Maya 2012: Guatemala
My first morning in Tikal, I woke up at least an hour before my alarm went off, with anticipatory endorphins surging through my hungry traveler’s veins. Tikal at sunrise! I’d made it! I stepped out to look at the stars, then dressed and packed my camera bag. After taking a cold shower, I went out looking for the main gate to the park. I was not alone.
As the sky turned from gray to blue, a crowd gathered at the park entrance. Two Guatemalan guards with shotguns stood their ground as tourists from around the world begged to enter the park.
“We came from the other side of the world!” cried a young woman in proper Castilian Spanish. “For the sunrise!”
The soldiers’ faces remained unmoved, jungle versions of the Queen’s Guards.
I knew that the days when travelers were allowed to sleep under the stars atop the temples of Tikal were long gone. But I was still surprised at the punctuality of the 6 a.m. opening, here in the middle of the wilderness, where rules were usually more flexible.
I decided to play it suave. “Is it like this every day?” I asked one of the guards, shaking my head in sympathy and gesturing to the sniveling crowd with my head. He smirked and nodded. We were buddies, si.
“Can you just give me a little pasadita?” I asked, and flashed my press card. “I need some pictures for a magazine article.” It was true.
“No, man,” he answered.
I didn’t push it. Finally, he raised the gate and stood aside, allowing the Kentucky Derby of backpackers to take off into the forest. My traveling companion, a fellow amateur photojournalist, and I had just completed a season working as firefighters for the U.S. National Park Service. We were in good shape and we quickly pulled ahead of the pack, speedwalking through the trees as birds and monkeys woke around us. We soon entered a labyrinth of structures, angling our way toward the Mundo Perdido Temple, where, according to a crusty expat in El Remate, there would be no other tourists.
“Everybody goes to Temple IV,” he told us through a beer-foam mustache at the hotel bar. “But you’ll have the Mundo Perdido all to yourselves.”
He was right. As we ascended the steep, slick steps we had a few minutes to catch our breath and congratulate ourselves before the sun awoke beneath the mist. Low clouds illuminated and lifted. A mile away across the canopy, a multitude of insect-sized figures gathered at the highest steps of Temple IV. They felt far away even though their voices skimmed lightly across the trees.
As the dew dropped from the tree branches, the sun beamed across it all—the scene changing every second. We scurried back and forth with our tripods atop the Temple of the Lost World. We didn’t talk, but we smiled and pointed and snapped away as the light and clouds and forest continued their morning show.
Guatemala is about such magic moments amid its grand temples—whether at sunrise, sunset, or any time of day. The country boasts some of the world’s most remarkable archaeological sites from all early periods of Maya life. But more than anything, Guatemala is the true heartland of Maya culture.
The early history of Guatemala’s Maya is similar to that of Mexico. That is, hunters and gatherers as far back as 13,000 B.C. eventually adopted agriculture and settled village life by about 2,000 B.C. From there, things begin to diverge a bit between the two countries, based mostly on the physical environments in which pre-Maya and Maya populations found themselves.
There is enormous geographical and physical variation between the Yucatán lowlands and highland life in Guatemala. In Guatemala, for instance, the Maya produced and traded objects like jade, obsidian, and quetzal feathers with other populations to the north and east who desired them; these centers of trade helped the Preclassic Guatemalan Maya to further develop through the year A.D. 250 and into their Classic Period glory. By this time, dense population centers had been well established, especially in the northern Petén where Tikal’s influence and power steadily grew.
Then came the great collapse around A.D. 900, which saw a widespread abandonment of the cities. For the next few centuries, surviving Maya fled north into the Yucatán, while others arrived from what is now Chiapas into the western Guatemalan high country. The K’iche’, Tz’utujil, and Kaqchikel Maya groups battled it out over this time, until the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century forced the warring Maya to unite against the bearded invaders. They put up a good fight but by 1527 were finally defeated, their leaders burned at the stake.
For those Maya that survived the diseases and new social order of the conquistadors, 500 years of continued subjugation, repression, and violence followed, much of it based on the land ownership system established by the Spanish when they arrived in Guatemala, which stripped the indigenous majority of their rights and consolidated land, cash crops, and control of the labor force (i.e., impoverished Maya) in the hands of a few light-skinned outsiders.
This condition continued up to and through the establishment of Guatemala as a sovereign nation in 1821 and into the mid-20th century. The people had just begun to make some progress, choosing their first democratically elected leader, Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who had promised land reform, but the United States deposed him in a secret CIA-sponsored 1954 coup d’etat. In his place, they helped install and train a brutal dictatorship, which, though violent toward the poor Maya majority of Guatemala, was amenable to the rights of the United Fruit Company and other foreign interests.
What followed was a 36-year period known alternately as the Guatemalan Civil War or, simply, la violencia. As many as 200,000 Maya were killed, 40,000 disappeared, and up to a million displaced.
This act of genocide served to shatter the Maya people’s connection with their land. Maya who are forced to live in a city or camp, unable to grow corn for their family, are effectively disconnected from their roots and culture. After Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, her testimonials received global attention. In 1995, historic peace accords promised an end to the state-sponsored violence and allowed the Maya to practice their culture. Still, Guatemala continues to heal from many decades of war.
Just as the Spanish followed their initial conquest with the forcible introduction of Catholicism, so did the 1970s and 1980s see a massive invasion of proselytizing evangelical Protestants in Guatemala. Many of these groups, traveling in matching “prayer mission” T-shirts, continue to convert the indigenous population.
Today, the Maya of Guatemala are participating in the Maya culture revival. Nevertheless, more than half of Guatemala’s Maya live in poverty and struggle day by day to feed their families.
© Josh Berman from Moon Maya 2012