Telling Stories to Change the World is the title of a book I edited about amazing culture workers and artists around the world who are using their talents to make change in their communities.
I received news today that one of those artists was assassinated for his leadership within the Maya community in Guatemala. Lisandro pioneered a performance movement to engage Maya youth in the noble arts of their ancestors. It seems like Lisandro’s art was too challenging to the authorities. Please read the description sent by his colleague and the author of the essay about his work, Czarina Aggabao Thelen, below.
Regarding the recent assassination of Maya teacher and artist Lisandro Guarcax —
Why you should care / to demand a full investigation of his death:
The significance and brilliance of Sotz’il:
Embodying Maya Liberation
Czarina Aggabao Thelen, M.A.
University of Texas at Austin
“Sacred fire of the Serpent’s dance …
After so many waves of destruction and death, Sotz’il’s experience illuminates the miracle of fertility and regeneration—to transcend physical limitations, continue the ancestral line, and inspire new births and creations, in art and elsewhere—touching us with the brilliance of life itself.”
SOLOLÁ, GUATEMALA—Leonardo Lisandro Guarcax, 32 years old, was kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated on August 25, 2010, en route to the school where he served as principal. Lisandro was an artist and a Kaqchikel spiritual guide who was coordinator of Sotz’il Jay Cultural Center. The group promoted and investigated pre-Columbian Maya art through theater, music, and dance. Lisandro and his companions in Sotz’il are credited with energizing a new movement of Maya youth with pride in their culture and way of life through investigating and developing ancestral expressions of Maya art.
Lisandro would say, “We don’t do art for art’s sake; we do it to recover the dignity of our people.”
What did Lisandro mean by this? What is the force of art in Maya society in Guatemala? Why did Sotz’il’s theater and musical productions have such profound resonance for cultural activists, social movements, and youth alike, that it inspired a generation of Maya youth community artists? Why in recent days has at least one spiritual guide linked Lisandro to the great Kaqchikel ancestor Kaji’ Imox?
“This system was not made for us Mayas….”
Born during an era of state-sponsored massacres targeting Maya peasants, several Maya rural youth created the theater group Sotz’il about ten years ago. They aspired to breathe new life into aspects of Maya culture that the dominant society had been subjugating through everyday racism and coerced assimilation. (Please see attached essay for a more complete discussion.) Activists in the generation before them had identified Maya language and cultural revitalization as important terrains of struggle in the wake of the Guatemalan army’s 1980s “scorched earth campaign” that directly sought to uproot the foundations of Maya culture. In the municipality of Sololá, a local current of the Maya Movement combined social movement strategies and concerns with organizing around Maya identity. They decided to further develop the ways that public social institutions would reflect Maya subjectivity and worldview. Rather than accede to the dominant cultural, political, and epistemological models that marginalize Maya ways of being, they empowered their communities to shape their own decolonizing sociopolitical visions and localized institutions. Some examples are: coordinating councils and community consultation mechanisms in official municipal government based on Maya social organization, the promotion of Maya justice systems, and the development of schools and curricula more closely aligned with Maya teachings. Rooted in the social fabric of the rural areas, these Maya groups prioritize projects of cultural restoration through their daily practices and lived experiences of indigeneity.
“‘Protesting’ through art is different …
… It’s visual, and aural. It’s much more complete. In art, you can’t walk around with a combat-hardened face saying, ‘I am strong! We must do this!’ No. One must have even deeper feelings about the injustice to protest through art.”
Coming of age during the height of diverse local projects of cultural restoration, and having been shaped by this approach through their parents and the Kaqchikel community-run schools they attended, the youth of Sotz’il brought the movement for social and cultural revitalization into the realm of theater and the arts. Over time, their project became one of decolonization, infusing new life into Kaqchikel society by re-grounding it in Maya epistemology and spirituality via the arts. These youth offer an original, visionary, compelling, and touching contribution to the other local projects of building semi-autonomous spaces of Maya life.
“We have our own stories. …
… We have a history that we’ve been prohibited from seeing and hearing."
Sotz’il’s second major contribution to the Maya Movement and Guatemalan society as a whole is in the realm of representation and performance, given that these are highly potent sites for the construction of identities and the contestation of oppressive racialized hierarchies. Mayas’ historical positioning of servitude in Guatemala has been maintained and naturalized through disparaging images of Mayas in the national imaginary. In particular, national narratives have represented Mayas as backward–as a hindrance to the ladino(“non-indigenous”) national project of modernization. At the same time, the state and other national actors selectively appropriate and folklorize markers of Maya culture to pander to the international tourist economy and/or to reaffirm Guatemala’s national self-image. Through this appropriation, Guatemalan political and business elites earn tourist dollars and international diplomatic approval while masking continuing repression, violence, and social inequalities that especially afflict poor Mayas. Sotz’il was founded to challenge and critique folkloric groups and degrading tropes through theater. By performing their silenced histories, Sotz’il members enact liberating identities to build a better future.
