Kaji’ Imox. Collective Creation of Sotz’il Jay Cultural Center. Directed by Víctor Manuel Barrillas Crispín. Produced by Leonardo Lisandro Guarcax González. Municipal Salon of Chimaltenango, Guatemala. 17 July 2006.
By CZARINA AGGABAO THELEN | RED SALMON ARTS AND UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
I.“When darkness comes, illuminate it with your dreams and hopes” (Guarcax 2006)1
One pre-dawn hour in August 2006, Maya Kaqchikel youth theater group Sotz’il still had not reached home in Sololá, Guatemala after an all-night return trip from a musical presentation in Nebaj. Having passed our final highway juncture and deciding to drive straight to their next local engagement, Lisandro Guarcax, the coordinator and co-founder of Sotz’il, casually remarked that it would soon be dangerous for Sotz’il to do its work and travel at night once more people learned what they were about.
Lisandro’s comment indicated foresight beyond the state of the arts and political analyses in 2006. A decade after the Peace Accords, the arts in Guatemala were barely recovering. Not even six months had passed since Sotz’il premiered their first theater piece on the rooftop of the historic post office building in Guatemala City. The first National Theater Festival was still three months away in November 2006, when they would first receive national recognition. That was still to come, yet Lisandro had already expressed a vision to create a cultural center of Maya and indigenous arts based in Sotz’il’s rural community.
Furthermore, in 2006, when one spoke of violence, no one was thinking of Maya artists. Maya artists were considered to be neither targets of violence nor producers of works that deal with or have bearing on violence. Rather, just a decade after the Peace Accords, the primary subjects of history, the primary agents of societal change were assumed to be the two combatant sides to the armed conflict and their allies. Maya artists were not yet widely seen as a sector of political subjects who generate social change, analysis, and alternatives through producing meticulous art that grapples with social issues. In 2006, the weight of Lisandro’s statement was almost inconceivable: Was it not the opposite? Should not these Maya youth artists be the beneficiaries of the Peace process and not a new generation of stolen lives?
I recalled Tat Lisandro’s tragically prescient remarks when I returned home on August 26, 2010 to find, splayed across my e-mail inbox, the shocking words that I didn’t want to believe: “Schoolteacher, Kaqchikel Artist of Sololá / Coordinator of Sotz’il Jay Cultural Center Assassinated.” Very quickly, those who knew Tat Lisandro and had been moved by his vision began to organize artistic and political responses.
To commemorate Tat Lisandro2 and his contributions to contemporary Maya arts, politics, and spirituality, I will discuss his magnum opus Kaji’ Imox (2006), Sotz’il’s seminal Kaqchikel-language play. (Tat Lisandro also produced and performed in a second play, Ajchowen (Artist 2008), a tribute to Maya humor based on the Pop Wuj’s recounting of the escapades of Jun B’atz’ and Jun Chowen, progenitors of Maya arts.) Despite concerns for their safety after Tat Lisandro’s assassination, Sotz’il created a third play, Oxlajuj B’aqtun (2011), a “ceremonial dance” in the Kaqchikel and Mam languages, which was performed in diverse Maya town plazas in 2012-2013 (fig. 1, 9, 10).
II.“They didn’t like to see someone from the mountains coming here to dance in front of them. So, I went back home.”(Guarcax 2006)
Despite a slightly growing presence of Mayas in universities and civil society leadership, Guatemala today is marked by de facto segregation. Tourist advertisements and mall decorations project images of smiling Maya young women in traditional dress to encourage the consumption of Guatemalan products. Yet Mayas are rarely clients of elite medical centers or directors of research institutions and businesses in the high-rise towers of Guatemala City’s wealthy zones. As an example of how racism is felt in daily life, Mayas have shared anecdotes of how some families have internalized the denigration of their ancestral diets (such as tortillas, beans, and wild greens) under pressure to consume foods considered more “modern” pan francés, pizza, and fast food from Pollo Campero and McDonald’s).
