The history of state formation in the Americas is largely a history of indigenous dispossession. But not all dispossessions function the same. In Guatemala the forms of stealing of indigenous territory varied over time. Spanish colonizers made Maya communities buy their own lands. After independence, the modern liberal state defined indigenous territories as “waste land.” Indigenous municipalities were forcefully assimilated into the nation during the 1944 revolution, while neoliberal governments expropriate Maya communities in the name of development. The landgrab of Maya territories initiated by Spanish colonizers never ceased; it evolved over time, perpetuated in times of war and peace by governments across the political spectrum.
This essay traces the changing forms of indigenous dispossession in Guatemala from colonial times to the present. We show that the stealing of Maya lands is not a historical episode linked to the Spanish invasion but a defining structure of Guatemala’s modern state. Our argument is twofold. First, various logics of colonization are at play. A historical approach illuminates a combination of settler colonial logics that erase indigenous presence and the colonial logic of racialization to control indigenous peoples. Second, the stealing of Maya territories is intrinsic to modern states. We connect colonial archives with contemporary neoliberal policies of extraction to reveal the continuation of colonial logics in Guatemala.
First, we analyze legal records dating back to 1621 in which the Spanish Real Audiencia (colonial court) recognized indigenous municipalities and their communal lands. Second, we explain the creation of land titles in bureaucratic strategies to erase indigenous authority after independence. In the late nineteenth century, state decrees declared Maya communities as nonindigenous ladinos to transform communal land into private property.1 Third, we show how the Revolution of 1944, one of Guatemala’s most progressive and democratic governments, adopted a Marxist narrative that dismantled indigenous municipalities in the name of national unity. Lastly, we trace the landgrab related to resource extraction. In the 1970s, a long civil war brutally displaced and [End Page 791] killed entire communities, in some cases erasing indigenous presence. Today, neoliberal governments license indigenous lands to extractive industries in the name of development.
Comunes de Indios: Litigating for Territory with Spain
The Mayas defended their territorialities through active litigation in colonial times. Amaqs, a sort of Maya federation, engaged in diplomacy with the Spaniards. Spain appropriated territory mostly in the lowlands (renting or selling land to the communities that most resisted invasion). In the highlands, strong Amaqs successfully preserved their territories, at times having to buy land recognition. The Real Audiencia recognized Maya territories as comunes de indios, a title for communal property encompassing autonomous political authorities. Maya authorities even used the Spanish Crown as a third party to address territorial conflicts among neighbors. In 1641, for instance, the comun de indios of Ch’orti’ de Jocotan took a land dispute with Camotan neighbors to the Real Audiencia and in 1743 bought 635 caballerias of their own land to receive titles from the Spanish Crown.2 The Spanish authorities recognized many comunes de indios, like the K’iches of Chiwila, who also bought their title to territory and have preserved it until today. Some Ancestral Authorities still invoke comunes de indios. The community of Santiago Atitlán has preserved its communal title; it is carefully kept with a piece of cotton depicting the territory by the maximum authorities of the Tz’utuhil people.
These titles to territory mean that Maya peoples and Spanish colonizers observed each other’s territories. This territoriality encompassed legal and political authority. Since the sixteenth century, the Crown also recognized the authority of indigenous municipalities. The combination of territorial, legal, and political authority constitutes the foundation of sovereignty, indicating that Maya–Spanish interactions were conceptualized as nation-to-nation relations.
One of the oldest Maya indigenous municipalities to have kept uninterrupted authority over its territory is the Forty-Eight Cantones, or parishes, in Totonicapán. It was already a powerful Amaq when the Spaniards arrived and was among the first to have its authority recognized in colonial law. The territory of the Forty-Eight Cantones has existed since precolonial times, with communal land titles legally recognized for...