They were a study in contrast—a smiling, blue-eyed blonde with ringed curls and a frowning figure with dark skin and chiseled cheek bones. Yet here in Casa de Mascaras, the pair was hardly unique—there were dozens and dozens of these seemingly dissimilar duos. Despite their dramatic differences in appearance, they are joined as partners in an enduring dance.
Miguel Angel Ignacio calls the tune in Casa de Mascaras, or “House of Masks,” where he has been creating masks of this odd couple for more than forty years. The original inspirations for these works of art are the Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and Mayan chief Tecun Uman, who in the early 16th century engaged in a deadly war dance here in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. Their choreography has continued for almost half a millennium through a celebration known as the “Conquest Dance.”
Casa de Mascaras is located in the town of Chichicastenango in the Guatemalan Highlands. The region stretches from the outskirts of the Spanish Colonial city of Antigua to the Mexican border and is predominantly peopled by the Maya, who have lived here continuously for the past two thousand years. My husband Tom and I had come to “Chi Chi” with our guide Luis Cholotio from Lake Atitlan, about two hours to the south.
As we watched Miguel expertly carve features into a piece of wood, Luis told us that the “Conquest Dance” is one of many festivals held in the Highland’s Mayan villages. This particular fiesta is a re-enactment of the arrival of the Spanish to Guatemala in the 16th century
“The dancers form two lines facing each other to the beat of a rhythm of a drum that is called el tun and a flute called la chirimilla and a little old marimba,” Luis said. “They do a lot of talking back and forth, with the indigenous people saying ‘Who are these people, we are being invaded’ and the Spanish saying ‘We are taking over, this land will be ours.’ Unfortunately the end of the dance is the murder of Tecum Uman the Quiche hero by Alvarado.”
I asked Luis why such an awful event was ‘celebrated,’ wondering if it was so people didn’t forget what happened to them.
“Good question,” Luis responded. “I believe this dance was introduced by the Spaniards, but it has not been practiced often as it used to be when I was a kid. It is largely gone.”
Luis told us that festivals are sponsored by a villager who pays for all the expenses involved in hosting the gathering–usually someone who owns a big corn or coffee farm and has a desire to continue the tradition. The festivals are being held less frequently than in days gone by, largely for economic reasons. Luis said that in his parent’s youth, hosting a Conquest Dance was a source of pride and some people would sponsor the events even when they couldn’t afford to, sometimes becoming poor in the process.
He said the celebrations usually last two – three days of about eight hours of dancing each day. Paying for the dancers’ costumes is one of the fiesta expenses and dancers are sponsored by patrons. Sponsors and dancers come to Casa de Mascaras to pick out the masks made by Miguel Angel Ignacio, as well as costumes made by his wife and daughters, who are seamstresses.
I later learned that almost five centuries after Tecum Uman was killed in the 1524 battle of Quetzaltenango, he is still a powerful and controversial figure for the people of Guatemala.
Tecun was declared Guatemala’s official national hero on March 22, 1960, just months prior to the start of the country’s 36-year civil war. In some quarters today, Tecum is seen as a symbol of Mayan resurgence; some Maya cultural activists consider his status as a national hero a source of irony, considering the long history of mistreatment of Guatemala’s native population.
I was aware of Guatemala’s civil war and that it had taken an atrocious toll on the Mayan people–but I did not know what had caused such prolonged and devastating conflict. Luis explained that a U. S.-backed coup installed a military regime that was followed by a successive series of other conservative military dictators. A leftist guerilla movement was founded by five members of the military who found the government’s policies repugnant. The guerillas initially obtained the support of some indigenous Maya, who viewed the revolutionaries as their last hope to overcome poverty and prejudice.
The government perceived all Maya as enemies of the state, and instituted a “scorched earth” genocide attacking more than 626 villages. The inhabitants were raped, tortured and murdered. Over three hundred villages were completely razed. Buildings were demolished; crops and drinking water were fouled. Terrorized by the violence, between 500,000 and 1.5 million Mayan civilians fled to other regions within the country or became refugees abroad. Luis told us that Quiché was the worst hit of all the indigenous groups.
