Indigenous demonstrations bring Guatemala to a halt

This blog post goes with an article that I wrote with my friend Anna Watts for Comvite.

Please read our article as well: Indigenous Jurisdiction In Guatemala.

My heart lies in activism, and I’ve been to many marches, protests and demos. Usually, I’m in the throng of it all, mingling in with a bunch of people who’ve come to unite for a cause we all feel passionately about. This time, I was purely an observer, and it felt very different. Especially because I was in rural Guatemala with my friend Anna, a photographer, and we were planning to observe a demonstration organised by the indigenous authorities, whom we knew were likely to be wary of our presence.

It began when Anna and I visited the stunning town of Nebaj, in north-western Guatemala. To get there we had to cut across part of the Cuchumatanes, a mountain range that covers over 6,000 square miles; a long and incredibly bumpy journey, especially when you’re squeezed into an overcrowded Guatemalan “chicken bus”. Nebaj’s residents are mainly indigenous Mayans, and the weekend we were there marked the New Year in the Maya calendar. We met a local leader and spiritual guide, Doña Ana, who invited us to attend the celebrations. Ana’s charisma, charm and fiercely independent spirit were captivating, and we accepted the invite.

Map: our home town of Panajachel (to the south),  and the highland town of Nebaj (to the north)

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The peaks of the Sierra de las Cuchumatanes

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A little ‘un peeks through traditional clothing in Nebaj’s bustling market. Nebajense women wear beautiful red cortes, (traditional skirts). The intricate, colourful strips of fabric hanging above are fajas, (women’s belts).

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Women in the Nebaj market wear their beautiful traditional dress. Photo credit: Anna Watts

The main ceremonial procedures to mark the new year took place inside a church. It is common today for Mayan spirituality and beliefs to mix in various ways with those of Christianity, so whilst churches are often home to such ceremonies, there are differences in symbolism and meaning. The altar was surrounded by candles and incense, as well as bottles of Quetzalteca, Guatemalan’s infamous rum, as it’s fair to say that it wasn’t an entirely sober event (much like our own 31 December celebrations!). Despite everybody being generally welcoming, we didn’t want to intrude on a sacred event, so after a couple of hours we left, although not before participating in a cleansing ceremony which involved being beaten with tree branches. As midnight approached, the celebrations spilled out onto the church plaza, with people drinking and dancing to the uplifting tones of the marimba, a traditional Guatemalan percussion instrument.

During our first meeting, Doña Ana had told us of how the indigenous authorities from all over Guatemala had for months been trying to get an amendment to the constitution passed. The amendment would officially recognise the indigenous justice system in parallel with the official state system. It had been an extremely difficult process, with some members of the Congress using evasion tactics and refusing to debate the issue. Recently, Congress had been scheduled to debate the issue once again, but it was postponed yet again. The indigenous authorities were fed up of the constant delays.

When we told Doña Ana that we planned to travel back home to Panajachel the following Tuesday, she raised an eyebrow and smirked. She couldn’t tell us anything, of course, because she didn’t know anything at all, but, perhaps transport across Guatemala might be impeded next week. We had a sneaking suspicion that this was a tip-off not to try and travel on Tuesday. Some other foreigners we’d met that weekend, who had worked closely with Nebaj’s indigenous communities for some years, confirmed this in our minds. “When the indigenous authorities do this kind of thing, they do it properly,” said one, with a wry smile. So, we changed our plans and made the six hour bus journey home on Monday.

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A little girl in Chajul, an indigenous town close to Nebaj, stands next to her mother’s washing line on the front porch, wearing her traditional corte (skirt), faja (belt) and huipil (top). Photo credit: Anna Watts

Tuesday 22nd February came, and if there were demonstrations taking place, we wanted to be there! Anna and I decided to make the 40-minute bus journey up to the main road junction of Los Encuentros, where we’d heard people were going to gather. We soon realised that we would have to walk, since transport outside of our town had already ground to a halt. Just 20 minutes into our hike, we came across the first roadblock, at the small town of San Jorge la Laguna. “Why are you protesting?” we asked. “The electricity prices are too high, they’ve risen incredibly,” came the first reply. “Electricity prices… and some other things,” came another.

