Becoming I’x : Maya ontological decolonization and the turn to theater in postwar Guatemala
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This dissertation examines theater’s capacity to communicate Maya ontologies and nurture cultural-political imaginaries among rural Mayas engaged in decolonization politics. In response to the highly exclusionary Guatemalan state and the 1980s genocide of Mayas, and coinciding with continent-wide Indigenous protests against quincentennial celebrations of Columbus’ arrival to the Americas in 1992, a vibrant Maya Kaqchikel movement emerged in Sololá, Guatemala. This rural grassroots movement of farmers and schoolteachers, which I call Tejido Social (Social Fabric), demonstrated an enormous capacity for mobilization around a range of issues including recovering ancestral land, expelling a military base, building a bilingual Kaqchikel community school, and revitalizing the practice of Maya customary law and governance. Beginning in 1999, a local political party sought to incorporate the Tejido Social movement, at times using tactics of intimidation and violence. In 2000, children of Tejido Social leaders, curious about aspects of Maya culture and ontology that had been repressed by genocide and colonization, took another approach. Turning away from broad grassroots organizing through village networks, they express a politics of reivindicación (cultural dignification and vindication) through theater. Through an ethnography of rehearsals, theater productions, and audience responses to the theater group Sotz’il, I analyze what Sotz’il’s theater performances do for performers and audiences. Extending Hirschkind’s concept of “ethical soundscapes,” I contend that Sotz’il shapes Maya worlds through theater. This research finds that Sotz’il’s theater performances evoke sensory memories of Maya ontology and lifeways. I contend that by awakening an emotional connection to everyday rural Maya experience, Sotz’il strengthens audiences’ ethicopolitical commitment to Maya reivindicación. Sotz’il’s project, however, stands in tension with the maintenance of the village networks that are central to Indigenous communities’ mobilizing power, leaving open questions about its future amidst repression. By exploring this tension I seek to rethink subaltern politics more generally, beyond social movements as a political formation, to conceptualize processes through which subaltern peoples internalize and emotionally attach to – and then mobilize around – identity-based causes and values.