Redefining the “Indian Question”: Transnational Indigenismo in Guatemala, 1940–60

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:50 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Sarah Foss, Indiana University
In 1944, Guatemala experienced its first democratic election, and one of the government’s first acts was the creation of the National Indian Institute (IIN), which the Minister of Education termed a “revolutionary work.” Through this institution, the Guatemalan government reframed the “Indian problem” into a more radical call to extend citizenship, legal rights and protections, and to include the Maya population in the nation. In this paper I examine Guatemalan indigenismo across democratic revolution and military coups in order to understand how global politics influenced national and local expressions of indigenismo. I argue that this philosophy directly tied into the state’s efforts to establish a unified national identity and modernize the nation. This paper explores how transnational development programs became important tools of Guatemalan governance, particularly in remote, indigenous areas.

The projects that the IIN helped to establish were an important part of the nationalistic social reforms of the revolutionary governments, attempting to draw Guatemala’s diverse population into an understanding of citizenship that would elicit increased participation in national politics and the economy. The IIN studied rural credit, Mayan languages, and textile industries in order to advise policymakers on agricultural credit programs, literacy campaigns, and the protection of local industry. IIN staff did not complete research in urban office buildings; rather, they spent months conducting ethnographic fieldwork in rural Maya communities to learn firsthand about local conditions. As a result of these interactions, IIN staff recommended practical projects such as potable water, latrine construction, and road building. Rethinking Guatemalan indigenismo within a transnational context allows for an examination of the networks and politics at play in the projects that indigenistas projected as humanitarian and capable of improving the lives of some of Guatemala’s most marginalized citizens.