Maya Indians Rediscover Identity While Ladinos Lose Theirs

(Editors Note: Ladinos are working class mixed-race Guatemalans)I am a modern man, a flexible man. I can sleep on the ground or on a bed, walk in a city, even speak with diplomats. As much as I move about in the non-Indian world, my behavior is that of a Maya. I cannot act like a ladino. And that is becoming a problem for them.Ladinos, those who rule my country, are descended from a mix of Spanish and Indian. But they deny the Indian in themselves and seem confused when they meet educated Maya like me, as if they are experiencing a crisis of identity. "Who am I, if they are not who I thought they were?" they ask themselves.For ladinos, we Maya had always simply been there, uncombed and dark, a majority of the country meant to work cheap, keep quiet or sound stupid. But in recent years, where intelligence has become a factor in the game and Maya can play, the field has been leveled. So insecurity penetrates the ladino's world. "And on top of everything, one of them wins a Nobel Prize!" I hear some ladinos complain, referring to Rigoberta Menchu who won for Peace in 1992. "They know both languages, Spanish and their own tongue," they seem to be thinking. And if we know English too? Hah!By the time I was nine, I was traveling every year from our highland village to work the hot lowland coffee and cotton plantations with my family -- not because we wanted to, or for extra money, but to buy enough corn and beans to eat. Our fields at home, rented from big landowners, were too small and overworked. In the 1960's, when American Maryknoll priests helped villages like ours form cooperatives to farm virgin jungle, our family joined. Migration changed our attitudes. When my uncle, the cooperative president, said I should study, I thought, why not?At 17 I enrolled in a high school in the provincial capital. The other students were ladinos and made fun of the way I talked. But after years of study I passed the test to attend an agronomy school in the national capital. There were only three of us Maya among 200 young men, most of them sons of ranch owners. Outside the classroom students hit me on the face, punched me when they passed me in the halls. Once when I wrote something for the school paper a professor asked me, "How can an Indian write something like that?"At graduation in 1982, everyone else's families and friends came. But my father had been killed a few months before when he attempted to bury a neighbor's corpse which had been booby-trapped by the army. As I graduated, my mother and grandfather were somewhere in the jungle living on grass and worms, hiding from the army which thought anyone who belonged to a cooperative was subversive.The war that is coming to an end after 38 years was terrible but has left some political space which was not there before. Today I work with my community to educate adults in literacy so we may elect our own people to office and bring the benefits of the state we deserve to the villages. I have also studied with the grandfathers, the ancianos, and become a Maya priest, to serve better.At the national level, there are no Maya cabinet ministers, only a tiny few in Congress, and none in important management posts. But I must act politically because I have the instinct to do so, and believe such instincts are part of one's being, part of the charge I was given when presented at the Maya altar as a newborn.In the 1960s and 70s, many Maya took on ladino ways, desperately hoping that if we could become something we were not, it would make our lives better, safer. But it didn't work; tens of thousands of Maya died in the violence. Now the reverse is true. People are returning to their names and Maya ways with a stronger idea of who we are. Dislocation awakened for some of us the idea that we have an identity.For ladinos, on the other hand, the identity crisis is beginning. I see it in a man's eyes when I meet him and he tries to figure out who I am. "Is this a peasant? Well, no, maybe a village school teacher," he thinks. "He is not acting like an Indian should act, not averting his eyes -- he must be a teacher."In a business office, ladinos will say, "How can an Indian give me orders?" And they will be confused.It will be good if the ladino can understand what the ancianos know, that if there is no suffering there is no change. Maybe the next step will be to say, "I am the product of a mix of our country's races, so I am Maya too."

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