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Maya and Catholic Cultures in Crisis$

John Early

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780813040134

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813040134.001.0001

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The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

(p.72) 6 The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers
Maya and Catholic Cultures in Crisis

John D. Early

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

While the Maya crisis had its taproot in their loss of land and the self-sufficiency it provided, the crisis was much more embracing. It was a crisis of physical survival with a very low life expectancy. It was a crisis of the legitimacy of their social organization as its civil and religious roles were undermined, and of the validity of their worldview from which they drew life's meaning, morality and their self-identity. It was a crisis of an entire culture. Communites sought divergent solutions. Some opted for ritual intensification as dictated by the traditional worldview. Others adopted Tridentine Catholicism either as orthodox Catholicism or a cyclic revitalization of the Maya covenant.

Keywords:   Maya crisis, life expectancy, social organization, worldview and self-identity

The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

Given the population increase of both the Maya and ladinos, given the intrusion of ladinos with their culturally different legal and political systems into Maya communities, given the Maya loss of land and self-subsistence, given the resulting sickness and high mortality, given the consequent questioning of the Maya covenant, given the search for alternatives to some long-standing strains within the Maya community itself, and given the involvement of Maya in the wage economy, by the mid-twentieth century the traditional Maya culture was in crisis.

An Individual Copes with the External and Internal Pressures

An autobiographical account by Rudolfo Ruíz Santis from Magdalenas, Chiapas, puts flesh-and-blood on the abstract description of the various (p.73) pressures confronting the Maya during this time (Chojnacki 2004: 21–64). Rudolfo's father was a Maya campesino who had three sons and two daughters. He had inherited a small amount of land, about two and a half acres, from which it was impossible to obtain yearly subsistence for his family. Consequently, his father rented additional land. Still unable to meet the needs of his family, he had to borrow money from labor contractors, to be paid off by working two to three months of the year on coffee plantations for five dollars a day. This amount was frequently reduced for his liquor expenses, as he was a heavy drinker. Rudolfo's father was deeply involved in the civil-religious hierarchy of his community, performing and financing rituals in eight positions, including that of the highly prestigious and expensive alférez.

The oldest of his three sons, Rudolfo, was born in 1959. Rudolfo attended the primary school in town. Every day after school he went to the milpa to help his father. After repeating several grades, he graduated from the sixth grade at age seventeen. During school vacations, he walked several days with his father to work on the plantations. He remembers the taunts as they passed through ladino towns in their traditional dress with their machetes and tortilla bags in hand. Life on the plantations was difficult. They slept on wooden planks in dirty dormitories, rose before dawn, ate some beans and tortillas, started weeding and cleaning the fields at dawn, and worked until mid-afternoon.

I prayed to God. Why do I suffer like this? Sometimes I cried while I worked. There was so much sickness at home, too. My father drank because of his cargos, and he had lots of debts. We had to buy corn and medicine and pay the curandero [shaman], and the debts piled up. My father didn't think, he only drank. Why did I have to leave home, leave my mother? Some of it was my father's fault, but some of it had to do with sickness. It was because of “la pobreza,” the poverty. Anyway that's how I explained it to my father. I was the oldest son, so I spoke to him to try to get him to stop drinking. When he was drunk he beat my mother and threatened and hurt people with his machete. (Chojnacki 2004: 25)

The loss of land to ladinos, cargo expenses, drinking with its web of destruction, debts to labor contractors, and poor health were all tied together. Rudolfo, like many Maya, wondered, “Why do I suffer like this? What can I do about it?”

Shortly after graduation, Rudolfo's father arranged for his marriage to Margarita. His father gave him seven or eight cuerdas of land (0.83 to 2.3 (p.74) acres) as his inheritance. To provide for his growing family of three girls, Rudolfo, like his father, had to work on the coffee plantations. Rudolfo spent a year performing community service in the lowest religious cargo, as a mayordomo in charge of church maintenance. Later, he performed service in the two lowest civil positions, as policeman and regidor. He was poor, struggling. While it may appear that he was following the traditional pattern of community life, other influences were at work. These will be seen in chapter 15.

