Guatemala’s Colonial Legacy


Karen Ben-Moyal

Guatemala’s Colonial Legacy


Geographically, land, collectivism, and strong ties to roots have been held together as a perpetual trinity of defense for the Mayan people; in both primitive and sophisticated eras throughout time. The Maya world stands on a threshold between past and future, and more significantly, between an indigenous people known widely as the most advanced in the New World, and at the same time, a bridge between a never-ending battle to reclaim their own heritage from Mayan oppressors. Most people whom wish to establish the contemporary crisis in historical perspective dedicate substantially more attention to post- Independence times than to the colonial period. Such an approach is here reversed to create more concretely the colonial experience upon which the circumstances and events of post-Independence Maya life were exclusively founded. The base of time past diminishes towards the crest of time present, a structure chosen to emphasize the historical mandates that propel, and the cultural context that frames, ongoing social unrest. By outlining the spiral of continuous struggles shared by the living Maya peoples of today, we can examine their means for holding onto the ancient land they inhabit.  This paper set out to explore the unique battles which have shaped an undivided culture’s past, present, and future. To explore the close connection between ethnic identity, nationalism, political violence, and state power, an examination of how indigenous governance customs subsidize to a culture that emphasizes adjudicated harmony is necessary.   Further, a depiction of the Maya of Guatemala and how they have responded culturally to survive almost five centuries of conquest will be examined in this contemporary analysis, in which the myths, knowledge, and wisdom of Mayan culture, come to light in creating a familiar identity shared with their ancestors. While simultaneously devising an in-depth analysis of this unique social movement with a pluralistic approach, this paper will identify three traverse themes which stand out when comparing Mayan identity construction, Mayan leadership in creating a politically and philosophically rich indigenous movement, and Mayans within the contemporary Guatemalan nation-state. Our goal is to outline the epochs of conquest the Maya of Guatemala have been subjected to since the early sixteenth century. These cycles include: conquest by imperial Spain, conquest by local and international capitalism, and conquest by state terror. Each isochronism has produced an indecipherable abyss which reflects the very nature of Guatemalan society, economy, and politics. The perplexities sure to be unmasked by this glimpse into history and ethnography should portray how much the twentieth century resembles the sixteenth, for the parallels between enigmas of colonial and modern-day conquest, hundreds of years apart, are striking.

Early Mayan Civilization: Confronting Injustices of the Past

No culture of the pre-Columbian Americas left a more abundant legacy of native history and world-view carved in stone than did the Maya, the name used by some natives of the Yucatain Peninsula to describe themselves to the sixteenth century conquistadores, Spanish explorers and chroniclers. Occupying an area of roughly 325,000 sq km in southern Mexico and northern Central America, the Maya created a cultural tradition that is baffling in its diversity and exhilarating in its creativity.  Descendants of Mayan Indians make up much of Guatemala’s population. Since the era of Spanish conquest, they have been subject to ongoing oppression still present to this day. The Mayas were the prime victims of the Guatemalan civil war. Today, however, they are demanding rights with a zeal never seen in Guatemala. Contemporary Mayans not only share territory inhabited by ancient Maya, they also maintain a unique bond in heritage, language, and common history of resilience, resistance, and success. First to colonial era enslavement and later to neo-colonial oppression and the 1980s genocide in which 200,000 peasant farmers, mostly Mayans and Ladinos, were massacred by the Guatemalan army. According to the journal article, Changing Perspectives on Mayan Civilization, “During the final centuries of the Formative or Preclassic period (2,000 B.C.-A.D. 250), throughout the Classic period (A.D. 250-900), and at the beginning of the Postclassic period (A.D. 900-1519), thousands of stone monuments and buildings were carved with hieroglyphic inscriptions, in addition to countless other texts and images painted or carved on more perishable media (e.g. cloth, wood, stucco, or bark-paper books).” [1] Although the Classic period was one of the most prominent of the Maya writing system and its creative scribes, the Maya of subsequent periods were no less resourceful in their architectural accomplishments, as well as their embellishment of sacred objects with painted and carved designs. Further, the passing on of oral history, religious beliefs, and prophecies prevailed the Classic period. The combination of hieroglyphic writings, visual imagery, and oral ethnic legends provides for a remarkable understanding of Maya conceptions of themselves, the world, and their connection to it. Fash describes this period by stating that, “recent efforts have shown that controlled historical analysis of imagery and writing from Classic Period stone monuments, Postclassic bark-paper books, and Colonial Spanish accounts can explain rituals and behaviors among the living Maya for which traditional ethnographic methods cannot account.” [2] The origins of this ethnic resurgence within the social processes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century state formation rather than in the ruins of the national project of recent decades. This period led Mayan patriarchs to develop understandings of nation and race that were contrary to Ladino notions of progress and assimilation.


As opposed to a “remote historical experience,” this essay set out to view conquest as a “visible, present condition.” The abysmal inequality that has afflicted the country of Guatemala since the days of conquest continues. Ríos Montt’s conviction, however, offers a beam of light in a previously darkened tunnel. This can be thought of as a glimmer of hope for the Mayans who must keep this faith alive.  Pressed into service during colonial times under the terms of encomienda and repartimiento, Maya Indians today are being forced once again to ignore local priorities to fulfill obligations laid down and demanded from outside their communities. Significantly worth noting however, is that, “counterinsurgency in the 1980s, like subjugation by imperial Spain and engulfment by a ‘coffee republic,’ represents neither victory nor defeat.” [3] What it does embody is yet another encroachment that Maya Indians will always respond to in ways that determine meaningful group conservancy.  Survivors of three cycles of conquest, the Maya of Guatemala are encompassed still by dark shadows of the past. However, while conquest may darken their lives, it has yet to dim the light on their culture.


Fash, W. L. “Changing Perspectives on Maya Civilization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 23.1 (1994): 181-208. Web.

Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. N. pag. Print.

Krauss, Clifford. “The World: Guatemala’s Ideology Is the Latest Excuse.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers [ProQuest]. The New York Times, 9 Apr. 1995. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.

Lovell, W. George. “Surviving Conquest: The Maya of Guatemala in Historical Perspective.” Latin American Research Review 23.2 (1988): 25-57. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

“[Photograph]: Jacrriel.” Latin American Research Review 13.3 (1978): 62. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Sanford, Victoria. Buried Secrets Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. N. pag. Print.

[1] Fash, W. L. “Changing Perspectives on Maya Civilization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 23.1 (1994): 181-208. Web.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. N. pag. Print.