November 30, 2016
SOLOLÁ, GUATEMALA — Two young girls take center stage and begin to play the marimba, a percussion instrument popular in Guatemala. They play rhythms common to this region. Daniel Guarcax, 29, stands and directs them with orchestra batons, swaying to the rhythm of their music as he instructs them.
Guarcax is a cultural researcher, dancer and artist who works with children and youth at the newly opened Centro Cultural Sotz’il Jay. The center, located in the southwestern municipality of Sololá, offers free workshops and classes designed to promote Mayan culture. Activities include discussions about Mayan cinematography, poetry workshops, learning Mayan words that are used in spiritual ceremonies, among others. The six volunteers, all of whom form a dance troupe, handle maintenance and all the costs associated with running the center.
Mayan people, especially younger generations, need to be reminded of their history, Guarcax says.
The center opened on May 6, but it was years in the making and came at a high cost.
Lisandro Guarcax, the brother of Daniel Guarcax, began pushing for the center in 2000, but his outward promotion of Mayan culture brought serious pushback from a local gang.
“He received many threats, many threatening anonymous calls, a lot of jealousy,” Daniel Guarcax says.
Lisandro Guarcax was killed Aug. 25, 2010 at the age of 32, years before the center opened.
The gang was implicated in his death, but its motivation is unclear.
Daniel Guarcax and others believe he was killed because he worked to preserve Mayan art and because he openly discussed painful moments in Mayan history.
The Mayans were viewed by the state as supporters of Guatemala’s guerilla groups during the armed conflict that lasted from 1960 to 1996. More than 80 percent of the estimated 200,000 people who died or were forcibly disappeared at the hands of government troops were Mayan, according to a report by the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, an independent body established to catalogue human rights violations.
The government not only sought to destroy the social base of the guerrillas, but above all, the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action among Mayan communities, the report noted.
The commission also suggested that the government, because of long-held prejudices, intentionally exaggerated Mayan involvement in the insurgency.
The cultural center’s mission is to ensure that the destruction of Mayan culture, as well as many other events and movements in Mayan history, are remembered. Mayans should have pride in who they are, Daniel Guarcax says.
He and others at the center have realized Lisandro Guarcax’s dream. They began workshops for children and youth in 2013, and ongoing demand from schools, including universities, for the workshops led to the center opening this year.
Now, the center has support from local leaders.
“In Guatemala, more people with talent are needed. And we need to show that children and youth support one another in identifying with the traditions, customs of Guatemala,” says Inés Saloj, a mayor in the municipality.
The center is also a safe place for children to spend time, Saloj says.
Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal, GPJ Guatemala
The center is open Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for daily workshops, lectures, artistic meet-ups and practice sessions. The center showcases one major performance each month.
“Art helps us express ourselves,” says Yenifer Guarcax, 10, who is not related to Daniel Guarcax or Lisandro Guarcax. “In school they tell me to make a drawing and they give me a model. And here we are more free to do what we want, and I like that.”
The cultural center will soon directly address local issues, including a performance to educate on the importance of electing indigenous people to public office in Sololá. A local female dance group, called Ajchowen, plans to use the center for performances to raise awareness about indigenous and gender issues.
But many people in the rural municipality, which is home to over 400,000 people, have asked that the center’s staff travel to their towns to perform. But since the center’s activities are free, the volunteers don’t have the money to travel, Daniel Guarcax says. He hopes to get some funding soon from local public and private organizations, so the center’s classes can continue to be offered at no cost.
Marcelino Chiyal, a member of the dance group and volunteer at the center, says that one of Lisandro Guarcax’s biggest dreams was to use performance to get people to think about Mayan culture.
“Lisandro’s dream is being accomplished,” Chiyal says.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Inés Saloj is not related to the GPJ reporter, Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal.
Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal, GPJ, translated two interviews from Kaqchikel into Spanish.
Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.