Indians’ Culture Torn by Guatemalan Political Strife

Times Staff Writer

In the three years since her husband and brother were abducted from the dinner table, Antonia Cortijo has been forced to give up much of the traditional life that her Indian ancestors led for centuries.

Labeled “subversives” by the army and some of their own neighbors, Cortijo, her sisters and parents fled the land that generations of their family had worked.

They left Cortijo’s elderly grandparents and their community of Kachiquel Indians to move to this provincial capital where they now live anonymously among Indians from many villages.


“We had to leave to save our lives,” Cortijo said. “Now we don’t have to worry. No one talks about us here. No one says anything.”

Cortijo, who spoke on the condition that her true name would not be revealed, is one of hundreds of thousands of Indians routed from their villages in the north and central highlands by eight years of political violence and a government rural pacification program aimed at eliminating support for leftist guerrillas.

Anthropologists, teachers and religious workers say the war, in which the army has fought ruthlessly to gain the upper hand, has caused the greatest upheaval among the Indians since the Spanish Conquest in the 16th Century.

An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people, most of them Indians, are believed to have been killed in the army’s counterinsurgency effort--a death toll that approximates 1% of the nation’s 4 million Indians.

About 46,000 others fled the country to refugee camps in southern Mexico, and countless more moved north to other areas of Mexico and to the United States. Many, like Cortijo, moved to provincial capitals and Guatemala City.

Whole villages were razed, and army-controlled model villages were built on top of the ruins. An estimated 50,000 Indians were moved into the model villages.


The result, observers say, is that communities once bound by blood and history have been divided by suspicion. For many Indians, observers say, it has meant trauma, the rupture of their families and the erosion of traditional values and customs.

What some observers consider most significant is that so many Indians have been uprooted from their ancestral lands, where they bury not only their dead, but the umbilical cords of their newborn.

“The moment an Indian leaves his land, he loses a great part of his identity,” said Father Gonzalo Herrera, a Roman Catholic priest in the municipality of San Martin.

For many Indians, the dead are as alive in their thoughts as the living. The more traditional Indians, whose religious practices combine elements of Mayan religion with Catholicism, burn candles and incense and offer food to the spirits of their dead ancestors.

Today, there are many more dead for whom they might pray. Herrera said that in a village of 2,000 Indians, one of many he visits in the San Martin area, he recently was handed a list of 360 dead to commemorate with a Mass. In another village of 500, the list of dead numbered about 150.

The death toll has prompted some highland Indians to joke grimly, “When there is peace, we must have many children to recover our dead.”


Guatemala’s Indians and indigenous cultures have been under assault for centuries--sometimes violently, as with the Spanish who enslaved them, and sometimes benevolently, as with missionaries, Western doctors and Spanish-speaking teachers who came to help them.

22 Native Languages

The Indians have proven to be resilient, absorbing changes without completely changing. Guatemala is the only Central American country where a majority of the population is Indian and still speaks one of 22 indigenous languages.

Anthropologists and observers say they believe the war and government programs will continue to transform the Indian cultures, but will not wipe them out.

“The Indians have survived 450 years of attempts to destroy their culture. These people are stronger than we think,” said a priest who has worked in the highlands.

“Their greatest defense is their silence. They don’t say what they think, but behind their silence is their memory. They won’t forget,” he said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the highland Indians began to question their poverty and inability to eke out a living on their farmlands. Many had migrated to Guatemala’s Pacific Coast part of each year to work for cash in the coffee and sugar plantations.


With the help of emissaries from the U.S.-backed Alliance for Progress and Catholic missionaries, the Indians formed unions and cooperatives to try to improve their economic condition.

In the late 1970s, armed guerrilla groups organized throughout the countryside, recruiting Indians to support their battle against wealthy landowners and the right-wing military government. They found sympathy among the unions and cooperatives.

The army, faced with a strong guerrilla movement, launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign; the guerrillas were active in 16 of the 22 provinces. The army and paramilitary forces killed union and cooperative leaders, priests, social workers, Christian Democratic politicians and anyone suspected of supporting the guerrillas.

The violence throughout the countryside is far less today than it was at its peak from 1980 to 1982, when about 483 people were killed or disappeared each month.

