Since Bekah and I moved to Guatemala, I’ve been fascinated by the country’s history. From 1954 to 1996, of course, it was rent by perhaps the bloodiest internal armed conflict in the hemisphere. The conflict climaxed in 1981 in the systematic slaughter of indigenous Mayans, a series of crimes the UN has officially designated as genocide.

But to understand the conflict, you have to dig deeper. I just finished reading Greg Grandin’s The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation, which brilliantly dissects the multiple intersecting dichotomies between Mayan and Ladino, rural and urban, caste and class, and local and national that defined Guatemalan history from the prologue of its independence in 1821 to the forced resignation of its first socialist president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954.

The conventional dichotomy between the state and the indigenous dominates interpretation of Guatemala’s history. It’s wrong.

To demonstrate this argument, Grandin considers the historical trajectory of the elite K’iche’ of Quetzaltenango (the de facto capital of Guatemala’s western highlands). K’iche’ patriarchs, as a class, carved a niche for themselves as power brokers both between rural K’iche’ and urban Ladinos and local and national leaders. By focusing on their evolving strategies to preserve their power and legitimacy, Grandin re-situates the K’iche’ as performers of their own complex struggles that helped construct the nation, not just pawns in a struggle between state factions.

Constructing the state

During the colonial era, he finds that they developed several major strategies to balance their access to communal indigenous resources, cultural legitimacy, and official authority.

  1. They formed an uneasy compact with non-Mayan rivals (Guatemalan-born Spanish or “Creoles” and, later, “Ladinos”) to exchange administration of indigenous affairs for political and coercive power.
  2. They paradoxically relied on state sanction to underwrite this compact, first from imperial Spain (leading K’iche’ elites to actually resist the Creole independence movement) and subsequently from the national government.
  3. And they articulated a competing nationalistic vision that contradicted the liberal conflation of class and culture by simultaneously insisting on the hereditary content of race (hence the first meaning of the book’s title) and positioning their race as integral to Guatemalan progress, not opposed to it.

Over the course of 19th century, two major historical processes forced K’iche’ patriarchs to continuously refine these strategies. First, in the aftermath of the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, ethnically mixed or mestizo Guatemalans caught between indigenous and Hispanic identies consolidated around a new “Ladino” nationalism that equated cholera’s horrific consequences with Mayan culture. As cultural categories superseded colonial castas, Ladinos developed a new, more virulent racism that blamed Mayans for their failure to assimilate to Hispanic culture and thus obstructing the “progress” of the nation.

Second, by the 1870s, Guatemala had finally discovered its major export crop: coffee. Unlike in neighboring Mexico, where much earlier industrial development had already sufficiently eroded indigenous identities for social conflicts to take place along class lines, Guatemalan coffee capitalism calcified class along ethnic axes. For the next century, rural Mayans became the seasonal slave class of a propertied Ladino elite.

Deconstructing the nation

To resist both Ladino nationalism and particularly brutal agricultural industrialization, urban K’iche’ elites developed new strategies.

  1. They struggled to preserve political power by building on their tradition of circumventing local authorities in direct appeal to the state, trafficking in the ideology and language of modernity to defend their claims to institutional authority.
  2. They fought for economic autonomy by aggressively privatizing communal land and weaving a dense web of debt and patronage with rural K’iche’ campesinos to protect them from the mandamiento labor conscriptions in exchange for upholding traditional economic obligations to their K’iche’ patrones.
  3. Finally, they defended their cultural legitimacy by unionizing in professional guilds, reinforcing ethnic boundaries, and adapting the rhetoric of paternalistic liberalism to emphasize the “regeneration” of the indigenous rather than their “assimilation.” Educational societies, public artworks, and beauty pageants are among the many tools they deployed to articulate an alternative vision of the K’iche’ race as a rich ingredient of national progress, not an obstacle to it.

The government, for its part, leveraged its alliance with the K’iche’ patrones to acquire cultural legitimacy and arrogate power from recalcitrant municipalities. It is thus their simultaneously destructive role in the formation of a universal nationalist identity and constructive role in the formation of the centralized state that is key to understanding the role of K’iche’ elites in Guatemalan history. Grandin eloquently sums up their paradoxical role:

The ability of Quetzalteco K’iche’ elites to play off national and local elites against one another in pursuit of their political and cultural interests strengthened the state and furthered its formation. … Moreover, at the same time as they were using the rhetoric of nationalism and liberalism to check local Ladinos, K’iche’s were developing an alternative vision of progress and the nation that allowed them to make sense of far-reaching social transformations. In doing so, they helped broker the local creation of the liberal state, limiting regionalist aspirations and translating liberal political economy into ethnic terms.

Understanding this contradictory effect is also crucial to understanding elite K’iche’ resistance to the socialist “revolution” from 1944 to 1954 under Arevalo and Arbenz, which threatened the fiction of ethnic uniformity upon which their authority rested by mobilizing the rural lower classes against them. The end of this 10-year “spring,” of course, ushered in more than 40 years of brutal governmental repression (hence the second meaning of the book’s title). Ethnically charged government repression fully homogenized indigenous identities by targeting them as categorically antithetical to the consolidation of state control.

It’s impossible, however, to understand the underlying causes of this conflict without considering, prior to 1944, how the complex alliance between K’iche and the state and the unresolved competition between two nationalisms, the Ladino and the K’iche, laid the groundwork for Guatemala’s national implosion. A prerequisite for re-engaging the project of building a Guatemalan national identity, according to Grandin, is to abandon the rivalry of empty universalisms of ethnicity and nation that culminated in armed conflict in the first place.


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