The Maya Diaspora in Los Angeles: Memory, Resistance and the Voices of Contacto Ancestral

This essay's cover image features the Contacto Ancestral logo that was designed by Manuel Felipe Pérez. He based the image on the Maya symbol for knowledge and communication from the Dresden Codex. Glyphs spelling "Contacto Ancestral" in ancient Maya by Dr. Mark Van Stone.
This essay’s cover image features the Contacto Ancestral logo that was designed by Manuel Felipe Pérez. He based the image on the Maya symbol for knowledge and communication from the Dresden Codex. Glyphs spelling “Contacto Ancestral” in ancient Maya by Dr. Mark Van Stone.

At the end of the 36-year civil war in Guatemala (1960-1996), the United Nation’s Truth Commission reported that over 200,000 people were killed; there were more than 40,000 widows and 1.5 million displaced, living in exile or as refugees. The report also states that military, police forces, or government officials committed 93% of these crimes. It further notes that 83% of those killed were Maya. Of the 1.5 million displaced, many initially migrated in the mid and late 1980s from the highlands to Guatemalan urban centers, while others lived in Mexican refugee camps in Chiapas and Yucatán under dire living conditions (Manz 1988). It was also during this period, as James Loucky in Maya Diaspora: Guatemalan Roots, New American Lives (2000) notes, that Maya-Q’anjob’al immigrants began to create visible communities in Los Angeles, California and Indiantown, Florida.  In these community-building efforts, a group of Maya immigrants in Los Angeles, along with other Latina/o rights groups in the area, initiated attempts to expand Spanish-language programming at the local public community radio station KPFK.

Consequently, in 2003, a committee of ten Maya Guatemalan immigrants established the radio program Contacto Ancestral.  The show aired for the first time on Monday, 21 July of that year. For the first seven years, Contacto Ancestral was a half-hour weekly show. In the fall of 2010, the program was expanded to an hour, but aired at a later time. Though at a different time, the show continues to air on Monday nights (from 10:30-11:30), and it is available live online, with past episodes accessible through the KPFK archives. In Contacto Ancestral’s mission statement, the founders highlight the urgency of creating a space where they can make visible the social and political issues that impact indigenous communities, as well as present their proposals for social change. At the same time, they note their hopes of constructing an audible space for interethnic coalition and exchanges. Equally important are the possibilities of archiving the experiences of indigenous and diasporic communities. In doing so, the program produces an awareness of a Maya community that transcends local, national, and international borders.

Thus, I argue that Contacto Ancestral creates an audible Maya community on the Los Angeles airwaves through an archive that highlights a shared history between indigenous peoples living in their place of origin and those in the diaspora. I begin by noting how the show participates in the revitalization of Maya identity and culture. Furthermore, I suggest that the creation of a historical memory is particularly evident in the ways Contacto Ancestral produces, to use Eva Hoffman’s term, a “sense of [a] living connection” between the generations that experienced the trauma of the Guatemalan civil war, particularly the genocide, and the generations that maintain a close connection to the survivor(s) of that trauma, but may have no direct link to those historical experiences. As a result, the show creates what I call a “memory of resistance” that emphasizes the revitalization of indigenous cultural practices and worldviews, as well as the articulation of Maya historical perspectives. In this way, Contacto Ancestral produces an essential space to link and empower multiple generations of Maya communities living in Mesoamerica and the diaspora.

Revitalizing Maya Identity and Culture

1.1 Contacto Ancestral Program Intro.

Contacto Ancestral uses the airwaves in Southern California to create and affirm a positive consciousness around Maya identity. This is evident from the beginning of the program, which opens with multiple voices declaring in Spanish: “Maya es… historia, cultura, sabiduría, arte, filosofía, ciencia, identidad. Maya es…¡orgullo!” (“Maya is…history, culture, knowledge, art, philosophy, science, identity. Maya is…pride!”) [1.1 Contacto Ancestral Program Intro (0:30)] By affirming a Maya identity, and not a Guatemalan, Central American, or Latina/o, the program continues efforts by the Maya movement for the revitalization of Maya culture and the construction of a shared historical memory in Mesoamerica and the diaspora. The articulation of ethnic pride becomes an important tool of cultural and political empowerment particularly if we consider the daily violence indigenous immigrants face in the United States not only because of their status as immigrants, but also because of their ethnic identity. At the same time, the focus on a broad ethnic identity creates a connection to a larger transnational Maya movement that expands beyond geopolitical borders and includes Mayas living in Guatemala, United States, Mexico, Canada, Belize and elsewhere.