The lived experience of colonization in Guatemala3extends to the violation of sacred sites for mining and hydroelectric dams. Also, Maya spirituality has been demonized since Diego de Landa’s 1562 burning of thousands of Maya sacred objects and ancient texts. Maya spiritual practices had to be kept clandestine until legally protected by Guatemala’s new constitution in 1985. To this day, accusations of witchcraft are socially damning: In interviews conducted in 2013, when I individually asked Maya youth artists what they felt was currently the greatest oppression impacting their lives, almost all pointed to religious-cultural discrimination and the social outcasting that has resulted from heavy Christian evangelization in their communities.
III. “All of us are the product of a dream: the dream of our parents.”4
Despite the denigration of Maya culture, Tat Lisandro turned to “our rural context” as inspiration for a revived aesthetics of Maya “scenic arts.” His response to a local presentation of the National Folkloric Ballet of Guatemala was, “I didn’t like the way in which they represented indigenous people in their dances. They portrayed [the K’iche’ warrior] Tecún Umán as a timid indigenous person, an indigenous person who makes you laugh” (Guarcax 2006).
Tat Lisandro was inspired by reading the Kaqchikel Annals, a Kaqchikel history spanning 1300–1600 A.D. that meticulously documents their peoples’ origins, migrations, rulership successions, massive deaths from European plagues, and the Spanish invasion. He organized a youth group to discuss suppressed Maya histories and texts and analyze current socio-economic realities. Only with time did the youth find they were most drawn to autochthonous Maya music and dance (fig. 2, 3).
Tat Lisandro remarked, “All of our environment, including the community itself, made us change so that we could form the theater group,” citing unexpected offers by a stage director to collaborate, community elders to teach them ancestral music, and mothers who wove their initial outfits.
Furthermore, Sotz’il’s community rootedness in a rural hamlet of Sololá connects them with local Maya political history and their b’anob’al (the quotidian practice of Maya culture). Tat Lisandro reflected:
The community organizing that the previous generation did was like the “first front,” because they were under severe, constant repression. The only way to confront that was to organize, to join together. That is, if you have five families by your side, it’s immediately noticeable if someone disappears, and why—[also] who did it.
This “front”—these organizations—opened many spaces, and the new generations are occupying them. […] We realized that one of the functions of art is to declare our vision and protest. Protesting through art is different. It’s visual, and aural. It’s much more complete. In art, you can’t walk around with a combat-hardened face, saying, “I am strong! We must do this!” No. One must have even deeper feelings about the injustice to protest through art (Guarcax 2006).
On the evening of Waqxaqi’ B’atz’ (the start of the Maya lunar year: July 17, 2006), the mostly Kaqchikel audience grabs whatever plastic seats are available circling the foot-wide pine-needle ring that marks off Sotz’il’s stage. The scent of pine needles is familiar to this audience: for celebrations like weddings or cofradía processions, pine needles are strewn across the floor turning ordinary rooms into festive sites. This free performance in the concrete-block Municipal Salon of Chimaltenango is not divorced from reality in the course of the presentation: lighting and sound go out; bar music blares during the play’s solemn, silent climax; and after the actors change back into everyday dress they become subject again to the precarious conditions that mark most Maya lives in Guatemala, sleeping on the floor of the offices of the Kaqchikel Linguistic Community to save money.
Processing in the same order and playing the same instruments as the musicians depicted on the Bonampak mural (dating from 790 A.D.), four musicians cross over the pine-needle border as an ajq’ij (daykeeper) saturates them with incensed smoke from a bowl of sacred fire (fig. 4, 5). Last to be saturated is the Sotz’ (Bat nawal, the spirit pair of the Kaqchikel people), after which the ajq’ij hands him the sacred fire.
“The start of the play addresses the questions, ‘How does life begin? What existed before movement?’ Nothing. We begin with silence— the dimension of zero—that is both the beginning and the end,” commented Tat Lisandro (2006).
