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Guatemala: Our Struggle Is in Defense of Mother Earth and Self-Determination

This interview is the third in a three-part series of conversations with activists in Guatemala.

The International Mayan League was born in exile. For decades, from the diaspora, it has remained committed to the struggle in defense of Mother Earth and for the self-determination of Indigenous peoples. Working to visibilize and accompany Maya people displaced from their territories, the Mayan League most recently supported ancestral authorities in Guatemala and the rights of the Maya, Xinka, and Garifuna peoples during the national strike that preceded President Bernardo Arévalo’s inauguration.

Forced to leave Guatemala in the face of persecution and genocide during the 1960–1996 internal armed conflict, Maya refugees first created the organization in the 1980s in Costa Rica, and then continued in the 1990s in the United States, with allies from the sanctuary movement. The Mayan League has always played a unique role in interweaving the struggles of Indigenous peoples with issues such as forced migration, land disputes, and state policies.

Currently based on the lands of the Piscataway Nation (Washington, DC), the Mayan League is led by Maya women and youth and their allies. They work closely with other Indigenous peoples, faith communities, human rights organizations, scholars, universities, and others, aiming to mobilize these groups in solidarity with their peoples’ struggle in defense of Mother Earth.

During the genocidal internal armed conflict in Guatemala, the Mayan League worked to denounce the atrocities occurring in Guatemala to the United States, and to unite displaced people in accordance with Maya culture, cosmovision, and identity. The Mayan League played a role in the writing of the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed in 1995 as part of Guatemala’s peace process.  

Today, the Mayan League focuses its work with Indigenous peoples, who continue to face displacement and forced migration due to persecution, criminalization, and the plunder of their lands. Land remains concentrated in the hands of economic elites and transnational corporations that extract natural resources—in violation of Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and self-government—while exploiting the labor of those who remain. In ongoing resistance against these conditions, Indigenous peoples have led the movement in defense of life, territory, and Mother Earth. However, state persecution and criminalization against leaders, communities, and defenders who oppose large economic interests have become the norm.

A clear example of how abandonment, dispossession, and exploitation have fueled forced migration is the story of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Maya Q'eqchi' girl who died in U.S. government custody. The Mayan League denounced this case to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and has worked to educate the public about the conditions and binational connections between Guatemala and the United States that enable tragedies like this one.

In this context of transnational dispossession and displacement, the Mayan League joined in solidarity with the ancestral authorities and the indefinite national strike in Guatemala. For the Mayan League, the ancestral authorities’ self-government is a visible expression of Indigenous peoples’ self-determination, which is necessary for any substantial change in the future of Iximulew (Guatemala), regardless of the political party in power.

We spoke with two members of the International Mayan League on December 9, 2023, the 61st day of the national strike that lasted until the inauguration of President Arévalo on January 14, 2024. We then continued our conversation in writing. At the request of the Mayan League, we have omitted interviewee names for security reasons. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NISGUA: The International Mayan League has prioritized the strengthening of the Maya cosmovision, the rights of Indigenous people, and the raising of consciousness regarding forced migration. What have been the Mayan League's greatest achievements and challenges since its inception?

International Mayan League (IML): The biggest challenge has been with the Guatemalan government because it spoke ill of organizations in solidarity with Guatemala. In [U.S.] Congress, we lobbied for an end to the war in Guatemala and for the United States to stop sending military and economic aid to Guatemala. But the government never supported our petition asking for temporary protected status (TPS) for the thousands of refugees living in this country. This is a challenge that continues now, because the [U.S.] government has not supported [Guatemalan refugees].

We have developed and advanced processes to publicize the political situation in Guatemala, the situation of the displaced, and the cultural wealth of our peoples of Iximulew.

We recently began political and cosmogonic education as fundamental to all our work, creating a binational space to connect emerging struggles, and the reasons why our communities and peoples are forced to migrate. We educate from our peoples, [talking about] territorial conflicts, evictions, giving political support to the ancestral authorities and our own forms of self-government.

One of our newest programs is our Indigenous Linguistic Rights program and the Mayan Interpreters Network. It is the only Mayan interpreters’ network in this area [U.S. mid-Atlantic]. There were already other interpreter networks of various Indigenous peoples at the national level, but not in this region. We have Maya interpreters from the Mam, K'iche', Q'eqchi', Q'anjob'al, Kaqchikel, and Ixil peoples with the capacity to provide services in defense of our peoples’ human rights.

NISGUA: Recently, pro-democracy parties like Movimiento Semilla have come to power in other Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Brazil. What is the Mayan League's perspective on the recent elections in Guatemala, and what do you expect or wish to see from the administration of Bernardo Arévalo in the coming years?

