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Essay II
Last Updated: 04/10/2012
Cultivating Autonomy: Maize and Cultural Survival in El Quiché, Guatemala
David Golding

David Golding examines how the Guatemalan military specifically targeted maize and milpa in its operations during the 1970s and 80s. He argues that the objective of these campaigns was to subjugate Mayan cultural space and food production, previously autonomous, to state control under the guise of development.


A History: To and From the Highlands

The Popol Vuh says that the Creators and Makers first shaped the human form with mud. These beings had weak resolve, could not support their own weight, and absorbed the world’s moisture until they crumbled. The next creations were made from wood, but they were hollow people, devoid of spirituality: “they did not have souls, nor minds, they did not remember their Creator, their Maker; they walked on all fours, aimlessly.” To punish the wooden people for having forgotten their origin, the Creators and Makers manifested a great flood. The smaller animals who had been eaten or otherwise subjugated to the will of the wooden people denounced their conditions and exacted revenge. Even the matates and cooking supplies, which had been divinely animated during the upheaval, attacked the wooden people. Atop the rubble of the old social order, the Creators and Makers built the Mayan people from maize so that finally there could exist a being insightful enough to recognize fertility and food as its divine origins (Popol Vuh 89).

Campesinos in Guatemala have survived since the mid-20th century by working for large fincas in a form of debt bondage legitimated by national “Vagrancy Laws” (Manz 47). Landholders, who were a mix of U.S. banana producers and Spanish-origin ladinos, feared “that if a thoroughgoing distribution of land to the Indians were carried through, cheap labor might no longer be available and the economic basis of the life of the republic would thus be undermined”(Schlisinger 40). As the ruling class expanded its territory over Guatemala’s fertile coastal plains in the 1960s, some Mayan communities migrated up the slopes of a region known as the Western Highlands in search of land. In Paradise in Ashes, Chilean anthropologist Beatriz Manz (48) elaborates on a statement made by a campesino regarding highland village life at this time:

“one feels [a consciousness of poverty] because the exploitation was enormous.” People became aware that their parents’ land was insufficient, he recalls, and dividing it further among grown children meant moving from misery to desperation. The land produced increasingly lower yields, and although some peasants began to apply fertilizer in the 1960s, the cost for most was prohibitive.

The Western Highlands was one of the final frontiers for displaced communities seeking land, and the resulting influx of settlers rapidly degraded and eroded the region’s soil.

The decline of the highlands’ soil fertility led its communities to prepare for a westward expedition into the thickly-vegetated lowland wilderness known as El Quiché. To prepare for the excursion, campesinos collaborated with Spanish priests of the Sacred Heart Order who had established a mission in the highlands. They gave highland campesinos “courses on agronomy, hygiene, how to run a cooperative, health care, children’s care, and Bible discussions.” During these workshops, discussions took place regarding the injustices of the country’s power structure and “the land problem” (Ibid. 52, 67). They would prove useful in establishing Mayan autonomy by offering intra-communal replacements to necessities and services they would not be able to access otherwise while settling El Quiché. During the genocide a decade later, military operations would especially target agricultural cooperatives and other community organizations in El Quiché inspired by Sacred Heart workshops.

In the early 1970s, highlanders began to settle the lowland rainforests to the west. The first communities were founded in the Ixcán, a municipality within El Quiché that borders Mexico. Manz describes the agricultural success of early settlers and the resulting sense of liberation achieved by Mayan villagers:

The fields, unlike their exhausted highland plots, did not need fertilizer. In the house lots they planted oranges, banana, pineapple, tangerines, and yucca. They raised pigs, turkeys, chickens, and cows. Their diet immediately improved, and the days of buying corn were soon behind them. ‘I remember that we used to talk about the fact that we will never have to work for a patron again’ (Ibid. 70) [Emphasis mine]

Rather than supplementing subsistence agriculture with a meager plantation income, Mayan communities shared both the labor and rewards of their new cash crops independently of the landed elite. For them, it led directly to an autonomous existence not known to most Mayan communities since the establishment of the colonial economy.

A young woman carries her sister during the height of the conflict.

