Once home to elegant restaurants and apartments, the streets of the Pico-Union District are now tired and unkept. Wrought iron guards many of the storefronts and weeds have overrun the spaces that concrete and trash have missed.
It’s a stark contrast to the lush green mountains and verdant countryside of Central America, yet the neighborhood has become home to the greatest concentration of Salvadorans outside El Salvador and the largest number of Guatemalans outside Guatemala.
These refugees, victims of war and poverty, plant their dreams in the cement and hope for the best. For Samuel Simon, the ground has proved fertile.
“Here there are many opportunities, and if I put my mind to it, I can succeed,” he says.
In Simon’s homeland, Guatemala, the outlook was much bleaker. A Mayan Indian, Simon watched a succession of governments rob his people of their language, tradition and culture before fleeing 3 1/2 years ago in advance of a forced recruitment sweep by the army.
“The only reason I left,” he says, “is fear.”
And among the reasons he stays is culture. Although Mayan customs have been forcibly repressed in Guatemala since the time of the Spanish Conquest, they have found a home in Los Angeles.
IXIM, the center for the integration of indigenous Mayas, was founded more than a decade ago to promote the community development and cultural expression of Maya refugees. IXIM (pronounced ee-SHEEM) takes its name from the Mayan word for corn, which, according to folk tradition, was the substance used by the Gods to create the first Mayans.
Simon, 24, is the secretary of IXIM as well as the director of the center’s most visible component, its marimba band. The group will perform as part of the Los Angeles Festival on Sunday, from 12:45 p.m. until 1:30 next to the La Placita church in Olvera Street, and again from 3 until 5 p.m. at Union Station. Both concerts are free.
Although descendants of the ancient Mayan civilizations are often lumped together, they represent 23 distinct groups and 100 dialects in Guatemala alone. The majority of Mayans in Los Angeles speak languages of the Q’anjob’alan subfamily, which dominates the highland regions of the Department of Huehuetenango.
Simon, a Kanjobal Mayan, comes from the city of Santa Eulalia in western Huehuetenango, less than 30 miles from the Mexican border. There he worked as a teacher, a profession that earned him the respect of his people and the suspicion of his government.
“There was a campaign to knock off the Indians’ leaders . . . the teachers and such,” says Father James Curtain, the Catholic priest who founded IXIM in 1979 after more than three decades of work among the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. Curtain, 71, now lives at the Maryknoll Residence in Los Altos, south of San Francisco.
“All the Indians are considered subversives by the military,” Curtain said. “There is general repression against the Indians.”
The repression turned to genocide under the military rule of generals Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-82) and Efrain Rios Montt (1982-83), who unleashed a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the countryside. Ostensibly, it was intended to give the army the upper hand in its long war against anti-government guerrillas. But in reality, it led to the massacre of more than 50,000 indigenous Guatemalans and forced hundreds of thousands more into exile, according to a study by a branch of the Guatemalan Supreme Court.
Traditional culture has also been a casualty of war. Out of fear, many Mayan women no longer wear the traditional and colorful huipil dresses, which reveal their Indian roots. And children are taught Spanish at home rather than their native dialect to help them blend in.
According to Curtain, that leaves most indigenous Guatemalans “stuck in a kind of in-between place--afraid to be recognized as an Indians, but not accepted by the others.
“Our big job,” he said, “is to get them to be proud of their culture and their heritage. To be proud of what they are. To preserve their culture.”
It’s a task Samuel Simon has accepted with fervor. The son of a musician, Simon learned to play marimba at the age of 6. That talent, combined with his skill as a teacher, made Simon the obvious choice to teach and direct IXIM’s five marimbistas .
The marimba--as common in highland Guatemala as a piano or guitar in the United States--has an important place in Mayan tradition. For centuries it has been central to both religious and social celebrations. In areas such as Huehuetenango, where 85% of the people are descendants of the Maya, marimba bands have traditionally traveled from town to town to play in local fiestas. If the band is good, the status of its villages grows; if a band is bad, the village can be disgraced.
Simon’s village, Santa Eulalia, is a hotbed for marimba players, among them Simon’s father. But like most Guatemalan marimbistas , Simon never learned to read music. Instead, he plays by ear, learning new tunes by memorizing the music from cassettes.
“Music is a gift I have,” he says. “Here, I don’t have many other interests. Playing the marimba is the only thing.”
Even so, Simon has precious little time to devote to his music. Like the other members of IXIM’s band, he works every day but Sunday in a garment district shop where, in a good week, he will make $200. He also spends two nights a week at a trade school studying to be a radio announcer.
Simon already has a radio show of his own, broadcasting in Spanish twice weekly to parts of San Bernardino and Riverside. Ironically, the commercial music he plays on the radio is one of the obstacles he says immigrants face in trying to preserve their culture in a new country.
“Sometimes modernization changes the roots of a culture,” he says. “It would be similar to us forgetting our culture. But with (IXIM), it’s different because we practice our culture like it was before. We change nothing. It’s important that we conserve the Mayan and Kanjobal culture so that people can know it.”
Simon, who fled Guatemala with his uncle and entered this country illegally, lives with six other men in a small house in the shadow of the Harbor Freeway. His immediate future depends on the outcome of his political asylum request, which is still pending with the INS. The odds for a favorable review, however, are long--less than 3% of those Guatemalans seeking political asylum won their cases last year, despite overwhelming evidence that government-sponsored repression continues.
“It’s worse,” Curtain says. “Anybody that protests against what’s going on is in trouble.”
Perhaps more ominous is the fact that retired general Rios Montt, an architect of the Mayan holocaust, is running for the presidency as a civilian. Elections are scheduled for November.
With prospects for the future so dim, it would seem difficult to remain optimistic. Yet Simon, displaying a stoicism typical of the Mayans, says he has few regrets.
“I have made many sacrifices, but I have everything,” he says. “I feel much stronger about my culture here than there. I feel more Kanjobal.
“There are more possibilities here to practice my culture. There are possibilities here than I ever knew existed.
“If the INS gives my asylum, I’ll stay. If not, I’ll go back.”