IML: We as Mayan League do not support any political party. We accompany the ancestral authorities and the resistance of our peoples. It is important that they know that they are not alone and that the displaced peoples and the international community recognize them.

Perhaps this is the moment where reforms can be initiated, and the state can recognize and respect the self-determination and autonomy of our peoples. We will see if the Arévalo administration begins to change history in favor of the peoples and if the autonomy of our peoples is recognized. As we have said in the face of the new administration, the Maya, Xinka, and Garifuna peoples have always been a people without a state.

NISGUA: The 48 Cantones of Totonicapan, together with other Indigenous and Ancestral Authorities, called an indefinite national strike for democracy and against corrupt actors who violate the democratic process. What horizons and what possibilities do you envision for the future of Guatemala and for the International Mayan League after all this is over?

ILM: Something very important is that, for the first time, not only nationally but also internationally, our peoples’ form of self-government is being narrated. These forms of self-government have always existed in our lands and territories, but they have not been made visible. When the call of the 48 Cantones of the K'iche' people was made, other Ancestral Councils of the Maya people, the Xinka, and Garifuna Parliaments, and also the mestizo population, all joined in. Finally, the way we govern ourselves as Indigenous peoples is visible.

Racism and discrimination are present. They insult us for supposedly halting the economy during the indefinite national strike, saying that we don't know what we're doing. But the people are tired of 500 years of repression, discrimination, genocide, silence, and injustice. The peoples will not remain silent. We are the majority of people in Guatemala despite the fact that the colonial state does not want to recognize us.

The popular response to the call of the ancestral authorities makes it possible to recognize that we are persons and peoples who are a part of society, with collective rights, individual rights, rights that have never been respected. What does a democratic state mean from an Indigenous peoples' perspective? Dr. Aura Cumes, Maya Kaqchikel, among others, talk about the need to question the word "democracy" and to "think beyond democracy," because that system was also "built on colonialism, plunder, genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans."

We still do not see a structural way for the participation of our peoples, so that they can be an integral part of the new administration. The people should participate fully, effectively, and transparently with decision-making power. It is urgent to listen to what a people who have been denied the right to be part of a state that was imposed on them are seeking and asking for.

NISGUA: Without knowing what is going to happen in this moment yet, what is the long-term future of the peoples in Iximulew, Guatemala, and what should the struggle for justice, life, and dignity look like?

ILM: The work is already underway, it's just that we have encountered obstacles, such as the lack of recognition of the ancestral authorities, who are the highest representation of a people's authority. Since the arrival of the invaders more than 500 years ago, during the 1980s, and up until today, there is still impunity for all the massacres they did, including the religion they imposed on us on the basis of death. Since the creation of our Mother Earth, we have only had problems, and we have not yet achieved justice. But Indigenous peoples continue to fight.

If we do not concretely address our rights as Indigenous peoples on the issue of lands and territories, such as demarcation and titling, there will be no change. The territorial disputes will continue against Indigenous peoples because of the extractive industries and the megaprojects with state support.

For example, over a year ago the families in the community of Chapín Abajo were evicted. That did not happen 500 years ago. We saw the videos, we talked to the ancestral authorities, we accompanied the community. This struggle to defend life is of all Maya peoples, not only of the Q'eqchi' people. There are other examples such as El Estor and La Puya, linked to militarization, criminalization, and massive violations of human rights. Communities will continue to be displaced and forced to migrate if we do not address the causes that dispossess us of our lands.

Guatemala has already signed several agreements such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Convention 169 of the ILO. It is part of the state's obligation to respect and guarantee these rights, but, in reality, they are not fulfilled.

NISGUA: Is there anything you would like to communicate to the international community, who are also involved in their own social and political movements for justice?

ILM: It is important to make the root of our struggle known. In South America, the Inca, Quechua, and Mapuche peoples’ histories are similar to the history of the Indigenous peoples in Iximulew, Guatemala. Our history of struggle unites us as Indigenous peoples from Alaska to Argentina, the land of the Sacred Fire. Our ancestors were forced to leave the sacred lands so that invaders could occupy and make their borders. That's when the police, the army, and their laws began. That's when the division and the creation of colonial states began, with the creation of their political, economic, and legal structures to protect their interests. 

Our sincere greetings to our sisters and brothers who continue to struggle along the same path. We must continue this solidarity and open up spaces so that leaders, organizations, or authorities of the affected peoples can be recognized and their voices heard.

Finally, we ask the international community to reflect on their participation in our lands and territories. Our struggle is not one of ambition. It is a struggle for the defense of life, dignity, and respect for Mother Nature in the face of dispossession and human rights violations. The ancestral wisdom and love for Mother Earth compel us to defend her for our future generations.