Instead of the distribution of land titles, the Guatemalan government responded to newly established Mayan autonomy with military repression. One settler suggested that “perhaps it was the policy of the government to leave us without documents, without titles, so they could take the land away from us later on,” (Ibid. 73) a theory consistent with the genocidal development policies that would soon displace hundreds of thousands in El Quiché.

The internal armed conflict escalated to genocide during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The military conducted sweeping scorched-earthed operations across the region, a strategy inspired by the U.S. occupation of Vietnam, in which helicopters released napalm over villages and crops. The military’s development strategy was originally referred to as “Beans and Bullets.” The bullets, fired mostly by the military and army-organized Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (Civil Self-defense Patrols , PACs), represented 70% of the strategy and forced the villagers to flee into the surrounding jungle. The beans, which constituted the remaining 30%, were later provided in exchange for work within tightly-controlled “model villages.” As the war of attrition restored the state’s monopoly on the violence and death, forced resettlement entrenched its monopoly on agricultural life in El Quiché.

Model Villages as the Brutal Control of Food

Since Mayan communities in El Quiché already had their own beans, the military began to take them away with bullets. The sweep operations began with the destruction of villages and penetrated the countryside where both milpa and the guerilla insurgency were located. Although official discourse claimed that the military operations were intended to curb the expansion of guerrilla-led territorios liberados, or “liberated territories,”(Schirmer 42) the strategy utilized violence mostly against unarmed communities to “pacify” the populace so that a new social order could be established in El Quiché (Ibid. 23-4). In fact, Manz found that it was more common that the military sweep augmented the insurgency, given that a principal motivation for Mayan campesinos to enlist in the guerrilla army was “a pervasive and well-founded anxiety of losing their land to the army or the oligarchy or both” (Manz 107). By identifying agricultural production as a potential site of guerrilla resistance, the Guatemalan military criminalized Mayan culture and regimented its possibilities.

The association of Mayan agriculture with guerrilla territory came partially from insurgent strategy. The guerillas of the Ixcán were supported by organizations of community members known as Fuerzas Irregulares Locales (Local Irregular Forces). Their tactics consisted of “informing on the army, collecting food, acting as couriers or guides, transporting goods, and approaching relatives and neighbors” (Ibid. 97). In this way, they enabled the rebels to be integrated into the distribution of supplies while maintaining a concealed existence in the jungle.

To eradicate the sources of food that had been supplying insurgents, the military extorted the support of captured villagers, who after torture helped soldiers navigate the jungle, capture families in hiding, and raze subsistence agriculture. This strategy became known as “emptying,” which Manz describes as “destroying all food sources and infrastructure, and then resettling the people under tight military dominance” (Ibid. 143). Once the milpa had been “emptied” of its sustenance using “bullets,” communities were presented with “beans” as the only food on which to survive.

Beyond food, the “beans” aspect of the military operation symbolized the “model village.” This was a development policy spatially structured Mayan life as a periphery around a militarized core. The prototype of this new social geography was put to test in Santa Mar'a Tzejá, the village in which Manz conducted her research for Paradise in Ashes. The military occupied the community and made it so “villagers asked permission… to bathe in the river, fetch water, or go to the center of the village to retrieve things, […or] to go to the parcels to gather food.” Access to the milpa was condoned only under army supervision. Significantly, community members “were not allowed to plant or even prepare the land for cultivation […and] Cooking had to be done all in one place” (Ibid. 148). Soldiers usually restricted the circulation of food through the central meeting areas in villages. In the model village, this traditional nexus of Mayan cultural life was transformed into a garrison. Violence scholar Jennifer Schirmer (71) succinctly describes the geography of the militarized villages:

the settlements follow the Spanish colonial-town grid of the New World (as well as that of a military base) with its tightly nucleated rectangularity, in contrast to the typical asymmetry of peasant settlements, which often follow the contours of the topography[…designed] to keep in sight those who enter and leave the houses[…] the military garrison is usually in an area higher than the village from which the army can observe the roadways as well as communitarian buildings, such as the church and school.

