- For Every Indio Who Falls: A History of Maya Activism in Guatemala, 1960-1990 by Betsy Konefal
This story begins with a photograph of a group of young Mayas after the tragic massacre by the Guatemalan military at Panzós in 1978. The portrait piques the curiosity and, at the same time, leaves one with a sense of foreboding. The Mayas in the photograph are activists: some are beauty queens, all are speaking out for their fallen compatriots and against the Guatemalan government. It is common knowledge that such voices of compassion and reason and rebellion were often assassinated or disappeared in a brutal erasing of those who opposed or were perceived to threaten the government.
The photograph is Betsy Konefal's entry into a fascinating, hope-filled journey into Guatemala's all-too-tragic past. It is a brilliant way to begin, but also a great taking-off point for the research itself. Anyone familiar with Guatemala's history of the last 40 to 50 years will be astounded to learn that these brave men and women not only spoke up but lived though one of the country's darkest periods. Some have lived out their lives far removed from political activism, but others are still politically engaged. By listening to their stories and those of many others, Konefal is able to reconstruct a period of Maya activism in the 1960s and 1970s that has been little known beyond those Maya activists themselves.
This work is significant because it fills important gaps in the history of Maya activism, gaps not recognized among others who focused on the division between labor organizations and language and culture activists. Indeed, several scholars have explored Mayan activists and deepened our understanding of why linguistic and cultural activism, taking shape in the 1990s, became highly visible in contemporary politics. But this research [End Page 414] ultimately raises questions: What happened to the labor side of Maya political organization? Are there other, non-Maya language roots to Maya politics? Are Maya activism and political organization tied to earlier forms of Maya-specific organization and community leadership, or did La Violencia wipe out those links and legacies?
Konefal begins to answer these questions. She also demonstrates that Maya activism, especially in the 1960s, unified labor and culture and language. In other words, the split that scholars of Maya activism describe at the quincentennial protests of the early 1990s and the later deluge of research on Maya cultural and linguistic activism are reflective of the politics of the moment, shaped in the spaces of neoliberal political and economic policies. Konefal gets at what these many other scholars have ignored, particularly with her focus on the voices of Maya activists and their organizing strategies and political perspectives before the genocide of Mayas from 1978 through the mid-1980s.
Where Konefal falters is in the period leading up to the 1960s. She tends to demonize the Ubico period (Jorge Ubico;1931-1944), romanticize the Arevalo-Arbenz period (Juan José Arévalo, 1945-1951; Jacobo Arbenz, 1951-1954), and rightly condemn the successive military dictatorships. Ubico, especially with respect to Mayas, is an enigma. Contrary to what Konefal presents, he has been described contradictorily in Maya oral histories as fair and brutal. Ubico's distinctive way of meting out judgment did not automatically disregard Mayas' rights. It was Ubico, in contrast to what she reports, who heralded the first period of intense ethnographic research, especially by Americans such as Sol Tax, Robert Redfield, Ruth Bunzel, and others.
With respect to the Instituto Indigenista Nacional studies in the late 1940s and 1950s during the Arevalo and Arbenz administrations, Mayas have reported being suspicious of the government's interest in them. It can be better conceived as the latest effort to modernize them, integrate them into the nation, and harness their labor. During this period, there does not seem to be the kind of celebration of the 'Indian' that was one part of the...