Contacto Ancestral’s affirmation of a Maya identity is also visible in the show’s incorporation of short segments in indigenous languages, as well as in its efforts to impart Maya linguistic practices. As I have noted elsewhere, the linguistic sections, which range from poetry readings by contemporary Maya writers to short language lessons, provide an important sense of community for indigenous immigrants who often do not hear their linguistic practices on media outlets. Some of the contemporary Maya writers whose work is read on the show include: Humberto Ak’abal [1.2 “El mecapal” Written and Read by Humberto Ak’abal  (0:40)], Rosa Chávez, Maya Cú Choc, Gaspar Pedro González [1.3 “Canto de pájaros” Written and Read by Gaspar Pedro González  (1:33)], Calixta Gabriel Xiquín [1.4 Calixta Gabriel Xiquín Interview on 1 October 2007  (4:24)], among others.

1.2 “El mecapal.” Written and Read by Humberto Ak’abal.
1.3 “Canto de pájaros.” Written and Read by Gaspar Pedro González.
1.4 Calixta Gabriel Xiquín Interview on 1 October 2007. 

The clips in Maya languages, and in other indigenous linguistic practices, simultaneously mark particular cultural references and ancestral knowledge. And while there are linguistic variations between contemporary Maya languages, they all descend from a shared linguistic root. Hence, the incorporation of these Maya linguistic practices throughout the radio show produces a sense of an ancestral connection. Similarly, the language lessons by Maya K’iche’ teachers José Vásquez López and Cecilio Gómez not only give an awareness of community, since language is an audible marker of a group’s ethnic identity, but also creates an aperture for others to better understand Maya culture and cosmology [1.5 Introduction to Maya-K’iche’ Lessons by José Vásquez López and Cecilio Gómez  (1:02)] [1.6 Maya-K’iche’ Lesson: ‘Wa’/Comida/Food by José Vásquez López and Cecilio Gómez  (3:15)]. Additionally, the show incorporates recordings of readings from various ancient Maya texts like the Popol Wuj [1.7 Popol Wuj Lesson (1:02)], Annals of the Kaqchikel, and Chilam Balam.

1.5 Introduction to Maya-K’iche’ Lessons by José Vásquez López and Cecilio Gómez.
1.6 Maya-K’iche’ Lesson: Wa’/Comida/Food by José Vásquez López and Cecilio Gómez.
1.7 Popol Wuj Lesson. 

These short readings help maintain a cultural and historical link between the Maya living in Los Angeles and their communities of origin, as well as with other indigenous nations who share related cultural contexts. Moreover, the texts aid in the preservation of Maya history and worldviews for younger generations, which becomes particularly urgent given the pressures confronted in the US to assimilate to dominant Latina/o and Euro-American cultures. As mentioned in Contacto Ancestral’s mission statement, these ancient texts provide an essential foundation for the show’s vision. The founders specifically note that they interpret “[los]… planteamiento del Popol Wuj como una exhortación a no perder nuestra identidad dentro de la cultura dominante de Estados Unidos. At the same time, as the name of the program suggests, these ancient texts and the program’s thematic focus produce a link to their ancestral roots while grounding the historical memory created in the diaspora.

Remembering the Maya Genocide

In addition to the incorporation of ancestral texts, and cultural references, recording various historical perspectives on issues that impact indigenous peoples in Abya Yala is also central to Contacto Ancestral. The recent genocide in Guatemala (1960-1996) is a fundamental aspect of Maya modern history, and for this reason many shows are produced on the matter. Maya scholars, including Enrique Sam Colop, Raxche’, Victor Montejo, and Rigoberta Menchú Tum, situate two clear periods of genocide in the country: Spanish Colonial processes in the sixteenth century, and later the dictatorships of Generals Fernando Romeo Lucas García and José Efrain Ríos Montt’s in the late 1970s and mid 1980s. During the latter, Civil Self-Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC) in Spanish), model villages, and “scorched-earth” military campaigns were implemented. These military strategies illustrate the systematic attempts by those governments to eradicate Maya peoples. The human rights report Guatemala: Nunca Más! (1999) states that “the formation of PAC was the military’s way of blaming the population for the massacres and assassinations they committed. Slowly violence became normalized. Through PAC [Maya] communal ties were broken” (35). The Truth Commission Report, released on 25 February 1999, further notes that the over-400 massacres carried out during the early 1980s had the intention of genocide, thus marking one of the most violent periods in Guatemalan history.

