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Resource November 21, 2011

Trapped Between Two Glories: The Ethnic Mayans of Guatemala



Rudi Alburez wears a plaid dress shirt, jeans and an ornate belt buckle. I can see the faint outline of a handgun in his back pocket.

Alburez is tall and confident as he leads me through the bustling market of San Martin, in the highlands of Guatemala. He says that he feels at home in San Martin, but he carries the gun just in case. He's the mayor, after all, and as I follow him through the impoverished, decrepit streets, I'm reminded that it is not a safe place.

I'm volunteering in Guatemala for Global Dental Relief, a non-profit organization that brings dental care to impoverished children around the world. During the course of my work, I meet dozens of Guatemalans who each have their own perspective on the recent history of the country. Alburez, whom I met with the assistance of another local non-profit, the Behorst Partners for Development, is eager to tell me about his work, particularly with San Martin's ethnic Mayan population.

As I enter his office, accompanied by aides carrying glasses of water to relieve the July heat, I'm greeted by a large, framed painting of the local church—the centerpiece of the room. I sit down with Alburez and Marily Lopez, a senior official at Behorst who serves as my translator, and begin my questions just as a tri-wheel without a muffler barrels down the street outside. I focus on the condition of San Martin's Mayan minority because, as one US diplomat who wished to remain anonymous said, "the natives are stubborn, and they are not prospering."

According to Lopez, contemporary Mayan communities are isolated and rural. They survive with little intervention or aid from the government. Disease, combined with inadequate medical care, leads to high mortality rates and chronic illness.

"The government sends doctors once a month. But Mayans don't get sick just once a month. Women die frequently just from giving birth because the conditions are so bad," explains Lopez.

Alburez raises another key issue: poor education. Even if the government were committed to schooling the Mayan population, a considerable language barrier remains. There are over 20 different Mayan dialects; Guatemalan education is conducted in Spanish. Even if a teacher knows a bit of one Mayan dialect, he or she cannot reach children of every vernacular. Overcrowded classrooms of 60 children or more, child-labor practices, and the language barrier cause most ethnic Mayan children to drop out of school by sixth grade.

US observers agree with the San Martin mayor's assessment that lack of education condemns a child to a life of hard labor and poverty. According to Sue Patterson, a former US Consul General in Guatemala City, 57 percent of the Guatemalan population lives on less than two dollars per day, and of that population, over 80 percent are ethnic Mayan. Patterson adds that high birth rates contribute to endemic poverty: the poorest 20 percent of Guatemalan families have an average of eight children, and 90 percent of those families are Mayan.

Why would families rooted in poverty choose to make their own situation worse by having so many children? I pose this question to Alburez, mindful of the painting of his local church on his office wall.

"What does the Church say about birth control?" Alburez pauses, then looks at me, smiling: "There is an old Spanish saying: 'One cannot have two glories.' The people here take their spirituality very seriously. While family planning is good, God comes first."

God, it appears, likes large families.

As we leave the mayor's offices, Lopez explains that in order to produce enough food to feed their families, Mayan women have numerous children to ensure an adequate labor force for the fields. The cycle is devastating: families grow quickly in order to produce enough food, but simultaneously create more mouths to feed. And the practice is endorsed by local churches (often the greatest authority in rural regions), which preach that contraception is a sin. The Guatemalan Catholic hierarchy protested government plans to institute contraception education in schools. The archbishop of Guatemala, Oscar Julio Vian Morales, equated the policy with educating youth in the art of murder.

Further, government efforts to subsidize Mayan education have indirectly contributed to population growth. "The government provides a single amount of 300 quetzals ($40.00) to families for every child that they send to school. The trouble is Mayan mothers just have more children to get money out of the education program," Lopez says.

Mayan populations are difficult to reach because of their geographic isolation and also because of historical mistrust of the federal government, which is predominately made up of non-Mayan, Spanish-speaking Guatemalans. In 1960, the indigenous Mayans rebelled. The government reacted mercilessly, using American weaponry to suppress the protests. Civilian militias fought back, but often became confused as to whom they were fighting and whom they were expected to defend.

The blind destruction was tantamount to genocide; 95 percent of those killed were Mayan, Lopez tells me.

San Martin resident Christina Belascoto, who is half Mayan, describes her memories of the conflict: "Little by little, chaos descended. The Army and the civilian militia were both killing indiscriminately. Soon, we couldn't even recognize who was killing us."

Those seeking shelter from government or civilian forces fled their homes for the mountains. Many were killed either by the search parties sent after them or the harsh cold of the winters that followed, Belascoto says

Today, Mayans still remember the atrocities and resent their government.

"The government wanted to keep us in check. They don't want to educate us and they don't want us to study. They want us to stay subservient," Belascoto says. Her attitude is not unique among ethnic Mayans, according to Patterson, the former US consul. "They've been deceived," she says. "There have been a lot of promises that were made but never fulfilled. They've become quite skeptical."

If medical care for ethnic Mayans is scarce in San Martin, dental care is nearly nonexistent. Over the course of the five days I spend in the dental clinic, I help to treat a number of young Mayans ranging in age from 5 to 19. They arrive by the truckload from remote villages surrounding San Martin. Their teeth are in terrible condition by the time they reach adolescence, requiring us to extract the dead roots through painful procedures.

As I assisted a dentist who was doing this, I reflected that after they left the clinic, these young people would be heading back to a life of poverty and hard labor. I could only hope that their lives would be an exception to this pattern, that something within their society would change decisively and soon.

Sam Mathews was the winner of the Pulitzer Center Student Journalism Challenge. The contest was the result of a partnership between the Pulitzer Center and the Washington International School through their Student News Action Network, an online forum that enables student journalists from secondary schools across the globe to use new media to address critical local and global issues in a peer-driven environment.