The Mayans

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Today more than 4 million of the Worlds remaining 6 million individuals of Mayan descent live in Guatemala, and they comprise close to 50% of Guatemala's population as a whole. Descendants of the Mayan empire that ruled much of the territory that is now Southern Mexico and North Western Latin America between 250 and 1520 AD, the Mayan people have suffered many social and political injustices since the beginning of the Spanish conquest. Most notable of these in Guatemala's history was the "30 year war" or the Guatemalan Civil War which began in 1960 and lasted until 1996. The period between 1978 and 1984 were the worst for the Mayan people, as the Guatemalan Army began a campaign of repression against the Mayan Indians who they claimed were working towards a communist coup (a belief that stemmed from Guerilla forces seeking refuge in Mayan villages). During this time, 626 Mayan villages were destroyed, their inhabitants tortured, raped, and murdered in the process; the lives of children and women alike were no exception. Of the 200,000 estimated casualties of war, the Mayans comprised 83%. In a final report issued by the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH - Guatemalan Truth Commission) in February of 1999, the Guatemalan Army was found responsible for 93% of these atrocities, and the massacres were deemed genocide.


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The Mayan Movement

The massacre of more than 100 Q'eqchi' Mayans in Panzos, Guatemala in 1979 marked the beginning of strong politicization of the Mayan population. The Maya Movement was formed, and so began a serious pursuit of social justice for Guatemala's largest indigenous population. The Movement called for a revitalization of the Mayan culture and reinforcement of the Mayan identity amongst its people, and sought to earn recognition of the Mayan culture as being linguistically and historically different from the "official" Ladino culture of Guatemala. The movement worked in accordance with national and international law to stop the Ladino population from dismantling Mayan power through cultural and linguistic assimilation, and fought to earn the autonomy to develop their own nations.

During the movement, both Mayan writers and students played a large role in the revitalization of the Mayan language. Scholarships from the Catholic church provided Mayan students with the opportunity to pursue careers in teaching. This changed the structure of education in Mayan communities by providing younger generations the opportunity to learn from individuals who shared the same cultural and linguistics roots as they did as oppose to having teachers who did not and who attempted to assimilate them into the Ladino culture. Mayan writers and scholars were also able to bring the Mayan condition to readers all around the world, thus providing a native voice for the oppression and atrocities that were taking place in Guatemala. Rigoberta Menchu Tum, who won the Noble Peace Prize in 1992, is an example of such a writer and will be discussed further in the section on women.

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Results of the Mayan Movement

  • Today, 23 indigenous languages are officially recognized in Guatemala.
  • In 2001, the first Hemispheric Indigenous Education Conference was held in Guatemala. The Conference provided indigenous people with the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences with one another and promoted the development of bilingual intercultural education.


Posted by: Corinne Scott