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Mayan life today


Learning Spanish
Background information on San Pedro and the Bio-Cultura Project
Pre-Hispanic - Spanish Conquest - Independence and a brief democracy - War - Guatemala Today - Environmental and social problems

The legacies of our history.
History shapes our lives. The consequences of our past can be seen in the social and environmental issues we are facing today.

Here in San Pedro we are Mayan-Tzutujiles. Our ancestors came here about 20 000 years ago, and grew maiz (corn) and beans as we still do today. They developed precise calendars, charting the exact phases of the sun, moon, and many planets and stars. Until the Arabs took their knowledge to Europe, Mayan mathematics was more developed than that in Europe. We recorded our history and stories in written form, and built grand temples. Hospitality and generosity were prized in Mayan society, and life was based in spirituality.

Spanish conquest
The Spaniards arrived in the Americas in1492, and killed or subdued anyone who opposed their will to control our world. For almost 500 years these invaders and their descendants have ruled Guatemala, using Mayan labour to extract the natural resources, and imposing their view of the world upon our people. The Spaniards also brought the Catholic religion to the Americas. In many cases the Church protected the Mayan people from the worst abuses.

Independence and a brief democracy
Although Guatemala became independent of Spain in 1821, the situation for Mayans became worse. Huge plantations were established, and our people were forced to work because of debts they supposedly owed. This system of 'debt peonage' was abolished in the 1930's, but our Great-Grandfathers were forced to build roads instead. In 1945 President Arevalo was democratically elected. He developed a social security and public health system, and liberal labour laws. In 1951, Arbenz was elected. He began to redistribute lands, breaking up the large estates and giving them to people who were landless. He took the vast properties owned by the US-based 'United Fruit Company' to give to the poor for growing food. This caused the government of the United States to grow concerned about 'threats to U.S interests'. They ordered the CIA to support an invasion, and the Guatemalan government was overthrown. Violent and oppressive military governments followed, land reforms were reversed, and voting was restricted to the 25% of citizens that were literate.

In1960 “La Violencia' began. This was a 36 year war that killed around 60 000 (mostly Mayan) people in the 1970's alone. The exact numbers are still unknown, but over 200 000 Guatemalans were killed overall, and more than a million were made homeless. In the 1980's, the government under Rios Montt exterminated over 400 Mayan villages, and anyone who opposed him was likely to be tortured and killed. Peace accords were signed in 1996, yet the changes that were promised have yet to eventuate. Many refugees remain homeless, and the wealthy 3% of Guatemalans still own more than 70% of the cultivable land.

Image from 'Guatemala Never Again- Impacts of 'La Violencia' , published by the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala, 1998. Photo by Daniel Hernadez.

Guatemala Today
Indigenous rights and basic social services are still lacking in Guatemala. While around 75% of Guatemalan children are now enrolled in primary school, only 25% have the opportunity to go to secondary school, and less than 10% gain a tertiary education. The number of Mayan children and young people in formal education is even less (even today, only 0.3% of Mayan women gain a tertiary education), and 80% of all Guatemalans still live in extreme poverty. Field workers and other labourers earn around US$3.50 a day. This is not enough to support a family, especially if someone becomes ill or has an accident. The majority of children do not have access to a healthy diet or basic needs.

Environmental and social problems
Lack of access to education, poverty, and racism contribute to the social and environmental problems we face in Guatemala today. A few examples of this include the burning or dumping of all types of rubbish, as few people differentiate between plastic and organic waste. Chemicals and products that are unwanted in other countries are 'gifted' to our people, without our informed consent. Written warnings or instructions on how to use poisonous sprays are of little use, as many people cannot read or speak Spanish. Neither our national nor local governments provide alternatives or educate the people about the dangers of these practices.

Litter is blown or washed into our lake along with spray residues and fertilizer run-off. Many people wash in and drink directly from the lake. Lake water is also pumped into the town water supply.
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