According to mythology associated with the 16th war between the Spanish and Maya, Tecun’s death was fated as a precursor to the creation of a new world order that included colonization and Christianity. In another legend, Tecun was a nagual, or animal spirit, who transformed into a quetzal during the battle with Alvarado. The quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird; its feathers were used by ancient Mayans as currency. Since 1925, the country’s bank notes are known as quetzals.
We had come to “Chi Chi” armed with a wad of quetzals—its colorful market is renown for its diverse selection of Mayan textiles, among many other kinds of wares. The market is held twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, opening at about 7 a.m. and going until about 5 p.m. People from about 30 or 40 villages in total sell their wares at the market. Vendors have a specific area assigned to them, for which they pay about $2 US a day.
Chi Chi’s market used to be strictly local with mostly food and pottery sold but now it has become a mecca for tourists with an emphasis on textiles. Luis said this is a positive development as it is helping to improve the economy and bringing in dollars from outside the local community–and the spirit of competition is improving the quality of the goods sold.
Indigenous people from about five of the dozen villages around Lake Attilan regularly travel to the Chi Chi market to sell their handicrafts, typically leaving home at 4 or 5 a.m. and making the two-hour trip on “Chicken buses,” which are brightly painted school buses that form the local public transportation system. Luis said the term “chicken bus” was dreamed up by travel guide book writers–the vehicles are called “camionetas” by locals.
On our drive back to Lake Atitlan, Luis explained that Chi Chi gets its name from a kind of nettle bush that when touched makes the skin itchy. He said his mother’s parents used a branch of it to hit her when she misbehaved. Today it is often used as a “fence” around people’s property.
We had a chance to hear Luis’ story on our return trip. He is from the Lake Atitlan village of San Juan and has three brothers and a sister. His brothers work respectively as a teacher, mason and laborer and his sister is studying to be a nurse. The family was very poor when Luis was growing up–he got his first pair of shoes when he was eight years old. After sixth grade, he had to go into the seminary to continue his education. Ultimately he decided against becoming a priest and for six years worked as a day laborer.
While Luis was working in construction, a Peace Corp. volunteer came to San Juan and lived in the community for two years, helping to organize the handicraft market. She also taught English and initially many of the villagers attempted to learn the language but eventually Luis was the only student left. He studied with the Peace Corp. volunteer for two years before she told him she had taught him everything she could and he needed to try to continue learning on his own, which he did through TV and Rosetta Stone.
Luis became a receptionist at a hotel on Lake Atitlan and regularly made recommendations to visitors on what sights to see in the area. He realized tourism represented a career opportunity and applied for and participated in a national vocational tourism program for a year in Guatemala City.
Ironically, it is through teaching visitors about his heritage that he has become more interested in it himself. While he was raised a Catholic, he has recently become more interested in the Mayan religion.
“The more I know my roots and where I come from I am just getting more interested in learning more about the Mayan religion,” he said. “It is as simple as any other ancient religion and not like the Catholic or Protestant Church.”
Luis told us that in the late 19th century, Guatemala’s president created a law that all the Mayan people needed to change their indigenous names to ones consistent with the Latino culture.
“His idea was that if he changed our names, he would change us,” said Luis.
Today, efforts to change the indigenous culture are not coming from Guatemala’s government but rather from people from other countries. Luis said that there is a huge influx of U.S. missionaries who ingratiate themselves into indigenous communities by building homes, installing kitchens, bathrooms and septic tanks.
“They hope if they are nice they will convert people,” Luis said. “They do good things but they want something in return.”
I asked Luis if there is anyone helping who doesn’t want something
“There are very many small NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that just want to help–without religion being a factor,” he said.
Luis is personally involved with a project called Ninas Mayas. In partnership with the owners of a Spanish language school, this after-school program began three years ago with 12 girls, and has grown to over 54 young women. The initiative encourages the girls to stay in school.
Many of the NGO programs in the Highlands are focused on marketing the Mayan women’s textiles and beaded jewelry. This to me seemed like a truly revolutionary idea—creating a new world order not based on changing the names or beliefs of the Mayans, but rather on honoring the art and creativity of their culture.
For a look at another Mayan tradition in Guatemala, click here.