Research Projects

Indigenous movements and memory activism in Guatemala

My primary research sites in Guatemala include Guatemala City, Santa Cruz del Quiché, and the municipio of Cantel, Quetzaltenango. I have spent approximately 35 months in Guatemala over the past 8 years. During all of 2010 and most of 2011, I divided my time between these 3 departments while conducting my doctoral research, a multi-sited ethnographic project that involved working alongside the staff in three organizations that have played vital roles in the Maya cultural and language revitalization movements over the past generation:

  • Asociación Aj B'atz' Enlace Quiché, pioneers in the use of digital media and internet communications as tools for bilingual language education--particularly in K'iche', Sakapulteko, and Ixil.
  • Fundación y Editorial Cholsamaj, a Kaqchikel Maya-run publishing house and organization dedicated to "systematizing and disseminating the history, culture, technology, languages," and other knowledge traditions pertaining to the Pueblo Maya.
  • Comunidad Lingüística K'iche' (CLK), a division of the Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages, charged with standardizing and promoting literacy in K'iche' Mayan--the most widely-spoken indigenous language in Guatemala

I learned a great deal about the status and strategies of the (pan-)Maya movements from my colleagues in these organizations. In particular, I found that disagreements about how to shape the future tend to revolve around competing interpretations of the past. For example, given the horrific experience of violence in many indigenous communities during the internal armed conflict, the Guatemalan state is still viewed with suspicion. What, then, should the state's role and responsibility be in the future? Many communities prefer local forms of governance, including the authority to control the development of local land and resources.

My research focuses primarily on the practices of indigenous and popular organizations involved in the production of knowledge about historical memory, a salient theme of public debate in Guatemala. Drawing on multi-sited ethnography, I investigated the roles of authors, publishers, educators, and literacy promoters engaged in campaigns to incorporate Maya perspectives on history, a project with important political and sociocultural consequences in a country that remains largely defined by legacies of colonialism and cold war violence. The strategies adopted by these ‘memory activists’ span from producing new history textbooks and organizing marches, to pressing for the prosecution of former dictators for war crimes.

This research was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Education (via a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Grant, number P022A090008) as well as a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant (#8209) from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Preliminary fieldwork was supported by grants from the Department of Anthropology at Washington University, as well as competitive university-wide grants and fellowships such as the International Pre-Dissertation Research Grant from the Department of International and Area Studies. Language study in K'iche' Mayan during the summer of 2008 was enabled by a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education.