This morning, I returned from my run to the sounds of the radio blaring up the drive -- calling it a "drive" is a bit of a misnomer, since vehicles other than motorcycles rarely traverse it. Path would be a more apt term. My friends Catarino and Sandy had arisen early to continue work on their house, which was damaged several years ago by heavy rains, and slowly, over the years I have known them, they have been working on repairing and improving it. This time they are plastering all of the external walls, on both sides (inside and out) and so Catarino wanted to get an early start today, Sunday. What was on the radio, at around 7:15 a.m., was a presentation of the candidates for the "Maya princess" of the department. The fiesta patronal (patron saint feast) of Santa Cruz del Quiché, the capital city of the department, is the 15th of August -- Santa Elena -- and in anticipation of the feast, there will be the selection of a young woman to represent Maya womanhood. So, as we went about our morning tasks, we listened to the "messages" of the various candidates. I think we heard about seven or eight: San Antonio Ilotenango, Chinique, Santa Maria Nebaj, Zacualpa, Cunén, San Miguel Uspantán, Chichicastenango, Santo Tomás Chiché. Maybe there was another, but those are the ones I remember. Each candidates spoke in K'iche' and then Spanish, first introducing herself and her town, and greeting the audience. This is pretty formulaic; they do not say exactly the same thing but there are a few variations on a theme. "Greetings on this beautiful day to all of those who are listening on this radio broadcast. Thanks to God (or the Ajaw) for allowing us to have this day of life. Good morning women, good morning men, good morning girls, good morning boys, and to all who are listening. I am XXXXX, from the municipality of YYYY, known for ZZZZZZZ." And then the young woman goes on to give the actual message. The themes that I heard this morning were: protection of the environment, pride in one's Maya identity and culture, maintaining the customs and traditions that had been left by the ancestors. There were admonitions to parents, to make sure that they taught their children to speak K'iche', to have pride in who they were. One message asked listeners to not sell their woodlands to strangers, who would just cut down the trees and not care for the earth. There is a pretty vigorous contraband traffic in wood that has been illegally cut down, or at least there was a few years ago. Some of the candidates spoke more fluidly than others; some seemed to express themselves better in one language than the other (or had done a better job of memorizing their scripts - I don't speak enough K'iche' to know whether their speech was eloquent or grammatically correct, but I could hear when there were hesitations or pauses or corrections.
And so we decided that we would all go this afternoon and watch the selection of the new "princesa" (I will find out what the correct name is; it's Ixq'iq something or other (I couldn't quite catch the last part of the phrase). These pageants have been criticized for being just "folklorism" -- allowing oneself to be used for the purposes of showing how supposedly multicultural and pluralistic Guatemala is. They emerged as a reaction to the exclusion of indigenous women from the "regular" beauty pageants that are held in each municipality to select the "señorita" of the town, and the selection criteria explicitly stated that only non-indigenous young women could participate. To this day, the "señoritas" are generally tall and relatively fair-skinned - in other words, close to the stereotypical image of a beauty queen. During the emergence of the Maya movement in the 1970s, the "princesa indígena" pageants became a platform of sorts for the articulation of Maya identity politics, and several "princesas mayas" spoke out against government repression. I do not know the precise chronology of these pageants -- whether some continued during the years of the armed conflict. It would be hard to imagine that they took place on any kind of regular basis when towns like Zacualpa and Nebaj were attacked, people rounded up, tortured and massacred, and large parts of the population fled into the mountains, or to Mexico, or farther. I have written previously about these -- when I was here in 2011, I discovered that several of the women activists and leaders whom I knew had participated in these when they were younger, and I wondered about whether they still served, in some way, as a training ground for girls and young women to develop self-esteem, public speaking skills and a sense of social consciousness. I talked with a few Maya women friends recently about this, and they thought that while these pageants might have had their moment, that they didn't really represent anything much positive now. My friends said that the mayors and other officials generally didn't pay much attention to the Umial Tinamit of their town, and only called upon her when there was some ceremonial occasion -- the opening of a highway project, for example -- where she would be used as an adornment.
I don't know that I've reached a single conclusion about these. My friend Catarino was the organizer of the pageant in Chinique a few years ago -- there were about five different selections simultaneously. One was the "daughter of the town" (umial tinamit); another was the princesa "intercultural" (there were candidates from several other municipalities but not all of the municipalities in the department); another was the "little daughter of the town" (a younger version of the umial tinamit). He tried to infuse the decorations and the entire event with his interpretation of deep cultural values -- simple but elegant decorations, with white cloth and a lot of green pine needles. But the next year, he wasn't asked to organize it -- in his view (and the view of many people to whom I have spoken) it was all very political and the mayor would choose people who were his political allies or friends. And that the selection process of the candidates was often somewhat tainted (the director has very little to do with the selection, just the arrangements of the event) -- political favors, parents paying off to have their daughters. In the event that Catarino organized, two of the six or seven candidates were sisters.
On the other hand, I had a long conversation with a young woman from Chichicastenango who was selected as .. I don't remember what the title was, but it was a pageant held in Xela, and involved candidates from several departments (if not the entire country). She was from a family of very modest means in one of the many aldeas that constitute the municipality of Chichicastenango. She was extremely articulate, and truly hoped that she would be able to use the position in order to promote projects for young people, but didn't find that she had a lot of support from the municipal authorities. I haven't spoken to her very much since then - we have been in sporadic contact via internet, but I'd be curious to know what she thinks about it in retrospect. I also spoke recently to a friend whose daughter held one of the titles a few years ago - at the pageant that Catarino organized, she was the outgoing whatever-the-title-was, and I gave the family some of the photographs I took that day. He was somewhat disparaging about the whole process now, and said that his daughter hadn't been given much support while she held the post. So at least among the people I've spoken to, there seems to be a rough consensus, at least about that part.
Nonetheless, in a few hours we will all wash the grit off our hands and faces (to the extent we can: there is now no water, but we hope that it will return before we have to leave) and head into Santa Cruz and watch the investiture of the new "princess".