The retelling and remembering of this genocide is a central theme in several of the yearly programs produced by Contacto Ancestral because it provides an important context to the displacement of Maya people specifically to the United States. The goal of making the genocide and its impact visible in the diaspora is evident in the various shows produced. For example, some shows have focused on remembering the 29 May 1978 massacre in Panzós, Alta Verapaz, because it is considered the first mass killing of Maya people during the civil war. The programs produced by Contacto Ancestral on this topic range from interviews with Maya activists in Alta Verapaz to segments that narrate the lives of leaders in the region, such as Adelina Caal known as Mamá Maquín, and discussions with US and Guatemalan scholars regarding the massacre. For instance, on 11 August 2010 anthropologist Victoria Sanford was interviewed to discuss her book Masacre de Panzós: Etnicidad, tierra y violencia (2009) [2.1 Interview with Dr. Victoria Sanford (9:31)].

2.1 Interview with Dr. Victoria Sanford.

These conversations with academics aid in democratizing knowledge and information, since they take place in a language that is accessible to a broad audience. At the same time, often at the beginning or end of any interview, a short summary in a Maya language is provided. Similarly, the interviews with Maya activists in the region emphasize the community’s historical agency and provide a space from which the memories of the massacres are inter-and trans-generationally transmitted.

2.2 List of Victims from the Spanish Embassy.

Besides Panzós, the massacre that took place at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City on 31 January 1980 is another central historical event remembered yearly by the show’s programmers. In January of 2004, six months after the show first went on the air, the members of Contacto Ancestral recorded a small segment in which they read the 36 names of those burned alive in the Spanish Embassy. [2.2 List of Victims from the Spanish Embassy (2:56)] That recording is played every year at the beginning of the show on the last week of January and is followed by interviews and reflections by Maya activists who were present outside of the Spanish Embassy on that day. The reading of the 36 names maintains the personal and shared memories of this traumatic event, as the names recognize the individuals and their families, while the discussion that follows links these personal histories to a larger collectivity. This emphasis on those who were killed and who were present is particularly empowering, since much of the scholarly work on the burning of the Spanish Embassy rarely names the victims or incorporates the testimonies of those who witnessed the traumatic event. Naming the victims also disrupts the power of state sponsored violence that has attempted to create terror and silence around the genocide.

The yearly reading of the 36 names, as well as the interviews with community members and activists that witnessed those historical events, thus produces what Eva Hoffman calls a “sense of [a] living connection” between the generation that has experienced trauma and those generations that maintain a close connection to the survivor(s) of that trauma (2004, 203). It is in this way that the shows produced by Contacto Ancestral on genocide allow for an inter- and trans-generational transmission of these memories to take place, since young Maya and non-Maya Guatemalans born after the civil war and/or in the United States learn about the violent history of that country from the voices of living survivors and witnesses. For example, in winter and spring 2013, the shows produced by Contacto Ancestral mainly focused on the impact of the Guatemalan genocide for Mayas today. These programs provided a context as well as a space for dialogue on genocide and the trial in Guatemala against former president General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was tried and found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The trial started on 19 March and ended on 10 May 2013. As many alternative and mainstream news broadcasts reported, this was a historic trial not only for Guatemala, but also the Americas, because it was the first time a former head of state stood trial for genocide in a national court. Before, during, and after the trial period, Contacto Ancestral dedicated its weekly one-hour show to interviews with witnesses from the Ixil region, who gave their testimony in Mayan languages and Spanish. The shows included the voices of Maya immigrants who made connections between the genocide and their displacement to the United States, as well as those of activists who provided historical accounts of the sociopolitical conditions of the 1980s and the processes that led to this historical trial. There were also weekly updates from the leading lawyers who represented the Maya-Ixil community in the Guatemalan courtroom. In addition, short audio clips were often played from television and radio broadcasts that aired in Guatemala during General Efraín Ríos Montt’s regime. [2.3 Clip of General Efraín Ríos Montt’s National Sunday Broadcast (2:14)]

