In search of the Puma
In 2013 we had a first orienting workshop in San Cristóbal Verapaz, a Poq’omchi’ town in Alta Verapaz. The Poq’omchi’ is one of the smaller Maya groups in Guatemala, together with their immediate relatives, the Poq’omam. Their anxiety was uttered from the beginning: ‘they tell us about the K’iche’, Kaqchikel or Q’eqchi’ in pre-Hispanic history, but we hardly know anything about ourselves. Did we play any role of importance?’ Through my research I knew that the Poq’omchi’ and Poq’omam had a common origin as Poq’om Maya in the Valley of Guatemala, and therefore, must have been the founders of Kaminal Juyu, the largest city in the Highlands. It was the beginning of a thorough research of that city, in the end finding that two of its ruling lineages ended up in Alta Verapaz, lending their names Kaqkoj or Puma and Muun or Macaw to the neighboring colonial towns of San Cristóbal Kaqkoj and Santa Cruz Muunchu. Soon the participants of the courses lit up with excitement.
The courses we taught the following years were part of a larger project directed by NGO Verdad y Vida which included the reconstruction of the recent history of the civil war in that area, and the pre-Hispanic history. For the latter segment we visited Kaminal Juyu and the museums containing its artifacts and monuments. We also wrote a book together. This was new. In former projects I was the one who had done the writing, but this time we decided there was enough experience and schooling among the participants, to do their own investigation and write down their part. They interviewed the elders of the town and investigated the municipal and parochial archives. We went to the Archivo General de Centroamérica in the capital to examine colonial documents. It resulted in two publications: El rojizo amanecer del puma (2015), and Tras las huellas del puma (2016). The puma is of course a reference to the founding lineage Kaqkoj of San Cristóbal Verapaz.
The first document is a simplified version of the latter and can be used in the classroom. Indeed, over half of the seven hundred teachers in the San Cristóbal area now have a copy. It came with a methodology to pass this information to even the youngest levels of education, a job elaborated by Elba Gereda, a local teacher herself. Tras las huellas del puma, co-edited with Humberto Morán Ical, is a thorough piece of work that can easily withstand the scientific standard. The covers of both books are based on paintings by the very talented Poq’omchi’ artist Oswaldo Lem Pérez.
In collaboration with NGO Verdad y Vida
Funding: German Aid Agency GIZ
Workshop in San Cristóbal Verapaz
Visiting the Museum Miraflores
In the Maya Underworld
In the Polochic area we worked several years with teachers and catechists from the towns of Tucuru, La Tinta, Teleman, Panzos and Senahu. They were mostly Maya people, all of them having a job in which they were able to divulge what they had learned. The Polochic River that shaped this valley, connects directly with a maritime route through Lake Izabal and Río Dulce. In the late XIXth century the German coffee planters built a railway using this trade-route to ship their coffee directly to Europe. At present the Polochic is almost entirely Q’eqchi’-speaking, but these Maya only started to populate the region with the coffee boom. When in the sixteenth century the Spanish showed up in the area, the upper Polochic was occupied by Poq’omchi’ Maya and the lower by Ch’ol Maya. In those days it was also a Maya maritime route. Hernan Cortés roamed the Polochic delta in 1525, in search of food for his troops. We visited the site Pueblo Viejo-Chacujal, described in Cortes’ letters. In addition, we visited Tikal. Many people only know about Tikal from hearsay since the trip and the entrance are too expensive for their daily budget. So in 2012, we organized a trip to the city of the ancestors with a group of 75 people. Entering, we first had a Maya ceremony at the central plaza of Tikal, asking permission from the ancestors. They had brought several boxes of offerings – copal-pom incense, sigars, candles, sugar etc. – which had been prayed over for a week back home by the indigenous priests in our group. This was not just a recreational trip to them.