This year, 44 civilians have died or disappeared each month, on the average, according to U.S. Embassy figures.

Many displaced Indians have moved back to their villages to try to pick up the lives they led before they or their families or neighbors backed the losing guerrillas. But even for those who returned, life often has not been the same.


Thousands are orphaned or widowed and, along with their sorrow, must carry the workload of their dead relatives. Those in model villages live under the watchful eye of soldiers and civil patrolmen.

Throughout the rural areas where guerrillas fought or continue to fight, nearly all able-bodied men must participate in armed civil patrols to protect their towns.

Officials say that the 800,000 to 900,000 men who serve in the patrols do so voluntarily. But several men standing guard on dusty roads, armed with machetes, said they would be punished by the army if they did not participate.

They must undertake day and night patrol duties ranging from once every two weeks to three times a week, depending on the number of men left in their small towns, they said.

The civil patrolmen are subsistence farmers who used to migrate to the coast for three months each year. Now, because of their patrol duty, they are allowed to leave for only a month, they said.

The authority of civil defense commanders and army leaders in many communities now outweighs that of traditional leaders, elected civilians, and religious figures, according to observers and civil patrolmen.


Herrera said that many Indians returned to the villages of San Martin, about 50 miles northwest of Guatemala City, distrustful and disillusioned. He said he once had 500 catechists in San Martin, but today he only has 150.

“People have lost faith. Many young people don’t believe in anything. The guerrillas offered them everything and nothing was delivered. On the contrary, the people had to humiliate themselves with a surrender to the army,” Herrera said.

Herrera said that he has noticed a new fear of neighbors and gossip in Indian communities. He said some fear they might unfairly be fingered as pro-guerrilla because of unrelated rivalries and vendettas.

Some teachers and religious workers say they believe there is an increase in alcoholism and in mental and psychosomatic illnesses among the Indians.

Among those who still are displaced, some gradually are giving up their Indian languages, dress and religious festivals. In large towns and model villages, Indians from different groups are thrown together and forced to speak Spanish, because it is the only common language.

Some women who have migrated to Chimaltenango from areas where guerrillas still are prevalent have traded the distinctive clothing that identifies them by village for those of the women from Chimaltenango.


“Being where you don’t belong raises suspicions,” said an Indian teacher who asked not to be identified.

Cortijo is one who has given up her traditional huipil , the brightly colored woven blouses worn by Indian women. Cortijo says she no longer can afford the time or increasingly expensive thread to make herself one.

Cortijo’s husband and brother have never been found. Now, rather than working at home as she did in her village of Tecpan, Cortijo earns money washing clothes for Ladinos--westernized Spanish-speaking people, who she says “look down on Indians.”

She lives with her parents, sister and toddler son in a one-room, cinder-block house with plastic sheets serving as window panes. What she misses about her old adobe house is its temescal, the vapor bath that Indian women typically use for cleansing and medicinal purposes.

The family no longer has a cornfield and so must buy all its food, as well as the firewood it used to gather for free. Cortijo’s mother weaves huipils to sell.

Cortijo said that eight armed men in civilian dress who were believed to be soldiers took her husband and brother away. Three weeks later, when soldiers began asking questions about the rest of the family, its members fled with only the clothes on their backs.

Cortijo said she feels safe in Chimaltenango, but she would talk to a foreigner only inside the house.

The level of the Indians’ support for the army, which now controls most of the rural highlands, is not known, but the army is not taking it for granted.


In the town of Choatalum, an army-controlled village with a garrison in the center, the military is backed by civil defense patrols. The patrols keep the army informed of any rumors, said the corporal in charge.

Asked if the people in Choatalum support the army, Cpl. Carlos Antonio Salvatierra said, “Apparently.”

The Indians have spent the last four centuries camouflaging their feelings from outsiders, and the extent of their bitterness, fear and assimilation is difficult to measure.

Cortijo’s new neighbor, Victor Lux, fled his village in San Martin, where he says 86 men and 46 women were killed by the army. Among the dead were his wife and a daughter.

“We feel the suffering, but in bad times you have to put on a good face,” said Lux, whose name also has been changed.