2.3 Clip of General Efraín Ríos Montt’s National Sunday Broadcast.

As Manuel Felipe Pérez, founding member and principal producer for Contacto Ancestral, notes towards the end of the above audio recording, the clips from Ríos Montt’s national Sunday broadcasts not only reflect the ideological framework of violence from which the dictator operated, but also his moral justifications. Thus, on Contacto Ancestral, the testimonies and historical perspectives of the Maya producers, collaborators, and audience members publicly deconstruct Efraín Ríos Montt’s ideas and reign of terror.

2.4 José Vásquez López’s Personal Reflection on Genocide Trial.

On 13 May 2013, two days after the guilty verdict against Ríos Montt, the show started with a poignant and personal reflection of the trial by José Vásquez López, one of the two Maya-K’iche’ language teachers on Contacto Ancestral [2.4 José Vásquez López’s Personal Reflection on Genocide Trial (3:53)]. Vásquez López’s thoughts highlight the racialization of the civil war as well as the psychological impact it continues to have on the Maya. The dedication of the piece to his grandfather, whose life experiences exemplify the uprooting that took place during the civil war, illustrates the long-term effect of trauma across generations and regions. At the same, in Vásquez López’s reflection, as in the testimony that follows by the Maya-K’iche’ leader Emeterio Toj Medrano, the notion of justice is framed within a Maya cosmology that sees the process as cyclical. Furthermore, Emeterio Toj Medrano, founding member of the Comité de Unidad Campesina (United Farmworkers Committee, or CUC), situates this historical moment as part of the new B’ak’tun cycle in the Maya calendar, which he suggests will create important positive changes for Mayas [2.5 Emeterio Toj Medrano’s Personal Reflection on Genocide Trial (9:00)].

2.5 Emeterio Toj Medrano’s Personal Reflection on Genocide Trial.

And though the genocide survivors and witnesses interviewed by Contacto Ancestral speak through the public medium of radio, the possibilities of speaking in more intimate (Maya) languages create a familial and communal space. As they share and make public these personal histories of genocide, they construct an audible record of that traumatic memory. It is perhaps because these testimonies are transmitted outside the place of trauma that Contacto Ancestral also produces a safer space for survivors to speak of these deeply personal and painful experiences. Almost twenty years after the signing of the Peace Accords (29 December 1996), Guatemala continues to be an unsafe space for many Maya survivors even in the privacy of their homes. Therefore, the transmission of these harrowing events can also function as a therapeutic dialogue for survivors, witnesses, and the generations after.

3.1 Juana Sánchez’s Testimony on Genocide Trial.

Additionally, as the witnesses narrate their experiences, radio technology allows for the visibility of other emotive elements, such as sighs and tears, not found in written testimonies or historical accounts. Hence, the transmission of these testimonies and knowledge on the genocide take place through voices filled with various emotional expressions, including grief, anger and compassion. Consequently, the radio broadcasts of these traumatic memories can function as a powerful medium to illustrate the deeply emotional and psychological impact of genocide. In other words, the shows also allow for the transmission and recording of what Toni Morrison calls an “emotional memory,” one that is attuned to the affective and sensory aspects of traumatic experiences (Morrison 1995; Cvetkovich 2003). The Maya-Ixil women’s testimonies aired on 13 May 2013 illustrate the transmission of this emotional memory. Juana Sánchez’s testimony, for example, expresses a feeling of indignation when she speaks of Ríos Montt’s verdict: while recognizing it as important in eradicating impunity, she highlights that the former dictator needed a longer sentencing because he murdered thousands of innocent people [3.1 Juana Sánchez’s Testimony on Genocide Trial (13:18)]. In her testimony, she also notes that the verdict did not create an immediate change to her community’s dire living conditions. In this way, the space afforded by Contacto Ancestral simultaneously allows Juana Sánchez to make a call for further social action.

