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The Production of Autonomy: Leadership and Community in Mayan Guatemala


The Mayan Indians of Guatemala share the burdens of local government by taking on a set of public duties, thereby maintaining community cohesion as well as political autonomy. This article analyses recent changes in this cargo system in a context defined by development, new representations of ‘Mayanness’, and multicultural politics. It shows how sovereignty – grounded in a distinct philosophy of leadership that generates meaningful self-rule – is crucial in facilitating political transformation towards more democratic arrangements at the cost of rule by the elders.

Los indígenas mayas de Guatemala comparten la carga de los gobiernos locales al ejercer ciertas tareas públicas. Éstos, por lo tanto, mantienen una cohesión comunal así como autonomía política. Este artículo analiza los cambios recientes en el sistema de cargo en un contexto definido por el desarrollismo, nuevas representaciones de la ‘mayanidad’, y las políticas multiculturales. Muestra cómo la soberanía (basada en una filosofía distintiva de liderazgo que genera un autogobierno con sentido) es crucial en facilitar la transformación política hacia arreglos más democráticos en vez del régimen anterior de los ancianos.

Os índios maia da Guatemala dividem responsabilidades com o governo local ao assumir uma série de deveres públicos. Desta forma a coesão comunitária e a autonomia política são mantidas. Mudanças recentes neste sistema de ‘cargos’ são analisadas em um contexto definido pelo desenvolvimento, novas representações de ‘maianidade’ e políticas multiculturais. Demonstra-se como a soberania baseada em uma filosofia distinta de liderança, geradora de um verdadeiro governo autônomo, é crucial para facilitar a transformação política na direção de arranjos mais democráticos, às custas da tradicional dominância dos anciões.

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1 The ‘auxiliary’ mayors were renamed ‘communitarian’ mayors in the latest (2002) law on municipalities.

2 This article is based on fieldwork in Totonicapán in 2000 and shorter visits in 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2003. The communal mayors and the leaders of their joint organisation, the Alcaldía Indígena (Indigenous Mayoralty), have been my main informants. All are well-known people in Totonicapán and I have therefore decided not to keep their names anonymous.

3 Wolf, Eric, ‘Closed Corporate Communities in Mesoamerica and Central Java’, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 13: 1 (1957), pp. 118.

4 See, generally, Chance, John K. and Taylor, William B., ‘Cofradías and Cargos: An Historical Perspective on the Mesoamerican Civil-Religious Hierarchy’, American Ethnologist, 12 (1985), pp. 165–84. For Guatemala, see Robert Carmack, Rebels of Highland Guatemala: The Quiché-Mayas of Momostenango (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995); and Flavio Rojas Lima (ed.), La cofradía: reducto cultural indígena (Guatemala City: Seminario de Integración Social, 1988).

5 These issues have been examined by a number of scholars: see Kay Warren, Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997); Pedro Pitarch, Shannon Speed and Xochitl Leyva Solano (eds.), Human Rights in the Maya Region: Global Politics, Cultural Contentions and Moral Engagements (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Walter E. Little and Timothy J. Smith (eds.), Mayas in Postwar Guatemala: Harvest of Violence Revisited (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009); Elisabet Dueholm Rasch, ‘Representing Mayas – Indigenous Authorities and the Local Politics of Identity in Guatemala’, unpubl. doctoral diss., University of Utrecht, 2008.

6 Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat (eds.), States of Imagination: Ethnographic Explorations of the Postcolonial State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat (eds.), Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

7 Veena Das and Deborah Poole (eds.), Anthropology in the Margins of the State (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2004).

8 Ibid., p. 8.

9 Stefano Varese, Witness to Sovereignty (Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2006), p. 27.

10 S. James Anaya, Indigenous Peoples in International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 8.

11 Duncan Ivison, Paul Patton and Will Sanders (eds.), Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 14.

12 Deborah J. Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Postliberal Challenge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

13 Rachel Sieder (ed.), Multiculturalism in Latin America: Indigenous Rights, Diversity and Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 6. Emphasis in original.

14 Ibid., p. 7.

15 Donna Lee Van Cott, Radical Democracy in the Andes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

16 Varese, Witness to Sovereignty, pp. 158–9.

17 Sieder (ed.), Multiculturalism in Latin America, p. 7.

18 Ibid., p. 7.

19 The term is from Peter Hervig, Mayan People Within and Beyond Boundaries: Social Categories and Lived Identity in Yucatán (New York: Routledge, 2003).