During these years I also taught a course in Cobán, the provincial capital of Alta Verapaz, the place where I was living. This coincided with the research that I was doing for my book on the Maya underworld Xibalba. The myth covers a large part of the well-known Popol Wuj. The book explains that there was, in fact, a historical and geographical Xibalba. It was always there in the text of the Popol Wuj but never really recognized by its translators. The authors locate Xibalba in Nim Xol-Karchaj. Karchaj is a reference to San Pedro Carcha and Nim Xol is a barrio of Cobán, called Santo Tomás Nim Xol. Yet Cobán and Carcha are colonial towns, the result of the Spanish policy ofreducción. An historical analysis of the origin of the people who ended up in the various barrios of these towns, reveals they are a mix of Q’eqchi’ and Ch’ol-speaking Maya from northern Alta Verapaz, a region riddled with caves like those of La Candelaria, second largest cavern system in the Maya area, a region worthy of the underworld. Thus, this was the historical Xibalba. As I further show, this was also the cradle of the intellectual authors of the Popol Wuj, the Kaweq lineage.
Finally the book Xibalba y el nacimiento del Nuevo sol – Xibalba and the birth of the new sun – was published. Among others, we presented the book in the Dominican convent of Cobán since the original people of this town were the real descendants of the historical Xibalba. Therefore they are called Q’eqchi’, an ethnonym derived from chi’ ‘language’ and q’eq, ‘darkness’ – hence ‘language of the people the darkness or night’ – precisely because they are from the dark caves of the Maya underworld.
Funding: Dutch Aid Agency Solidaridad
Funding of publication: Royal Embassy of the Netherlands
Teachers participating in one of the Polochic courses, posing next to a gourd tree famous from the Xibalba story
Visiting the Candelaria caves
Presentation Xibalba book in Cobán
Presentation of the Xibalba book to Minister of Education, with the Dutch Ambassador
Participants course in Cobán
The Indigenous View of the Conquest
In 2000 Dutch anthropologist Florine Asselbergs discovered that a painted pictorial called the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan – a piece of cotton cloth measuring 2.35m x 3.25m – actually portrayed the conquest of Guatemala. Quauhquechollan is the name of Nahuatl speaking pre-Hispanic town in the Puebla area that provided troops to the Spanish army to help conquer Guatemala. To record the in their opinion transcendental accomplishments, they painted this document of historical battle scenes. Since I participated in the deciphering of the painted document, I wanted the Guatemalan public to get to know this unique piece of their history and organized the project The Indigenous View of the Conquest. It included an exposition, a symposium, the production of a book and didactic material, and an educational tour. Armed with a copy of the lienzo and the book we toured around Guatemala, giving workshops to local teachers and other educational agents in places like Mazatenango, Tecpan, the capital, and Chiquimula. In Quetzaltenango, scenery of the major historical battles between de Spanish and K’iche’ Maya, we reached some two hundred teachers. We also created didactic material for primary and secondary levels, based on a narrative named How family Red Crab lived through the years of the Conquest accompanied by graphic and interactive tools.
The Spanish conquest, or invasion as many Maya would like to call it, is a sensitive subject in Guatemala. The little that is taught about this traumatic cultural clash in the classrooms is dominated by the Spanish view. As the title of the book suggests, I wanted to shed light on the indigenous side of this topic – mainly K’iche’ and Kaqchikel documents. The book further includes an analysis of the political setting in the Quetzaltenango area at the eve of the conquest, and themes like the historicity of Tecum, Guatemala’s national hero erroneously known as Tecum Umam. In the end, Marroquín University took care of the exposition of the lienzo.
In collaboration with CIRMA
Funding: Royal Embassy of the Netherlands
Detail of the Lienzo: battle scene in Teculutlan or Place of the Owl today the Verapaz area.