Theater is a perfect space to do this: Sotz’il has brilliantly used their theater and dance performances to not only challenge racist stereotypes, but also to think through, create, explore, and share their holistic and multi-dimensional visions of Maya cultural, social, spiritual, and political ideals. Their performances provide a rich, multi-textured, multi-sensory drawing board for thinking outside the repressive and genocidal social scripts that have dominated Guatemala since the Spanish invasion in 1524 – and instead to center Maya sacred understandings of the universe. They present an alternative space for Maya youth and communities to freely envision for themselves the possibilities of their identity: What does it mean to be Maya? What would indigenous sovereignty look like and entail? What if Mayas did not have to subscribe to the disempowering models offered by the state? What would this liberated Maya world feel like, and how would we move in it?
Rich artistic work such as this exposes the superficiality of the policies of appeasement that the Guatemalan state – in fact, many nation-states — offer to indigenous peoples, because those still fall under Western conceptualizations of development, modernization, “basic needs”, politics, and governance.
Instead, artists like Augosto Boal theorize that theater and performance can be transformative, due to the openings they provide to suspend the dominant order “on stage.” Social justice transformation can then be envisioned and enacted through theater techniques.
Through their theatrical productions, Sotz’il has created Maya utopias – virtual sovereign spaces – a significant act of recovery and decolonization for historically subjugated peoples. They creatively re-imagine what is available in the present for Maya peoples, presenting the glory of Maya ways of life directly in the midst of violence which in recent years has ever more intimately touched them personally. Yet, through the arts, they keep on dreaming … imagining… constructing and embodying those dreams for their people, the Maya peoples, through their theater work. And in their performances, it is not only Maya peoples who get a glimpse of what liberation looks like. It is all of us, implicated in and affected by violence in Guatemala and in our world, who begin to see spaces of transformative possibility, decolonized wholeness, just and harmonious relations, and hope – the promise of new and renewed life where each of us can grow into our own promise. Lisandro would say that in the Maya worldview, “we need everyone’s unique energy” and balanced growth for life on this planet to move forward. Under this vision, we can dream together.
The assassinations of three family members of Sotz’il in the past eighteen months is a tragedy, injustice, and inexpressible loss. Yet, learning from their inaugural theater masterpiece based on the resistance, execution, and ultimate liberation of Kaqchikel leader Kaji’ Imox, death itself can be transformed into new life. It is up to each of us…
Ma Lisandro, now an ancestor: Matyox chawe for your visionary work and the legacy you have bestowed for us to continue. Those of us who have felt your presence and energy in flesh will remain inspired. May your spirit continue to guide and provide courage and vision to future generations, hacia la reivindicación del gran pueblo Maya. In times of difficulty and struggle, may we remember your example–Sotz’il’s breathtaking acts of creation and re-generation that are reminiscent of the miracle of Life itself.
“Telling this ancestral story [of Kaji’ Imox] in a public forum is a forceful declaration of the Mayas’ existence as a people with their own culture, ways, and history. This is exactly what genocidal forces seek to deny and repress—because they cannot extinguish nor completely suppress a people if they are loudly proclaiming their right to exist and practicing their power of regeneration. Lisandro concludes, ‘Because Kaji Imox did this, the Maya have never accepted a new way of life.’”
In Humble Memory Of:
Ma Ernesto Guarcax, respected community leader, teacher, and school director. In response to the prior kidnappings for ransom in Sololá township, he helped community members safely recover their loved ones and he organized the township-wide protest march in 2008. He also founded the community radio program “Siwan Tinamit”, which explored and valorized Kaqchikel language, culture, and practices. He was kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated in February 2009 en route to the radio station. He was a father of three.
Ma Emilio Guarcax, a language revitalization activist who worked with the Kaqchikel branch of the Guatemalan Maya Language Academy. His linguistic work enriched Maya pedagogy as well as the development of the “Siwan Tinamit” radio program. He was poisoned in February 2009, twenty days after his brother Ma Ernesto Guarcax was killed. He was a father of three; one daughter was born after his death.
Ma Leonardo Lisandro Guarcax, artist/poet, teacher, school director, and spiritual guide. He was coordinator and co-founder of Sotz’il Jay Cultural Center and an innovator of Maya theater arts, inspiring a generation of community-based Maya youth artists. (For more on Lisandro and Sotz’il’s theatrical production Kaji’ Imox, please see attached essay.) He was kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated on August 25, 2010 en route to the school where he served as principal. He was a father of two; his daughter was born a few days before his death.
** HOW TO HELP: **
Please stay tuned for more information on writing letters to demand a full investigation of the assassinations of the Guarcaxes.