Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 256 | Noviembre 2002


Central America

What Lies Ahead for the Xicaques, Kunas, Garífunas and Mayas?

Whither the future of these indigenous communities of Central America? Does it lie in finding themselves assimilated into national culture or, at the other extreme, ending up with their own autonomous governments?

Ricardo Falla

Where are Central America’s indigenous movements heading? What future do they have and what is their capacity to influence their respective civil society and state? Will their communities end up diluted into the non-native population, assimilated into a cultural mix, assuming only the national identity? At the other end of the spectrum, might they be able to mold their movements into the genesis of autonomous government, either within or outside of their respective nation-state, perhaps at a single level and within a future federation? Or will they evolve toward some other, more indeterminate point along this spectrum?
When speaking of ethnic or in this case indigenous movements, we understand that two processes are at play. One is the conscious, explicit and organized existence of a collective purpose strived for by ethnic communities or indigenous peoples whose identity is symbolically united to past events suffered or enjoyed by the autochthonous population from which they are descended. The other includes the cultural change that evolves over time within the groups themselves.

Central America’s indigenous populations—or nations—are a colorful array that in most of the countries represent a minority of under 10% and in some cases as little as 5% of the total population. Nonetheless, they have played an important role or could do so in the future because they live in areas with valuable natural resources, such as the copper mines in Panama’s Guaymí or Ngobe communities, or in politically strategic areas as is the case of the Miskito people in Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. In Guatemala, although successive censuses appear to undercount them, the Mayas represent the majority of the population and have played a valuable role in the national economy in the past as laborers in export agriculture. More recently their role was essential to the effort to revolutionize the country’s structures, as laid out in the Agreement on the Identity and Rights of the Indigenous Peoples signed on March 31, 1995.

We use various criteria to characterize Central America’s ethnic groupings and their movements. These include their numerical proportion of the country’s total population; the existence and clarity of their diacritic elements, especially language; possession of territory; the existence of resources in that territory such as mines, petroleum, ecological beauty, folklore, archeological ruins, rivers; their importance as a labor force; the group’s socioeconomic strength; the existence of social classes; the degree of development of their historic memory; the strata of what is pompously called the new “intelligentsia”; levels of organization as ethnic groups and ethnic—or pluri-ethnic—movements; their capacity to advocate their cause with the state; their presence in various countries for centuries; the recent migration to cities and even international migration, especially to the United States. All of these factors combine to give greater or lesser power to the group and its movement. The absence or presence of social classes tends to mark the difference between ethnicity and nationality, although it must be acknowledged that not all members of Central America’s ethnic communities or indigenous peoples are poor.

The following are four examples of indigenous groups and their movements in Central America, presented in ascending order of power.

The Xicaque of Honduras

The Xicaque, or Tolupan as they are sometimes called, are located in the mountainous central region of the departments of Yoro and Francisco Morazán, and according to a rough calculation do not exceed 15,000 members. Although their communities occupy well-defined areas, not all are territorially adjacent and they have been amply penetrated by the ladino population through intermarriage. Xicaque identity is rooted in possession of tribal lands. Their diacritics are not very clear, and only one community has retained its language. Their wealth lies in the pine forests, but they are deeply submerged in poverty, with the lumber business representing little more than a source of corruption. The families do not receive remittances from abroad. Alone, they have very little capacity to influence the state; their only impact comes from an image created by others that is based on their hunger and miseries. They lack the intelligentsia that could rescue their historic memory and have no communities or networks in the main cities.
The Xicaque do have a departmental level of organization, known as the Federation of the Xicaque Tribes of Yoro (FETRIXY), which is not free of bureaucracy and corruption. FETRIXY can only engage in pro-active advocacy with the state when it joins forces with the Confederation of Autochthonous Peoples of Honduras (CONPAH), the organization that has represented all indigenous groups at the national level since acquiring legal status in 1994. Some leaders of Honduras’ pan-ethnic movement have lacked an indigenous cultural consciousness, however, focusing their activities on motivating the indigenous peoples to participate in marches to the capital and hunger strikes mainly around land claims. They have been backed up by the International Labor Movement’s Convention 169, of 1989, a legal instrument on indigenous rights approved by the Honduran government at a moment when neoliberal laws had brought the agrarian reform to a standstill. This convention has helped strengthen the land struggle of the Xicaque tribes, which have been invaded by cattle ranchers despite the titles that they still possess.
International cooperation supported the indigenous movement in 1992 around the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of America, and again the next year, declared the Year of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations. The communities lack the economic capacity to maintain an organization capable of sustaining the movement, or to carry out national protests such as the marches, even given the austerity and stoic endurance of the people who have participated in them. Compared with Honduras’ other indigenous groups, such as the Lenca, the Xicaque have not participated much in these protests.
What are the determining factors for the future development of Xicaque identity? One is a social and economic development that lets them at least escape their severe poverty. Another is the formation of an intelligentsia that can rescue and return to the people the historic memory of the terrible oppression they have suffered since the Conquest and instill them with pride for the semi-nomadic freedom in which they lived before the Spanish arrived, since unlike the Chorti of Copán they cannot base it on the grandeur of their pyramids. It is hard to imagine the recovery of their language, and it cannot be ignored that they could disappear as a group by mixing with peasants who bring a more solid identity with them from their places of origin.

