Skip to main content

Indigenous Language, History and Culture: Politics, Writing and the Decolonization of Knowledge amongst the Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, 1970-2015

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - INDILANGHISTCULT (Indigenous Language, History and Culture: Politics, Writing and the Decolonization of Knowledge amongst the Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, 1970-2015)

Reporting period: 2018-08-01 to 2020-07-31

• The issues being addressed
The project set out to develop new understandings of the relationship between writing, politics, and identity amongst indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico, since 1970. The first part analyzed contemporary indigenous literature and historical narratives, particularly in relation to the writing and artistic expression of pre and early conquest Maya. The second part of the project examined the importance of digital media for the diffusion of literacy in Maya languages in the last 10-15 years. The third part of the project examined the development of bi-lingual education and literacy in Maya languages to analyze the relationship between politics, writing, and cultural expression. In particular, it sought to understand the influence of radical religious and political organizations, and movements for indigenous rights and culture on the development of literature and the decolonization of native histories and identities.
• Overall objectives
The objective of the research programme was to provide a new understanding of Maya culture, and to explore the relationship between indigenous language, literature, education, political activism, technology, writing, communication and identity amongst Maya peoples in recent years. It also aimed to contribute new knowledge and ideas to debates regarding the decolonization of history, culture and identity in nation-states.
• Main conclusions
In the last forty years, artists, writers and intellectuals from Maya communities in Chiapas have increasingly begun to question and problematize the concepts and theories used to describe and analyze their societies by western intellectuals in disciplines such as archeology, anthropology and history. These include the concepts of ethnicity and indigeneity and ideas of continuity and rupture between ancient and modern populations. Respondents were largely in agreement that the greater availability of digital media had not had a significant impact on the diffusion of literacy in Maya languages in the last 10-15 years, although, it had increased communication and inclusion particularly amongst young people and women, who were connected to more people, opportunities and ways of thinking over greater distances than before. The research also found that the state has played a pivotal role in the development of bi-lingual education, literacy, literature and artistic expression in native languages in Chiapas from the 1970s, thus pointing to a false dichotomy between civil society and the state in relation to indigenous rights and culture in Chiapas and Mexico more broadly. Indeed, ethno-narratives of cultural re-vindication have in practice relied upon and come to strengthen the national state and nationalist episteme.
• Work carried out
I interviewed thirty participants in Mexico most of whom contributed to all three work packages. About two thirds were from indigenous communities and about one third were women. I also collected 20 bi-lingual published texts published in Chiapas, 10 theses produced in Spanish by bi-lingual Maya students in the social sciences and humanities, and a collection of bi-lingual teaching materials from the 1970s to the present day. In Copenhagen, I transcribed the interviews into written Spanish, read the published and unpublished texts from Chiapas, and secondary literature at the library in the University of Copenhagen and worked to produce presentations and articles.
• Main Results
Writers and artists from native communities questioned anthropological and archeological definitions of ethnicity and considered that recent scholarship on the history of the Maya had had only a limited impact on their work and less on most indigenous people in Chiapas. They objected to the “folklorization” of Maya culture in Mexico, and some authors also object to the expectation that they publish bi-lingual native language-Spanish editions. Furthermore, many native language artists and authors identify primarily with their town, community or linguistic group, not with the term “indigenous”, which is felt to be an official label, defined and imposed by the state that one must adopt to gain recognition, sponsorship and employment opportunities. Increasingly, then, native artists and writers in Chiapas have come to problematize the bases upon which the concepts of indigeneity and ethnicity are defined in academic disciplines as well as the mestizo nationalist discourse of the Mexican nation-state.
The state has played a pivotal role in the development of bi-lingual education, literacy, literature and artistic expression in native languages in Chiapas from the 1970s. In response to growing political and human rights activism, state actors and institutions increased the sponsorship of indigenous cultural activities and the provision of education and employment for indigenous professionals. In 1992, the state established the Centre for Maya and Zoque writers (UNAMEZ), which through its workshops became significant in the development of creative literature in native languages in Chiapas. In 1997, as a direct response to the Zapatista uprising of 1994, the Mexican government established the State Centre for Indigenous Arts and Literatures (CELALI). CELALI co-ordinated and financed cultural activities and institutions and took over administration of the UNAMEZ writers’ workshops, and through prizes, grants, fellowships and publications fostered the development and diffusion of creative literature by native language writers in Chiapas. State sponsorship contributed to the flourishing of indigenous cultural expression in the 2000s. But, indigenous literature also increasingly became a state project, co-ordinated by CELALI.
• Exploitation and dissemination
So far I have attended a series of seminars, conferences and workshops in Denmark, Mexico and the US, I am writing 2 articles at present, and intend to attend and organize dissemination events postponed by Covid as soon as possible.
I expect to complete three articles and a book based on the research and for the work to have an empirical and theoretical impact in the fields of history, cultural studies and political science. The project highlights the constraints of methodological nationalism and the need to reconceptualize ethnicity outside the nationalist episteme in order to develop a new theoretical and methodological framework for interpreting politics and the history of regions, states and societies in the modern period.