Changing revolutionary and independent faces
By Diana Pastor
Anyone who has gone through the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala -USAC-, knows that part of the philosophy is to share ideals of revolutionary times, sometimes romanticized. Several are the names that are exalted and remembered as martyrs or leaders, among them some Guatemalans (almost always men). However, it is the figure of Che Guevara, the most iconic within the USAC and the one with whom revolution and freedom are most associated. Personally, I never felt a connection and identification with Ché, partly because I consider that he has been turned into a mainstream character, and because I do not think that his struggles are comparable to those of Guatemala. I realized that, in the revolution stories, the names of Guatemala’s indigenous leaders do not stand out, and even though the public university has the most progressive ideology over any other university, it was founded, designed and currently operates from a ladino, urban and exclusionary system.
Thinking about this invisibilization of Indigenous leaders makes me remember part of my childhood, when in school, some teachers told us, the students “the legend” of Tecún Uman, a K’iche’ prince who was not actually fictitious and lived in the early 1500’s. This character’s existence has been questioned because the (white) historians “accredited” to tell what happened in Guatemala, do not mention him in their reports, and because over time, false anecdotes about his life were constructed, such as the one that mentions that a quetzal flew over the head of Tecún Umán during his battle against Pedro de Alvarado, and that the bird fell next to the K’iche’ warrior when he was killed.
The Dutch anthropologist, ethnohistorian and writer, Ruud van Akkeren, specialized in indigenous documents of the Guatemalan highlands, affirms in his essay “Tecúm Umam: Mythical or Historical Character?” that his existence is not in doubt; rather, what is not totally clear is the role he played in the battle against Pedro de Alvarado in the Quetzaltenango valley. Previously, Robert Carmack and Adrián Inés Chávez, the first American researcher and the second Maya K’iche’, had already presented evidence that this character was real. In the Kaqchikel annals, Tecún Umán’s life is also mentioned.
Indigenous leaders who represent some figure of fighting or emancipation are not present in the collective memory of the Guatemalan people and, therefore, they are not a reference of freedom. This is the result of a very strong historical oppression because those who previously held power were in charge of frustrating the actions of these leaders, eliminating them and suppressing their records. The consequences of this, is that now their existence and legacy is denied and confused. Tecún Umán has not been the only unrecognized leader, other political characters and indigenous rulers have also been omitted or their stories have been distorted, obtaining a mythological character.
Now that the bicentennial celebrations are approaching, it is an opportune moment to reflect on indigenous struggles and leadership. The independence of 1821, never recognized the key role played by characters that belonged to the Mayan people to achieve the separation from the Spanish crown, and today such an event is idealized, without analyzing that it only benefited the Creole class to maintain their economic and political interests. In the words of Jorge Palmieri, a renowned and now deceased Guatemalan journalist: “Independence was signed behind the backs of the Indigenous people, it would have been a true liberation if the indigenous people had intervened in it, as Manuel Tot, leader of the Q’eqchi’ people of Alta Verapaz, who tried to do it in 1813, with the independence movement called “Conjuración de Belén” (Belen Conjuration).
Very little is known about Tot, who played a decisive role in the independence of Guatemala. Tot was born in 1779 in Alta Verapaz and had participated in the Catholic church of Santo Domingo de Guzman. He was a curious character, was a merchant and messenger and also studied at the university, where his revolutionary ideals grew, leading him to get involved in the independence movement. He rebelled against the Captaincy General of Guatemala, and joined what is known as the Conjuration of Belen. Tot was not the only one to revolt, thousands of other natives marched to the capital, ready to give up on their lives to demand freedom. The march was subdued, but Tot managed to escape, although shortly after he became ill and in his agony he made his confession to a priest about his past actions, and the priest denounced him. He was imprisoned, tortured and finally killed in 1815, but his convictions and courage made him a true activist for independence.
Tot paved the way for other leaders who dreamed of seeing a different society where Indigenous Peoples would be treated with respect. In western Guatemala, and years after Tot’s death, Atanasio Tzul was born, a K’iche’ Mayan leader who was actively involved in what is known as the Colonial Indigenous Uprising of Totonicapán. Tzul came from a humble family, but because of his character he became a leader in his region. For Tzul, the white elites had to be defeated because their privileges and absurd taxes were choking his people. Tzul organized several villages including San Andrés Xecul, San Francisco el Alto, San Miguel Totonicapán, Santa María Chiquimula and Momostenango.
Before Tzul was caught and tortured, he managed to defeat the Spanish powers in his region, ruling for a few days with his own indigenous authority, in 1920. In March 1921 he was released, after a protest by Totonicapenses and a request for a pardon. One of Tzul’s most important legacies is to have set a precedent for the functioning of the indigenous authorities, which is still preserved today. Juan Carlos Pocasangre, wrote in 2019 in an article in La Hora newspaper, that one of Tzul’s greatest contributions was to have led the population, organizing them not to pay taxes and empowering them, by inheriting their own lands to turn them into communal lands.
I could continue telling other stories of indigenous leaders, but I will end this article by talking of a woman who was a leader, about whom very little is also known. Her name was Adelina Maquín, a Mayan-Q’eqchi’ woman, a defender of the rights of women and the land. It is said that the name of Mamá Maquín was given to her because of the community service and the trust that the community had in her. She lived with her family on Finca La Soledad, Panzós, Alta Verapaz, and she was already 63 years old when she participated, along with other people, in a walk that demanded their rights. She was strong and sensitive, and she was fluent in the Spanish language (something uncommon for indigenous women of her time).
Her ideals would make her on May 29, 1978, place herself in the first rows of a protest where the rights to land and freedom were demanded. Adelina was repressed by the Guatemalan Army when she received several gunshot wounds along with the rest of the people in the protest, among which were older adults, children and women. The book Buried Secrets: The Truth of Human Rights in Guatemala written by Victoria Sanford and Anne Barbour, mentions that María, Adelina’s twelve-year-old daughter, remembers how her mother tried to dialogue with the commander of the soldiers who repressed the protest, before they shot her directly in the head. Today Mamá Maquín is synonymous with struggle and should be, in my opinion, an important base for the struggle of Indigenous women in Guatemala.
You can find some alternative versions to the “official” history of Guatemala clicking the following links:
Popular version and summarized of the Comité de Unidad Campesina CUC
Book of the history of Guatemala in comics, “La Otra Historia”, by Filóchofo