3.2 María Avilés’ Testimony on Genocide Trial.

Moreover, the show provides a space where Mayas can express their historical memory in their own language, like María Avilés, who begins her testimony in limited Spanish, but soon says she will speak in Ixil [3.2 María Avilés’ Testimony on Genocide Trial (20:56)]. Her testimonial narrative produces a historical memory that is not just marked by the deeply emotional impact of trauma, which is made evident by Avilés’ sobs as she recounts the ways her father and newborn baby brother were killed by the military, but also one that is encoded in Maya linguistic and cultural forms. Hence, Contacto Ancestral, unlike traditional historical archives that focus on providing an intellectual context, produces a space where the emotional memories of trauma are grounded within Maya cultural and spiritual frameworks. At the same time, the aural aspects of radio allow for the participants on the show to maintain the oral forms of cultural and historical transmissions employed in various indigenous communities. In doing so, Contacto Ancestral constructs what Diana Taylor (2003) terms a “repertoire” of embodied knowledges in the diaspora.

Creating a Memory of Resistance

While Contacto Ancestral attempts to create a connection to the recent past, particularly to the Maya genocide in Guatemala, the show also makes an effort to emphasize the multiple resistance strategies employed by indigenous peoples today. This aim is evident in the various shows produced on Maya and other indigenous cultural, social, spiritual, and academic organizations in Abya Yala. Regularly, the interviews with members of these indigenous groups start with a short introduction on the history of the organization they represent. At the end of the interview, the interviewer references the organization’s web site or contact information in order to facilitate the solidarity between members of those organizations and the show’s audience. Two organizations in particular often participate in the program’s multiple dialogues on the contemporary Maya movement and its efforts to maintain a historical memory of the genocide in Guatemala: the Coordinadora Nacional de Viudas de Guatemala (National Coordinator of Guatemalan Widows, or CONAVIGUA) and the CUC. Both organizations not only played foundational roles in resistance efforts for the Maya during the civil war, but are also instrumental today, as the struggles against the social injustices that led to the war continue.

Established in 1985, CONAVIGUA was one of the first organizations created by Maya widows that brought international attention to the struggles of women, particularly in the highlands, during the civil war. In particular, CONAVIGUA helped lead the movement for reparations for war survivors and their families after the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords. Additionally, since its foundation CONAVIGUA has addressed the specific social, political, and economic needs of Maya women and children in Guatemala. This work indicates why the show on 30 January 2012, which centered on the initial stages of General José Efrain Ríos Montt’s genocide trial, focused on the reflections of Maya widows on the formal charges made against Ríos Montt in a Guatemalan court on 26 January 2012. Lucía Quila Colo, founding member of CONAVIGUA, was interviewed for the show on 30 January. In a Spanish marked by Maya linguistic features, Quila Colo first provides a broad explanation of the social and political conditions of Maya women during the war period. She notes the ways in which Maya women were explicitly persecuted after their families had been destroyed by the military forces, and then discusses her personal reflections on the judicial charges against the former dictator [3.3 Lucía Quila Colo’s Personal Reflection on Genocide Trial (6:45)].

3.3 Lucía Quila Colo’s Personal Reflection on Genocide Trial.
3.4 Rubén’s Personal Reflection on Genocide Trial.

As Quila Colo articulates the variety of sentiments she felt when hearing about the trial, ranging from anger to relief, her son Rubén, who now resides in Los Angeles, calls and participates in the on-air dialogue. He begins by speaking in Maya-Kaqchikel and continues in Spanish. Rubén initially explains the broader trauma experienced by children of his generation. He concludes by sharing his personal experiences and noting that Ríos Montt’s military forces particularly targeted Mayas [3.4 Rubén’s Personal Reflection on Genocide Trial (23:52)]. Even as Rubén’s testimony highlights the collective psychological traumas experienced by the children of those who survived the civil war, his emphasis on the ways Mayas have always organized to improve the conditions of their community simultaneously makes visible a history of conscious resistance towards state oppression. Rubén ends his testimony by expressing anger towards Ríos Montt’s silence during the court proceedings, while also emphasizing a sense of pride for belonging to organizations and communities that made the court case against Ríos Montt a reality. He reminds the audience that the case is a result of the work that organizations like CONAVIGUA have engaged in for decades in order to bring justice to all the victims and survivors of the genocide. In doing so, he grounds the memory of the court case against Ríos Montt within the historical efforts of Maya organizations and movements, not simply within the Guatemalan justice system.

