And so, although it is a 3 hour drive away, I decided that I would travel down to Sumpango for the day to observe this event. As I noted in an earlier blog post, the first in this mini-series, I did not know a lot about the alcaldías indígenas but they seemed to be entering my radar field from all sides. The event was scheduled for 2 p.m. so I did my best to calculate travel time (there is usually very little traffic on Sundays) and made it in good time. Such good time that I arrived before any of the people I knew from the community radio station, who are pretty much the only people I know in Sumpango. I found parking and went into the municipal auditorium where the event was to be held. There were a few people standing outside and I introduced myself but I did not know any of them and so decided to go inside and see what was going on. The hall was almost entirely empty, with several rows of folding chairs set up, and there were two or three older women seated towards the back, and a few younger women standing around. The women invited me to sit down but I said I would wait for my friends, but I decided to claim a few seats in case by some miracle the place got crowded. Then there was some movement at the door and noise and I went to investigate. More chairs had arrived. I helped carry chairs and set up rows and then walked outside to take in some air as it seemed that nothing was going to happen for a good long while. Walking up the street, I saw my friends from the community radio station sitting on a bench, and stopped to exchange greetings and hugs -- well, what passes for a hug here in Guatemala. Appropriate bodily gestures and the correct amount of personal space are things that do not come naturally to me, and I continually have to stop myself from fully embracing, kissing or otherwise impinging on people's bodily privacy and cultural norms. An appropriate affectionate greeting in Maya communities is to grasp the other person's shoulder or upper arm, so that your upper arm is in contact with her or his shoulder and arm, but you do not go chest-to-chest.
I have since learned that the history is a bit more complex -- there was not a single abolition of indigenous authorities on a national level, and in some localities the authorities had been in place (perhaps with some interruptions) since colonial times. The alcaldía indígena in Santa Cruz del Quiché was abolished in 1945, I am not entirely certain by whom. What does seem clear is that the alcaldías indígenas were convenient to colonial and neo-colonial rulers, while also serving real needs of Maya communities, and then at some point (different points in different areas), they were inconvenient and, when possible, they were done away with. At a meeting of the Guatemala Scholars Network someone commented that they were abolished in the 1920s, but he may have been talking about one particular community. According to other sources I have read, some lasted until the armed conflict heated up in the 1980s. In any case, it seems that the alcaldía indígena in Sumpango had not functioned for years, but there had been a concerted effort to establish it once again, and a year long process of consultation and meetings involving different community organizations.
Then a few of the newly installed alcades and alcaldesas spoke, and I think everyone was impressed with the seriousness with which they spoke. The hall was pretty full, or at least the chairs that had been set up were nearly all full, and the audience seemed very attentive throughout. There was a minimal amount of running around by children, but in general folks stayed in their seats, stayed focused on what was happening on stage and appeared engaged.
After the ceremony, the alcaldes and alcaldesas invited everyone to stay for a snack, and then they went to the back and started to pass out cups of atol and some tamales, and we all did our best to balance the hot food on our laps while sitting in the folding chairs. After I finished I went to the back to dispose of the garbage, and I spoke to some of the alcaldes and alcaldesas. They were busy with serving and cleaning but I wanted to congratulate them, although I did not know any of them personally, and I was also able to do two very brief interviews. Then back into the car, back up the very steep main street of Sumpango (every time I drive in the town I have to hold my breath when I manuever my car up some of the streets), back to the highway and home to Quiché.