Maya, indigenous people of Mexico and Central America: The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

In the first half of the 20th cent., most of the Maya region looked much as it had centuries earlier. Society was divided between a commercial and administrative elite group of Spanish-speaking whites and ladinos, who resided in the larger towns, and a much larger group of Maya-speaking agriculturists, who resided in rural villages. In few areas of Latin America was a racial divide so clearly demarcated, with castelike divisions separating ladinos from the indigenous population. Although the political division between Mexico and Guatemala occurred early in the 19th cent., there were few discernible consequences prior to the years following the Mexican revolution (1910–17). At this time a land redistribution program, together with a set of legal guarantees preventing the expropriation of village lands, were applied to rural populations throughout Mexico; in contrast, no such guarantees were respected with regard to the Guatemalan population.

Demographic growth among Maya-speaking populations increasingly led to pressure on available resources, leading to widespread deforestation and erosion and forcing many groups to adopt commercial specializations to supplement income derived from agriculture. Among the better-known examples of the latter are the colorful cotton textiles produced in the Guatemalan highlands, marketed both locally and in industrialized countries. Also in Guatemala, seasonal labor on the growing number of coffee plantations along the Pacific coast became increasingly important throughout the first half of the 20th cent. Beginning in the 1930s and 40s, improved communications throughout the Maya region opened many new and often local economic opportunities for wage employment and commercial activity.

As Maya populations have become more tightly integrated into national economies, their distinctive ethnic markers, including dress, language, and religious practices, have often been abandoned, leaving increasing numbers culturally indistinguishable from the ladino population. Conversely, economically autonomous communities have used the same ethnic markers as a means of preserving the integrity of group boundaries and corporately held resources. Partly for this reason, the Guatemalan military unleashed a campaign of terror beginning in the mid-1970s, specifically targeting the indigenous population. All markers of traditional ethnic identity, including distinctive dress, language, and even Catholicism, became targets of military repression. Village lands were subject to widespread seizure, and government-sponsored resettlement programs were widely applied. In the 1970s and 80s there were tens of thousands of deaths and “disappearances” and an exodus of many hundreds of thousands, most from Maya-speaking regions, seeking sanctuary primarily in Mexico and the United States. In Mexico, the Zapatista movement that began with a 1994 uprising in Chiapas drew much of its strength from the support of Mayan peasants.

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