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The first blockade at San Jorge la Laguna. Photo credit: Anna Watts

We continued climbing the road out of Panajachel, a series of steep bends winding up away from the lakeshore, incredibly picturesque, but tiring and sweaty in the burning heat. We passed many people on their way down to Panajachel on foot, and when we asked what the protests were about, electricity prices, or simply “la luz” (the lights) were cited as the reason.

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The view down the hill, to our lakeside home town of Panajachel, or “Pana”

Half-way up the hill, a car pulled up beside us. The two guys inside it worked for a local government ministry and had been unable to pass the San Jorge blockade to get down to a meeting in Panajachel. “We couldn’t pass by two pretty young things like you without picking them up!” It was typical Guatemalan machismo of the kind that Anna and I usually rail against, but today, in the stifling heat and knowing that Los Encuentros was at least another 9 miles, we weren’t going to argue. They took us as far as the next town, Sololá, and wished us luck.

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Cars queueing at a road block

Sololá town is the capital of the department also called Sololá, with a majority indigenous population of 92%. This large town has both a municipal mayor and an indigenous mayor. Today, Sololá was a ghost town. The market, usually a hive of activity, was closed, and all stores had their shutters down. A couple of locals told us that if you opened your store, you’d be fined. By who it wasn’t clear, but we reckoned the indigenous authorities. I remembered the words of our friend from Nebaj: when they do this… they do it properly.

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The deserted streets of Sololá

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The market, usually a bustling local hub every day of the week, was locked up

Vehicles were scarce in Sololá, but we managed to hitch a lift as far as the next road blockade with a couple from the U.S. who said they ran an orphanage nearby. As we said goodbye and wished them luck with their journey, the man gave us a cheery wave and said,“don’t you worry, our Lord will take care of us!”.

As we made our way on foot through the next blockade, the atmosphere was much tenser than before, and I felt the presence of two gringas, one with a camera, might be unwelcome. I smiled, and tried to make a joke with some of the demonstrators, all men, standing firm on the picket line they’d constructed with rocks and a large strip of metal. My joke attempt received minimal nervous laughter, so we carried on.

Eventually, we arrived, not at Los Encuentros, but at another road junction known locally as “La Cuchilla”, which had also been transformed into a blockade site. Tired and hungry, we decided that this would be our final stop for today. We managed to get some ice pops, despite commerce of any kind apparently being prohibited, which to us seemed bizarre as so many indigenous people work in the informal sector as street vendors, and snacks are usually available in abundance. We joined the crowds of locals sitting on the road, listening to the indigenous leaders speaking across a PA system set up in the back of a pickup truck.

Points on the map (distance A –> E is about 11 miles):

A: Our lakeside home town of Panajachel
B: San Jorge La Laguna, where we came across the first road blockade
C: The major town of Sololá, above which we walked through a second blockade
D: The road junction called “La Cuchilla”
E: The major road junction and largest protest site we attended, called “Los Encuentros

On 22 February, we got as far as point “D”, La Cuchilla.
On 23 February, we took a bus to point “E”, Los Encuentros, and walked home.

Listening to the speeches from our spot on the kerbside was frustrating. Whenever we felt as though were beginning to get the gist of a sentence, the speaker would hop from Spanish back into the local indigenous language of Kaq’chikel. This was not surprising, as many Spanish words have made it into the Kaq’chikel vocabulary. We could, however, understand the communal chant, “un pueblo unido, nunca sera vencido!” A united town will never be defeated!

From the words we could pick up, it was clear to us that the leaders were talking about the indigenous justice system. We approached an indigenous leader to explain that we had come in solidarity, and to ask whether they would allow Anna to take some photographs. He politely declined. So we went back to our spot on the kerb, and, having heard that the protests were due to continue the following day, made plans to ensure we’d get all the way to Los Encuentros. At about 3:30pm, a leader announced that the demonstration had ended for the day, so we hopped on one of the many chicken buses parked up by the side of the road and got a free ride back down to Sololá.

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A Guatemalan ‘chicken bus’ is an old U.S. school bus. Most are given fantastically bright and elaborate paint jobs on arrival in Guatemala, but Sololá buses tend to keep their original yellow.

