28 November 2007

Race and Ethnicity

Race (and Ethnicity) is a subject that has paramount importance in Guatemala, as in the United States. I’d love to write a thousand blogs on race, but would like to start with a brief explanation of the racial situation in Guatmala and a story.

In Guatemala, the population is split roughly 47% ladino, 47% indigena, 5% garifuna and 1% other. But what does ladino, indigena, and garifuna mean? To an outsider, none of these words ring a bell except ladino, which sounds like (but doesn’t mean) latino. Here’s the popular history version:

Garifuna is a race of African slaves that were brought to the Eastern Guatemalan coast from the Carribean Islands during Colonial times. Some say they were brought to conduct heavy work that proved too much for indigenous slaves, mostly working on rubber plantations. They are the only blacks in Guatemala and still live on the East coast. They speak a language that’s a mixture of French, Dutch, and various African languages. The Garifuna have little to do with the arguments below, but are a major racial group in Guatemala.

Indigenas, or indigenous people, are the descendents of the Mayans. The Mayans were a great civilization about a thousand years ago that collapsed mysteriously before the arrival of the Spaniards. For a few hundred years following, they lived in simple little villages and a couple of cities that were easily conquered by the Spanish conquistadores. They were domineered by the Spanish conquerers but became considered equal after a succession of wars for Guatemalan independence between the 1500s and the 1800s. During the 1970’s and 1980’s many were killed in an “armed conflict” (often referred to as the civil war) between the government and indigenous Communist guerrilas. Racism is minimal today in Guatemala. Indigenous people often speak an indigenous language (there are over 20 separate indigenous languages in Guatemala), women wear a style of clothing that antedates Columbus, and generally live in the Western Highlands of Guatemala.

Ladinos are the descendants of the Spanish colonists. Nearly all ladinos are a mixture of Spanish colonists and some indigenous genes. Ladinos wear Western-style clothing, speak Spanish, and mostly live in the East or the Central region.

The Case of Ingrid de Güitz
Ingrid, a friend and neighbor of mine, is sister-in-law to the mother of my host family. She is about 27 and has two children. Her husband is a Mayan priest and leads traditional Mayan ceremonies at the ruins of the pre-Columbian city Iximché. As all relgions transform over centuries, the Mayan religion has as well since 1492. It remains the clear descendant religion of Mayan civilization.

Ingrid’s children, Alicia and Juan Pablo (named after Pope John Paul II), understand and have a fair proficiency of the indigenous language Kaqchikel. Ingrid only wears traditional Mayan clothing, and her daughter wears traditional clothing on Sundays and Western-style (or Ladino style) clothing the rest of the time.

The mystery of Ingrid comes in when one learns that she identifies herself as Ladino. Despite marriage to a Mayan priest, her traditional Mayan clothing, and her children identification as indigenous, she herself does not speak Kaqchikel. But what happened? Did Ingrid change her race, or are we using an incorrect definition of ladino?

Grafting the Family Tree
Ingrid’s case is not rare. I have learned of several other ladinos who practice uniquely indigenous cultural norms, such as dress, language, and religion. Much more common, is the indigenous woman who stops wearing traditional clothing to get a job in the capital (where racism against indigenous people remains strong). A great number of young indigenous children never learn to speak the indigenous language of their forebears.

What, then, makes a person indigenous or ladino? Is it genetics? If all ladinos have a little indigenous blood from their history, that would mean any ladino also qualifies as an indigenous person, unless ladino or traces of Spanish blood made a person ladino, despite a portion of their blood being indigenous. But that wouldn’t work, because it’s been shown that many indigenous people have some uniquely European genetic traits such as blue eyes or male pattern baldness. Does that mean that families, living for centuries as indigenous, could find out they’re actually ladino?

Racial Vertigo
The strangest twist to racial definitions in Guatemala is that Ladino is even more inclusive than originally thought. The concept of Ladino grew out of the early 20th century, and was meant to represent everyone in the nation that was not Garifuna or Guatemalan. In reality, this included a mass of Korean and German families, who may have no blood from anyone from Spain or the New World. What of them?

Are races historical?
One may argue that, while racial separations may be muddled today, the major races – Asian, African, European, Indian, and Native American – have remained fairly constant and intelligible, with the fuzzy edges only existing in the past 200 years. But is that really true? Two-hundred years ago, a European would consider there to be a great number more races. Before Pan-European that became prevalent in the United States after Slavery and in Europe after the World Wars, European nations considered themselves of many races. Benjamin Franklin called Germans “the stupidist race on the planet.” During World War II, Adolf Hitler sought genocide on Jews, whom he described as a race – a common perception of Jews of the time, despite Judiasm having roots in the mother’s identification as Jewish or one’s credo. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Irish and Eastern Europeans were considered separate races from other Europeans, and complained of it as “racial discrimination.”

Race is not Genetic
As dozens of social scientists repeatedly point out, race is not a genetic trait but a social trait. At best, one can say that race is a social descriptor that holds roots loosely based on family history, culture, and appearance (which, yes, is partly based on genes).


Anonymous said...

This has been very helpful to me--I'm a high school Spanish teacher and my Spanish 4 class is currently studying the cultural diversity of Guatemala. Gracias!

Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that with the link to Spanish colonials being a part of the mix, this is a referral to those whose forefathers spoke Ladino, and were actually Sephardic Jews from Spain. Ladino being the combination of Spanish and Hebrew much like Yiddish being the high German and Hebrew usage of the Ashkenazi Jew. For that matter, it is not unlikely that these descendents may have lost their links by conversion in religion.

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