Like CONAVIGUA, the CUC has a long history of organizing Maya communities in Guatemala. An organization historically led by Mayas, the CUC has successfully united indigenous peoples of various linguistic practices, as well as Ladina/os. In the 1970s, the CUC initially focused its efforts on access to credit, land titles, fair prices for products, and wages. However, as the military repression towards Mayas in the highlands continued, the CUC also organized against state-sponsored violence. In recognition of these resistance efforts, Contacto Ancestral has interviewed several of the CUC’s founding members, including Domingo Hernández Ixcoy, María Toj Medrano, and Emeterio Toj Medrano, as well as Daniel Pascual Hernández, the current director of the organization. By recording and archiving these testimonies, the program also complements and expands scholarship on these organizations produced by academics who study Guatemalan history. 

3.5 Domingo Hernández Ixcoy on Activism.

In an interview on 31 January 2011, Domingo Hernández Ixcoy recounts how the CUC was formed, employing elements of oral tradition that include the use of the Maya Guatemalan vernacular and sensory details [3.5 Domingo Hernández Ixcoy on Activism (7:26)]. In his narration, Hernández Ixcoy specifically emphasizes the massive labor movements that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, he discusses the fundamental role that the Ixtahuacán miners strike in 1977 had on social movements and resistance efforts at the time. He further explains that the state assassinated all of the striking miners, with the effect of underscoring the remaining miners’ confidence in their efforts to resist the government. Additionally, he notes that in the 1980s the CUC also organized one of the most successful labor strikes in Guatemalan and Latin American history: the Southern Coast plantations strike mobilized over 80,000 Maya and Ladina/o campesinos [4.1 Domingo Hernández Ixcoy on the Ixtahuacán Miners Strike (5:17)] [4.2 Domingo Hernández Ixcoy on the Labor Strikes in the Southern Coast (Escuintla) (9:10)].

4.1 Domingo Hernández Ixcoy on the Ixtahuacán Miners Strike.
4.2 Domingo Hernández Ixcoy on the Labor Strikes in the Southern Coast (Escuintla).

At the end of his historical account of the Southern Coast strike, Hernández Ixcoy highlights that even under the extreme military repression of the early 1980s, the organizing strategies employed by the CUC were able to raise peasants’ wages. He ends by linking the repression and resistance of that period to the contemporary material conditions of the Maya today. Then, he ardently suggests that, through organizing, social changes can be achieved. In this way, the program creates a “living connection” for younger generations to these organizing strategies and memories of resistance by older Maya community leaders.

4.3 José Francisco Calí Tzay on the UN’s CERD.

Aside from regional and national organizations, the show also calls attention to the participation of Mayas in the United Nations through interviews with current UN members. These interviews provide updates and information on how indigenous peoples can use international systems to defend their land, as well as their human and cultural rights. The show on 12 December 2011 with José Francisco Calí Tzay, a member of the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) since 2004 and chair of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), focused specifically on those international organizing systems and strategies [4.3 José Francisco Calí Tzay on the UN’s CERD (15:05)]. Calí Tzay’s detailed explanation not only exposes Maya and other indigenous immigrants to these international systems, but also encourages them to be active participants in those systems. Thus, Contacto Ancestral creates a fluid space for exchanges on the varied forms of organizing by encouraging the narration of local, regional, and hemispheric struggles and connecting them to contemporary issues and resistance strategies.

4.4 B’itzma Sobrevivencia’s T-Son Tat Xmak / El Son De Don Marcos de B’itzma Sobrevivencia.
4.5 Introduction to Interview with Jorge Xulen Ortiz Sales (B’itzma Sobrevivencia).