The Sotz’ arches his chest and arms over the fire, silently and slowly transforming his shape (like powerful diviners who change shape into their animal spirit pairs) through a series of postures as he moves to the center of a circle formed by the Snake, Deer, Jaguar, and Eagle nawales seated at each of the four cardinal points. This enacts the creation of the Kaqchikel peoples and their lifeways whose diverse expressions (sport, art, science, literature, religion5) revolve around the sacred hearth-fire (fig. 6, 7).
By carrying the sacred fire (q’aq’) to energize the Kaqchikel peoples into motion and dance, the Sotz’ embodies the literal root of their word for power (q’aq’al) and empower (“carry fire”: Maxwell 2006a, 178). Furthermore, in later scenes and in their third play Oxlajuj B’aqtun, the fire is extinguished at moments when characters are weakened or defeated. In Kaqchikel, the term for “defeat” literally means “their power (fire energy) was extinguished” (my adaptation of Maxwell 2006a, 178). That is, many abstract or conceptual meanings of Kaqchikel words (“door”, “in front of”, “leader”) have linguistic roots in concrete elements of the human body (“mouth”), nature (“fire,” “water”, “tree-stone”), or actions (“carrying the burden”, “bearer of the way”).
I argue that theater makes visible the polysemy of Maya languages. Rather than having to footnote or erase “secondary meanings,” multi-sensory theater allows the multiple semantic reverberations of Kaqchikel concepts or words to be available for the audience to keep in mind at once (visually, aurally, kinesthetically, and intellectually). Audiences can understand that the concepts of “power” and “empowerment” are linked to “fire” in Maya worldview. In fact, I propose that this is part of Sotz’il’s politics: to take up again the original, literal referents of the many words whose meanings have over time shifted to purely abstract or conceptual domains as Mayas’ original cultural contexts have been altered or destroyed by colonization, evangelization, and societal change.
V. “Some [of us] went up into the sky, some [of us] descended into the earth.” (Maxwell 2006b, 29)
Sotz’il also recovers the spiritual import of nawales being linked to animal energies. About half of its major characters are animal spirit pairs: five nawales, two of whom switch to the role of Kaqchikel rulers and another two also play Spaniards. (One musician, Tat Lisandro, plays the role of Yaxb’alam E’ warrior energy astride the crescent moon on his elevated platform.) Commenting on Sotz’il’s seamless kinesthetics in moving as their animal spirit pairs, a woodcarver with the Ajchowen Poqomames of Pa'laq'ha' says,
To convert oneself into an animal is to transcend, to visualize another world. Animals have a vision that Nature is life itself. […] This is the body movement of a Maya, the sensibility of a Maya. Converted into a jaguar, [the Sotz’il dancer’s] greatest inspiration is already from the world of the jaguar. This is one of the most powerful things that Sotz’il has discovered (2013).
With this, Sotz’il challenges the anthropocentrism of Western institutions and worldview.
VI. “It was just the trees drumming.” (Maxwell 2006b, 26)In the next scene, Sotz'il dancers embody the mourning and burial rituals of elders all of whom died en masse from the “sore-sickness” (Maxwell 2006a) that preceded Pedro de Alvarado’s arrival in Kaqchikel territories. The remaining three Maya characters are: the young Kaji’ Imox and B’eleje’ K’at, who share rulership, and the Deer nawal who is the spirit pair of Maya authorities.
The central tension of the play revolves around a wrenching decision Kaji’ Imox must make in how to repel the Spanish invasion. First, the Kaqchikeles’ decade-long formidable armed resistance from the mountains is evoked by two warriors taking turns climbing and balancing among six-foot tree branches dressed with beads, shells, and feathers whose rattling unnerves and intimidates the Spanish opponents. From the Lacandon jungle to the remote lands of the Itza’, the unsubdued back country has long become a refuge for Maya resisters who refused to be “reduced” (assimilated) into Spanish pueblos reducidos. Likewise, the Communities of the Population in Resistance (CPRs, Maya survivors of 1980s army massacres) resisted the army’s genocidal tactics of land dispossession by hiding in the Guatemalan rainforest for a decade.
