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Quetzaltenango's First Mayan Mayor: Transforming Political Culture and the Politics of Belonging?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 April 2011


Against the backdrop of ethnic political mobilisation in Latin America, this article examines how, as Quetzaltenango's first Mayan mayor, Rigoberto Quemé Chay transformed two interrelated dimensions of citizenship: political culture and the politics of belonging. It analyses the way in which citizenship is constituted at three levels. The first is within Xel-jú as an indigenous political organisation whose practices contrast with ladino ways of doing politics. The second is in relation to internal divisions between the militant indigenous line and the intercultural group. The third is within Xel-jú as a city-centred, middle-class-oriented indigenous organisation rather than a rural, indigenous community organisation. This article argues that transformations in citizenship are limited by the political, economic and ethnic context, and that overlapping systems of repression still prevent the participation of marginalised groups in Quetzaltenango.

Spanish abstract

En contra del escenario de movilización política étnica en Latinoamérica, este artículo examina cómo, siendo el primer alcalde maya de Quetzaltenango, Rigoberto Quemé Chay transformó dos dimensiones interrelacionadas de ciudadanía: la cultura política y las políticas de pertenencia. Analiza la forma en la que la ciudadanía se constituye en tres niveles. El primero es al interior de Xel-jú, como una organización política indígena cuyas prácticas contrastan con las formas ladinas de hacer política. El segundo se relaciona con las divisiones internas entre la línea militante indígena y el grupo intercultural. El tercero es al interior de Xel-jú como una organización indígena centrada en la ciudad con orientación de clase media en vez de una organización comunitaria rural indígena. Argumenta que las transformaciones en la ciudadanía son limitadas por el contexto político, económico y étnico, y aquellos sistemas de represión existentes aún que evitan la participación de grupos marginales en Quetzaltenango.

Portugese abstract

O artigo examina como, contra o pano de fundo da mobilização da política étnica na América Latina, Rigoberto Quemé Chay, primeiro prefeito maia de Quetzaltenango, transformou duas dimensões interrelacionadas da cidadania: a cultura política e as políticas do pertencimento. Analisa-se a forma na qual a cidadania é constituída em três níveis. O primeiro é dentro do contexto da Xel-jú, como organização política indígena cujas práticas contrastam com a maneira latina de fazer política. O segundo é em relação às divisões internas entre a linha militante indígena e o grupo intercultural. O terceiro considera a Xel-jú como organização indígena urbana, de classe média, diferente de uma organização indígena rural e comunitária. É argumentado que as transformações na cidadania limitam-se ao contexto político, econômico e étnico, e que sistemas imbricados de repressão ainda inibem a participação de grupos marginalizados em Quetzaltenango.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 Nancy Grey Postero, Now We Are Citizens: Indigenous Politics in Postmulticultural Bolivia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).

2 Postero, Now We Are Citizens, p. 223; Sonia Alvarez, Evelina Dagnino and Arturo Escobar (eds.), Cultures of Politics, Politics of Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).

3 Alvarez et al. (eds.), Cultures of Politics.

4 Deborah J. Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Postliberal Challenge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

5 Xel-jú means ‘below the ten thoughts’ in K'iche'.

6 An often-mentioned example is Pachakutik, which emerged out of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE) in Ecuador. See, among others, Donna Lee Van Cott, Radical Democracy in the Andes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and John D. Cameron, ‘The Social Origins of Municipal Democracy in Rural Ecuador: Agrarian Structures, Indigenous-Peasant Movements, and Non-Governmental Organizations’, unpubl. PhD diss., York University, 2003. Bebbington, Anthony, ‘Los espacios públicos de concertación local y sus límites en un municipio indígena: Guamote, Ecuador’, Debate Agrario, 40–1 (2006Google Scholar), available at

7 Postero, Now We Are Citizens; Cameron, John D.‘Municipal Democratisation in Rural Latin America: Methodological Insights from Ecuador’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 24: 3 (2005), pp. 367–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Radcliffe, Sarah A., Laurie, Nina and Andolina, Robert, ‘Reterritorialised Space and Ethnic Political Participation: Indigenous Municipalities in Ecuador’, Space and Polity, 6: 3 (2002), pp. 289305CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Albro, Robert, ‘The Culture of Democracy and Bolivia's Indigenous Movements’, Critique of Anthropology, 26: 4 (2006), p. 394CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Roddy Brett, Movimiento social, etnicidad y democratización en Guatemala 1985–1996 (Guatemala City: F&G Editores, 2006).

