The Maya of Guatemala: The Continuum of a ‘Heritage of Conquest’


Karen Ben-Moyal




Thirteen years after the signing of peace, Guatemalan democracy remains unsettled and particularly fragile. Formal democratic procedures are observed; old democratic institutions are in place and levels of social organization and political participation have substantially increased. Yet these advances conceal a state captive to organized crime, a poorly representative and responsive political party system and a fragmented civil society in which the marginalized indigenous population, specifically, the Mayan peoples, struggle to make its voice heard. The democratic challenges reflect a polity and a society in which ethnic and class divisions that fueled 36 years of armed conflict remain perilously close to the surface and in which exclusionary patterns and structures of power over rule all. The purpose of this research paper is to outline the cycles of conquest inflicted upon the Maya of Guatemala since the early sixteenth century all the way up until the 21st century. Moreover, by connecting the struggles of modern-day Maya survivors with their ancestors of centuries ago, this essay seeks to depict the ways in which the Maya of Guatemala have responded with strategic acculturation[1] in combating their oppressors throughout five centuries of conquest.

Ancient & Colonial Mayan Civilization: The Spanish Conquest of Guatemala

The origins of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala began in 1524. Forces led by Pedro de Alvarado, however, stumbled upon many difficulties in attempting to conquer the Mayan peoples. From the start, the Maya displayed acts of fierce resistance. Often, Spanish and Mexican troops found themselves engaging in hostile confrontation with the Mayan army. In addition, highland groups such as the Uspantec and the Kekchi, implemented the illusion of defeat, temporarily over foreign invaders. Fighting alongside these groups were other lowland peoples, including the Itzas and the Chol Manche, who– for up to a century and a half–subsequently stalled effective Spanish perforation after the initial European intrusion. In contrast to the quick and painless conquest of central Mexico, the conquest of Guatemala lingered on with grueling and harsh results which created intense political fragmentation between contending Maya groups, specifically the Quiche and the Cakchiquel—prior to Alvarado’s arrival. However, epidemic disease came about during the early colonial period—demolishing large amounts of native Guatemalans, which lasted for an extended amount of time and carried on throughout a significant time span of rapid decline for the Mayan people. Historical analysis distinguishes a clear, demographic collapse in the members of native Guatemalan societies, which progressed raggedly through time and exponentially through space. In addition to the spread of deadly diseases, the stress or trauma of conquest also known as culture shock, must also be considered. The role of environment is also a key epidemiological variable that should be noted. Native communities were clearly discombobulated by the dissimulation of various practices, which permanently altered the psychological and environmental harmony of the American-Indian world. Linda Newson makes the claim that two other significant variables include, “first, the nature of Indian societies and the size of their populations at the time of Spanish conquest because these factors influenced the type of institution used to control and exploit the Indians; and second, the kinds of resources to be found in the areas in which the Indians lived.”[2]

Modern-Day Genocide in Guatemala: Conquest by the Guatemalan State Government

Despite all the risks and tremendous obstacles, they face, once they have emigrated Guatemalans feel a sense of liberation and assess optimistically their chances to improve their condition.  State violence in Guatemala reached genocidal proportions in the 1980s, targeting rural Mayan communities. While officially peace was achieved at the end of 1996, everyday violence has reached disastrous, epidemic proportions. “Throughout the following consecutive years, the Guatemalan army destroyed 626 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million, while more than 150,000 were driven to seek refuge in Mexico. Forced disappearance policies included secretly arresting or abducting people, who were often killed and buried in unmarked graves. In addition, the government instituted a scorched earth policy, destroying and burning buildings and crops, slaughtering livestock, fouling water supplies and violating sacred places and cultural symbols.”[3]

Guatemala’s 1960-1996 war between leftist guerrillas and hardline state forces as a genocide against the country’s Mayan population. Before peace accords finally ended the bloodshed, it is estimated that up to 200,000 people were killed between 1966 and 1990, including the many thousands who died or ‘disappeared’ in the genocide of Mayan Indians.Guatemala continues to suffer the effects of an internal armed conflict that ended in 1996. War and post-war violence spirals down in resentment and cycles of requitals.


Today’s Guatemalan peoples whom Miguel Angel Asturias canonized as hombres de maiz have been forced to seek permission from the military to mind their plots as well as raise the very crop that created Maya Civilization.  The counterinsurgency during the 1980’s is worth noting that, like bondage by imperial Spain and the enveloping by a “coffee republic,” none represents defeat. It does, however, epitomize another intrusion that Maya Indians will somehow always manage to respond to any obstacle or intrusion that comes their way in ensuring the preservation of the Maya peoples. Furthermore, as the survivors of three cycles of conquest, the Maya of Guatemala have always shown resilience in the face of battle, and to those who call for their extinguishment.Overall, recovery is disheartening for the victims of war, and memory serves a deep and crippling persistence. The legacy of Mayan genocide is present in the everyday lives of the Guatemalan people. As we have witnessed in various parts around the globe, to construct a new society from utter dismay of the past is hard and time-consuming. Viewed in historical perspective, it is perplexing to ponder over how much the twentieth century resembles the sixteenth, as the parallels between cycles of conquest hundreds of years apart are astonishing. Model villages provide similar purpose as that of colonial congregaciones. That is, to operate as the institutional means by which one culture ventures out to reshape the conventional ways of another. In other words, model villages function as authoritarian mechanisms of resettlement, control, and indoctrination. Like colonial times, the terms of encomienda and repartimiento are enforced upon Maya Indians today, as they are once again being forced to ignore local priorities to fulfill obligations imposed from outside their communities. Thus, terminology may transform but policies stay constant: To destroy and dismantle existing forms of community organization, drive a wedge between people and community, the forceful relocation of families to move to areas in which they are scrutinized, disruption of routines, behavior and attitudes changed.


  1. Ball, Patrick, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert F. Spirer. State Violence in Guatemala: 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection. Washington: American Assoc. for the Advancement of Science, 1999. Print.
  2. Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.
  3. Newson, Linda A. “Indian Population Patterns in Colonial Spanish America.” Latin American Research Review 20.3 (1985): 41-74. JSTOR. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.
  4. Farriss, Nancy M. “Indians in Colonial Yucatan: Three Perspectives,” in Spaniards and Indians in Southeastern Mesoamerica: Essays on the History of Ethnic Relations, edited by Murdo J. MacLeod and Robert Wasserstrom (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 2 and 19.

[1] . The capacity to respond creatively to invasion and domination is one Farriss likens to “strategic acculturation,” by which she means that concessions are made and certain changes are undertaken “in order to preserve essentials.” Over the past two decades, revisionist depictions by Farriss and others have created a distinctive genre of Latin Americanist research that embraces diverse disciplines, ideologies, and interests.

Nancy M. Farriss, “Indians in Colonial Yucatan: Three Perspectives,” in Spaniards and Indians in Southeastern Mesoamerica: Essays on the History of Ethnic Relations, edited by Murdo J. MacLeod and Robert Wasserstrom (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 2 and 19.

[2]   Linda A. Newson, “Indian Population Patterns in Colonial Spanish America,” LARR 20, no. 3 (1985):65-66.

[3] Newson, Linda A. “Indian Population Patterns in Colonial Spanish America.” Latin American Research Review 20.3 (1985): 41-74. JSTOR. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

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