Monday, July 8, 2013

Authority and power

As I've prepared for a trip to Guatemala, I've gotten disturbing but not entirely surprising news regarding the "indigenous mayoralty" of Chichicastenango, about which I have written several times in this blog. I realize that I may have given the impression that this group was at some elevated level of respect and recognition -- that they were "the" traditional authorities. That is certainly how they present themselves, but it has become clear that things are more complicated. To explain the current scandal -- they have publicly supported a proposed cement plant, owned by one of the richest families in the country, and opposed for 8 years by the local residents of the community where the plant is to be built -- I need a little background.

From a pretty early moment in my acquaintance with them, I realized that they were "connected" -- with people in authority, both inside and outside of Guatemala -- and that they were interested in establishing more or working the connections they had. Not that there is inherently anything completely evil in wanting to make strategic alliances. When I spent the day of the fiesta patronal with them in 2011, the room was full of dignitaries, including some representatives of the Guatemalan government and the Ambassador of Norway, plus his family. I was included with these special guests and we were treated with great deference, plied with food and drink, and then sat as witnesses while the members of the cofraternities (cofradías) arrived and made their ritual salutations, and some just plain ordinary folks came to kneel and ask for a blessing from the alcaldes. It was clear that there was an inner, privileged circle and then everyone else. It was clear to me, also, that I was included in the inner circle not only because of any personal qualities I might possess, but because I was a foreigner, and my initial introduction to the alcaldes came through a friend who was at that time on staff of a major international NGO that the alcaldía was interested in cultivating. This is not to say that the alcaldes did not, or do not, do good work on the ground. I ran into one of the alcaldes at the court house in Santa Cruz del Quiché one day, accompanying a woman who was involved in some kind of legal dispute. They were involved in a very long battle with the government over a building in Chichicatenango that had housed the national telecommunications company, Telgua, claiming that it was part of the territory that was controlled by the indigenous municipality -- the parallel power structure that exists in Chichicastenango, or a parallel municipality, a city within a city. They have been litigating this case for some years, and every so often when I was in Chichi, I would run into the principal general, Sr. Tomás Calvo, who holds the highest position in the alcaldía.or one of the other principales (the principales are pretty much lifetime appointees;the alcaldes per se are selected for a year or two) on the street sometime, and he would tell me that he had been to Guatemala City regarding the Telgua case. Another friend of mine is an attorney who has been working on that case, so I had kept vaguely abreast of it.

Last fall, I was surprised one day when I was online, doing I don't remember what, and came across a notice that the alcaldes indígenas of Chichicastenango would be speaking in New York. I dug around and found the information on their "tour" in New York, They were addressing the U.N. and then speaking at a couple of churches and other locations, and so I decided to attend one of the public events. It was a large church on the Upper West Side, and there were only about six of the alcaldes there. There were two people "presenting" the event -- one was a pastor at the church and the other was from a New England based non-profit that was clearly the organizing force. The man who spoke was very earnest and seemingly sincere, but he had that glow of the gringo who has found his or her third world cause.  He spoke about the alcaldes in tones of reverence that were a little nauseating, and particularly grating was his reference to Don Tomás as "the Maya pope", which he repeated several times. I had to hold myself back from interrupting him and making a correction. One of the beauties of many religions or spiritual practices that are outside the Judeo/Christian mainstream is their decentered pluralistic character. There is no "supreme authority" -- at least, not on the earth. No central body that determines what is correct doctrine, doxology or practice. The alcaldes of Chichicastenango are mostly "Maya priests" and have a spiritual as well as a juridical and political function, but their authority is within Chichicatenango, not across the entire nation. There are thousands of initiated Maya priests throughout the country and no single body that governs them all.

After the event, I happened to exchange a few chat messages with a young friend who works for the alcaldía indígena in Chichi and playfully complained that he hadn't given me any advance notice that the alcaldes were coming to New York. He told me that there had been some controversy about the trip, that not everyone in the alcaldía had known about it and that he himself hadn't known about it until the group was leaving.

When I returned to Guatemala in December 2012-January 2013, I again spent part of the 21st of December, "el mero día" (the very day) of the patron saint feast, with the alcaldes, having lunch. Except that because this was a special year given the coincidence of the fiesta patronal with the Oxlajuj Baqtun (the "end of the calendar", 12-12-2012), there were many more people and guests were taken to an open-air restaurant that had been set up on an upper floor of a not-quite-finished shopping center. I was with some friends from Olintepeque. This time it was even more apparent that the alcaldes were cultivating foreign, NGO and governmental guests. The friend who had originally introduced me to the alcaldes said, in an aside, that he thought that they were becoming much more "political". This was a few days beforehand, when I was trying to decide precisely where I was going to spend the  21st of December. This friend had told me that there was something going on in Chichicastenango, at sacred stie that had been newly refurbished for the occasion, with a ring of stone carvings representing the nahuales. But, he said, everything in Chichi is kind of a show now, and the alcaldes have become very political.

So, with this background, it wasn't much of a surprise when I read the statements and denunciations from other indigenous organizations. The alcaldía of Chichicastenango had apparently offered to perform a ceremony to bless the inauguration of, or the groundbreaking for,  the cement factory. And so a few days ago when I logged onto Facebook I saw a storm of angry commentaries accusing the alcaldia of Chichicastenango of being sell-outs, sleeping with the enemy. Some commentators apparently thought that they had one this so that they could get some support for their case around the Telgua building -- a case of "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine." It hasn't hit the national press yet, as far as I can see, but it's going around the internet and social media (Guatemala, and the indigenous movement, have taken to social media with a vengeance).

Power, obviously, is very seductive. Power and money. Sometimes power gets confused with authority. The alcaldia has some degree of power, and they are certainly eager for more, it seems. But do they retain authority?

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