The Extent of the Maya Crisis

The crisis is frequently referred to as “Maya poverty” or “a subsistence crisis.” This implies that the crisis was essentially an economic crisis, a lack of resources to acquire physical goods, especially food. While the Maya crisis had its taproot in their loss of land and the self-sufficiency the land provided, the crisis was much more embracing. It was a crisis of physical survival, of the legitimacy of the Maya's social organization, and of the validity of their worldview from which they drew life's meaning, morality, and their self-identity. In brief, it was the crisis of a culture.

Crisis of Physical Survival

Land loss, abusive labor practices, low wages, alcoholic excess, population increase: the cumulative results of these and additional problems translated into high mortality for Maya families. A life table is a powerful summary, not only of health conditions within a community but of the impact on the community of the total social system in which it is embedded. As shown in table 6.1, the Maya life expectancy at birth (e0) in Santiago Atitlán in the 1940s and 1950s was 30 years of age. This figure is confirmed by the slightly higher life expectancy, 34.5 years, for the department of Sololá, of which Santiago Atitlán is a part. Sololá as a whole includes a small but better-off ladino population, which slightly elevates the departmental average compared to Santiago Atitlán (Early 1982: 98, 115).

An inspection of the table for the 1950s and 1960s shows that the high infant and child mortality rates (the first four years of life, 4q0) are most responsible for this low life expectancy. From a group of children born in any single year, 13 percent die in the first year of life. The high mortality continues for the next four years. By the time the group reaches five years of age, about 40 percent of these children have perished, only 60 percent surviving (15). The high mortality continues, so that by the age of twenty, (p.75)

Table 6.1. Life Table Functions, Santiago Atitlán, 1940–1969














0 (at birth)


































































































































Source: Condensed from Early 1982: 98.

Notes: qx is the probability of dying within the age interval.

lx is the number (or percentage, if read as decimals) surviving since birth at the beginning of the age interval.

ex is the years of life expectancy beyond the beginning of the age interval.

50 percent of the original birth group are dead. For those who survive, their weakened immune systems and their strenuous work routines also take a toll. By age fifty, only 32 percent of the original birth group are still alive, and by age sixty, 20 percent.

What is the cause of so much early death? The underlying biological cause is malnutrition. A study of the dietary intake of both Maya and ladino children aged 0–4 from lower socioeconomic families in rural Guatemala found a 58 percent deficiency of calories (Early 1982: 107). For Maya groups, the percentage would be higher. In Chiapas, an estimated 90 percent of the children were malnourished (Benjamin 1996: 231). Figures 6.1 and 6.2 show in greater detail the results of malnutrition, seen in the frontispiece. It is a case of marasmus due to protein and caloric deficiency. The body begins wasting away as it turns in on itself and feeds off of its own body fat and muscles. Bone growth is retarded. Many such cases end in death. This was not a rare case in the Maya area. The boy is held by his older sister, through whose devoted care and that of the Santiago well-baby program, he managed to survive. Many do not.

The introductory photograph to this chapter shows a girl suffering from another type of malnutrition, kwashiorkor. This is due to protein deficiency with barely sufficient caloric intake. Kwasiorkor upsets the body's (p.76)

The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

Figure 6.1. A frontal view of the child in the frontispiece shows the results of marasmus.

The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

Figure 6.2. A rear view of the same child showing the ravages of malnutrition.

metabolism, resulting in excess fluids that build up under the skin. This creates the puffiness seen in the girl's face and body. The fluid can contain blood that appears as red blotches, barely visible as darkened areas on the girl's upper left arm. This girl had just returned to Santiago Atitlán with her family after working on a South Coast plantation. Figure 6.3 shows another kwashiorkor case. In bloated areas, the skin sometimes breaks from the weight of the patient's body on the bed. Patients are wrapped in bandages to absorb the seeping liquid, seen here as the dark areas of the bandages. Such patients require extensive care due to the danger of infection where the skin breaks. Figure 6.4 shows recuperating malnutrition patients. Notice the bloating in the patient at the right.

