Linguistic Ideologies of Belonging and Subversion: Mayan Language Politics and State Sponsored Violence in Twentieth-Century Guatemala

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:40 AM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Brigittine French, Grinnell College
This paper examines the ideological associations and material consequences surrounding Mayan language use and activism in 20th-century Guatemala.  It does so by tracing the historical development of the ways that Mayan languages became linked to indigenous identity in immutable ways by both the Guatemalan state and Maya citizens involved in El Movimiento Maya, the Maya cultural rights movement.  It focuses on three distinct moments:  the introduction and cultivation of missionary linguistic work by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and incipient Maya involvement in linguistics (1920s-1950s), language policies and practices during the armed conflict era, known as La Violencia (1960s-1995), and language advocacy that unfolded during the post-peace accords era (1996-2003).  It argues that the on-going and politicized construction of an essential connection between Maya identity and Mayan languages has been a productive mechanism for structuring and enacting radically different national political projects.  It maps how, on the one hand, the state has sought to eradicate indigenous cultural difference through a variety of practices including: missionary linguistic research, coercive literacy classes, forced military service, and genocidal warfare in service of a modernist, homogenous model of national identity formation.  It shows how, at the same time, Maya scholar/activists, involved in cultural nationalism and indigenous rights efforts, valorize a strategically essential link between Mayan languages and indigenous identity in order to assert collective belonging to the nation-state in the face of a history of violent repression.  The analysis is borne out through a contextually-situated account of state policies and concomitant discourse about Mayan languages as well as a discursive analysis of indigenous narratives about language that highlights the everyday, the fatal, and the libratory.