Model villages were panoptically arranged to facilitate military observation of everyday life. This included soldiers stationed at the entrance to communities to “meticulously check the amount of food a villager was taking to the parcel—literally counting the number of tortillas” (Manz 165). Although the model village policy claimed to enhance the “functional development of agrarian communities,” in effect it “destroyed the traditional village layout of scattered housing [which] allowed for the cultivation of crops and care of livestock… thus destroying agrarian production” (Sanford 139). As military occupation had done in Santa Maria Tzejá, model villages ensured that everyday life and its subsistence agriculture were only possible when approved by the state.

The central position occupied by the military garrison within the model village also reified the new village-jungle dichotomy being established by the government. President-General Rios Montt gave the order for his commanders to “dry up the the human sea in which the guerilla fish swim.” Since to “swim” in this sense means to exist, the word “sea” connotes the milpa and jungle that surrounded Mayan villages. Schirmer pointed out that because of this, “the military must treat the civilians they are to ‘rescue’ as though they are combatants, killing and burning all living things within the ‘secured area’” (Schirmer 45). The development policy purged agricultural production of the hidden insurgency that was discursively located somewhere between the jungle and the village. To further obscure the division between guerrilla and Mayan, the military mapped the villages and their regions as “red, pink, or white,” which painted the social and political landscape with varying saturations of dissidence. By using captured villagers to decide which civilians were guerilla collaborators, the military high command divided with surgical precision the populace from the social infrastructure that produced food independently of government oversight (Ibid. 48). General Gramajo, who was Rios Montt’s Army Vice Chief-of-Staff at the time, later described this strategy as the establishment of “matazonas,” or “killing zones.” To “dry up the human sea” meant to transform spaces of cultivation into killing fields, to incinerate the fertile land that provided people with autonomous life, and therefore to establish proximity to the military garrison as the sole refuge from violence.

The objective of the model village was to create “tamed Indian communities—no longer a political threat—[which] would generate new income for themselves and the tottering national economy by farming and selling new cash crops” (Ibid. 65). This explanation is a summary of the government’s “Food for Work” program, which was the stage of development that followed “Beans and Bullets.” One army officer explained that the military saw consejos locales, the traditional Mayan form of local government, as hindrances to progress because “they control the funds, they direct the development projects, and thus the peasant population” (Ibid. 78). Food for Work in the context of hunger was an especially effective strategy to redirect the development of Mayan populations. Manz (158) describes the model villages as laid “out in grid form […] to monitor villagers’ every move, including entering and exiting the village […] like run down prison camps […] loudspeakers summoned people for reeducation classes or called them to work on military projects such as building an airstrip, constructing a road, or working on an army base”. This policy was described as forzovoluntario, or forced voluntary labor, because those who chose not to work were subject to not only hunger but violence (Schirmer 74). In addition to erecting military infrastructure, Mayan villagers were required to involve themselves directly in army operations.

Civil Self-defense Patrols as the “Emptying” of Mayan Social Space

As the model village required that Mayan life take place only in the newly-established militarized community, the Food for Work policy reordered the traditional workday and its social relations by forming villagers into armed companies called Civil Self-defense Patrols (PACs). Adult males who resisted their conscription were punished with the death of their families, which the army executed by slow starvation in the model village or murder (Ibid. 93). PACs viewed the surrounding jungle, traditionally revered as the source of all life, as a site of potential insurgence.

Although the most visible structure of the PACs resembled an army company, their conscripts acted as sources of intelligence for the military garrison at the model village’s center. Patrollers were required to report to the army the “community’s movements, with whom it communicates, the amount of food it consumes, as well as of meetings and the content of discussions” (Ibid. 90). Military commanders were careful not to completely obliterate these social relations, but rather allowed them to exist only under state surveillance. Schirmer (98) describes the policy as “localized statism [that operated] by initially linking food with locally organized and locally obligated patrolling—the Beans with the bullets... the military created a network in the highlands of centrally controlled but seemingly localized security [… creating] an illusion of village sovereignty”. The army’s objective was twofold: to propagate discord in Mayan society and to uproot the autonomy that was the foundation for social relations.