Many malnutrition cases do not die of malnutrition alone. Malnutrition so weakens the immune system that a person easily falls victim to any infectious disease to which he or she is exposed. There is a lethal synergistic interaction between malnutrition and infectious disease (Early 1982: (p.77)

The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

Figure 6.3. A malnutrition patient in the hospital in Huehuetenango.

The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

Figure 6.4. Recuperating malnutrition patients at the hospital in Huehuetenango.

The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

Figure 6.5. For those who do not survive the ordeal of malnutrition and infectious disease, the procession to the cemetery follows. Frequently, as here, the casket is a small one.

The Maya Crisis and the Search for Answers

Figure 6.6. Early death also overtakes many adults.

(p.79) 101–7). As synergistic, the two together create a multiplier-effect that is greater than the additive-effect, if each one acted independently of the other. Measles, whooping cough, and similar childhood diseases are lethal in these conditions. As seen in the life table, particularly hard hit are infants in the first year of life and young children from the second to the fourth year of life. Clinical data chart the course of the pathology.

The effect of the common communicable diseases of childhood—measles, whooping cough, mumps, rubella and chickenpox—on the nutritional status of the patient scarcely rests in the episode itself, but rather in the extent to which the attack is part of a sequence of repeated, often nonspecific infections, most often the ordinary infectious syndrome of intestinal and upper respiratory tracts. The effect is additive and cumulative. Conversely, these usually benign diseases derive their enhanced fatality, greater frequency of complications and exaggerated clinical course through attack on the less resistant host, to which nutritional deficiency contributes importantly. To know the full potentiality of these diseases … information is necessary on preceding numbers and duration of these other infections, so largely the diarrheas and common colds. (Salomon, Mata and Gordon 1968)

The results are shown in figures 6.5 and 6.6, which depict the daily funeral processions in Maya communities, especially those with small coffins. They illustrate the problem of physical survival with which the Maya had to cope.

The above photographs visualize the meaning of the abstract words “poverty” and “subsistence crisis.” Ultimately, the problem was not nutritional nor biological. It was the result of being embedded in a political-economic system marked by systemic injustice that had been responsible for the seizure of large amounts of Maya land and forced them into an unjust wage market. These external forces were reinforced by Maya internal problems of population increase, excessive ritual expenses, and alcohol abuse—the latter two seen as imperatives of the traditional Maya worldview.

Crisis of Doubt about the Worldview

For the Maya, the loss of land was not simply the loss of their primary source of food and livelihood. As seen in chapter 2, the traditional worldview saw the fertility of land as a power, a force, a divine emanation handed down from ancestors to fulfill covenant obligations.

(p.80) To the land which nourishes him, which was the home of his ancestors, including his father, and the place which they still frequent in spirit, the Indian is attached by feelings of passionate intensity. The love of the land, of each man for his own piece of land, is one of the deepest emotions which he feels; it is at the root of family life and social structure; it is the basis alike of strongest attachments and bitterest enmities. In gathering information about sorcery, land quarrels, especially quarrels between brothers, were the most frequently mentioned cause of discord which led either to angry visitations from the ancestors or to recourse to black magic by the one who felt himself cheated.

Land is conceived as belonging to the ancestors; one lives upon it by their grace. One does not own land, it is merely loaned to one as a lodging in the world, and for it one must continually make payments in the form of candles, incense and roses to the ancestors who are the real owners. (Bunzel 1959: 17–18)

A ritual ceremony renewed the cyclical power of the land to produce a crop. “From the stories of the elders, one gets the impression that the ancestral patrimony and its residents were united in a single religious community in which prayer to the dead ancestors perpetuated the fertility of the land obtained by the living through inheritance” (Davis 1997: 65).

