Saturday, November 12, 2011

Alcaldes indígenas (indigenous mayoralties)

During the past few weeks I have been privileged to meet, eat lunch with, and watch the inauguration of what are called alcaldias indigenas -- indigenous mayoralties. In some ways my time in Guatemala has been a series of chance encounters, combined with following whims or suggestions or invitations from friends, even when there does not always seem to be a clear connection to what I am ostensibly studying.

And so it has been with the alcadias indigenas. They were not part of the game plan, and only peripherally on the radar screen. I think I first became aware of the alcaldía indígena in Chichicastenango in August, when I was taking my daughter and her friend Neil around Chichi. We walked around the plaza and I stepped up onto a covered walkway in front of one of the buildings that line three sides of the square to look at a mural painted on the wall. The mural depicted several scenes from the Popol Vuh. There were several doorways, and when we got to the end, one doorway was open and I looked up and saw a sign above the lintel that said, "alcaldía indígena."  I peeked in and saw people sitting in chairs in front of some desks behind which men were sitting.

Then in October, I attended an event organized by Ixmukané, in which women from Chichicastenango talked with the newly elected congressman, Jimmy Ren, who ran on the Partido Patriota ticket. Since he is from Chichicastenango. Ixmukané invited women from Chichi to a forum about health issues and a few representatives of the alcaldía indígena came, resplendant in their ceremonial garb -- black woolen trousers and jackets adorned with brightly colored embroideries. My third encounter with the alcaldía indígena of Chichi came a few days later, when I attended an event about assembling a pluricultural state organized by Oxfam, and several representatives of the alcaldía indígena were present, and treated as honored guests.

But my more meaningful and personal encounters came about by way of a bottle of single-malt Scotch whiskey.  I am not a big drinker of hard liquor. Months can go by, or at least they do when I am in the states, when I drink nothing harder than a glass of wine. Here I've fallen in with a crowd of pretty serious drinkers (my posse in Xela) -- or at least more serious than me. The first time I hung out with them I think we (mostly they) went through two bottles of rum but I don't see them very often and I certainly make no effort to keep up with them when we are together. However, single malt Scotch is something I enjoy -- albeit in small quantities and very occasionally (prior to the bottle I am about to discuss, my last such purchase was at least 5 years ago).

So, on one of my recent jaunts out of country, I decided to spring for a bottle of single malt Scotch at one of the duty-free shops, thinking it would be nice to share it with my band of locos. I brought it to Xela the last time I went there, which was at the end of October for a community radio training session on sexual and reproductive rights. I would be staying at my friend Humberto's house, and I figured that I would have a chance to meet up with at least some of my buddies. Humberto wasn't feeling well and only JL was available to hang out with us on Friday night, so we didn't do a lot of damage to the bottle and I decided to bring the bottle back home with me to share on another occasion (I hadn't presented it as a house gift to Humberto, and I have suspected that his wife would be happy if he drank less).  I drove from Xela back to Chinique with two young people from Chichicastenango who had been at the workshop, and I had turned my cell phone to vibrate, and didn't pay any attention to it while we were en route.

When I arrived home in mid-afternoon, I glanced at my phone and was surprised to see 8 missed calls. That's a lot for a short period of time. All of them were from the Xela posse. 4 were from B, who almost never calls me and equally rarely picks up the phone when I call. That in itself was notable. Something was definitely up. Then there were 2 calls each from JL and Humberto. So, I deduced that something was up, and that it involved all three of them, and that they wanted me to join in.  I started to return their calls, and reached B, who said, "Oh, we're going to be in Santa Cruz, let's meet up and finish off that bottle of whiskey you had." Even though I had just driven two hours from Xela, these guys don't usually come to Quiché (or at least not together), and it's always fun to meet up with any assortment of my Xela friends, and living in a very small town where nothing ever happens, I had no great plans for Sunday night, and Santa Cruz is only half an hour away, so I said "Sure." B told me that they would be there around 6, and we agreed to meet up. I couldn't think of any place where we could bring our own bottle so we agreed to meet at a bakery/cafe near the Parque Central.  Then I reconsidered and remembered a churrasquería (a place where you can get churrascos, or grilled meats) where they had allowed us to bring our own bottle, and called to say let's meet at the churrasquería. At around 5:30 I set out, and luckily thought to call them as I was en route. JL answered and said, "Well, we just got to Chichicastenango", so I said, "I'm going back home, call me when you are leaving for Santa Cruz," (which is about the same distance from Chichicastenango and Chinique where I live).  At around 6:15 he called to say they were still in Chichi and I couldn't really understand where they were but I said, "Look, I'm just going to go to Chichi and meet you guys there." So I set off for that drive along winding mountain roads.

