I am sitting in a dim light in the municipal theater in Xela, Department of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The setting is intimate, the stage and the audience are separated by stage rows made of flowers and herbs, which together form a square. Inside the square, there are four women wearing face masks to represent different characters in the storyline. The ceiling decorations made out of colorful paper hang over their heads, and contrast with their huipiles and cortes. The colorful stage and the hanging decorations project a feeling of festivity as is often used for birthday parties or even public parties in many Central American villages or pueblos.
All of a sudden a deep silence invades the theater. In front of me, is one of the actresses, who is wearing a mask simulating an old woman’s face. The prominent wrinkles marked in her face and the piece of cloth wrapped around her hair let the audience know that she perhaps is a healer, a shaman or, as we will call her, a curandera. She is performing a cleansing —una limpia— for an actress wearing the mask of a younger woman.
In this scene, the younger woman is desperately asking for help as she struggles to unlearn and confront internalized forms of violence (mostly racism and misogyny). For years, experiences of violence have intensified her sense of self-hatred and the constant feeling of being a “dirty woman”. As she repeats in a broken voice “me siento sucia” (I feel dirty), she touches her body as if it wasn’t her own. The more she repeats the phrase, the more it seems she doesn’t recognize her own body. “Me siento sucia. Me siento sucia. Me siento sucia”.
As the audience witnesses the young woman’s struggle in the middle of the stage, the curandera walks around her. In circles, and step by step, she starts to slowly move away from the young woman and expands to closer proximity to the audience. As the curandera is performing the cleansing, she states in a vibrant voice:
“they know where to hit us”
“they hit us where it hurts the most, but in hidden places, so that people won’t notice”
“they lock us up until the bruise has healed, so that nobody noticed,”
“they hit us in the legs, so one cannot walk anymore,”
“they hit us in the head, so one cannot think anymore,”
“they hit us in the stomach, and one cannot breathe anymore.”
-(Fiesta Convite performance, 2018)
As she walks around, these phrases float in the air, and the audience is confronted with the pervasiveness of violence experienced by the characters. The curandera’s tone is that of denunciation, but also of self-reflexivity. Is she performing a cleansing, not only for the young woman who has internalize this violence, but perhaps also for us? The audience. What would be the implications of having a limpia for the social body of Guatemala, a nation still grappling with the trauma of a 36 years civil war?
Suddenly, a heavy energy fills the room, and I look around, but I cannot distinguish anyone in the audience. It’s like they are not there. Somehow, the room has become darker, and I find myself taking deep breaths from the pit of my stomach to desperately grasp air as these words repeatedly float around the stage space, filling the dark corners of the room. They keep floating around my head:
“they hit us in the stomach, and one cannot breathe anymore”
“they hit us in the stomach, and one cannot breathe anymore”
“they hit us in the stomach, and one cannot breathe anymore”.
This was the first time I saw the play Fiesta Convite by the Curanderas theater group in 2018, and I had no idea it would become a key part in my academic searches while trying to understand why violence against women is so prominent in Latin America. This performance moved me so deeply, that I decided to find out more about it, and that’s how this project was born. I am currently conducting research for my dissertation project, but I also wanted to create an online platform where I can have a space to reflect about the process with visuals and short essays. The main goal is to make it easily accessible to the public and to share some images and opinion pieces in order to visibilize the amazing work Maya and Mestiza artists are doing in the performing arts in Guatemala.
The overall objectives of this blog project are:
- To document and visibilize Maya Kaqchikel and Mestiza performance artists in Guatemala regarding their denunciations of violence against their bodies and their conceptualizations of healing through their theater praxis.
- To create an accessible archive that historicizes and recognizes Maya and Mestiza women performance artists as active agents of social change from whom we can learn and collaborate with to create more just and less violent futures for all.
- To honor the research process as much as the final results/findings as this is a learning experience where we are also learning to work with each other and figure out what collaboration actually looks like in our own contexts.
The Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996) resulted in an estimate of 250 000 victims (deaths and disappearances). The Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (Commission on Historical Clarification, CEH) has demonstrated that the Guatemalan State engaged in, not only political persecution, but also racist and genocidal practices against the Mayan population. The CEH concludes in their report,
The evidence throughout Guatemalan history, and with special cruelty during the armed conflict, are rooted in the violence that was fundamentally directed from the state against the marginalized, the poor, but most of all, the Mayan population, likewise to those who fought in favor of social justice. (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (Guatemala), 2004)
The lingering effects of this violence have been especially felt by indigenous women in Guatemala as widows and as major targets of military and state violence against their bodies. According to Jean Franco race and ethnicity played a crucial role in the state’s use of sexual violence against civilians. “In Guatemala, of the 30,000 dead, most were Mayans. Although there is no way of knowing the exact number of rapes committed during the wars, both Truth Commissions acknowledged that the majority of raped women were indigenous: 88.7 percent in Guatemala” (Franco, 2007, p. 24).