Since the traditional Mayan community expanded across jungle and milpa, the military ordered PACs “to search and destroy corn fields and all edible foodstuffs[…] they destroyed the buzones (drop boxes) and trojes, hiding places containing food, documents, and personal belongings […] For peasants, the razing of cornfields and the desecration of land had special significance: It destroyed a sacred plant and strangled the source of life” (Manz 149-50)[Emphasis mine]. The military strengthened the incentive Mayan people had to join PACs because it desecrated what Mayan culture treasured most and created a scarcity of food that enticed men to join its ranks.

According to the PAC military policy, crops were guerrilla rather than Mayan. PAC conscripts and other army collaborators helped soldiers unfamiliar with the landscape to find milpa that villagers had cultivated in hidden locations. When Manz (152) asked one villager who had assisted the army how they identified clandestine cornfields to be destroyed, he replied: “That milpa was of the guerrilla […] well, not of the guerrilla exactly, but of those who remained in hiding." Whereas Mayan ontology saw the jungle’s fertility as a gift from the Creators and Makers, the new military order saw Mayan arable land as criminal.

The PAC strategy established a new spatial order by being “remarkably adroit at not only penetrating daily village life but also at spreading around responsibility for the killing” (Schirmer 82). Most criminalized were the initial settlers of the region, whom the military defined as “bandits, delinquents, terrorists, outlaws, communists, guerrillas, or all of the above” (Manz 71). Since the military conceived of the guerrilla threat as infiltrating the village from the jungle, the people themselves had to be taught a new village life that was never far from the military garrison. In the context of a divided populace, the “civil patrols […were the] linchpins for the 30/70 [Beans and Bullets] formula in which security was linked to development as a way of controlling and separating the population from the guerrilla” (Schirmer 81). Mayan people were treated as proximate to the guerrillas and obligated to prove their distance through participation in violence. To further materialize this new urban-rural dichotomy, “an estimated 2480 land titles had been given out,” mostly near municipal capitals, “with the provision that the land be worked; many of these recipients were Civil Patrol Jefes and other army collaborators” (Schirmer 72, Manz 149). Their location at the municipal centers, which government discourse referred to as “Poles of Development,” established an armed and powerful new Mayan class while positioning them around regional military bases.

The center of the Ixcán’s Pole of Development was the military base at Playa Grande. Tall concrete walls and fortified watchtowers enclosed facilities for the training of PACs as well as social reeducation workshops. At the Playa Grande base, the military would inform peasants that it was in fact the guerrillas who had killed their family members and burned their villages. Propaganda served to “rip apart and then restructure social relations throughout the countryside” (Manz 159-60). Just as the military argued that the guerilla movement necessitated the “emptying” of agricultural production in El Quiché, Mayan culture also needed “emptying” of the drive for rural autonomy that had originally motivated campesinos to settle the region. To this end, military operations specifically targeted community-led organizing in Mayan villages.

Organizing as the Reestablishment of Mayan Autonomy

Leaders of a Community of Population in Resistance (CPR) have a conversation by candlelight.

The Guatemalan military saw state-led organizing as the only legitimate social structure. Although the government recognized that the motivation Mayan people had to organize themselves was “based on social injustice, political rivalry, unequal development, and the dramas of hunger, unemployment, and poverty,” it held that “development trickles down from the top to the bottom… The principal effect was to limit any possibility for local organizing” (Schirmer 62, 77). The military’s development discourse was a debate over whether sovereignty belonged to the people or to the state.

Human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú, who is from El Quiché, gives an example of the military’s “cultural oppression which tries to divide us by taking away our traditions and prevents unity among our people.” General Laugerud Garcia, who had recently risen to power in the region, approached Menchú’s community with the vow to secure them the titles to their land, only to follow the promise by the capturing and torturing her father, a recognized community leader. She reflects that the reneged promise was especially infuriating because her brothers had “died of hunger, of malnutrition, of not having enough to eat in the finca” (Menchú 118). General Garcia then restructured her village by dividing it into plots that inhibited its communal economic functions. In response, villagers combined their land to “set aside an area to grow our maize and an area for our animals, even though the agrarian reform had allocated our own plots” (Ibid. 158). As she later reflected on her life, she wrote: “My dreams came true when we started organizing[…] We all had to unite, all of us together. We held meetings” (Ibid. 120). For her community, organizing was a way to maintain vital social relations amidst military and legal technologies designed to create disunity. Most importantly, this organizing allowed the populace to maintain control of their own development.