I reached the outskirts of Chichicastenango and called to find out where they were. They told me they were at the house of the principal of the alcaldía indígena and that anyone could tell me how to get there. I asked JL to put someone from the house where they were on the phone, and he told me that it was near Radio Masheñita and that he would come outside and meet me, so I felt a bit more secure. Chichicastenango was very crowded; it was the evening of October 30, and the celebrations for the Día de Todos los Santos (All Saint's Day) had started in earnest, and people had come from outlying rural areas and other municipalities. I found a spot a block or two past the arch that marks the entrance to the town, and squeezed into it, and then grabbed my bag, with the bottle of whiskey inside it, and tried to figure out where I was going. I saw a couple of young friends from Ixmukané, Kan and Jennniffer, who were out enjoying the festivities. They actually saw me first: people in the altiplano tend to recognize the cars of their friends, and there are not a lot of white Mazda pickups around here (if I had a maroon Toyota like I used to have, perhaps my car wouldn't be so easily recognizable). We exchanged hugs and kisses and they asked if I had come for the celebration; I said no, to meet Humberto and the others, and then hailed a tuc-tuc (the small motorcycle taxis that are now found throughout Guatemala) and asked for the house of the principal of the alcaldía indígena.

Fortunately the tuc-tuc driver knew where this was and in a few minutes deposited me at the door. I called and the young man to whom I had spoken came outside and met me and then led me inside. We walked down a passageway and turned and he led me into a large room where my three friends and several other men were seated at a long narrow table. There was an altar on a table near the entrance to the room -- flowers and candles, and alongside the far wall, some cabinets containing small icons of Santo Tomás, the patron saint of Chichicastenango, and other figurines. I didn't get very close so I couldn't see clearly, but the cabinets had glass fronts, and covered most of the wall. My friends got up and rearranged themselves to make space for me, and put me closer to the front of the table where the principal was seated, and then we did introductions. I wasn't sure what I had walked into, but my friends said, "Well, we are talking to the alcaldía about setting up their own community radio station and we wanted you to be a part of this." Of course, they hadn't told me anything of the sort, just that they were going to Chichi for "unas gestiones" and "unos mandados" (this was over the course of a few of our phone conversations). "Gestión" is one of those wonderfully flexible words. It is translated as "administration, management, negotiation, measure." When people say they are going to "hacer unas gestiones" it can mean "take care of some business" or "lay the groundwork for something", or "run some errands".  "Mandado" is also a multi-purpose word; it is the past tense of the verb "mandar" which means "to send" or "to command [to do something]". "Un mandado" can be paying your electricity bill; it also can be literally something that has been sent. It depends upon the verb that accompanies it. "Voy a recoger un mandado" means "I am going to pick up a package that was sent to me." But "voy a hacer un mandado" is "I'm going to take care of something" or "I am going to run an errand."

In any case, my friends had not told me anything about the purpose of their visit when we were talking on the phone and I hadn't asked. I was just going to hang out with them, whatever it was they were doing. So when I walked in and found them in a meeting, I was a little surprised, and even more so that they wanted me to be part of this venture, whatever it was. I was also very honored to be there; the alcaldía is an institution that carries a lot of significance in Chichicastenango and in other municipalities. And I knew that I was very privileged to be included in a conversation with them. I sat myself down and thanked the men from the alcaldía and then tried to catch up on what was being discussed.

The principal general (the highest-ranking member of the alcaldía) was seated at one end of the table, and my friends and I along the same side as him. Across from us was a young man who was introduced as the official translator for the alcaldia, and two other members of the alcaldia. One, an older man, was the third principal, and I don't remember the rank of the other man, who was much younger. At the foot of the table, sitting against the wall, was the brother of the translator; he had been the man who greeted me at the door. My friends explained that they had started some conversations with the alcaldía a few months earlier, and now wanted to talk about helping them set up their own radio station.  At B's instruction, I put the bottle of whiskey on the table and presented it to the principal.

The meeting was more of a conversation, mediated by the translator. I don't remember the exact order of the conversation, but the principal explained something about what the alcaldía represented and what it was trying to accomplish. I was asked to introduce myself and explain who I was. And the translator told us something about himself and why he was working with the alcaldía.