20 These themes are expanded in Stener Ekern, ‘Making Government: Community and Leadership in Mayan Guatemala’, unpubl. doctoral diss., University of Oslo, 2006.

21 Edward F. Fischer and R. McKenna Brown (eds.), Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996); Warren, Indigenous Movements.

22 For an assessment of the impact of the AIDPI so far, see Waqi' Q'anil Demetrio Cojtí, Ixtz'ulu' Elsa Son Chonay and Raxche' Rodríguez Guaján, Nuevas perspectivas para la construcción del Estado multinacional (Guatemala City: Cholsamaj, 2007).

23 Dueholm Rasch, Representing Mayas.

24 Lina Barrios, La alcaldía indígena en Guatemala: de 1821 a la revolución de 1944 and La alcaldia indígena en Guatemala: de 1944 al presente (Guatemala City: Universidad Rafael Landívar, Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales, 1998).

25 Interviews with municipal mayors from the 1980s also indicate that the curtailing of the elders' power was a conscious policy, thought of as necessary for bringing development to Totonicapán.

26 For more on Totonicapán, see Carol Smith, ‘Class Position and Class Consciousness in an Indian Community: Totonicapán in the 1970s’, in Carol Smith (ed.), Guatemalan Indians and the State: 1540 to 1988 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990), pp. 205–29. Also see Efraín Tzaquitzal, Pedro Ixchíu and Romeo Tíu, Alcaldes comunales de Totonicapán (Guatemala City: Serviprensa, 2000), for a locally produced study of the Indigenous Mayoralty.

27 Usually referred to in K'iche' as patan, but as this concept is reserved for religious activities in Totonicapán, the word k'axk'ol or ‘pain’ is used instead.

28 Before the Spanish invasion, the great forests of Totonicapán were clan territories which the colonisers referred to as parcialidades. During the colony, the Spanish ‘reordered’ parts of these lands into ejidos – that is, communal land. In this way the bulk of the forest came to be known as ‘the communal forest of Totonicapán’, whereas the rest remained in the hands of the various clans or cantons. When the ejidos were privatised in the 1890s, the indigenous leaders in Totonicapán formed the Association of the Five Parcialidades to ‘defend’ the main forest area (an area that today is a municipal park and from which the town and the centrally located cantons, without direct access to the forest, receive their water). The remaining approximately 20 canton-based parcialidades have turned into communal holdings – that is, all residents are owners – or ownership has remained restricted to one or a few descent groups only, or, in yet other cases, the forest has been divided into private lots. At a meeting with the authorities in Chotacaj – which is a good example of a parcialidad turned into communal property – the people present reasoned that in the 1950s the elders realised that residence-based ownership would be the best way to defend the area, whereas in Juchanep the same pressures resulted in the opposite strategy: the leaders of the families that now consider themselves condueños restricted membership to their own households. See Romeo Tíu López and Pedro García Hierro, Los bosques comunales de Totonicapán: historia, situación jurídica y derechos individuales (Guatemala City: Flacso, Minugua, Contierra, 2002).

29 The real number of cantons is not 48, but 42 or less, depending on the criteria being used. The figure of 48 is of unknown origin, possibly referring to a total of 24 original K'iche'an ‘houses’ settling the area in the 1300s.

30 Carmack, Rebels of Highland Guatemala, pp. 177 and 337–44.

31 This dynamic is first described in Douglas Brintnalls's classic Revolt Against the Dead: The Modernization of a Mayan Community in the Highlands of Guatemala (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1979).

32 Dueholm Rasch, Representing Mayas, p. 239.

33 I visited San Bartolo several times in 2000 and 2003 and spoke with the mayor and other leaders. For Santa Lucía, see Dueholm Rasch, Representing Mayas, p. 270.

34 Both Watanabe and Warren make similar points about how ‘each mind is a world’: John Watanabe, Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World (Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1992); Kay Warren, The Symbolism of Subordination: Indian Identity in a Guatemalan Town (Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1989).

35 In 2000, Efraín Tzaquitzal worked as director of a vocational school, the Escuela Normal Rural de Occidente (Normal School for the Eastern Region, ENRO), and also as a development promoter with a local NGO. He thus combined the experience of teaching students with that of teaching adult illiterates in rural areas. He taught me basic K'iche' and was always helpful with insightful comments on language usage in Totonicapán.

