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Reviewed by:
  • Mayan Literacy Reinvention in Guatemala by Mary J. Holbrock
  • Walter E. Little
Mayan Literacy Reinvention in Guatemala. Mary J. Holbrock. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Pp. xviii + 250. $65.00 (hardcover).

This book is less about literacy reinvention than about the difficulties of promoting and building literacy in Maya languages in Maya communities. Literacy in Maya languages in Guatemala has suffered for the same historical and political reasons that indigenous literacy has suffered throughout the Americas: among other things, the enduring legacies of Spanish colonialism that have left Mayas marginalized from economic and political power, the general lack of educational infrastructure aimed at promoting indigenous languages, and tendencies toward extreme poverty in indigenous communities.

Over seven chapters, Mary J. Holbrock takes an expansive perspective on literacy in two different ethnolinguistic Maya communities to explore what constitutes their environment for literacy and the various contexts in which Maya languages are or are not used. She outlines the history of Maya writing from earlier autochthonous, pre-Spanish writing systems through colonial and postcolonial language policies (chapter 1), and then, over the next six chapters, examines Maya language use and literacy in contemporary contexts, drawing on interviews and ethnographic participant observation; she addresses the personal uses of literacy and the shift to Spanish as primary language (chapter 2), the gendered dynamics of literacy and outside influences (chapter 3), the range, accessibility, and limitations of Maya language materials (chapter 4), the contexts of public signage in Maya and Spanish languages in relation to language ideologies and power within Guatemala (chapter 5), and the ways in which Maya literacy articulates, or does not articulate, with Guatemalan education policy over time, although concentrating especially on contemporary Guatemala.

Roughly thirty Maya languages are spoken in Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize; leaders from all these ethnolinguistic groups have struggled to promote oral and written uses of their languages within a political system that has marginalized Mayas and demeaned their languages in favor of Spanish and, more recently, English. Holbrock addresses some broader political and social issues, but her book is focused on what she calls a “Maya literacy reinvention” (p. xv), and uses “mainly qualitative interview data with basic classic ethnographic methods” (p. xiv). This is the approach that she applies in her comparison of literacy practices in Santa Eulalia in the department (equivalent to “state”) of Huehuetenango, and in San Pedro La Laguna in the department of Sololá. Santa Eulalia is located near the border of Chiapas state in Mexico, a full day’s drive from Guatemala City, and, in many ways, Mexico exerts a stronger influence on the community than Guatemala. San Pedro La Laguna is located on the banks of Lake Atitlán in [End Page 345] the central part of Guatemala in the heart of one of the most touristified areas of the country. Whereas Santa Eulalia rarely sees international tourists, San Pedro boasts a number of hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that cater to tourists; it even has a permanent foreign immigrant or expatriate population.

In my opinion, these different contexts—geopolitical and economic-touristic—affect the distinctive developments of Maya literacy and language use in each community. San Pedro is closer to Guatemalan centers of political power and to stronger touristic and agricultural economies than Santa Eulalia, but both communities have been confronted by Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelist efforts to Christianize them and to promote Spanish over Maya languages, even when Mayas in the colonial period applied the Latin alphabet to write their own languages or when the Summer Institute of Linguistics was busy translating biblical texts and teaching people to read and write in various Maya languages.

Holbrock asks the reader to consider Maya literacy in broader terms than just the pre-Columbian writing systems of earlier times or later Christian influences on reading and writing; beyond these, she includes visual symbols from weaving, agriculture, and non-Christian Maya religious ceremonies. This commendable refocusing of what constitutes Maya literacy effectively challenges more limited understandings of what is and is not literacy, presenting a way to break from conventional notions of literacy and to address more culturally specific Maya understandings. Her position on Maya language and literacy practices...


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pp. 345-347
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