Delaware anthropologist tracks culture of Peten Mayas Language and culture of Itza people endangered by destruction of forests


SAN JOSE PETEN, Guatemala - Norman B. Schwartz, professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, this summer is visiting the front lines of what he sees as a vast cultural struggle playing out in the Peten region of Guatemala.

Schwartz, a cultural anthropologist, has been interested in the region since his graduate school days at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his doctorate in anthropology in 1968. He has worked and studied in the area, returning there this month, and is the author of "Forest Society, a Social History of Peten, Guatemala," published in 1991 by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Schwartz's concern is for the Itza Maya, a people who have made a living from the rain forest near Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala for centuries.

"The Itza have felt for some time that the destruction of the forest is an attack on their culture," Schwartz says. "If the forest is lost, the culture may be lost, too," he says.

Last to surrender

The Itza are famed both as the settlers at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula and as the last Mayan nation to surrender to the Spanish conquest, holding out as an independent people as late as 1697.

Today they again seem to be near the end of their resistance to a new invader - the increasing pressures of the 20th century. Their native language is spoken by only a few dozen village elders today. Many of their young, educated in public schools that teach only in Spanish, have left their villages in search of better jobs and greater opportunities.

Schwartz says that Guatemala is trying to conserve the Maya Biosphere Area, the forest reserve it created in Peten. "But problems are created as people move into the reserve, although the physical danger of the situation can be exaggerated."

Schwartz is a consultant for Washington-based Conservation International, an organization that seeks to identify alternative economic enterprises to retard destruction of the area's rain forests and to work with local people to improve their economic situation. "If people can't use the forests wisely, the forests will be destroyed," Schwartz says.

The forest is a source of lumber that the Itza use in carpentry, a traditional occupation. It provides plants that Itza women use in medicines and collect for food. But in an age of change and development, the forest may be more important as a symbol of Itza tradition - the ground of their ancestors.

Conservation International identifies short-fallow "slash and burn agriculture; cattle ranching; illegal logging; lax enforcement of protected areas; massive immigration of landless peasants; large-scale use of pesticides and insecticides; oil and gas exploration; refugee migration; road construction" as threats to the area's ecology.

'Threatened by colonization'

Peten is Guatemala's largest and northernmost department. Conservation International reports that "while the northern reaches of the lowlands are still covered by forests and wetlands, they too are threatened by colonization and agricultural practices ill-suited to the region.

"The communities in this region have traditionally relied on the extraction of a wide variety of forest products for income, developing what is referred to as a forest society. 'Peteneros' live by a value system of ecological reciprocity whereby one takes from and gives back to the forest in the same fashion. Yet, within the past few decades, this traditional forest society has begun to break down as a result of modernization and growth. The Peten's population has grown from roughly 20,000 people in to over 400,000 in the mid-1990s. As a result, nearly half of all the Peten area's forests have been lost," Conservation International says.

Reginaldo Chayax, 58, of San Jose Peten, may be one of the younger men alive to speak the Itza Maya language. He believes that if the forest is lost to development, the moral defeat will be so great that the Itza will give up all their traditions and their language, culture and identity.

Only about 2,000 Itza remain in the Peten rain forest, a region that, Chayax says, "has served as our home for generations."

Saving a language "is chancy once you get less than a couple hundred people who speak it," says Schwartz. "The younger people tend to see it as pointless and give up."

Ironically, the apparent decline of the Itza culture comes in the midst of an awakening by Guatemala's indigenous people, who make up about 44 percent of the country's 11 million population.

At a time when Maya intellectuals are excitedly talking about a pan-Maya movement stretching from southern Mexico through Central America, many small Maya language groups face extinction. Scholars, such as Guatemalan anthropologist Flavio Rojas Lima, believe the Itza language is the Maya tongue closest to extinction.

Only three dozen elderly Itza speak their language fluently, experts say. The elderly here say they realize their native tongue, which they call simply "Maya," is on its way out.

"Who can I speak Maya with?" asks 84-year-old Gregoria Tesucun. "The people who speak my language are just about gone now."

And younger Itza seem reluctant to learn the old ways and the old tongue.

'Children aren't interested'

"The children aren't interested in learning to speak Itza," says Julian Tesucun, the mayor of San Jose Peten, "For them, it's not necessary."

