Indigenous Queens of Guatemala

Following, is my introduction for a collaborative book project with the indigenous queens of Guatemala.

Guatemala abounds with natural splendor, archaeological wonder, fertile soil, and rich geological deposits. However, its indigenous people are its true wealth. Guatemala’s cultural diversity knows no limits. It is a nation of nations, each with its own traditions, clothing, and language. The Republic is home to twenty-four indigenous languages: Xinka, Garífuna, and twenty-two Maya idioms.

Maya weaving displays a brilliant spectrum of colors and a vast array of design elements, which illuminate life and ceremony and reflect the cultural diversity of the country. The symbolism of Maya textiles is like language. However, computer-designed clothing and serigraphs have diluted that idiom and forced weavers to abandon their looms. Poor people simply cannot afford fine woven fabric. Therefore, modern machine-made apparel provides them with an attractive alternative to the used clothing sent down from the North. Without the weavers, however, who will create the marvelous raiment of the Maya? Also, who will fashion the lavish ceremonial vestments which adorn and identify the indigenous queens of Guatemala?

Indigenous Queens and their Cargoes

‘Indigenous queen’ is a catch-all term for a woman charged, or, with cargo, to represent her town, municipality, department, or nation. ‘Cargo’ is a set of responsibilities which bestows prestige upon its recipient. Cargoes of indigenous queens go by various titles, often related to one’s town, its saint, or its flora. To many English-speakers, the word ‘queen’ evokes images of Barbie dolls being paraded on a runway – something demeaning and exploitative to women. Nonetheless, the Spanish term ‘reina’ (queen) has no negative connotation.

Still, many indigenous queens happen to be astonishing beauties. We are in the Maya world, after all, where rare beauty is anything but rare. The essence of an indigenous queen is not her physical beauty, however. Her essence comes from within. Intelligent and analytical, she is an ambassador, orator, and defender of the culture. She maintains the language and attire of her people and ideally works to better people’s lives and to protect the environment.

The Reign of an Indigenous Queen

The authors of this book began their reigns with little knowledge of neighboring nations within Guatemala. Most had seldom left home. During their reigns, however, they visited many places, where they talked to other queens about their customs and values. Thus, each learned about the clothing, languages, patron saints, ceremonial foods, and traditions of her peers. They became collectively a United Nations of sorts. Together they viewed the magnificence of Guatemala’s natural and social landscapes, gained respect for each other’s cultures, and felt racial and ethnic barriers disappear.

Reunion at Quivalá

In March 2016, members of Global Partners: Running Waters of Milwaukee, Wisconsin visited a potable water project in Canton Quivalá, Santa Cruz del Quiché. I joined the thirteen Americans, there, at an activity in the tiny Catholic Church. I invited some notable indigenous queens of the Department of El Quiché along to speak, thinking that these distinguished visitors would hearten Quivalá.

First in k’iche’, then Spanish, Marleny of Santa Cruz expressed empathy for the impoverished townspeople. Glenda of Patzité declared, “Water has a spirit.” Magdalena of San Juan Cotzal and Juana of Santa María Nebaj greeted the gathering in ixil and concluded in Spanish. Juana uplifted us all by proclaiming, “Anything’s possible!”

I had predicted the importance of the queens’ visit to the villagers. However, the gringo reaction surprised me: “powerful words,” “powerful women,” “such poise, such intelligence!”  No doubt the folks from Milwaukee are still talking and musing about these impressive women who had given hope to Quivalá.

Reflections of the Indigenous Queens

That night an idea came to me — a book: In Our Words: Reflections of the Indigenous Queens of Guatemala. The following day I called the four whose speeches had helped me conceive the idea. They loved the plan and wished to contribute. Afterwards I called thirty other former and present queens and invited them to collaborate. They all accepted. Among the authors are five former Rabin Ajaw and spokespersons for seventeen distinct languages. The Rabin Ajaw (‘Daughter of the King’) is the maximum representative of the Guatemalan indigenous woman.

In Our Words hopes to dispel misconceptions about the indigenous queens. Some write about their own towns and cultures. Others address specific themes, for example: illiteracy, identity, corruption, racism, gender inequality, Maya spirituality, and the need to retain native clothing and language. We have assembled some of the most intelligent indigenous queens I have known.Listen.

Threats to the Culture

The Mexican invaders who accompanied Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 called this bounteous land Quauhtlemallan, ‘the land of many trees’. Many Guatemalan towns and places still bear the names of trees, although they are treeless. Garbage, plastic, dead animals, and human refuse clog our rivers, until rains wash them all to the sea. Trash lines the roadways. Cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Atitlán; and Lake Amatitlán is dead. The natural splendor of Guatemala sadly wanes.

Indigenous cultures also face threats. They survived the Conquest, however: the Spanish Colony, President Ubico’s tyranny, the US-sponsored overthrow of President Árbenz, and the Guatemalan Civil War. I trust they will also survive computer-designed clothing, Facebook, cell phones, modern-day invasions by religious proselytizers and NGO’s, and governance by war criminals and comedians.

The indigenous queens of Guatemala, the defenders of the Maya, Xinka, and Garífuna cultures, offer hope these cultures will persevere. I donate the photographs accompanying the following essays to the authors, in gratitude for their valiant defense of the indigenous cultures of Guatemala.

  • William Muirhead
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