Spirituality, Collective Empowerment, and Everyday Resistance in Guatemala

I feel as though I’m in multiple places at once. On one hand, I very much feel back in Tucson—I’ve more-or-less readjusted to the daily routine of classes and internships, and am feeling the adrenaline/anxiety rush of finishing up the semester. On the other, I feel as though I am—or at least a part of me is—still in Mexico and Guatemala, although with each day comes a struggle to hold on to everything we learned and all the experiences we shared during our time there. It’s surprisingly easy to forget how connected these places are to one another. The dry, breezy air and bustling Fourth Avenue shadow the capital and corporeal flows between these gated territories. If I didn’t know that the border was only 45 minutes south, I’m not sure I would be able to tell. Being here after spending the month of March engaging with the communities and places we were privileged to have visited comes with the responsibility to continue to rethink and challenge the notion of borders as endemic to US imperialism abroad and racialization at home. It comes with the responsibility to do more than share the stories people shared with us with our communities here, to also make a constant effort to exude these lessons in our own daily praxis. But what does this actually look like? How can we struggle to hold on to experiences without simultaneously commoditizing them, as if they are count as some sort of cultural capital or surplus-value? How do we continue to treat the people we met with dignity and humility, when the privilege of a US passport serves as slip-and-slide upon which memories drift out of reach?

I think especially of our time in Guatemala, traversing from Guatemala City to Xela to La Florida to El Nuevo Amanecer, with myriad stops along the way. I think of DESGUA and Café RED and the excombatiente communities of Cajolá and Efraím Bámaca. I think of the way notions of collectivity—which I had only read about through theory in school—are practiced in these communities, and how such practices are understood as inextricable from their Mayan heritage, from cosmovisión. Here I want to focus especially on two events we partook in during our time in Guatemala: an eye-opening talk with Willy Barreno about a concept he called pos-capitalismo, and a traditional Mayan ceremony.I feel that the practices of communal support and collective empowerment so characteristic of the communities we met in Guatemala were perhaps epitomized in the Mayan ceremony that we had the privilege of participating in during our time in La Florida.

In thinking back on the ceremony, I hope to illustrate the way a sense of shared spirituality and inclusiveness interacts with DESGUA’s notion of pos-capitalismo to continue to struggle against the oligarchy’s oppressive policies towards rural populations by simply living, while also looking ahead to a shared, liberatory future. When we first arrived at the ceremony I found myself thinking skeptically. We had just had our Nahuals read for us, an opportunity that barely anyone in the community has been able to have because of how much it costs. To boot, our sizeable group comprised the vast majority of ceremony participants. Within about fifteen minutes, however, the circle surrounding the fire (the centerpiece for the ritual) had grown to include what felt like close to 75 people, of all different ages. As Edgar, the ceremony leader, called on the crowd to take colored candles (each having its own significance) and eventually throw them into the fire along with various other paraphenelia such as seeds and rose water, I found myself feeling incredibly moved. Almost everyone had taken a black candle, representative of wishes for loved ones who had fallen ill.

As the ceremony progressed, we were called upon to throw our candles (representative of our Nahuals) into the fire. Some of us offered short prayers while we entered the circle to engage with the flames. Though my skepticism returned (why were we being made to be the center of a ceremony that we really know nothing about?), within minutes over half of the people in attendance had lined up to receive personal blessings from Edgar before he would toss a candle for them. As the fire waned, different members from the community took turns working the embers, grinding a staff around them in circle formation. Some members of our group participated as well. The amount of smoke emanating from the circle was intense, as Edgar vacillated between K’ich’e and Spanish incantations. Many asked for peace, for health, for forgiveness.When the fire was down to its last embers Edgar walked slowly around the circle, flinging drops of rosewater at the bystanders in the wake of plumes of heavily-scented smoke. Just like that, the ceremony was over.I still have many questions about the ceremony, and perhaps more so our own involvement in it as a group. Why were we able to have our Nahuals read so easily when almost no one in the community of La Florida had been provided with this opportunity? What does it mean for me to have felt so affected and emotionally connected to this spiritual practice that I have no immediate relation to whatsoever? What did this event mean for the community of La Florida, and how did our presence as white US foreigners influence or undermine the beauty of the ceremony?

Though these are important questions to be asking regarding our own privileged positionalities as so-called activist-tourists involved in a (not so) subtle form of cultural appropriation, I think perhaps more importantly at this moment for me was having the tremendous opportunity to participate in something infinitely larger than myself, and to witness the ways in which spirituality and cultural heritage can work to bring communities together in times of sickness, poverty, and sometimes even despair. Though La Florida is a community whose history is rooted in struggle—occupying the coffee plantation they currently reside on in the early 2000s and having to deal with contentious negotiations from the government and threats from outside communities—the ceremony further showed that how resistance comes from an immense sense of communalism and love. It showed me that this kind of collectivity as a practice of living everyday life, in itself embodies a commitment to radical praxis and structural transformation.Only a few nights before, Willy had talked to us extensively about a concept he called pos-capitalismo. Perhaps best represented by the traditional Mayan spiral symbol, pos-capitalismo is meant to posit a means of thinking past capitalism as the driving socioeconomic force in Guatemala. It signifies in many ways a return to a more traditional era while at the same time utilizing capitalistic resources, such as technology or various forms of cultural syncretism, to simultaneously head in this direction while engendering new forms of resistance, both materially and ideologically. Central to Guatemalan post-capitalist resistance, Willy argued, was a renewed sense of connectedness to Mayan cosmovisión.

Though La Florida could hardly be viewed as a technologically ‘advanced’ community, they also embody a fully post-capitalist praxis. For example, their occupation of the coffee plantation and subsequent ability to take control of the technology and trade markets available to them belies a significant—though in some ways minor and potentially even insufficient—engagement with new ways of subsisting that, despite participating in markets, are attempting to use the money garnered from their agricultural practices to invest in infrastructure for their land, and especially to work further to enhance the level of education they are able to offer.It is still unclear to me to what extent the Mayan ceremony factors into La Florida’s sense of self. Given how expensive it is to contract any ceremony leader to conduct the ritual, I fear that to make a generalization about how La Florida recognizes its Mayan identity through the ceremony would be both factually incorrect and not fully encompassing of the various ways the community has come to resist.

I do, however, believe that the level of support for one another and collective participation evinced by the members of the community during the ceremony are representative of something much larger—a way of living that in and of itself is a form of resistance to capitalist hierarchy, however difficult and uphill that battle may be. And this is done in spiral format—maintaining tradition while also looking to develop in sustainable, non-colonizable ways. As I continue to reflect on our time in Guatemala and what it means for us to have been there, I must challenge myself to consistently think through moments such as this, in which the relationship between communal autonomy and sense of self is made clear. Perhaps in doing this I can begin to move past a contrived, capitalistic way of engaging with my surroundings, to see things for what they are.

— submitted by Jacob Ertel


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