10 Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, La pequeña burguesía indígena comercial de Guatemala: desigualdades de clase, raza y género (Guatemala City: Cholsamaj, 2002); Greg Grandin, The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

11 Lina Barrios, Tras las huellas del poder local: la Alcaldía Indígena en Guatemala, del siglo XVI al siglo XX (Guatemala City: URL, 2001). The alcaldías indígenas were created by the Spaniards to collect taxes and maintain communication between the municipal council and the representatives of the rural communities, the auxiliary mayors.

12 I would like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for this formulation.

13 The term ‘Maya’ is used consciously as a mode of self-identification that is freely chosen and not imposed from the outside. Whereas indio and indígena originate from colonialism, ‘Maya’ refers to a shared glorious past. Santiago Bastos and Manuela Camus, Entre el mecapal y el cielo: desarrollo del Movimiento Maya en Guatemala (Guatemala City: Cholsamaj, 2003).

14 Postero, Now We Are Citizens.

15 Dagnino, Evelina, ‘Citizenship in Latin America: An Introduction’, Latin American Perspectives, 30: 2 (2005), pp. 317Google Scholar; Joe Foweraker, Todd Landman and Neil Harvey, Governing Latin America (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003).

16 Alvarez et al. (eds.), Cultures of Politics, p. 21.

17 Kay B. Warren, Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

18 William Roseberry, ‘Hegemony and the Language of Contention’, in Michael Joseph Gilbert and Daniel Nugent (eds.), Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 355–67.

19 Donna Lee Van Cott, The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: The Politics of Diversity in Latin America (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).

20 T. H. Marshall, Class, Citizenship and Social Development (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963).

21 Aihwa Ong, ‘Cultural Citizenship as Subject Making: Immigrants Negotiate Racial and Cultural Boundaries in the United States’, in Rodolfo D. Torres, F. Mirón and Jonathan Xavier Inda (eds.), Race, Identity and Citizenship: A Reader (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), pp. 262–95; Maria Elena Garcia, Making Indigenous Citizens: Identity, Development and Multicultural Activism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005); Charles Hale, Más que un indio: Racial Ambivalence and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, 2006).

22 Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America.

24 For this argument, see, among others, Young, Iris Marion, ‘Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship’, Ethics, 99: 2 (1989), pp. 250–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Other scholars reject the legal and political recognition of difference. See Brian Barry, Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

25 Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship; Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America.

26 I use the term ‘Maya movement’ to refer to the political mobilisation of indigenous organisations, groups and institutions that through their own efforts attempt to transform the relationship between the indigenous population and the Guatemalan nation-state. Bastos and Camus, Entre el mecapal y el cielo, p. 7.

27 Rachel Sieder (ed.), Multiculturalism in Latin America: Indigenous Rights, Diversity and Democracy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Warren, Indigenous Movements.

28 Ong, ‘Cultural Citizenship as Subject Making’, p. 263.

29 Bryan S. Turner, Citizenship and Social Theory (London: Sage Publications, 1993).

30 Sieder, Rachel, ‘Rethinking Democratisation and Citizenship: Legal Pluralism and Institutional Reform in Guatemala’, Citizenship Studies, 3 (1999), pp. 103–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sundberg, Juanita, ‘Conservation and Democratization: Constituting Citizenship in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala’, Political Geography, 22: 7 (2003), pp. 715–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Dagnino, ‘Citizenship in Latin America’.

32 Van Cott, Radical Democracy in the Andes.

33 Código Municipal, Arts. 55–6.

34 Constitución de la República Guatemalteca, Art. 58.

35 Constitución de la República Guatemalteca, Art. 66.

36 Walsh, Catherine, ‘Interculturalidad, reformas constitucionales y pluralismo jurídico’, Boletin ICCI–RIMAI, 4: 36 (2002), p. 2Google Scholar; Joanne Rappaport, Intercultural Utopias: Public Intellectuals, Cultural Experimentation and Ethnic Pluralism in Colombia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), p. 130.

37 In a multicultural democracy, different ethnic groups are entitled to uphold their individual rights and are granted collective rights. Interculturalism goes beyond multiculturalism: it seeks to create new horizontal relationships, whereas multiculturalist policies seek to allow special provisions for protecting distinct cultures through the recognition of ethnic and cultural rights. See Postero, Now We Are Citizens.

38 Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America, p. 46.

39 ‘Community’ in this context has different meanings. Firstly, it relates to the administrative unit, often legally called aldea or canton. Secondly, it is the central point of identification for the indigenous population. In many indigenous communities there is a continuous tension between communal balance and individual rights. See also Stener Ekern, ‘Are Human Rights Destroying the Natural Balance of All Things? The Difficult Encounter between International Law and Community Law in Mayan Guatemala’, in Pedro Pitarch, Shannon Speed and Xochitl Leyva Solano (eds.), Human Rights in the Maya Region: Global Politics, Cultural Contentions and Moral Engagements (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), pp. 123–44.