Prominent Mayan scholar Emma Chirix has conceptualized the ways in which these power relations take place in Mayan women’s bodies goes beyond the civil war dynamics and date back to the colonial period. Chirix states:
The invaders conceived different as unequal and appropriated women’s bodies as sexual objects, used for servitude as an exercise of power to establish the dominance of the racist patriarchal system. (Chirix García, 2013, p. 35)
Chirix encourage us to take an intersectional approach while analyzing how power relations manifest in Mayan women’s bodies from the colonial period to the present. “Mayan women are not only seen as sexual objects, but also as racial and ethnic bodies” (Chirix García, 2013, p. 41). As a result, it is crucial to understand the impact that racial, gender and sexual violence has on Maya women in Guatemala, which has often been historically amplified in periods of conflict. However, the multiple forms of violence continue in the present time and take different forms. Violence is intersectional, which means, different forms of violence interact and overlap with one another. In this case, Maya women have been historically targeted by colonial, patriarchal and state violence due to unequal power relations stablished in the Guatemalan state since its inception.
Latin America as a region holds the highest levels of violence against women and feminicides in the world. Guatemala is one of the top countries with the highest rates of violence against women and feminicide (Martinez, 2019). Therefore, Violence against women and feminicides are part of the social problems that the Guatemalan state continues to ignore. Furthermore, the state continues to reinforce this gender-based violence through their lack of accountability and high rates of impunity within the justice system, which extends to cultural patterns that lead to the normalization of violence against women. However, I would like to close up this section, invoking Dr. Chirix reflections about how Indigenous women have and continue to resist colonial, racist, and patriarchal violence in Guatemala:
Indigenous women have not been passive victims of class, patriarchal and racial domination. Our ancestors exercised their power by continually confronting the encomenderos, enablers, Ladino officials and the indigenous and Ladino army. We have contributed in different social spaces, in different aspects. We remain questioning, speaking, writing, breaking the silence and we make individual and collective proposals to build a life without racism, without injustices and inequalities (Chirix García, 2019).
So within this context of spread out violence and political doom, why should we look at the performance arts? What are Maya and Mestiza performance artist telling us through her work? And are we listening? These are some of the questions I have been grappling with as I engage with my ethnographic work by attending plays/performances and rehearsals. I have also been able to interview and spend time with two theater groups to better understand their lives as artists and as women.
I am aware of the ways in which photography has historically been used as a tool for colonization, imperialism and misrepresentation. Critical photojournalists, Teju Cole questions the intention and consequences of photography when it comes to documenting violence and the suffering of marginalized populations (Cole, 2019). Based on critical photojournalist insights, I seek to find ways to tell stories of violence and trauma, from a perspective that does not reproduce the pornography of violence. Instead, it carves a space for Maya women to represent themselves, with their own voices (whether through images, words, written work etc). I am also intentionally focusing on Maya women’s quotidian acts of resistance, joy and healing to incorporate different perspectives to dominant narratives of violence, oppression and suffering in Guatemala.
Sometimes images have the power to conjure emotions, thoughts and narratives that moves our spirit to deeper energetic levels. This is one reason why I use photography as a mean of communication. It is a way to “see with the heart”. In addition, theater and the performance arts have this ephemeral quality. It is seen, felt and lived in the moment, so how can I explain that moment? I can write in great detail about it, but I think photography immortalizes brief movements, breaths of life. It provides a glimpse of what was lived at a certain space and time. Therefore, I believe it is important to create a visual archive of Maya Kaqchikel women artists, their performances and their quotidian life as an important referent for future generations of artists, scholars and civil society. It is a way of documenting the labor and intellectual contributions of Maya and Mestiza artists in Guatemala, which is rich, diverse and visionary. This is what Diane Taylor would call, the archive and the repertoire (Taylor, 2007).
Approximately since 2010 there has been growing number of Maya and Mestiza women theater and performance artists who engage with relevant social themes, such as colonial and patriarchal violence. These multiple forms of violence continue to have strong restrictions on women’s sexuality, racist attitudes towards indigenous women, and the further perpetration of classist division. All these systems of oppression interject and have touched directly or indirectly the lives of these artists. As a result, their cultural and political interventions through their art are important to analyze the Guatemalan context in order to envision new relational paths that break with the multiple forms of violence that have been naturalized in our societies for so long.