Mayan organizing also found autonomy in the jungle and milpa around villages. The forest was especially important to communities in El Quiché because they originally “built their homes from the wood they cut and from the abundant palm leaves nearby” (Manz 62). Later, as the military increased its presence in the region, the EGP told villagers that “when the army comes to kill you, all you have to do is go to hide in the jungle for a few days and we will confront the army” (Ibid. 118). Like many in the region, Menchú’s community “built a camp… so that if, at any time, we couldn’t live in the village, we could go to the camp. That’s when we found our friends from the natural world even more useful—the plants, the trees, and the mountains” (Menchú 128). Later, military incursions into Mayan communities forced villagers to hide in the rainforest as though they were guerrilla units.

Some communities transitioned completely into a clandestine life. These were known as Comunidades de Poblacion en Resistencia (Communities of Population in Resistance, CPRs), in which “land was worked collectively […by] well organized communities in the safest areas.” They did not use money because they could not be seen at the marketplace. The escalating conflict and the reconstruction of villages under military control forced many Mayan communities to choose between autonomy and money. Although life was especially difficult in CPRs given that their existence was illegal, they were able to continue farming communally and therefore preserve a vital aspect of their culture.

Other rural organizers took their struggle to Guatemala City. When campesinos assembled in the capital to demand respect for their rights to land, the army attacked the demonstration and killed over one-hundred people. In response, protestors occupied the Spanish embassy, which prompted riot police to assault the building and kill almost everyone inside. To publicly demonstrate the ideological nature of its war, the military murdered the last surviving protestor “and then dumped [his body] on the campus of the University of San Carlos,” (Ibid. 95) Guatemala’s oldest public university, which had a history of supporting campesino movements. The spectacle of bodily mutilation was meant to inform rural communities that the land problem was to be solved by state policy rather than the Mayan populace.

Teaching Spanish in a clandestine classroom.

Throughout the conflict, community organizing rather than guerrilla organizing was the main target of military violence. In her work Buried Secrets, anthropologist Victoria Sanford (126) wrote: “In the dozens of massacres I have investigated, there was always some kind of community organizing prior to the massacre…. always present [were] community projects focused on one, or any combination, of the following: development, cooperatives, agricultural production, textiles, potable water, vaccination campaigns, primary education, literacy, and general health.” She emphasizes that guerrilla organizing was only sometimes present.

Although military operations and forced resettlement made it so “the cooperative spirit [community members] had nurtured so long was shattered,” (Manz 133) survivors of the conflict today still recognize organizing as “a useful tool for demanding compliance with human rights obligations, […] as a defense against life-threatening living conditions, [and] as essential to confronting poverty and precarious economic circumstances” (REHMI 87). The goal of this community-led development is to address the “critical social demands [of] demilitarization, land tenancy, and freedom to rebuild daily life” (Ibid. 94). That survivors demand the right to organize despite years of violent repression demonstrates that autonomy is profoundly valued in Mayan culture.

Conclusion: Narrating a Mayan Rebirth into Dependence

In her autobiography, Rigoberta Menchú summarizes the significance of the milpa according to the beliefs of her people: “Every part of our culture comes from the earth. Our religion comes from the maize and bean harvests which are so vital to our community” (Menchú 16). For her, Mayan agriculture has been subjugated to racial and structural violence. “[W]e don’t like killing. There is no violence in the Indian community. Take the death of a child. If a child dies of malnutrition, it is not the fault of the father but the fault of the conditions imposed on us by theIt is the system which abuses us” (Ibid. 202-3). In light of the history, her analysis of the Guatemalan state as the perpetrators of cultural violence that specifically targets agricultural production are well-founded.

The policy of the Guatemalan military aimed specifically to undermine the cultural integrity of Mayan society. “The Army General Staff, working within its paradigm of being the final arbiter of local indigenous village life, analyzed the indigenous social system, spatial distribution, and traditional beliefs” (Schirmer 70). The conclusion drawn, according to General Gramajo, was that “we [in the army] saw every Indian an enemy” (Ibid. 84).

