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Guatemala to Arizona: Tracing the Paths of Mayan History

At the root of the recent high-profile Guatemalan genocide trial and Arizona's federally protected ban on ethnic studies are stories of Mayan resilience in the face of ongoing destruction from all sides.
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At the root of the recent high-profile Guatemalan genocide trial and Arizona's federally protected ban on ethnic studies are stories of Mayan resilience in the face of ongoing destruction from all sides.

This past March, just days before a national court trial began in Guatemala over the physical extermination of mainly Mayan peoples, a U.S. federal judge upheld the constitutionality of an Arizona law outlawing a children's educational program that was based in large part on ancestral Mayan concepts.

In May 2010, shortly after the state's passage of notorious immigration enforcement law SB 1070, and after several years of gunning for the former Kindergarten-through-12th grade Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program, members of the Arizona legislature passed HB 2281 banning such programs, with threats of financial sanctions on any district failing to comply. Soon the ban was codified into state law A.R.S. 15-112.

On March 8, 2013, answering a lawsuit filed by former students and teachers of the banned program, a federal judge declared the law to be fundamentally legitimate and constitutional, well within the state's right of enforcement. As with draconian SB 1070, more authorities in the federal judiciary will likely continue to discuss and decide how much repression is enough for minority children and cultures throughout Arizona and the country.

The hub around which the outlawed program revolved was a set of indigenous, Maiz-based concepts that provided critical perspectives to study and improve social conditions, to respect and relate with fellow humanity as well as with the world and the environment in general. Core (Yucatec) Mayan concepts included In Lak Ech -- Tu eres mi otro yo/You are my other me, and Panche Be -- Buscar la raiz de la verdad/To seek the root of the truth.

"In effect, the Maya developed the ultimate human rights ethos -- an ethos that actually can guide humanity out of the moral morass that we are currently living," writes long-time columnist and MAS scholar Roberto "Cintli" Rodriguez. Quoting influential Yucatec Maya linguist, Domingo Martínez Paredez, Rodriguez adds: "The ethos or philosophy of In Lakech means -- there is no I (and there is no you or the 'other')."

Other peoples and cultures, from time immemorial, point to similar ideals. The philosophy immediately evokes the Golden Rule; modern international law designates it as the principle of Universality -- namely mutual and equal human rights for all people, at all times, under all circumstances. The phrase also inspired Chicano poet Luis Valdez to pen a ballad for humanity, which MAS students and teachers recited frequently in class:

Tu Eres mi otro yo./You are my other me.
Si te hago dano a ti,/If I do harm to you,
Me hago dano a mi mismo;/I do harm to myself;
Se tea mo y respeto,/If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo./I love and respect myself.

Various "Stages of Consciousness" (from the "naïve" to the "critical" and the "magical") were employed in the curriculum as lenses through which to observe and analyze subjects within literature, history and current affairs. Considering multiple perspectives was the key to learning development in the Tucson MAS program. While applying the concepts beyond the classroom -- incorporating social justice into one's daily life involving one's surrounding community and society -- was the main purpose of the curriculum.

In turn, the intensive program fostered personal and academic engagement among its students. Alongside Mayan concepts were those of Aztec-MeXica concepts including the "Four Tezcatlipocas" -- Tezcatlipoca (reflection); Quetzalcoatl (wisdom); Huichtlipochtli (will); Xipetotec (transformation) -- also widely used throughout the program as creative pathways to student engagement.

And it worked. A year before the state ban, a careful analysis of district records showed, students enrolled in MAS courses were 51 percent more likely to graduate than those not enrolled in the program.

One of the banned teachers, Norma Gonzalez, reflects that physical genocide was the warfare of choice in the past, stretching back 520 years.

In 1970s-1980s Guatemala, partly for which former military President Efrain Rios Montt was on trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, the U.S.-devised "National Security Doctrine" guided Guatemalan army objectives to achieve "annihilation of the internal enemy" -- identified as armed guerrilla groups and their indigenous (Maya) support base. In the areas highest targeted by the state, total destruction of rural villages reached 90 percent. The army carried out campaigns of wholesale slaughter throughout these communities in which 'the proportion of Maya victims was 99 percent,' according to a UN Truth Commission report.

In present-day Arizona, the administrative banning of Mayan-based learning is the law of the land, now upheld by federal decree. "What we see today," Gonzalez says in contrast, "is genocide with a different type of warfare -- psychological violence. Continuance of [past] genocide with a contemporary perspective is [that] they attack our identity, they attack our culture. They attack us economically and politically.... for us as MAS teachers, we recognize that. What is critical about our classes is that we provide that historical perspective."

In the months following HB 2281's approval in the capitol, Rodriguez wrote in the UK Guardian that Arizona legislators enacted "a white supremacist campaign to erase Mexican American presence from teaching," potentially amounting to "cultural genocide."

In these (and other) ways, the boundaries of modern genocide in Guatemala extend along a traceable, cross-border reality directly throughout the United States, accentuated in Arizona. The trail from Guatemala's lasting misery and increasing violence (a credit to U.S. intervention and financial investment) as an growing source of U.S.-bound migration follows through the physical and psychological killing fields of Arizona, along the rest of the Mexico-U.S. border, and into a reigning culture of genocide denial.

If left unchallenged, this cyclical path ensures that death and suffering will continue. But as local, national -- and even deeper, indigenous -- history and education has demonstrated time and time again, the struggle is far from over.