But by the mid-twentieth century, many Maya had little or no land, despite the fact that many had served in cargo/cofradía roles and performed the required rituals, and that some had lived their lives in conformity with the traditional moral code. Yet the gods had not protected them, had allowed their land to be taken from them, had not provided the food necessary for their survival. In this way, the subsistence crisis struck at the very heart of the traditional worldview and self-identity described in chapter 2. The crisis of worldview grew with the increasing immersion of the Maya in the national economy. Land had been turned into a commodity, to be obtained at a price determined by the blind law of supply and demand or by legal or illegal manipulation of national laws. The logics of these institutions contradicted the Maya worldview. Land lost its sacred character and its relation to the Maya covenant. What did this imply about the Maya covenant itself and the sacredness of nature?

There was a similar problem with regard to labor. Traditional Maya self-identity was that of a producer of maize from the land to fulfill the covenant. Hence, work was something sacred. Work assistance to others was (p.81) guided by reciprocity principles, a system of mutual sharing. Now labor, and consequently human beings, had also been turned into a market commodity, to be exchanged for a wage determined by a system of structured injustice. What did this imply about the role of human beings in the Maya covenant? Among the Q'eqchi' of Alta Verapaz, Wilson (1995: 158) found the tone of this sixteenth-century lament continually repeated.

O God, how painful it is to hear you say that what we thought isn't true, rather there is another truth.

O God, don't you hear our ancestors tell us that the tzuultaq'a [Maya gods] give us our corn, the water, the rain, the fire? O God, don't you hear that our kin offered pom [incense] and hit their legs [with branches as a cure] at the cross roads? And didn't that get rid of the pain?

Don't you know that it got rid of our fevers and chills? O God, how hard it is for us to believe what you say—that there is another truth, O God.

O God, how hard it is to believe that there is no tzuultaq'a, that there never was, nor will there ever be, not over there in the sinkhole, nor in the mountains when we hear the thunder and the lightning flashes in the sky.

In spite of doubts, there was fear that the ancestral and saint gods would be enraged by failure to continue the feeding and other rituals. Additional sickness, death, and natural disasters would be the expected punishments. For many Maya, it was a period of fear, confusion.

Crisis of Legitimacy of the Social Organization

As ladinos moved into Maya towns, since they were familiar with the national law mandating the governance of municipios, some became political bosses or took over the positions of civil authority. The lack of resources made it difficult for many Maya to maintain all the religious positions of the hierarchy because of the expense required for ritual items. As the market economy expanded, Maya merchants' need for capital competed with the ritual expenditures of the cargo system. They no longer wished to serve. The result was the undermining of the civil-religious hierarchies of Maya towns and of the role of the principales as the ultimate authority in all matters. The hierarchy, or some variant of it, was the skeleton of the social organization of every Maya community and the protector of its (p.82) traditional customs, the costumbre. The higher officials of this structure, especially the principales, embodied the wisdom of the ancestors. How could this be so if it no longer functioned?

A Crisis of Culture and Self-Identity

The words “poverty,” “subsistence crisis,” and similar phrases are highly inadequate labels to describe what was happening to the Maya. In varying degrees for different individuals, the crisis involved all the main elements of their culture: subsistence; the morality of their social organization; and the legitimacy of their worldview. It is only with this understanding that one can appreciate the depth of the crisis and the consequent search for survival, community, and identity. “Subsistence crisis,” or “physical survival,” describe the most immediate problem that had to be faced. As such, they are useful labels, and we will use them a number of times in the upcoming chapters. But it must be remembered that they are linked to problems of social organization, and especially to the defining element of a culture, its worldview.

The ethnographer Moksnes (2003: 22) has expressed the difficulty many have for clearly understanding the depth of this crisis because of its inadequate treatment in the ethnographic literature.

I felt strangely unprepared in spite of my previous periods of living in San Cristóbal and the ethnographies I had read at the time from the area, for the poverty and vulnerability Pedranos and other Mayas have to cope with. I sensed this was due to disturbing concealments in these texts, perhaps from misplaced politeness or an attempt not to be ethnocentric. However, I felt it was misdirected since Maya peasants themselves point at their poverty, at how hard it is to live under such conditions and at how much they want to find ways to a better living. During my stay I also came to sense that it was this frustration over their poverty and inability to offer their children secure access to food and, if sick, a cure which propelled Pedranos' engagement in the various religious and political groups. For these reasons it became important for me to understand Pedranos' perceptions of themselves as poor and exposed to circumstances beyond their control.

