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Home arrow Sociology arrow Balancing the World: Contemporary Maya ajq’ijab in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala


Hostility and vandalism

Sometimes, ajq’ijab are met with hostility or attacked when they do their work, and sometimes people destroy their sacred places. There are various reasons for this. Guatemala has religious freedom by law, but still nearly all of the interviewees could tell me of discrimination based on their beliefs and practise, including clashes with other religious groups. Evangelicals were described as especially hostile, at times even violent and destructive. Still, most of the interviewees felt that there seemed to be less such problems in the Quetzaltenango area than they had heard was the case in other areas.

In reality, there are some people who allow us [to practise our spirituality] and some who do not want us [to]. But it is not their fault, it is because they have another religion.[1] And so, they are angry at [the ajq’ijab], and therefore there are people who [need to protect] the altars in the sacred places. Because there are some who destroy them.

They destroy the Maya altars?

Yes, they destroy them, they are destroying them. It is a problem.- Carlos In some places, like Quiche,[2] let’s say; there are places where [people] have seen ... I think it was the deputy mayors.[3] They are Evangelicals, and therefore, they [try to stop people from performing ceremonies]. It’s not based in the law or anything. [.]

They are abusing their authority because of their beliefs, because, for example [they’ll say]: “I’m an Evangelical,” right? And [they’ll say]: “You! Who gave you permission?” That’s the problem, but there have been no such demands of a legal nature in Quetzal- tenango or the nearby places as far as I know.

- Byron

Some of the interviewees are Christians themselves, and have experienced problems with Christian churches from the inside.

Earlier, it was easier than today. Because today, among the Evangelicals, they don’t want you there anymore. Among the Catholics, they don’t want you there either. If they hear that you’re [an ajq’ij], they won’t accept you in their church. They reject you.

- Isabela

Earlier, before the peace accords that ended Guatemala’s civil war in December 1996, practitioners could experience discrimination and attacks by the Guatemalan military. This was not necessarily based on them being ajq’ijab, but rather on their tendency to work in remote locations. People who walked into the forests and hills could be accused of helping the guerrilla or of being members themselves.

During the war, sometimes, if people were ajq'ijab, people might say that they were members of the guerrilla. That was a problem.

- Byron

At the moment, since they signed the peace accords, [there are no obstacles], but earlier it was dangerous to go and perform a ceremony. First, they would check if you were really a Maya priest - or if you did good or bad. That’s how it was when they discovered you. And sometimes they would seize people. [---]

How long have you been an ajq’ij?

[Since early 1995], but I don’t really remember the exact dates, because earlier it was dangerous. One would forget where one received one’s mesa, and one would leave to work before sunrise so as to avoid problems with the people who didn’t like that one worked with ceremonies.

- Rosa

Earlier, the ancestors who were ajq’ijes experienced a crisis, because after the invasion the discrimination started. And later, during the period of Rios Montt,[4] [Carlos] has said that he couldn’t go out to work because they would arrest him. If they saw ajq’ijab working, they would think that it was something bad, they would arrest them or kill them, he said. There was no liberty. If someone was an ajq’ij, he or she would hide to do their work. They did not go to the hills.

- Teresa

There is also some hostility towards outsiders by the Maya. The interviewees explained this as a reaction to the negativity they sometimes are met with.

One day, I was shown to a few Maya altars in the hills near a little town outside Quetzaltenango. I am white and tall, not common traits in Guatemala, and my guide explained to me that “it might be a problem” and that we had to make a long detour before we could go to the altars. I met Martin later that day, and I told him of this detour.

We went up to two altars, and we really had to check that not too many people saw that [the ajq’ij who was my guide] was bringing a white guy up there, because that had been a problem before. I could be a “bad guy.”

Yes, sure! I mean, from different points of view. First of all, there are an awful lot of assaults at altars, because they tend to be in isolated places. And that’s a relatively new thing, but it has really affected the dynamic.

Secondly some people don’t like [being seen going to an altar] in their own community. Especially if they’re formally Catholics or what have you. And so they themselves can be accused of witchcraft and what have you.

But thirdly, there are people within Maya spirituality, who are very protective of their altars, and wouldn’t like to see a stranger arriving at an altar. Because there are also a lot of shrines that haven’t been respected ... by other religions - they’ve been destroyed, or they’ve been profaned, or they’ve been attacked, or they’ve been damaged one way or another - and that includes by anthropologists and by archaeologists, especially - I’ve known cases of archaeologists, Guatemalan archaeologists, having serious problems at sacred places because they’ve looked upon it as an archaeological site instead of a temple, or instead of a holy place where they have no right to touch or excavate or anything like that.

- Martin

Not all hostility is based on ideology or conviction. In the previous quote, Martin mentions robberies as a problem for the ajq’ijab. Because a lot of their work is done in hills, forests and other remote locations, they are easily targeted in robberies and sometimes sexual assault.

It’s not illegal to work in the hills, [but it is still problematic] because of the criminals that rob you.

- Isabela

Yeah, it’s become a major issue, it’s not a case of a couple of isolated incidents, no.

It’s a big issue. It’s a big issue here, in Xela. [...] There’s a shrine [outside the town] that has just had so many people attacked there, and often people now go, when they go then they try going in a group. [---]

But it’s not an attack on spirituality in those cases. No. I mean, it’s holdups. It’s just part of the [general problems of crime in Guatemala]. And for a woman on her own, sexual assault, clearly.

- Martin

Several of the interviewees told me that the problem of crime has led them to perform more of their work in the home than they did earlier, even though their divinations tell them they should do their work at certain places for the best results. By being limited in this way, they feel that their work is more difficult to perform and less effective for their visitors and themselves.

  • [1] Carlos explained earlier that the (Evangelical) people that condemn Maya practisesare not necessarily “bad” people, but they behave “badly” towards practitioners ofMaya spirituality because they are told to do so in their meetings.
  • [2] The neighbouring region (departamento) of the Quetzaltenango region to the north-east.
  • [3] Alcaldes auxiliares.
  • [4] The dictator in Guatemala in 1982-1983, who is being tried for war crimes at the timeof writing. See also Chapter 2 above.
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