I was unsure what I should say, as I had not come prepared for this kind of an encounter, and I am well aware of the problematic relationship between the U.S. and Guatemala, the well-founded suspicions that a lot of Guatemalans have of gringos and gringas, and the particular set of bad experiences and suspicions about anthropology and anthropologists, so I felt like I was stepping into a mine field, and wasn't quite certain what was expected of me. How much should I say? What would be too much? What would be insufficient information? I'm an academic; I can talk anyone's ear off about myself, my work, my opinions. I was very self-aware as I was the only non-Maya and the only woman seated at the table (there was one young woman who sat at a small table apart, placed between our table and the cabinets along the far wall. The principal told us, through the interpreter, that she was there as a witness, but she did not say anything during the meeting, and the other women of the household did not enter the room.  For all the discussion about complementarity between the genders in Maya culture, most leadership positions in the surviving (or re-established) "traditional" organizations such as the confradías that organize the patron saint feasts are held by men, and the alcaldía indígena in Chichicastenango is an all-male institution.

Note:  I am trying to find out more about the alcaldías indígenas and their history. I've only heard a little and read a little. Some document their existence back to the early colonial period, and apparently they were abolished in the 20th century at some point, and then have been re-established in several municipalities, but once I know more I will share it.

I cannot reproduce the entire conversation; I didn't take notes or record or take photographs, although I had my camera with me (I'm not sure why I brought it since I really didn't have any idea where I was going when I left my house, but I've learned that it usually does not hurt to be prepared, since on some of the occasions when I have not brought any recording equipment with me, interesting things have happened). I started by saying how honored I was to be there, that I knew that this was a rare privilege that was extended to very few people, and especially to very few foreigners and even more so, very few gringos and gringas, and I was grateful that the principal was gracious enough to invite me into his home. I briefly explained that I was an anthropologist from the U.S. and I knew that my country had a problematic relationship with Guatemala, that we had a reputation for interfering in their affairs and invading their country, and anthropology also had a reputation for misrepresenting cultures. "And robbing", added B, cheerfully -- I smiled in agreement although I felt like kicking him.  He's entitled, of course, to hate gringos and gringas as a rule, although he might make a temporary exception for me, but it seemed like it wasn't necessary.

I said a little more about why I was in Guatemala and what I was doing, including my involvement with the Asociación Ixmukané and the radio station, Radio Ixmukané.  And I presented the bottle of whiskey formally (B was whispering in my ear about protocol so I did as I was told). The principal received it and then went to kneel in front of the cabinet with the statue of Santo Tomás and offered a prayer and poured out some of the whiskey as part of his offering.

He then spoke at some length about what the alcaldía was trying to do for the people of Chichicastenango, and the interpreter also told us something about himself. He was studying at the university and had wanted to be a lawyer, but was called to work with the alcaldía. He said his family and his friends did not always understand why he chose this, as he was preparing to be a professional but he thought it was important to work with the traditional authorities. He noted that his brother was there (pointing to the man who had let me in) and said his brother also was a professional, from another milieu, but was there helping out and learning.

JL spoke about his desire to find a way to unify the K'iche's who are spread throughout 7 departments in Guatemala but are numerically the largest of the Maya ethnicities; he said he hoped that the alcaldeia indígena could play a role in that.  There was only a little bit of discussion specifically about the radio, and I saw my role as mostly supportive, in whatever way would be useful. I was asked what I thought about the radio (I'm not sure by whom, but definitely one of my friends), and I said that I thought it was a worthwhile project and something that would allow the alcaldía to share their message with a larger audience.

At the beginning (well, the beginning of my presence there; I'm not sure how much earlier my friends had arrived) B was asking some pretty pointed questions about tradition, noting that Saint Tomás was a Catholic saint and had been brought by the Spanish, and that the icon of the saint was very European looking, along with the clothing that the alcaldes wear (bolero-type jackets and breeches that come just below the knee). I was surprised by the boldness of the questions, but the alcalde simply responded that they considered Santo Tomás to be their father. I can't reproduce his answer precisely but the gist of what he said was, we do what we do and we wear what we wear. In other words, however it got to be this was, this is our tradition.


  1. I love your blogs, but sometimes take me 3 days to read! Specialy if I am at home with the boys jumping all over me, see you soon any news?

  2. thanks for reading and thanks for writing! Sorry about the length but I try to be complete. Once I start on something, I realize there is background or context that would be helpful, and then also storylines intersect a lot. In this entry I barely touched the surface of what was said... but it was a very meaningful day and I needed to "write it up".