The Kuna of Panama

Their rural communities—the San Blas archipelago in the Caribbean, the district bordering Colombia and the area along the Bayano dam—are located in three territorially contiguous areas, but communication among them is not easy. These three areas form the Kuna Yala District with 31,000 inhabitants. They are rich in resources that are important for the country, including the beauty of the island paradise landscape and indigenous customs that are a tourist magnet—particularly for international pleasure cruisers—and the hydraulic force in Bayano. Another 24,000 Kuna who live in Panama City have a very different economic base and problems. Until just 30 years ago, there was no land communication between Kuna Yala and Panama City.

The Kuna’s diacritics are very clear: their language is alive and they use it not only in their district on the Atlantic but even in Panama City. Social classes and emerging sectors exist among the Kuna, including a good number of teachers and university students who form an intellectual stratum. Kuna university students have participated in non-Kuna national political organizations. In Panama City the Kuna have networks for coexistence and organization.

The historic memory of their 1925 revolution for independence is very much alive. The Kuna are the only indigenous people that made a separatist attempt to form an independent state in Central America. Although it failed, it did lead to an autonomy statute for their district that has served as an example for other ethnic groups interested in creating districts in indigenous territories that have their own statutes.

Kuna identity clashes with Panamanian identity at the local level. The island inhabitants sympathize more with foreigners, especially those from the United States, one of whom supported their fight for autonomy. Although the Kuna participate in the national indigenous movement, they look to their own more than to the other groups because they are the most consolidated, organized and economically well-off, with the most international and national contacts and the most formal education and knowledge of the world.
Although it is an example of how a nation—not only an ethnic group—can exist within a state, the government of this “nation” is becoming increasingly more symbolic than real, given the state’s penetration through its officials and the penetration of transnational corporations through their spokespeople. The center of the Kuna nation is San Blas rather than Bayano—and in fact, San Blas doesn’t even think much about Bayano. The fact that those very densely populated islands have traditionally represented its territory poses a limitation. They either have to build “up,” undermining their islands’ tourist attraction, or occupy the nearby mainland, thus creating two environments over time: that of the tourist magnet and that of those areas used for their extension and perhaps for agricultural production. It is important to consider that, without the rural base of the communities, the Kuna population in the cities, its elite intelligentsia, its politicians, businesspeople and university population would lack a point of reference.

