalan identity as ethnically hybrid.2 Ironically, these Mayas end up validating an essentialist position on indigenous ethnicity that is the photographic negative of many Ladinos’ pernicious essentialism regarding Mayas. Other Maya leaders, however, have generated a displacement in indigenous identity as part of an effort to build bridges toward ladinidad. In 1999, it was 1992 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú who inaugurated Asturias’s centennial celebration at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and wrote the introduction to the event’s catalogue. She stated:

The life and work of our Guatemalan brother, his written words in literary works . . . demonstrate in contextual arguments that the word and ideas are more effective than arms and violence. Love for others, respect for difference . . . his constant dialogue and cultural interchange . . . constitute the strength and immortality of his words.


Menchú’s assessment of Asturias invents a new dimension in Maya/Ladino relations, in which neither is the stained/blemished image of the other, but in which the a focus on relations of power has been interestingly displaced in favor of an emphasis on the Maya woman, thus reconfiguring ethnic and gender power. Menchú in turn re-presents Asturias and revalidates him on the global scene, underscoring his “respect for difference,” which locates the intercultural dialogic relationship between Mayas and Ladinos as a foundational element of Asturian textuality.

Why this apparent contradiction between the stance of some Maya intellectuals, who accuse Asturias of racism, and Mench...

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