Interviews with younger Maya activists, organizations, and cultural workers also help create inter- and trans-generational dialogues. In an interview on 26 December 2011, Jorge Xulen Ortiz Sales, founding member of the musical group B’itzma Sobrevivencia, which was formed in 1995, noted that blending songs in Mayan languages with Western musical rhythms functions as an important cultural survival strategy. This is because music is often used to express and share elements that are fundamental in Maya cosmology, such as the inter-connections between humanity and nature [4.4 B’itzma Sobrevivencia’s T-Son Tat _Xmak/El Son De Don Marcos (3:47)] [4.5 Introduction to Interview with Jorge Xulen Ortiz Sales (B’itzma Sobrevivencia) (6:36)]. Ortiz Sales explains that the group’s name, Sobrevivencia, emphasizes the historical struggles the Maya have endured, as well as the ways their ancestors used culture as a means for survival. Similarly, he notes that as one of the first musical groups that started to bridge Maya musical forms with Western genres, the members often faced overt forms of racism by non-indigenous audience members [4.6 Interview with Jorge Xulen Ortiz Sales on Racism (2:25)]. Yet positive community reception, particularly from indigenous youths, has functioned as an important site of empowerment for the group [4.7 Interview with Jorge Xulen Ortiz Sales on Music and Community Empowerment(8:14)].

4.6 Interview with Jorge Xulen Ortiz Sales on Racism.
4.7 Interview with Jorge Xulen Ortiz Sales on Music and Community Empowerment.

This musical project, Ortiz Sales highlights, has become not only multilingual, since the members mainly sing in a variety of Mayan languages and Spanish, but also multi-generational. Their music functions as an essential resistance strategy because, as scholar Josh Kun notes, “music is experienced not only as sound that goes into the ears and vibrates through our bones but as a space that we can enter into, encounter, move around in, inhabit, be safe in, learn from” (2005, 2). Additionally, in the interview Ortiz Sales mentions that one of the group’s new songs, “Al otro lado” (“On the Other Side”) addresses the experiences of marginalization faced by members of the Maya diaspora in the United States. B’itzma Sobrevivencia‘s effort to highlight these perspectives is informed by several former members’ own migration to the United States and work in Florida as citrus fieldworkers. Hence, through the music of older and younger generations and the interviews conducted with founding and current members of key indigenous organizations, Contacto Ancestral includes varied forms, strategies, and voices contributing to a diasporic, transnational memory and continuation of Maya resistance.

Conclusion: The Maya Diaspora’s Audible Archives

Contacto Ancestral creates a space in the Southern California airwaves and online for the Maya community in Los Angeles and beyond to create a “living connection between [the traumatic] past and [the struggles of the] present” (Hirsch 2008, 125). The issues discussed on the show also link “[the] generation of witnesses and survivors [of Maya genocide]” with some members of the following generation (125). These efforts become particularly important for the diaspora, since displacement tends to rupture the links to memories of a shared traumatic past. Marianne Hirsch further notes that it is important to secure the transmission of that collective “past passing into history,” given that state officials often actively attempt to silence and erase the voices of survivors and witnesses (104). Contacto Ancestral facilitates the acts of transmitting and connecting to and with the testimonies of genocide, resistant strategies, and ancestral knowledge through the thematic and structural focus of the show.

The medium used also provides knowledge of the Maya genocide and ancestral memories to people in Los Angeles specifically who don’t have access to digital media forms because of their income, literacy, and/or their limited Spanish and English language skills. In this way, Contacto Ancestral not only claims a public space, but also forms of transmission that have historically been denied to indigenous peoples. By doing so, the show constructs what Hirsch calls a “horizontal affiliation” that challenges the authority of transmission (114). It is through these varied methods that Contacto Ancestral emphasizes a shared history of the Maya in Mesoamerica and the diaspora, ultimately producing “a shared archive of stories” that cross multiple geographical and generational borders (114). It is in part through this “shared archive of stories” that a politicized Maya identity is articulated and reenacted in the diaspora.

Works cited

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Cvetkovich, Ann. 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Estrada, Alicia Ivonne. 2013. “Ka Tzij: The Maya Diasporic Voices from Contacto Ancestral.” Latino Studies Journal Vol. 11, No 2: 208-227

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Hoffman, Eva. 2004. After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust. New York: Public Affairs.

Kun, Josh. 2005. Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (American Crossroads). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

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Morrison, Toni. 1995. “The Site of Memory.” In Inventing the Truth edited by William Zinsser. 183-200. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Rodríguez Guajá, Demeterio Raxche’. 1999. “Cultura maya y políticas de desarrollo.” In Rujotayixik ri Maya’ B’anob’al: Activismo Cultural Maya, edited by Edward F. Fischer and R. McKenna Brown, 121-131. Guatemala: Cholsamaj.

Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


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