The Garífuna of Central America

This black Carib people is the only ethnic group in the Central American isthmus with a presence along the Caribbean coasts of four different countries: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, with Honduras the hub. There is also a large Garífuna population in the United States, estimated at over 100,000 people. There is no territorial continuity of their communities between countries, and even in Honduras, where the communities are more concentrated, they are still separated by cities or promontories.
In their self-identify they have held on to a clear memory of their origin: African slaves brought to America on a ship that ran aground off St. Vincent in 1635, freeing those who made it to the island. There they mixed with the native Carib population until 1797, when the British rounded them up and deported them to the unpopulated Honduran island of Roatán due to their constant rebelliousness. From there, they found their way to Trujillo, on the northern coast of the Honduran mainland. The Garífuna view these episodes as their Exodus. Although they are not native to Honduras, they consider the lands they inhabit as theirs. Their diacritic elements are clear: at least those in Belize have retained their language and their Caribbean indigenous matrix and they are very black. To an outsider, they are simply Afro-Caribbean, but although others might confuse them with the English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans who live along the Central American coast, they themselves are quite clear about their specific identity.
The areas in which they live have strong tourist potential, but they do not use that to their advantage. They have a strong migrant stream to the United States, especially New York. It is said that more Garífunas live in New York than in Honduras. Although those in the States send remittances to their relatives and speak to them by telephone a lot, the heart of many migrants is already in the North. With time many have mixed with their host population and begun to forget their language; and more will do the same. Recent migrants, however, maintain an intense relation with home base and feel part of their people back home, conscious that money is what is establishing the center of decisions abroad. Family members still in Central America use the remittances to build big cement block houses, but many are now empty if Limón in Honduras is any indication of a wider phenomenon. They have networks and even some communities in Honduras’ main cities—Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and, above all, La Ceiba. Many work for the Honduran government, especially as rural teachers but also in some ministries. While their Miskito neighbors are mainly Moravian, the Garífunas are Catholic. They include professionals and an emerging intelligentsia with certain connections to the Catholic Church, and some Garífunas are famous soccer players.
They suffered a mass execution in San Juan, near La Ceiba, in 1937, during Tiburcios Carías Andino’s Conservative administration, participated in the 1954 banana workers’ strike and founded their first ethnic organization in 1977, which they called the Black Honduran Brotherhood Association (OFRANEH), after suffering discrimination in the distribution of posts for the construction of the new installations for Port Cortés. In the nineties they formed another organization called ODECO, based in La Ceiba, which conducts parallel negotiations with the government. They have also participated in CONPAH, the national organization of indigenous and Afro-American peoples.

Garífuna identity is very different from that of other indigenous peoples, due not only to their origins but also their culture, which is historically based on coastal fishing rather than peasant agriculture. They work closely with environmental organizations and try to advocate with the state through them and not only as an ethnic movement. Their relationship with the ethnic groups of the other Central American countries is more one of sporadic visits and presence in congresses or events organized with the support of institutions or NGOs. They do not yet have a Central and/or North American Garífuna organization that can mobilize the whole people toward a common objective. Rather, they support and insert themselves into other organizations, while always maintaining their own identity.

Would it be possible to form an autonomous Garífuna government, like that of the Kunas, that transcends community borders? Given that many of their communities can only communicate by sea—they are coastal not island people—there is no pre-existing infrastructure for such a government. So far the communities mix little with outsiders—unlike the Xicaques—and are involved in a permanent struggle to defend their lands, with the weakness that they do not cultivate them or otherwise develop the wealth in them and even tend to migrate away from them. Indigenous peoples typically maintain their cohesion not just through their history and conscious self-identity, but even more importantly by means of their territorially defined point of reference. The Garífuna therefore run the risk of increasingly multiplying their numbers outside of that referential territory until they reach the point that, despite the strong identifying element of their color, they could disintegrate like a huge cloud that loses contact with the source of humidity on earth. The Garífunas have a greater capacity for advocacy work in Honduras both because that is where they are more numerous and because Honduran society is less racist than, for example, Guatemalan society.

The Maya of Guatemala

This is the only indigenous group that represents the majority of a Central American country’s population. An estimated 5 million Mayans live in the different Central American countries, above all Guatemala’s western highlands. They are also found on farms along Guatemala’s southern area known as Boca Costa and for the past 40 years have spread to the lowlands in the north and emigrated to the previously uninhabited southern part of Belize. Increasing numbers of Mayans of different social classes can be found in all of Guatemala’s cities, as well as in Belize, Honduras and above all Mexico. There are still no relations among the Mayans of the different countries, however, outside of intra-linguistic contacts with neighboring peoples—the Chorti of Guatemala and Honduras or the Q’eq’chí of Guatemala and Belize—and of congresses, workshops and meetings organized by states, NGOs and churches.
The term “Mayan people,” consecrated by the 1995 Agreement in Guatemala, is still not widely used in the rural communities. Mayan unity, above all with the Maya of Mexico, remains a quasi-fiction of academics, congresses and sporadic gatherings, and has no organizational underpinnings, despite the strong reception of the Zapatista movement’s emergence in Chiapas. The diversity of mutually unintelligible languages makes it difficult to forge a sense of “Maya” identity, but that identity is strong with respect to “others”—the world of ladinos, mestizos or other non-indigenous people. This is due to the centuries of exploitation and discrimination suffered since the Conquest, an event some in the Mayan intelligentsia prefer to call the Invasion, since they argue that the heart of the Mayan people was never conquered.