The desecration of Mayan beliefs often dramatically surpassed the strategic requirements of genocide. In Menchú’s community:

The soldiers stayed for two weeks and used the community house where we carried out all our ceremonies, and held our meetings. They lived there. At night they went into our maize fields to dig up our potatoes, cut off the maize cobs and young beans, and ate very well. They cut any cobs they wanted. For us this was violating our culture, because we Indians have to perform a ceremony before picking the cob, the fruit of the earth and of the peasants’ labour. We were very angry but we didn’t show our anger because there were ninety of them, capable of massacring us all. They were armed (Menchú 124).

The incident echoes another in which soldiers occupied the town center and accompanied rape with marimba music in open mockery of Mayan culture (Manz 120). Soldiers replaced the traditional ritualization of reverence for agriculture with symbolic and physical displays of profound disrespect. Another study concluded that the military’s destruction of agriculture was intended to inflict cultural harm: “The loss and destruction of milpa is present in every testimony not simply because it is the principle food source of the Maya, but because maize is sacred” (Sanford 177-8). The strategy of “emptying” was perhaps even more cultural than it was strategic.

Schirmer analyzed post-conflict government policy as a strategy to realize what she calls a “sanctioned” and militarized Mayan identity. Development policy in the Ixil sought “to complete its assigned mission [of] intensifying the ladinization of the Ixil population until it disappears (está desaparezca) as a cultural subgroup foreign to the national way of being… [to] castellanizar” the culture. As she points out, one prominent military officer suggested that the government expand its influence in the region by “respecting the Ixil identity, customs and language,” an idea that was discarded because “there exists the possibility that if they organize themselves into self-defense patrols and are given arms, they could go into the mountain [to fight] with the guerrilla” (Schirmer 104-5). Government discourse located potential insurgence within indigenous culture, so it assigned itself the explicit purpose of creating a new social order atop the ashes of traditional society.

The later stages of the government-led development policy was implemented in El Quiché to ensure “the prevention of… the establishment of units of production [by terrorists],” which, as Schirmer analyzes, “assumes warlike conditions or at least potential conflict” (Ibid. 108-9). This echoes the notion that “food is a weapon in a world at war,” a statement from a U.S. policy recommendation that inspired the Reagan administration’s support for “low-intensity warfare” throughout Latin America and under which he supplied Rios Montt with 3.63 million U.S. dollars worth of military equipment (Sanford 137, Manz 23). Low-intensity conflict and selective violence were used in the Guatemalan genocide specifically because of its effectiveness in infiltrating indigenous culture and shaping everyday life over the long-term.

The military conceived its work as the birth of a “new Phoenix [… a] kind of reorganized truth.” In the new spiritual order, Gramajo explained, “we in Civil Affairs don’t give anything away]; el pueblo must earn everything.” Because of this newly constructed Mayan dependence, Schirmer (113-5) explains, “the prototype of the Sanctioned Mayan that is being created here is emptied of agency and history”. From reading the testimonies of the military high command that conducted the genocide, it is clear that the state’s development policies used violence to silence Mayan culture and establish a new agricultural order exclusively under state control.

The Quiché people and the Guatemalan military both understood Mayan culture as inseparable from its form of communal food production. Both saw agriculture as a path to autonomy. The point of contention was who had the right to sovereignty and therefore the authority to determine the development of El Quiché. Although the Mayan people were largely unarmed during the conflict, they found survival in their culture of autonomy and communal agriculture. The existence of this culture today is testament to the strength of the Mayan ontology and its ordering of rural society.


Works Cited

Manz, Beatriz. Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage,Terror, and Hope. London: University of California Press, 2004. Print.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú. London: Verso, 1984. Print.

Popol Vuh. 1950. Trans. Adrián Recinos. Trans. Goetz, Delia and Sylvanus G. Morley. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. Print.

REHMI. Guatemala: Never Again!. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999. Print.

Sanford, Victoria. Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Schirmer, Jennifer. The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Print.

Schlisinger, Stephen and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. 1982. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. Print.


David Golding is a graduate student at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. He has worked as a human rights observer in El Quiché, Guatemala.
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