Maya cosmovisión is foundational to Sotz’il’s aesthetic and creative process, which begins with research and consultations with community elders (pixab’). The sacred materials and instruments, which Sotz’il uses in its theater productions, are alive and related to with reverence. In fact, due to their vitality and expressive power, these materials play essential roles in advancing the play’s action (e.g. the sacred fire, the rattling branches, the evocative headdresses of the nawales). Using elements of their natural and cosmogonic environment, Sotz’il members craft their own instruments “to feel the value with which you should treat them” (Sotz’il 2013). In the West we use the terms “sets” and “props,” which reflect the Western cultural tendency to objectify elements (wood, stone) and often people (as “target markets”), especially those from whom we seek to extract greater productivity and profit. In contrast, the ancient Maya cultural ideal is to show respect for all natural elements as living Subjects who interact to sustain our world. Sotz’il often states that the goal of their work is to highlight the “esencia” (ruk’u’x: the vibrancy and reason for being) of each element they work with.As an Ajchowen woodcarver states, “It’s not a simple figure. Rather, it must be something that awakens our history, our past” (2013).
The Sotz’il collective also consults with spiritual elders for approval and guidance throughout their artistic process. Similarly, in their play Kaji' Imox consults the ancestors and energies that mediate our existence in order to weigh the long-term consequences of his actions. The ancestors (personified by four musicians located on seven-foot platforms at the cardinal points) weigh the options, vociferously disagreeing as their voices rise in chorus.
Yaxb’alam E, a warrior, doesn’t surrender easily. But, this is a joint decision, so Yaxb’alam E concedes to the other energies and advises Kaji’ Imox to surrender to the Spaniards to lessen their campaign of terror (burnings, hangings, and razing of Kaqchikels town) (Maxwell 2006a, 284).
From captivity, Kaji’ Imox joins B’eleje’ K’at and the Deer nawal in fervently dialoguing with the energy of an ancestor imbued in an enchanted site. When two Spaniards prance in, the Deer nawal scurries to place a Christian statue over the site, and the Spaniards whip the trio into kneeling with palms pressed together. However, B’eleje’ K’at soon gets up and rejects this compromised way of praying, urging his companions to remember that their spiritual practices are grounded in ancient codices and wisdom. He is swiftly slayed by the Spaniards. A screaming and enraged Kaji’ Imox brings the Spaniards to their knees by hurling their Christian statue to the ground.
In the final scene (see banner), two Spaniards lead Kaji’ Imox onto an empty stage to be hung—in secret, Tat Lisandro notes, because his captors realize that to do so in public would simply incite rebellion. Minutes after he is executed, though, his character reaches up, breaks the noose from where it is hung, and tosses it away. With serene integrity, the ancestor Kaji’ Imox walks to the circular pine-needle ring, where once again he dons the headdress of the Jaguar nawal and, whistling sweetly like a bird, calls to the Snake, Deer, Jaguar, and Eagle nawales to dance to an uplifting, sprightly reed flute melody as the audience applauds and the play concludes.
How did Kaji’ Imox’s surrender help his people? Tat Lisandro commented,
[W]e have to keep in mind that at that time, the Mayas were in the process of being exterminated. […] If Kaji’ Imox hadn’t turned himself in? Perhaps we wouldn’t be here today talking about it! [Laughs ironically.]
In our culture, to die is to be born again. It’s to pass into another dimension. By turning himself in, Kaji’ Imox showed that he had completed another cycle. His death meant that he entered into yet another cycle of life. That’s what the cutting of the noose symbolizes: The resistance of the Maya peoples emerges again (Guarcax 2006).