40 Handy, Jim, ‘Chicken Thieves, Witches and Judges: Vigilante Justice and Customary Law in Guatemala’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 36: 3 (2004), pp. 533–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Postero, Now We Are Citizens.

42 Fischer, Edward, ‘Maya Identity and Cultural Logic: Rethinking Essentialism and Constructivism’, Current Anthropology, 40: 4 (1999), pp. 473–99Google Scholar.

43 Ley Electoral y de Partidos Politicos, Decreto Ley 1–85, Art. 99.

44 Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

45 Ricardo Cajas Mejía, ‘Lógica local de participación política Maya: la experiencia de Xel-Jú en Quetzaltenango 1972–1998’, unpubl. MA thesis, UAM, 1998.

46 Through the years, Xel-jú has managed different procedures in deciding on the electoral slates. See Elisabet Dueholm Rasch, ‘Representing Mayas: Indigenous Authorities and the Local Politics of Identity in Guatemala’, unpubl. PhD diss., University of Utrecht, 2008.

47 Interview with female Xel-jú member, 2006. See Comerma, Gemma Celigueta, ‘Mujeres e indígenas: dimensión local y acción política – el comité cívico Xel-jú de Quetzaltenango’, Nueva Sociedad, 153 (1998), pp. 7381Google Scholar, for an analysis of the position of women within Xel-jú.

48 Postero, Now We Are Citizens.

49 Albro, ‘The Culture of Democracy’.

50 Barry, Culture and Equality. See also Susan Okin (ed.), Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

51 Barry, Culture and Equality; Okin (ed.), Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

52 Sundberg, ‘Conservation and Democratization’.

53 Brett, Movimiento social, etnicidad y democratización.

54 Postero, Now We Are Citizens.

55 Walsh, ‘Interculturalidad, reformas constitucionales y pluralismo jurídico’, p. 2.

56 Cajas, ‘Lógica local de participación política Maya’.

57 Interview with R. Cajas, Quetzaltenango, 2002.

58 Dagnino, ‘Citizenship in Latin America’.

59 Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

60 Keme was a political movement that consisted of several political parties and a civic movement composed of civic committees mainly from the western highlands, as well as human rights and Mayan organisations from the capital. Xel-jú was the catalyst of the Keme movement. It had created a platform of progressive civic and cultural organisations that came together and engaged in debates over a new way to govern Guatemala, and over how to nominate the first indigenous candidate for president in Guatemala. See Rasch, ‘Representing Mayas’.

61 Postero, Now We Are Citizens.

63 Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

64 Barrios, Tras las huellas del poder local.

65 Dagnino, ‘Citizenship in Latin America’.

66 Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America.

67 Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

68 See Stener Ekern, ‘Making Government: Community and Leadership in Mayan Guatemala’, unpubl. PhD diss., University of Oslo, 2006, for community organisation and forest management in Totonicapán.

69 Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

71 ADEAACOQ, ‘Manual de funciones Junta Directiva de Alcaldías Auxiliares y/o Comunitarias de Quetzaltenango’, unpubl. document, Quetzaltenango, 2001, pp. 3–4.

72 See Ekern, Making Government, on Totonicapán, and Timothy Smith, ‘A Tale of Two Governments: Rural Mayan Politics and Competing Democracies in Sololá, Guatemala’, unpubl. PhD diss., University of Albany, 2006.

73 See, for example, García, Making Indigenous Citizens.

74 Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America.

75 Interview with don Vale, Llanos del Pinal, Quetzaltenango, 2002.

76 Interview with Baudilio S., Quetzaltenango, 2002.

77 Interview with don Luis, Quetzaltenango, 2002.

78 Roseberry, ‘Hegemony and the Language of Contention’.

79 Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

80 Interview with don Angel, Quetzaltenango, 2002.

81 Lauer, Matthew, ‘State-Led Democratic Politics and Emerging Forms of Indigenous Leadership among the Ye'kwana of the Upper Orinoco’, Journal of Latin American Anthropology, 11: 1 (2006), pp. 5186CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

82 Dagnino, ‘Citizenship in Latin America’.

83 Dagnino, ‘Citizenship in Latin America’; Postero, Now We Are Citizens.

84 Postero, Now We Are Citizens.

85 Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

86 Albro, ‘The Culture of Democracy’; Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

87 Van Cott, Radical Democracy.

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