Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Indigenous mayoralties, Part 3

Shortly before my initial encounter with the alcaldía indígena of Chichicastenango, I saw a notice posted on the Facebook wall of a friend from the community radio movement in Guatemala, announcing that the alcaldía indígena of Sumpango, Sacatepequez, would be receiving their staffs of office on a certain Sunday. I didn't know much about the municipality of Sumpango, other than it houses one of the more active community radio stations in the movement. I've been there a few times, most recently to participate in the anniversary festivities for the radio station, which included a Maya ceremony that was broadcast live over the airwaves. One of the station's founders, Valentín, is an aj'q'ij (Maya priest), and it was he who posted the notice about the installation of the alcaldía indígena.

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.

We chatted about when the event might begin. They thought it would not start for a while, and I said that I was hungry as I had left Quiché around 11 a.m. and had not stopped on the road because I was worried about arriving on time, so they suggested I go to the market. I went to the second floor and had a bowl of caldo de gallina (here chicken soup is an entire meal; one is usually served a bowl with broth and a piece of chicken, and then on the plate, one gets a mound of rice, some vegetables -- usually a carrot and a hunk of guisquil, sometimes a potato -- and of course a small basket with tortillas wrapped in a cloth to keep them warm). Thus fortified, I returned to find my friends still sitting on the bench. We took photos of each other and then went inside, all the time wondering where Valentín might be as he was the one who had been most enthusiastic about this.  We claimed seats, Anselmo greeted people and as we watched the stage get set up, and the marimba get set up, he informed me that the composer and director of the marimba was a cousin of his.  We wandered back outside as nothing was happening yet, and met someone from the Defensoria de los Pueblos Indígenas  (DPI), whom Anselmo decided to interview for his radio station, and I decided to record the interview as well, in case I wanted to broadcast it or just for my own review. Anselmo's radio station broadcasts on weekends, and so he had pre-arranged that he would call in from time to time to do some live broadcasting, and so the interview was transmitted via cell phone. Our station does not broadcast on weekends and also, since it was not our municipality (not even our department), it was not as important that we broadcast live).

We went back inside, the representative of the DPI sat with us and we chatted. Eventually, the room filled up and several people mounted the stage and seated themselves at a long table that covered most of the width of the stage. There were both men and women, a few more men than women, and two people went to the microphones to start the ceremony off. The representative of the DPI spoke about the history of the alcaldía indígena, noting that it had been established under the regimen of Rufino Barrios, and abolished under the government of Jacobo Arbenz. Thus Sumpango  had been without an alcaldía indígena for 60 years.

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.

There was an ajq'ij from Quiché (he used a servilleta -- a square woven cloth -- from Zacualpa, but I do not know for certain whether he was from Zacualpa), who gave an invocation, but not very elaborate compared to others I have witnessed. In addition to the alcaldes and alcaldesas (feminine of alcalde) to be, the "regular" mayor of the municipality was there, and he spoke very enthusiastically about the installation of the alcaldía indígena. Sumpango is a predominantly Maya Kaqchikel municipality, and so the elected mayor (often referred to as the "alcalde estatal", the mayor of the state -- "the state" being an alien, Ladino-run entity in the minds of many Maya and Maya activists) in Sumpango is also a Kaqchikel Maya, and he seemed not to view the alcaldía indígena as a threat but as a complement, serving a different function than his government.

The ceremony went on for some time. After some initial remarks from the mayor and the representative of the DPI, the new alcaldes and alcaldesas were presented one at a time, and each was given a wooden staff of office. I did find it notable that nearly half were women. The alcaldía indígena in Chichi is entirely male, and from what I have read, it is only in the last decade that more women have been included in the alcaldías indígenas. It seems as though their participation is relatively recent (I am happy to be corrected on this. I can only speak from what I have seen and the little I have read).

Most of the newly-installed alcaldes and alcaldesas appeared to be somewhere in their 30s or 40s. There was only one man, the marimba composer and musician who was Anselmo's cousin, who seemed to be appreciably older (maybe in his late 50s or early 60s). By contrast, a goodly proportion of the members of the alcaldía indígena in Chichicastenango appear to be in their 40s and older, and there are also at least a few members who appear to be in their 20s.

Most looked very serious, solemn even, as they were called, one by one, and handed their staffs of office. There were some special recognitions handed out; as my friend Emilie, who has a much longer relationship with Guatemala than I do, notes, Guatemalans are very fond of diplomas and awards.

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.

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