There is also no strong identity around linguistic regions, which would make Mam speakers, for example, feel strongly differentiated from the K’iche’. Although this varies from place to place, there is generally a stronger identity with one’s municipality of origin than with one’s linguistic region. This may be because the colonial Spanish organized each indigenous town with its own dress, brotherhoods, etc., and delimited its territorial borders. For these and other reasons, there is not a strong enough awareness of shared identity to organize, albeit with some linguistic limits, Kuna-style autonomous governments within the state, despite the contiguousness of municipalities with strong majorities—up to 95%—of Mayans speaking the same language. This organization could be achieved by redefining the administrative borders according to linguistic boundaries, in which case the new administration and the government could either completely replace the former local government or parallel it.

Resolving the problem of consciousness and identity is not the only requisite for shaping an autonomous government, however. There is also a need for prepared indigenous officials who can replace the ladino ones. The solution to this problem takes time, as it is a learning process. The most important thing is to change the administrative and governmental structures to adjust them to Mayan culture, independent of any redrawing of borders.
A real intelligentsia is growing among the Mayans, although not at the required rate. There is a particular increase in the numbers of middle-level professionals such as teachers, nurses, NGO promoters and technical personnel in various fields, not to mention an ever-growing number of university students. Their identity necessarily undergoes various challenges and contrasts that can include joining ladino society, leaving their indigenous manifestations for special periods of the year. On the other side, they can experience moments of crisis in finding themselves immersed in the ladino world and taking on some of its aspects, making them feel compelled to reaffirm their own identity. This quest to regain indigenous identity provides a continual shot in the arm to the Mayan movement and leads to an increasingly strong and professional recovery of the history and cause of those indigenous people that is accompanied by growing media coverage. The movement’s most intense contradiction is that the identity it seeks to recover is actually being more and more culturally diluted.
Mayan identity is still strong, but the diacritic elements are not clear. For example, parents living in municipalities that are densely indigenous but linked to national society are teaching their children Spanish as their mother tongue. This process implies that the national indigenous languages will be increasingly relegated to the rural hinterland. Although they will not shrink in absolute numbers, they will decrease proportionately. They will not suffer the fate we fear for the Garífunas, however, because there will always be a society with a clearly indigenous reference from the cultural standpoint and it will not need to make any effort to declare itself as such, because its members know who and what they are.
The Mayan indigenous movement is still an elite one whose main demands are based around cultural rights such as language use, although it employs Spanish as a communication vehicle. It has so far been unable to overcome the opposition to obligatory bilingual education displayed by teachers in certain indigenous areas, who should be among its strongest adherents and promoters. In the villages, teachers celebrate their ancestors’ greatness with the students, but proclaim all of their glories in Spanish. As with Honduran indigenous leaders, one gets the impression that the Mayan intelligentsia is using the cultural symbols as folklore or instruments of power, and not as the expression of a soul and values. The Mayan movement is actually very fragmented and tremendously dependent on outside NGOs. At times, it indirectly depends on state support for certain institutions, such as the Academy of Mayan Languages. There are many small regional groups, some of which have national aspirations, with names and mottoes in their indigenous language, but there is nothing really solid, constant and deeply rooted in the communities.

The cultural demands of these groups come and go. Before the Peace Accords were signed, the negotiating parties were very strong and active because their demands were being politically concretized within a setting prepared by other forces. The Mayan movement crystallized into the Coordinating Body of the Mayan People’s Organizations (COPMAGUA), which drafted the proposed Indigenous Agreement and presented it to the Assembly of Civil Sectors for discussion. The document that emerged from that discussion was then presented to the government and the URNG for negotiation. In other words, the Mayan peoples were represented at the highest level of Guatemala’s structured civil society.

In May 1999, a national referendum was held on proposed changes to four points of the Constitution, the first of which had to do with defining Guatemala as a multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual nation. Despite the fact that the majority of the population is Mayan, however, the proposal was defeated because it only received the support of 43% of voters, who in turn represented barely 19% of the total electorate. That debate, so heated in the media and among the elite at the time, has now virtually evaporated and the Mayan movement’s claims are overshadowed by other, more immediate and deeply felt issues such as the land struggle or the demands of the former civil patrol members. So where is Mayan identity in such critical conflicts? What role is the Mayan movement playing in the country’s life? Some peasant organizations, such as CONIC, proclaim themselves to be indigenous while others, such as the CUC, do not stress this identity despite the fact that indigenous families are in the forefront of most land invasions. The fight for land is not perceived as central to the indigenous movement, regardless of whether the organizations leading it label themselves as indigenous. And ethnic identity plays no role whatever in the demands of the former civil patrol members.
The Mayan movement is not a movement of the poor and is not totally dependent on outside financing because social classes exist in Guatemala’s indigenous world as in no other Central American country, and are already highly differentiated in some urban centers. Although indigenous businesspeople cannot be seen as the motor force of the movement, as they have to get along with their non-indigenous counterparts, they do act as a kind of springboard from which those who do identify themselves as Mayan can launch themselves with certain confidence. Their wealth, professional preparation and appearance of luxury act as a brake on racism, although it continues to be expressed, for example, against traditionally-dressed indigenous women in restaurants in the capital’s wealthy district.

