Sunday, September 4, 2011

Beauty queens and the politics of traje (1)

As we waited to have a going-away dinner for a friend whose job at Ixmukané finished at the end of August, my friend Laura told me that she had stumbled upon the national indigenous queen pageant when she had been in Xela (Quetzaltenango) earlier in the day. I was surprised to learn that there was another national pageant of this sort; I had somehow assumed that the selection of the Rabin Ajaw (daughter of the king) which took place in Coban at the end of July, was more or the "official" national pageant for indigenous women.  Laura told me that she had not known about the pageant in Xela either, but said that it seemed to be larger than the one in Coban, involving more women from more municipalities. 90 contestants had participated in the pageant in Coban, but I didn't know whether it was the same number (ad the same municipalities) every year, or whether it was simply that 90 municipalities had participated in 2011 and perhaps the number varied from year to year. 

I realize that I haven't written about the Rabin Ajaw festival; sometimes entire weeks or important events just slip away from me.  So let me backtrack a bit and write about what prompted my decision to visit Coban and what I can remember now of the pageant/festival. This means giving a bit of context, so there will be a couple of entries.

Guatemala has a history, dating back several decades, of local "indigeous queen" or "indigeous princess" pageants.  There is actually an elaborate series of beauty pageants at local, departmental and regional levels.  In Chinique, for example, during the big parade that is part of the fiesta patronal, there was not only a "Señorita de Chinique" (Miss Chinique) but a "junior Miss Chinique", who seemed to be about 10 years old, and in the parade in Zacualpa, there were about 4 or 5 different queens, representing schools, sports, and I'm not sure what else. But the beauty pageant tradition seems elaborate and well-established. The oldest daughter in the household where I stayed on two of my previous visits to Chinique in 2010 (and where I stayed briefly when I arrived this year) had a sash on the wall of her bedroom indicating that she had been the "little miss" of Chinique in some year past.  When I visited last summer (2010), and I attended the big parade in Santa Cruz del Quiché, I was struck by the contrast between the Señorita del Quiché -- a tall, leggy, very light-skinned Ladina, wearing high heels, a tight, short, dress, and a crown -- and the princesa or reina indigena (I am not sure what her exact title is), a very petite Maya woman dressed in traje típico, her head crowned with a finely woven white cloth that trailed down her back. Even more striking to my eyes was the contrast between this tiny, demure (she kept her eyes down for much of the time, and her head slightly bowed) Maya woman and the tall, broad shouldered smartly-dressed Kaibil (a member of the Guatemalan "special forces") who stood next to her. The Kaibiles, an elite unit of the army whose "special" training reportedly involves killing a dog bare-handed, were responsible for much of the brutality during the internal armed conflict, and many of the massacres they led took place in Quiché, so it was chilling for me to see the red-bereted, black-booted soldier towering next to the "Maya princess" on the streets of Santa Cruz.

Historically, the señoritas of the towns have been Ladinas -- or at least women who are not identifiably indigenous.  The indigenous princess or queen pageants (the titles vary from town to town; in many of the municipalities in Quiché, they are called "daughter of the people") started, as far as I can tell, some decades back, as an effort to respond to deep-rooted racism and discrimination, revindicate Maya identity and promote a positive image of Maya women.  In the 1970s, many reinas/princesas indígenas used their positions as a platform to speak out about public issues, including some of the early massacres like that at Panzós in Alta Verapaz in 1978.

I had not been especially interested in these pageants, until I ended up going to the selection  of La Señorita de Chinique in January, the day I arrived in the highlands. I had driven up here in a rental car, and was crashing at the house of my friends Oscar and Nati. Nati was in the last stages of a difficult pregnancy and was in Guatemala City in the hospital, and so I was staying with Oscar and their 15-year old daughter Jacky. I no longer remember exactly when I arrived that day, but I had driven up so that I could get myself settled here in Chinique, and because Oscar was the contact for the apartment that I had thought I was going to rent and I had stayed with them in the past, and I was also going to purchase Oscar's car (so I thought), I had asked if I could stay with them for a few days while I got settled.

That night, I was very tired, but everyone in the extended household, or least the ones with whom I am friendly, were trooping off to the Salon Municipal for the selection of the Señorita of Chinique. I decided to tag along, since although I was exhausted, the thought of staying alone in the house did not appeal to me, and so we walked down the road into town and filed into the Salon, a large concrete structure on the main plaza across from the church and catty-corner from the municipal offices, that was now filled with rows of chairs and had a large stage erected at the far end, with a catwalk extending out into the audience.

The room was crowded; entire families with grandparents, aunts, uncles, children crowded into rows, and a few young boys moved through the crowd carrying trays or baskets loaded with gum, candies and other snacks. I won't go into all the details (to the extent that I remember them) but the pageant was clearly a major event in the town, judging by the size of the crowd and the level of excitement that seemed to percolate all around us. The ceremony was long and I did not stay until the end; sometime around 10:30 or 11, I excused myself and walked back to the house and crashed; my hosts told me that it had gone on until about 1 or 2 a.m. But I saw enough to get a taste.  

The first hour or more of the program consisted of  a lot of falderal from the MCs (there were two, a man and a woman, and there was a lot of silly banter between them) and a very heartfelt and enthusiastically received musical performance by a young boy (he was probably around 8 or 10 years old). Even more tear-inducing was the appearance of the outgoing  señorita infantil of Chinique (little miss Chinique) who handed over her scepter to the incoming one.  

Finally, the lights went down again and from the back of the auditorium, the six candidates for the position of Señorita came out, moving down the center aisle and ascending the catwalk one by one.  Marimba music was playing over the sound system, and the girls, 
all of whom were dressed in Chinique's traje -- white blouse and a green corte or skirt -- and were carrying small implements or tools with them, came out dancing. I don't know who the candidates were (it would be easy to find out) or what their parentage is or how they would define themselves ethnically.  But if pressed I would say that most of them were Ladina. 
Some of them seemed to be able to keep the rhythm of the marimba as they danced, others looked more awkward. After they ascended the stage, and the music stopped, each in turn addressed the audience (and judges) and explained what the traje represented and the significance of the implements they were carrying.  Several spoke a few words or sentences in K'iche' at the beginning, although most of their discourse was in Spanish. They all said more or less the same thing: the white represented a woman's purity, and green represented mother earth, and I don't quite remember what else.  

So this intrigued me a bit: how was Maya identity (and Maya women's identity specifically) figured into one of the official representations of local identity? Why was a performance of Mayanness (or gendered Mayanness) scripted into a performance of gendered local identity?

I didn't follow up much on the specific event in Chinique; I was busy looking for a car and a place to live and trying to figure out how to manage my life here, but the interest was there in the back of my mind. And as my research focus shifted over the spring, from a study about gender and migration to one about representation and self-representation of Maya women, I've been trying to figure out how to approach the theme of the indigenous pageants. And also musing about the role of traje tipico...

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