Maya Resurgence is really two books. The first presents an ethnography of traditional religion among the Q’eqchi’ of Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz, focusing on links between community identity and the tzuultaq’a, tellurian deities peculiar to nearby mountains. In the process, Richard Wilson rightly defends postmodernism’s role in challenging essentialist views of identity and warns of the danger that it may reinforce anthropology’s synchronic tendencies. These chapters may prove slow going, however, for readers not endlessly fascinated by corn-planting rites or the intricacies of folk medicine. And much of the extensive detail they provide has little to do with the “other” book.
That book is in chapters 6 through 9, where most historians will fix their attention. Here the author traces the effects on the indigenous population of political and economic changes that occurred in the Alta Verapaz between the late 1960s and the 1980s, effects similar to those documented for other parts of Guatemala by anthropologists such as David Stoll, Carol Smith, and Robert Carmack. The often-labeled “traditional community”—itself a product of four hundred years of struggle—came under assault yet again in the early 1970s from the Catholic base community movement, from the evangélicos, and from the effects of shifts in the local economy from subsistence agriculture and plantation labor to cash cropping. More intimate contact with orthodox religion and the world economy weakened the identification of community with the surrounding landscape and opened new, wider possibilities for an “imagined” community. Civil war after 1980 shattered the CEBs and the cash economy as while offering class and nation as alternative bases for identity and community. By the mid-1980s, the brutal repression of the guerrillas had foreclosed the class option; but by uprooting whole villages in a new congregación, the army continued the process of loosening links with the tzuultaq’a.
With locality-based ritual difficult, orthodox Catholicism tamed, the guerrillas a failure, and the cash economy in free fall because of ecological crisis and poor prices, Q’eqchi’ intellectuals have sought a new group self-definition in ethnic revitalization. The movement’s goal since the mid-1980s has been to construct an unprecedented pan-Q’eqchi’ identity—an “ethnogenesis” rooted in language and reinforced by revived “Maya” rituals, however imperfectly remembered and performed. The military, too, has played on a reconstructed traditionalism, seeking to appropriate the tzuultaq’a as warrior “patron saints” for the PACs, or civilian patrols. And the evangélicos have scored widespread successes as perceived political neutrals. Today the tzuultaq’a wait almost unattended in the mountains while a “plurality of discourses” competes for Q’eqchi’ allegiance. The outcome remains to be seen.
Historians as well as anthropologists should read Maya Resurgence, though they will probably read it differently.