36 The three concepts in question are discussed in many ethnographic works about the Maya, including Watanabe, Mayan Saints and Souls; Warren, The Symbolism of Subordination; Edward F. Fischer, Cultural Logics and Global Economies: Maya Identity in Thought and Practice (Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2001); and Pedro Pitarch, ‘The Labyrinth of Translation: A Tzeltal Version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, in Pitarch, Speed and Leyva Solano (eds.), Human Rights in the Maya Region, pp. 91–121.

37 Watanabe, Mayan Saints and Souls, p. 83–4.

38 Books about the Mayan legal system and Mayan authority published by people associated with the Mayan movement tend to stress the innate aspects of leadership much more than my informants did. See Oxlajuj Ajpop, Ajawareem: la autoridad en el sistema jurídico maya en Guatemala (Guatemala: Oxlajuj Ajpop, 2003); Defensoría Indígena Wajxaqib' No'j, Una visión global del sistema jurídico Maya (Guatemala City: Wajxaqib' No'j, 2006).

39 All over Mayan Guatemala, the visiting development agency officer will be proudly told by community leaders how locals did their share ‘with our lungs only’ (a puro pulmón), which means without access to Ladino machinery.

40 This argument is similar to the way Carlsen and Prechtel deduce a ‘guiding paradigm’ of different concepts of time and change (jalox, k'exoj) to explain the survival of ancient Mayan religious concepts in contemporary, ostensibly Catholic ritual. See Robert S. Carlsen, The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town (Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1997).

41 The CPD specialises in training leaders and administrators and is based in the regional capital of Quetzaltenango.

42 These topics were formulated by the CPD, but were clearly in line with the needs of the international donor, the Swedish aid agency Diakonia, to support ‘decentralisation’, ‘local power’ and ‘gender equality’. At the seminars, the president and board members of the Indigenous Mayoralty never made any reference to the fact that the seminars were paid for by Sweden and designed by an NGO from Quetzaltenango.

43 This NGO was Servicios Jurídicos y Sociales (Legal and Social Services, SERJUS), a large professional project consultancy service based in Guatemala City which, just like Diakonia, had ‘decentralisation’ and ‘local power’ high on its agenda during these years.

44 Tanya Korovkin makes a similar observation in relation to Ecuador, where Otavalo communities have been able to reinvent the communal tradition by ‘recreating their identity largely around issues of governance: building infrastructure, monitoring education, and punishing thieves’. She concludes that the ‘implicitly statist aspects’ of this ‘cultural experimentation … are often overlooked in studies on indigenous identity and civil society’. Korovkin, Tanya, ‘Reinventing the Communal Tradition: Indigenous Peoples, Civil Society, and Democratization in Andean Ecuador’, Latin American Research Review, 36: 3 (2001), pp. 3767.

45 Alejandro Anaya Muñoz's comparison of the ‘politics of recognition’ in two different Mexican states illustrates the critical importance of this connection. In Oaxaca, 447 of the state's 570 municipalities are considered indigenous and each contains an average of 15 communities, thus presenting a situation quite similar to that in San Bartolo and Santa Lucía in Totonicapán. This has enabled communally based indigenous authorities to assume the operation of state services and simultaneously reproduce their own authority system because the electoral law of the state allows elections in accordance with ancestral custom (usos y costumbres). In Chiapas, state legislation also gives ‘autonomy’ to the ‘community’, but this and other pieces of legislation make no concrete references to electoral or other distinct practices. Moreover, in each of the 31 municipalities considered indigenous in Chiapas, the average number of communities is 112. Anaya Muñoz concludes that in Oaxaca, the ‘degree of legitimacy’ of the politics of recognition has been much higher because of ‘an important coincidence between the tangible and symbolic goods delivered’ by these politics. Alejandro Anaya Muñoz, ‘The Emergence and Development of the Politics of Recognition of Cultural Diversity and Indigenous People's Rights in Mexico: Chiapas and Oaxaca in Comparative Perspective’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 37: 3 (2005), pp. 585–610.

46 Incidentally, Pedro Ixchíu, who led the communal mayors in 2000, has since worked on a project establishing defensorías indígenas, free legal aid for indigenous people, as a permanent wing of the Instituto de la Defensa Pública Penal (IDPP), the country's free legal aid agency, as well as ‘enhancing respect for indigenous legal practices’ by inviting representatives from indigenous mayoralties and law courts to joint seminars. See

47 See Vered Amit, ‘Reconceptualizing Community’, in Vered Amit (ed.), Realizing Community: Concepts, Social Relationships and Sentiments (London: Routledge, 2002).

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Journal of Latin American Studies
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