Mayans in Guatemala today

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guatemala : Maya
January 23, 2015 – 10:17 am
Trapped Between Two Glories:

The majority of indigenous peoples in Guatemala are of Mayan descent. The Maya are essentially a regional group. In all an estimated 5 million Mayans live in the different Central American countries.

The Mayans of Guatemala are the only indigenous culture that constitutes a majority of the population in a Central American republic. There are 21 different Maya groups in Guatemala making up an estimated 51 per cent of the national population.

Maya are dispersed throughout Guatemala especially in the western highlands. The largest populations are in rural departments north and west of Guatemala City, most notably, Alta Verapaz, Sololá, Totonicapán and Quiché. Maya are also located on farms in Guatemala's southern area known as Boca Costa.

Increasing numbers of Mayans of varying social classes live in all of Guatemala's cities, as well as in Belize, Honduras and especially Mexico.

Mayan groups are distinguished by language. The most common of the approximately 26 indigenous Mayan languages that are still spoken are Q'eqchi, Cakchiquel, Mam (Maya), Tzutujil, Achi and Pokoman.

Historical context


Mayan history shows strong evidence of connections to the more ancient Olmec (Xhi) civilization of southern Veracruz in Mexico.

The physical 'boundaries' of the ancient Mayan empire spanned the countries of modern-day Guatemala, Belize, the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador, and the five Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas.

One group of Mayans called the Huaxtecs separated in ancient times and established itself outside of this geographical area. There were 28 other ethnic groups whose names correspond to their languages. These are the Mam, Yucatec, Chorti Itza, Lacandon, Mopan, Chontal, Chol, Cholti, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Coxoh, Tojolabal, Chuj, Jacaltec, Kanhobal, Mocho, Tuzantec, Aguacateca, Ixil, Quiche, Tzutuhil, Cakchiquel, Uspantec, Achi, Pocomchi, Kekchi and Pocomam.

The ancient Maya developed an agriculture-based society (maize, beans and root crops) supplemented with wild game and fish caught in rivers, lakes and oceans. Ancient Maya cities were densely populated. They established far-reaching production and trade networks as well as temples and religious centres, and developed writing, mathematics and astronomy, which allowed them to monitor other planets and predict eclipses.

Contemporary era

While the Mayan civilization was already in a prolonged hiatus when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, the invasion prompted a very rapid decline. This occurred through the dispossession of lands and the use of Mayans for forced labour on cocoa and indigo plantations.

Mayan leaders today refer to the massacres of the 1980s as the 'third holocaust', the other two being the Spanish conquest and its aftermath, and the land dispossession during the Liberal revolution of the nineteenth century. The large self-identified Mayan majority remains partly due to the group's ability to assimilate cultural and religious influences. This is in part because of the internal coherence and secrecy of Mayan communities in their approach to the outside world, and also because of the significant process of cultural resistance that the community continues to exercise.

The 1960s saw the rise of social movements in Guatemala demanding land and fair wages in the Mayan highlands and the large farms of the south coast. The repression that the movement faced was exemplified by the burning down of the Spanish Embassy on 31 January 1980 when a group of 39 Mayan leaders sought refuge inside. This created fertile ground for recruitment to the armed insurgency under the umbrella of the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unit (URNG).

The state response, in the form of the counter-insurgency campaigns of General Ríos Montt and the subsequent militarization of the area, caused almost 200, 000 deaths, created over 200, 000 refugees in Mexico and a million internally displaced within the country. These actions were subsequently defined as genocidal by the United Nations-sponsored truth commission.

The return to civilian rule created a state with less formal discrimination. However, discriminatory legislation against women still existed and de facto discrimination continued to exclude the Mayan communities from the legal, political, economic and social systems of Guatemala. In many Mayan areas, militarization as a consequence of the armed conflict left the army as the only visible institution of the state apart from the Catholic Church.


Article 66 of the 1985 Constitution recognized the existence of Mayan groups and provided for the state to respect their rights to use indigenous languages, traditional dress, customs and forms of social organization. Article 70 called for a law to establish regulations relating to indigenous questions.

However, 10 years after the introduction of the constitution, the necessary law had not been enacted. In addition, under the existing electoral law, the Maya had no opportunity to organize politically. During 1992, there was some hope that Congress might ratify ILO Convention 169 relating to indigenous peoples, but a series of delays and a short-lived coup in 1993 put an end to the process.

Mayan culture continued to be denigrated by the national political elite, which was implicated in their massacre. Where concessions were made, as in the limited government bilingual education programme, these were more designed to assimilate Maya into mainstream national culture, in this case by integrating Mayan children into the existing Spanish education system.

Cultural flowering

Despite the levels of discrimination and the negative effects of the 1985-95 internal armed conflict, a new movement of Mayan organizations blossomed, which included locally based development groups. Issues such as the rights to land, civil and cultural rights, bilingual education and the recognition of Mayan local authorities became major topics of focus. In addition, Mayan academic institutions and research institutes began gathering and documenting the history of Mayan civilization. A key symbol of the indigenous popular movement was the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize award to Mayan exile Rigoberta Menchú, which gave the entire Mayan issue increased international recognition and some local protection from military repression.

These developments forced all parties in the conflict to radically alter their perceptions regarding the Maya. A significant step forward was taken in March 1995 with the signing of an accord on indigenous rights between the government and the guerrillas. This was cautiously welcomed by the Coordination of Guatemalan Mayan Organizations (COPMAGUA), the umbrella organization of Mayan organizations, which subsequently presented proposals for the Peace Accords to the Assembly of Civil Sectors for discussion.

The accord defined the Guatemalan nation as 'multi-ethnic, pluricultural and multilingual', a definition which was to be incorporated into the constitution. It promised the introduction of anti-discriminatory legislation and the congressional approval of ILO Convention 169.

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