On day two of the demonstrations, we took an early busy all the way up to our intended destination the previous day: Los Encuentros. This major road junction connects to all of western Guatemala. We arrived at about 7:30am, and to all appearances it was business as usual with buses coming through, unloading, loading up, and moving on. At 8:30am, however, a large flatbed trailer pulled up lengthways across the junction, and let off a cargo of people. Several other trucks followed, all full to the brim of people who climbed off and joined the throngs of demonstrators. By 9am, the junction was crowded and the indigenous leaders had set up a sound system in the middle of the crowd. They began taking it in turns to speak to the attentive crowd. No traffic was going to pass this major highway stop until at least 4pm.

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People began to arrive in trucks…

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… and carried on until the road was fully blocked, allowing no traffic to pass.

Today, it was clear that people were out in force demanding the reforms which would legally recognise the indigenous justice system in Guatemala. Their many banners and handmade signs bore the message clearly.

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“Yes to the approval of the reforms to the justice sector” / “Yes to the constitutional recognition of the indigenous justice system” / “Authorities of Chaquijya Present”

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“We want the approval of the constitutional reforms to the justice sector and the constitutional recognition of the indigenous justice system.”

The demonstrations at Los Encuentros were much less intimate than the gathering we’d attended the day before at La Cuchilla, with at least a couple of thousand people in attendance. We told curious onlookers where we were from, and explained that we were there to support and document the demonstrations. They seemed satisfied with this explanation.

We soon caught the eye of some of the indigenous community leaders, identifiable by their beautifully intricate traje (traditional clothing) and deliberately conspicuous wooden staffs, which convey authority. We waited anxiously whilst one figure of authority took our message of solidarity to some apparently more senior leaders, and I have to admit it felt a little magical when the leader gave us a wave of approval, agreeing that we could stay and carry on taking pictures.

About four hours later, having spoken with many demonstrators, including community leaders, villagers, students, and group of foreign businessmen and their Guatemalan guide who’d been inadvertently caught out by the demos, we headed for home. With no transport to be found, this was a walk of about 11 miles, some of it along the uncharacteristically empty Pan American highway, which runs from Argentina to Mexico and beyond. It was pretty crazy walking along the middle of this road that we usually rumble down in a chicken bus, with heavy goods vehicles thundering past.  

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Anna, in the middle of the Pan American Highway

I was left with many questions about the demonstrations.

I had a hunch that perhaps the indigenous authorities had used the issue of electricity to bring people to the streets on Tuesday, where they explained the issue of the indigenous justice system reform, and encouraged them to return the following day to demonstrate in favour of its approval. Of course, I may be wrong. However, in a country where lack of infrastructure and widespread poverty makes travelling for any purpose other than maintaining livelihoods almost impossible, holding a mass demonstration is possibly the most practical way for the indigenous authorities to gather together those they represent and speak about an issue which greatly concerns them.

On the other hand, it didn’t appear that all of the demonstrators were there by free choice. Run your business as usual, or fail to turn up, and you risk being fined, we heard.

Either way, by the second day, the message about justice reform certainly seemed to have spread much farther and wider, and there were even demonstrators advocating for recognition of the indigenous justice system in our home town, the tourist hub of Panajachel.

We noted that coverage of the two days of protest in both the national and international press was scarce, and commentary in the Guatemalan press focused almost entirely on the inconvenience caused by the demonstrators.

Also fascinating was the apparent secrecy which surrounded the demonstrations up until the last minute, and we wondered at the organisational feat it must have taken to arrange them. There was no use of social media, as Anna and I are so used to, being activists from the UK and the US. Neither were any details released until late the night before. Despite this, entire indigenous communities, even down to the small lakeside town of San Juan la Laguna, were primed and ready to demonstrate at 8am on 22 February.

I was glad to have had the chance to attend the demonstrations and witness such a powerful show of resistance from Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. These communities have suffered violence and oppression over many centuries, including during the hauntingly recent Guatemalan Civil War which ran from 1960-1996. More than anybody, they deserve to have strong voice with which to advocate for social and political change which will benefit them. I hope that it was heard loud and clear by the Guatemalan government on February 22nd and 23rd 2017.

Please don’t forget to read our article as well: Indigenous Jurisdiction In Guatemala.


Oh, AND I made some new friends, on the way home… 🙂

Hat boys by Anna

Photo credit: Anna Watts

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