Symposium in Antigua Guatemala
Teaching in Quetzaltenango
Ixil: Place of the Jaguar
In 2005 we had a string of eight workshops with the Ixil Maya of Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal. Like always, we concentrated on the local history that may be extracted from the indigenous documents and colonial reports. The Ixil area is also famous for a series of beautiful Classic vases, the so-called Fenton Style ceramics, which feature court and battle scenes. They contain some hieroglyphic texts – very uncommon in the Highlands. In collaboration with the late epigrapher Erik Boot, we determined that the ethnonym ixil was already in use at the time these vases were painted (dated to the IXth century). We recorded the local myths, variants of a widely distributed body of myths featuring Solar Hero courting the daughter of Lord Mountain-Valley. We worked on the meaning of toponyms and the most common Ixil surnames. The workshops also included visits to one of main Classic Ixil sites in the area, just outside the town of Nebaj, called Xe Baj, and to Paxil Mountain where according to the Popol Wuj the first corn originated. Its cave is still an important ceremonial center. We had a delicious botxbol – a regional dish of corn dough wrapped in ayote or huisquil leaves – in the entrance of the cave. The participants were members of ten institutes from the Ixil towns Nebaj, Chajul y Kotzal, united in the Communication Centre of the Ixil Community (CCCI in Spanish) and teachers of the Ixil rural state college of Nebaj (maestros de la escuela normal Ixil)
Ixil, Lugar del Jaguar
Historia y Cosmovisión Maya Ixil
Funding: German Aid agency GTZ
Presentation of the book Ixil: Lugar del Jaguar
Presentation of the book Ixil: Lugar del Jaguar
Fenton Style vase K558 (roll-out by Justin Kerr)
Panorama foto of Paxil Mountain where according the Popol Wuj the first corn was found.
Inside the Paxil cave
Plate of botxbol
Rabinal: Place of the Lord’s Daughter
The valley of Rabinal has a long history. Its first population were Q’eqchi’ Maya who gave the name to this valley: rabin-al, Place of the Lord’s Daughter. The Q’eqchi’ were expelled by an expansion of Poq’om Maya from Kaminal Juyu. They founded their Late Classic center of power in the valley known in the documents as Nim Poq’om. In the Early Postclassic, the K’iche’ confederation invaded the area from the west and drove out the Poq’om, resulting in the modern Achi speakers – linguistically speaking, Achi is a dialect of K’iche’. We discussed these successive phases of regional history in the workshops. Of course we had a class on their famous dance-drama Rabinal Achi, which is much more than a story of a political conflict, as most translators want us to believe. The Rabinal Achi is a drama of creation, of the death of Maize and Sun Hero, as I have shown in my work. In 2005 the dance-drama received the status of Intangible Heritage of Humanity, at UNESCO, an achievement in which I had my part.
In the morning we were in the classroom, but in the afternoon we visited archaeological sites in the valley, one of which was the aforementioned Nim Poq’om. And the well-known Kaqjyub or Red Mountain – the generic name for any ‘pyramid’ – stage of the Rabinal Achi. These series of workshops was an initiative of the NGO Museo Comunitario de Rabinal and the participants were local teachers, university students, members of the Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala, professionals, elders, Maya priests, and even a Catholic priest.
Chi Raqan Unimal Tz’aq Unimal K’oxtun
Rabinal en la historia - Memoria del diplomado cultural
In collaboration with Museo Comunitario de Rabinal
Funding: Royal Embassy of the Netherlands
Scenes from the Rabinal Achi
Scenes from the Rabinal Achi
Visiting Nim Poq'om
Pilot Program Bilingual Education
Introduction course into pre-Hispanic history of the Maya Highlands with emphasis on the XVIth century indigenous documents, like the Popol Wuj. In order to update the knowledge on the subject. Participants were educational technicians, teachers and students of bi-lingual schools. The courses were imparted at several regional centers like Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, Sololá, Tecpan and Guatemala.
Winaq re juyub taq’aj – gente de los cerros y valles
Una sucinta historia prehispánica del Altiplano de Guatemala
In collaboration with PROMEM
Proyecto Movilizador de Apoyo a la Educación Maya
Funding: UNESCO/Royal Embassy of the Netherlands