Maya leaders have organized programs designed to improve civil rights and bolster ethnic pride among their citizens, who until recently were brutally oppressed by Guatemala's military governments.

The indigenous movement received a major boost from the peace accord signed by the government and leftist rebels in December. The treaty, which ended a 36-year civil war that left 140,000 mostly indigenous people dead or missing, included a provision to force the government to end violence against the Maya. It required the government to respect Maya rights and promote programs that teach indigenous children in their ancestral languages.

Yet, despite these changes, the experiences of the Itza and other indigenous groups raise several troubling questions about Guatemala's Maya renaissance.

Though the indigenous people of the region all descend from various Maya groups, they speak at least 20 different languages. Some of those languages are as different as German is to Mandarin.

Four of the languages are spoken by hundreds of thousands of people, ensuring that they will survive for generations. But the rest are at various stages of possible extinction, experts say.

Originally from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, the Itza migrated into what is now Guatemala, eventually establishing a city, Tayasal, on the southern edge of Lake Peten Itza.

That location worked to their advantage after the Spanish conquest. The Spaniards took control of the Yucatan in the mid-1500s, but it took them nearly another 150 years to locate and defeat the Itza in the Peten forest. After new diseases and the Spanish conquistadores killed most of the Itza in 1697, the Spaniards demolished their stone city and rebuilt in its place a colonial town known today as Flores.

The few Itzas who survived the conquest and the diseases that accompanied the conquerors fled to other parts of the region, many of them settling in what was probably an old Itza village that eventually came to be known as San Jose Peten.

Most Itza today live in earth-floored huts, like their ancestors. Women still go into the rain forest to collect plants used to treat everything from malaria to common colds. Men depend on the forest for woods used for carpentry and furniture making.

Many villagers are Roman Catholics, and the local church permits some of the old practices and observances. The village church, for instance, houses three skulls believed to have belonged to Itza fighters who once defended the area. Once a year, on Nov. 1, one of the skulls is removed for a procession through the village.

But time has also brought changes. Though most homes lack sewers, the village has managed to secure electricity. Many residents listen to the radio and watch television, especially Spanish-language soap operas.

About 60 years ago, Guatemala dictator Jorge Ubico initiated a policy to force the Maya to learn Spanish and speak it. "The teachers would punish us for speaking Maya," recalls Tesucun, the elderly Itza woman. "They would tell us: Don't be an Indian."

In 1970, a dirt road was built to connect the Peten region with the capital, Guatemala City. A few years later, a major airport was built at the southern end of the lake to accommodate the growing number of tourists visiting the nearby Maya ruins of Tikal.

Each day now, as many as five small jets ferry tourists from Guatemala City, Cancun and Belize. Though most go straight from the airport to Tikal, a few venture to San Jose Peten.

With the tourists and economic and population growth have come new jobs - and more reasons for the young of the villages to leave.

Tourists are not the only invaders nowadays. The end of the civil war as well as intensification of land disputes in other parts of the country have prompted Maya and Ladino (people of mixed Indian and European heritage) peasants to move to the area. The Guatemalan government officially encouraged migration from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, promising the peasants fertile land.

The migrants, most of them impoverished Ketchi Maya and Ladino peasants from the highlands, have settled near the Itza, cutting down the rain forest in order to plant crops.

'We're all Guatemalans'

The newcomers believe that they have as much right to the land as anyone.

"You can't call us immigrants," says Patricia Bolon, one of the recent arrivals. "We're all Guatemalans." Besides, the "immigrants" do not have access to land in the highlands.

The effort to save Maya languages raises questions about how the funding for the project should be dispersed. Maya officials insist that they intend to try and save all their languages, but they admit it may eventually prove more useful to target scarce resources on languages that stand a chance of surviving.

"Some of the [Maya groups] are so far gone now that the only thing to do is to let them die," says one Western diplomat who has studied the issue of indigenous rights.

In a country where virtually everyone has some indigenous blood, the difference between an indigenous person and one of mixed race, known here as a "ladino," is often simply his or her last name, language and style of dress. Every year, indigenous ++ people change their names and lifestyles in quests for the better economic opportunities available to "ladinos."

"This is a big problem," says Alfonso Buc Choc, president of the Guatemalan Academy of Maya Languages, the organization officially charged with establishing education programs in the 20 Maya languages.