There is a temptation for this social movement to turn into a political one, and not for the first time, although the previous attempt some 30 years ago failed. Efforts are still occasionally made to register indigenous parties, but they then seem to play down this identity in order to obtain quotas of national power from areas like Quetzaltenango, where alliances with some ladino businesspeople offer image and business connections as well as high-level economic and political backing for their indigenous members.

We are also seeing another tendency: the establishment of government institutions concerned specifically with indigenous affairs, such as the Office of Indigenous Ombudsperson. The struggle for such institutions, if not for supra-municipal autonomous governments, is an approach that will continue expanding.

Could Guatemala experience something similar to what happened in Yugoslavia? Could a war of nationalities, indigenous against ladino, be unleashed within 20, 30, 50 years, in which the indigenous population avenges its simmering resentment against the Conquest, half a millennium of oppression and the most recent expressions of genocide? What would the objectives of this revenge be? One cannot reflect on such a scenario by assuming that it would be based simply on vengeance for vengeance’s sake. So would the objective of this conflict then be the declaration of an independent state, uniting Guatemala’s Mayas with those of Mexico? Or perhaps the creation of an autonomous Mayan region in a reconfiguration of relations within the respective states?
Although the possibilities of uprisings and perhaps even bloody confrontations with an ethnic overlay cannot be discarded, there are reasons to believe that Pan-Mayanism is not a banner that will cause bloodshed among the ethnic or national groupings, as has happened in other parts of the world. Those reasons include linguistic differences, the erosion of indigenous culture, the existence of increasingly distanced social classes among Mayans and the rival identities—such as religions—that have penetrated their communities. Another factor is the need for alliances with other movements that sympathize with Mayan identity but assume a national identity; such as the Zapatista movement, which has not been anti-Mexican. A still more general reason is the interweaving of all different races and peoples in the overall struggle for state power, together with the gradual weakening of the state itself due to globalization.
The huge massacres of Mayan communities from diverse peoples and linguistic groups in the eighties does not seem, at least for now, to provide the foundation for an identity based on bloodline—martyred indigenous people. The struggle for power in Guatemala continues to divide the population in its interpretation of the recent domestic armed struggle, despite a tendency to interpret it as a conflict between ladinos who used the indigenous as cannon fodder.

What conclusions can we draw?

The first conclusion is that a struggle must be waged to strengthen indigenous culture with constructive criticism, so that the ethnic movements do not end up trapped by a fundamentalist religious ideology, even one of a Mayan stripe. This requires putting taboo issues, including the possibility of a pan-ethnic war in Guatemala, on the discussion agenda. Opening reflection on such an issue would neutralize resistance to promoting ethnic organizations and to the just and non-military struggle for government autonomy within the ever-weaker national states. We must not, however, fall into the trap of assuming that the representation of these people can be won through an autonomy that exists in name only. Nominal, formal autonomy could even turn into a mechanism that ensures greater control of the indigenous peoples.

Education is also very necessary. It is essential to support the countercurrent effort aimed at legitimizing reading and writing in the native languages and the state’s institutional efforts with mechanisms such as the preparation of bilingual teachers. As for the private institutions, they should advocate this mass-scale work but leave its implementation to the state. Their own efforts should perhaps be more selective, doing the groundwork so that they can enthusiastically orient indigenous peoples toward relearning their native languages once they have become sufficiently fluent in Spanish and gained an instrument with which to achieve greater equity.
Finally, it is indispensable to support the alliance of indigenous peoples with other identities, since ethnic identity is not the only one that could be strengthened as a response—whether pro-active or defensive—to the avalanche of today’s globalization. The indigenous movements are entering a “sea swell of identities,” as Manuel Castells would say, and are just one of the threads of the struggle for people’s rights and for the self-determination of peoples in this Information Era.

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