Bilingual K'iche' Intermediaries in Late Colonial Guatemala

Friday, January 6, 2012: 3:10 PM
Huron Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Owen H. Jones, Valdosta State University
In the eighteenth century, Guatemala’s indigenous peoples lived in a multi-ethnic and a multi-lingual society.  They had always lived in a region that was the home to peoples who spoke up to thirty-six different languages.  They built networks with other indigenous groups and negotiated their horizontal relationships amongst equals.  Eighteenth century indigenous populations fostered vertical relationships with Spanish colonial officials and had to negotiate the terms of their quasi-autonomy under Spanish colonialism.  Spanish legalism in Guatemala required that indigenous scribes become bi-lingual in Spanish and their native tongue so that they could submit documentation in colonial legal processes.  The difficulties Spanish colonial officials had navigating documentation written in indigenous languages in this highly multi-ethnic region created a necessity for indios ladinos, native intermediaries who could speak, read, and write Spanish as well as their mother tongue.  This paper will focus on indigenous communities that kept documents in K’iche’, even after royal decrees mandated that Spanish be taught to the native inhabitants of Guatemala. It seeks to prove the importance of elite native leaders who became bilingual intermediaries that negotiated for themselves and for their communities in both the Spanish and the indigenous worlds.  Philological evidence in late colonial documentation provides proof that favors the hands of indigenous notaries as they translated documents from K’iche’ to Spanish for legal proceedings.  These documents illustrate how the go-between as an intermediary functioned to support corporate indigenous structures and also how he conserved the practice of keeping documents in the K’iche’ language, in spite of pressures in Guatemala resulting from multi-ethnicity and Spanish dominion.