A colonial order propagates itself to future generations by naturalizing its logic, civilization, and economic and extractive model as inevitable, attempting to erase historical memories of alternative possibilities that existed prior to or “outside” this system. Sotz’il demonstrates, via scenic arts and their immersion in the materiality and practice of Maya spirituality, that contesting orders do indeed exist even in neoliberal globalized times: living, breathing Maya worlds that continue to unfold in space and time, with their own systems of meaning and understandings of power, value, and life itself. Even though it meant forsaking a guerrilla opposition, Kaji’ Imox knew that in the Maya worldview sacrifice is reserved for those who are highly respected (Maxwell 2006b, 66). He realized that Kaqchikel people would read his execution as an enduring call to stand up for their way of life. One Sotz’il dancer who played the title role commented that because Kaji’ Imox offered his life, “the Maya people survive, practicing our culture. And we have survived and resisted in the 500 years since.”
In his own way, Tat Lisandro’s enduring contribution to decolonial indigenous arts was his leadership of Sotz’il in exemplifying how to re-center Maya spirituality in decisions that have bearing on Maya lives. I argue that, because Sotz’il’s "scenic arts" of theater, dance, and music uniquely allow for certain kinds of personifications, transformations, and embodiments, they makevisible and sentient particular dimensions of Maya ontologies that run the risk of being rendered purely abstract (i.e. divorced from their original referents) if limited to political communiqués and discursive translations and theorizations. Matyox chawe Tat Lisandro: “Rat xayïk ruk’u’x qatinamït, k’o qejqalem.” (Thank you, Tat Lisandro: You raised up the heart of our community, our dignity and value.)
Czarina Aggabao Thelen is a Pinay dancer and member of the Red Salmon Arts collective founded by the late great Xicano-Indigenous poet raúlrsalinas. She has facilitated poetry and social analysis workshops with incarcerated youth and edited their chapbooks Does Heaven Have a Ghetto?, I Come from a Teardrop, and Stitching My Wings. From 2001-2005, she was community organizer with Mothers On the Move in the South Bronx. She has worked in Maya Guatemala for over 5 years. A Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at University of Texas at Austin, she is writing her dissertation on the politics and ontology of contemporary Maya theater.
1Interviews by the author were conducted in Spanish. Translations into English of interviews and e-mails are mine.
2I use the honorific “Tat Lisandro”, as in referring to a respected elder. For more on his influences and the early years of Sotz’il, see (Aggabao Thelen 2008).
3Guatemala may not be exceptional in this regard. It would be useful to explore the particular lived experiences of colonization in each nation-state.
4Guarcax’s preface to a Sotz’il music presentation at the 2008 FILGUA Book Festival, Guatemala City.
5Similarly, Kim TallBear writes that “indigenous ontologies … do not break narrative from spirit from materiality to make 'literature,' 'religious studies' and 'biology'” (2013).
Aggabao Thelen, Czarina. 2008. "Our Ancestors Danced Like This: Maya Youth Respond to Genocide Through the Ancestral Arts." In Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims, edited by Rickie Solinger, Madeline Fox, and Kayhan Irani, 39-54. New York: Routledge.
Ajchowen Poqomames of Pa'laq'ha'. 2013. Interview by author. Guatemala, 22 June.
Guarcax González, Leonardo Lisandro. 2006. Interview by author. Sololá, 18 September.
Maxwell, Judith M., and Robert M. Hill II, trans. 2006a. Kaqchikel Chronicles: The Definitive Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Maxwell, Judith M., and Robert M. Hill II. 2006b. “Part One: Introduction and Linguistic Commentary.” In Kaqchikel Chronicles: The Definitive Edition, translated by Judith M. Maxwell and Robert M. Hill II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.
Recinos, Adrián.1950. Memorial de Sololá/Anales de los Cakchiqueles & Título de los Señores de Totonicapán. Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City.
Sotz’il Jay, Centro Cultural. 2013. Series of interviews with members of the collective, conducted by author. Sololá, February-December.
TallBear, Kim. 2013. Dear Indigenous Studies, It’s Not Me, It’s You: Why I Left and What Needs to Change.” At Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAISA) Annual Meeting, Critical Indigenous Studies Panel 1. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, 14 June. Excerpt accessed 18 November 2013. http://news.unm.edu/news/tallbear-presents-lecture-about-indigenous-studies.