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The context of tourism in contemporary Guatemala

What is an ajq’ij presented as to non-Maya tourists? How are ajq’ijab perceived by non-Maya Guatemalans or people coming to Guatemala from abroad, for instance? My material may not be the best to utilise to answer these questions, at least not without using other material as well, because I have focused on interviewing ajq’ijab and not non-Maya. However, my interviewees do talk about how they feel they are perceived by ladinos and other non-Maya, especially when Juan and Manuel refer to “the government” and INGUAT, the board of tourism.[1]

The Maya population gained new rights with the signing of the peace accords and the end of Guatemala’s civil war in 1996. This led to the formation of several Maya organisations, and a new public visibility for the Maya.[2] Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj points out that this new public visibility also has some negative consequences.[3] She claims that a “folkloric” representation of Maya culture is used by the ladino elite to promote tourism:

Guatemalan embassies and consulates all over the world commonly display photographs, posters or paintings of indigenous girls and women in regional dress, all smiles and perfect silhouettes: native people are presented as Guatemala’s biggest tourist attraction, belonging to the past yet living in the so-called modern world.

People from ‘Western’ countries are supposed to be fascinated by places where ‘natives,’ ‘exotic savages,’ or ‘Indians’ of past centuries can still be seen today. The policy is to show visitors a static and unchanging native culture, as if the indigenous peoples of Guatemala and elsewhere did not have an evolving culture that is constantly being renewed.[4]

Nimatuj focuses primarily on the practise of wearing traje, ‘[Maya] outfit.’ She claims the traditional Maya textiles and garments, such as the huipil,[5] “are ‘folk- lorized,’ meaning that they are presented as something totally separate from the social, political and economic context in which they were made.”[6] Regarding this alleged use of the Maya culture as a tourist attraction, Michael Stausberg notes that Guatemala is no exception; he points out that similar marketing is persuading tourists to travel to New Zealand to see the Maori and to Scandinavia to see the Sami.[7]

My interviewees also speak of a folklorisation, but in connection with phenomena of Maya spirituality, especially regarding the 2012-phenomenon.[1] Several of them spoke of how “New-Age people” came to Guatemala with a “distorted” view of what would happen 21 December, and some of them blamed the media and the Guatemalan Tourism Commission (INGUAT)[9] for giving Westerners an incorrect picture of the Maya and their spirituality.[1]

By examining how the event of the new baktun on 21 December 2012 was presented by my interviewees compared to how it was presented by INGUAT and various media outlets, my material could help illuminate how Maya spirituality is viewed by different social groups in today’s Guatemala. It can also contribute to an understanding of how Maya spirituality is viewed by Guatemalan authorities and how it is presented to foreigners.

My material, like Nimatuj’s article, can only show one view; namely what the practitioners themselves think about how they are presented. To make a thorough analysis, material from INGUAT and Guatemalan and foreign media would have to be examined as well.

  • [1] See Chapter 6 above.
  • [2] See Chapter 2 above and Grandin, Levenson, and Oglesby, Guatemala Reader:501-544.
  • [3] Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj, “Transnationalism and Maya dress,” in The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Greg Grandin, Deborah T. Levenson,and Elizabeth Oglesby (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 523-531.
  • [4] Nimatuj, “Transnationalism,” 527.
  • [5] For a description of this traditional Maya dress, see Florida Museum of Natural History. “Images of the Maya: the Huipil” Accessed 22.07.2014.
  • [6] Nimatuj, “Transnationalism,” 528.
  • [7] Michael Stausberg, Religion and Tourism: Crossroads, Destinations and Encounters(London: Routledge, 2011) 143.
  • [8] See Chapter 6 above.
  • [9] Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo. “INGUAT” Accessed 22.07.2014.
  • [10] See Chapter 6 above.
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