People just change their name, and then they're no longer Maya."

Chayax, for one, remains optimistic that the ways of his ancestors can be preserved. He recalls that when he was a child growing up in San Jose Peten, the government tried to pressure the Itza into abandoning their heritage.

"The Itza have, however, won some victories, including most recently legal status as the Bio-Itza Association, a kind on nonprofit organization in Guatemalan law, which will strengthen their efforts to protect the forest in at least a small portion of their township," Schwartz said.

Now, scholars and nongovernment aid workers are working with the Itza so that they can retain their culture.

"It makes me proud of who I am," Chayax says. "Before, everyone made fun of us and called us Indians.

Mayan languages

* Itza is one of 31 Mayan languages recorded at the time of the Spanish conquest, and only two of those languages are now extinct, according to William L. Fash, professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University.

* Scholars disagree on the number of Mayan languages, with estimates running from 20 to more than 30 separate languages and up to 100 dialects, most of which are spoken in the southern highland area of Guatemala. This area did not possess Maya hieroglyphic writing. While these languages are related and are similar in vocabulary and grammar, the differences are enough to make them mutually unintelligible.

* Speakers of Cholan predominate in Peten, and speakers of Yucatecan form the majority in the Yucatan peninsula. The vast majority of ancient Mayan hieroglyphic texts are thought to have been written in these two languages, according to David Stuart, a Mayan language specialist at Harvard University.

* Other major Mayan languages include Quiche, with 520,000 speakers and 14 dialects; Mam, with 321,000 speakers and 15 dialects; Cakchiquel, with 271,000 speakers and 12 dialects; Kekchi, with 209,000 speakers.

* Four minor Mayan languages - Itza, Pocoman, Tectiteci, and Xinca - are thought to be on the road to extinction.

* The Mayan languages are part of a larger linguistic family known as Penutian, spoken in the Pacific Northwest, California, Mexico and Central America.

Brief Mayan history

1600 B.C.: The earliest evidence of villages - in the Pacific coastal area - in the Maya region dates to 16 centuries before Christ.

500 B.C.: One of the oldest Mayan sites is Kaminaljuyu in the highland region of southern Guatemala. Possibly as early as 500 B.C., a ceremonial complex of several hundred earthen mounds had been erected. One departed Mayan lord was buried there with 340 jade masks, ornaments, stone bowls, pottery vases and his retainers.

400 B.C.: The crucible of Mayan culture was formed in the lowland jungles of Peten by 400 B.C. Peten means "flat region" in Mayan. The Mayans cleared sections of forest to create farmland. They cut drainage canals, built reservoirs and soon were erecting tall masonry pyramids faced in limestone. One of the earliest pyramids is at the northern edge of Peten at a site later named El Mirador by the Spanish.

A.D. 150: El Mirador fell into decline. It had been a city of about 80,000 people, but it was abandoned, and the region's power center shifted to Tikal, 50 miles to the south. Tikal was a center of worship and administration. Its population may have reached 100,000. Tikal was, however, only one of a dozen Mayan centers that, beginning about A.D. 200, arose in Mesoamerica. Others in Peten were Uaxactun and Seibal. Outside Peten were Lamanai in Belize, Copan in Honduras, Palenque and Bonampak in southern Mexico; Dzibilchaltun on the Yucatan coast.

A.D. 600-A.D. 800: The Mayan culture reached its peak in this period. The Mayas had a flair for mathematics and astronomy. Their arithmetic included the concept of zero. They developed a calendar to measure the millenniums; the Maya Long Count extended back to the day the Earth was born, Aug. 13, 3114 B.C. by our calendar. Mayan writing was elaborate - the only complete writing system in the Americas. It combined pictograms and phonetic signs.

A.D. 900: The Mayan culture was in precipitous decline. The Itza, a Mayan group from the western edge of Maya territory, invaded the Peten and occupied the Lake Peten-Itza area. The Itza formed a series of alliances and held political rivalries in check for 200 years.

A.D. 1524: The Spanish invaded the Maya world, but the Itzas held out in the wilderness of Peten.

March 13, 1697: Spanish troops and Indian allies captured the Itza capital, Taysal, on Lake Peten-Itza.

Pub Date: 6/08/97

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