All aspects of the crisis described above resulted in psychological turmoil for individual Maya. It fractured their sense of self-identity, an experience shared by many in contemporary developed societies who have found (p.83) theological expressions meaningless for their lives and at the same time cannot find ultimate meaning in philosophical, scientific, or other explanation systems. But for individual Maya there was an added note to shattered self-identity. For some, there was a sense of powerlessness and a loss of self-respect, one result of being unable to resist the encroachment and subordination of the dominant group, of being ground down under it and at times psychologically absorbing the ladino stereotype of being a subhuman without rights to resist their unjust demands. A frequent characteristic of the oppressed's worldview is self-depreciation leading to extreme lethargy and a fatalistic outlook (Freire 2001 [1970]: 30–33).

What Is to Be Done? Intensification versus Revitalization

For many Maya, their consciousness was taken up by their immediate needs: curing their illnesses and obtaining sufficient food. What would alleviate these immediate problems? Some principales thought that the capricious gods were not satisfied with their ritual offerings; they wanted more. The traditional rituals must be maintained with increased ostentatiousness. The personal motives of the principales for their strong opposition to any change were based either on values or self-interest. Values were their convictions that it was the only right thing to do. Religious worldviews (also philosophical and scientific worldviews) are often seen by their adherents as all-embracing explanations of reality, as the truth based on an epistemology of exaggerated realism, often called fundamentalism. Reform is difficult to envision because it means some part or all of the worldview is not true. Those who opposed any change from self-interest feared loss of prestige owing to their position as village elders. For these reasons, any attempt to alleviate the crisis that involved substantial change of the traditional ways usually resulted in intense conflict with any faction proposing such changes.

Given a deeper understanding of the Maya worldview, some saw one alternative to intensification in revitalization by reform. The contemporary crisis was the death of the present cycle of Maya existence. Its possible rebirth would be in a form that would revitalize it by incorporating changes. The Maya had gone through a similar crisis in the sixteenth century. They had fallen in battle to the Spaniards. The anticipated protection of their covenant gods was absent in spite of Maya efforts by both ritual performance and military resistance. The conquering saints of the Spaniards were incorporated into the Maya covenant as a cyclical revitalization of it (Early 2006). Now, four centuries later, the Maya subsistence base had (p.84) been seriously undermined by ladinos, the national society, and their own internal problems. Prolonged sickness and early death were the conquerors. Although this crisis was not as dramatic and was not compressed into as brief a period of time, it was nonetheless just as devastating.

Some Maya would embrace any significant change in the contemporary cycle that could be seen as revitalization. They realized the benefits of, and they wanted, medical and educational assistance to help overcome the crisis. Some shamans were pragmatic. They readily conceded that medical assistance could cure some ailments that they could not. Maya communities could appeal to their national governments to provide health facilities, public service programs, and to safeguard their rights as citizens who contributed to the national economy. But the Guatemalan and Mexican governments, while paying lip-service to the needs of the Maya at election times, had little interest in Maya communities beyond their ability to provide cheap agricultural labor. The extent of their illnesses and mortality was, for the most part, unknown, and there was little interest in knowing about them. (As far as this writer knows, he produced the first community Maya life tables in the late 1960s [Early 1970a, 1970b]).


This chapter has sketched the crisis facing the Maya at mid-twentieth century. It was a crisis of physical survival, worldview, social organization, and psychological identity, all tied together as a single organic entity. In brief, it was a crisis of culture. It was the end result of a series of accumulating problems for a traditional agricultural society in transition to a multicultural society dominated by unjust market mechanisms. It led to a questioning of the Maya covenant and its place in the traditional worldview. The questions were formulated in individual minds in many ways. They would lead to a search during the coming years for answers, a search that would take Maya to worlds far removed from their traditional culture. The remainder of this book looks at the role played by the Catholic Church in this search of the Maya in their time of crisis.