Brokers who remade a nation

The Blood of Guatemala
August 24, 2001

Guatemala is the only country in Latin America that has an indigenous majority, a fact that underlies much of the beauty and the terror that make up that nation's history. Nowhere is this more evident than in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city. Located high in the predominantly indigenous western highlands, Quetzaltenango (colloquially known by its Maya name, Xelajú, or simply Xela) lies in the heart of what was the kingdom of the K'iché Maya. Long considered by many to be the "Indian capital" of Guatemala, it is an ethnic, political and geographic counterweight to Guatemala City. At various times during its history, Quetzaltenango attempted (unsuccessfully) to secede from Guatemala City's domination. In the late 20th century, Xela became a haven for Maya refugees of the Guatemalan army's counterinsurgency war that eliminated more than 400 villages and displaced more than a million people.

The title of Greg Grandin's fine and meticulously researched book, The Blood of Guatemala , refers to the inextricable roles that ethnicity, caste and violence have played in that nation's history. This study presents a detailed analysis of the tensions, accommodations and carefully considered mutual alliances that have framed notions of race and power in Guatemala and in Xela. The horrors of the nation's recently ended 36-year political struggle have resulted in the tendency for historians to reinterpret Guatemala's history in terms of the cold war-driven state's drive to impose its brutal hegemony on the Maya, the unwitting victims of a racist political struggle that they neither embraced nor fully understood. In The Blood of Guatemala , Grandin (who worked for the United Nation's Truth Commission in Guatemala) rejects this interpretation to lay out a complex portrait of indigenous agency and self-conscious subjectivity in the creation of an alternative vision of Guatemalan "nationality".

To account for this alternative vision, Grandin looks to the existence of a powerful sector of K'iché Maya elites who, from the colonial period on, became dependent on the "state" to maintain their own caste privilege over rural, non-elite Maya. He argues that as the commodification of the economy disrupted communal relations (through the introduction of colonial-era dyestuffs, then coffee and eventually cash-cropping), these Maya elites served as brokers between the emerging state and the populace. As time went on, this arrangement produced two powerful, but apparently contradictory, effects. On the one hand, it permitted the state to increase its power over the Maya population; but on the other, it also enhanced the K'iché Maya's sense of ethnic identity - based on aspects such as dress and language, but also on an alternative vision of power relations and valences of existential meaning.

Thus, while the racism of the state and of ladino (non-Indian) society at large has been in many ways responsible for the political and economic repression of the Maya, Grandin suggests that, in Xela at least, parallel processes have produced a vibrant indigenous identity that has allowed the Maya to survive, with a dynamic culture and ethnic consciousness intact, into the 21st century. Grandin argues that K'iché elites generated an "alternative model of the nation" of sufficient viability that the state has never been able fully to coopt or force it from the popular (Maya) imagination. As he explains: "A cruel and highly exploitative model of capitalist development could not... create among the Guatemalan populace an imagined 'nation' - at least to the degree needed to ensure non-repressive rule." The failure to place Guatemala's contradictions within a single narrative of nationalism, Grandin concludes, is essential to understanding the political history that has made Guatemala what it is today.

Virginia Garrard-Burnett is senior lecturer in Latin American studies, University of Texas, Austin, United States.

The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation

Author - Greg Grandin
ISBN - 0 8223 2458 X and 2495 4
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - £41.95 and £14.50
Pages - 343

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