The three Maya Kaqchikel theater groups that will be explored in this project are: Las Curanderas, Ix Saq’il ik’, and Mujeres Ajkchowen. First, I would like to thank each of the group members who have gifted their time and open your hearts to this project, so that we can dream together and walk towards a less oppressive society. I love this collective vision of a world where Maya and Mestiza women live a life free of violence.
The brief descriptions and photos of each group have been compiled within the last six months where I have created connections and shared special moments with each of them. I offer a brief historical background, a meet the members/cast, a brief description and analysis of their current plays, and a link to their facebook pages, if you are interested in following their news and presentation schedules.
Denouncing Colonial and Patriarchal Violence through Theater while Advocating for Collective Healing
About the Group
Las Curanderas: Teatro para curar el susto y los males sociales (theater to heal wounds and social sicknesses) is a group of Maya Kaqchikel women from Santa María de Jesus, Sacatepéquez, Guatemala. The group is led by María Telón, a prolific film and theater actress who has had a long career, but perhaps her most prominent roles has been in the movie IXCANUL. The name of the group is born from a conversation among its members where they theorized the archetype of the healer (la Curandera), and what she represents. According to Magdalena Morales, feminist artist and manager of the group, the Curanderas are women who heal deep spiritual or bodily wounds through rituals, words, medicinal plants, water and other elements. From this perspective, the name of the group is deeply rooted in the believe that social wounds can be healed through spiritual cleansings (limpias). Therefore, their performances can be read as an opportunity for the spiritual cleansing of a society sicken by multiple forms of violence. This is a powerful conceptualization regarding the potential that the performing arts have for healing individual and collective wounds.
This theater group is the result of María Telón’s initiative in conjunction with a theater experimentation laboratory facilitated by Magdalena Morales and Víctor Barillas in 2016 sponsored by the Universidad Landívar with the support of Patricia Orantes, one of the most well-renowned actress and director in Guatemala. Las Curanderas theater group seeks to talk about relevant thematics that touch upon its members quotidian experiences, especially from their positionality as Maya Kaqchikel women, but that can resonate with a larger audience. One of the most magical things about this group is that it is made up by mothers and daughters. It is a special bond and a brave task to explore womanhood and its relation to colonial and state violence from an intergenerational perspective.
When I asked María Telón why did she do theater despite her busy work and family schedule, she replied
“Look , in the first place I want to give a message to other women, That we are worth it. because at the beginning when I went to places I never wanted to participate, and I didn’t speak like this. Because I was shy to talk, but when I went to the play (started doing theater) it was as if my eyes were opened. I learned how to value myself, I learned how to have self-esteem. But there are still women who remain silent. Then for me, a play is like carrying a message to other women.” (Personal Interview, 2019)
We were able to do a photoshoot for the group in a sacred place in Santa María de Jesús (Jun Ajpu in the Maya Kaqchikel language). We explored scenes from the play, but also further conceptualized the name of the group and what the Curandera represents for each of them. Some broader themes we touched upon were: the acknowledgment of wounds in order to be able to heal, the opening up of new paths, the breaking of cycles, and the witness of time regarding the resistance of all the women ancestors who are the givers and supporters of life.
Actresses: María Telón Rojo, Rosalinda Chávez, Medelyn Chávez, and Angélica Telón Rojo.
Director: Víctor Barillas
Manager: Magdalena Morales
Las Curanderas theater group has one play, Fiesta Convite, which can be roughly translated to Party Feast is directed by Víctor Barillas who has a long and successful career in theater and performance arts in Guatemala. He is known for his work as a director with different Mayan theater groups, such as Sotz’Il and Mujeres Ajchowen from Sololá. He has explored different Maya Kaqchikel aesthetics through theater, dance and music with the groups he has collaborated with.
Overall, the play seeks to denounce racial and gender based violence that indigenous women experience in Guatemalan society from the state and from within their own communities. The play weaves different stories of violence experienced or witnessed by the actresses through a one year process of research led by feminist sociologist Magdalena Morales and director Victor Barillas. The use of popular songs convey how normalize violence is in the quotidian and it shows the pervasive ways in which intimate partner violence can escalate to high levels of emotional and physical harm. However, Las Curanderas propose that we can unlearn violent patterns, clean our hearts and minds through the limpias and heal the deep wounds caused by violence. We can cleanse the wounds and learn to free ourselves from cycles of violence. As a result, Las Curandera’s performance can be read as a cultural intervention rooted in the embodied knowledge of Maya Kaqchikel performance artists that emerges from social and theater research techniques. The play is in the Spanish and Kaqchikel languages.
Photos from September 7th, 2019. These images represent the characters in the play Fiesta Convite. The curandera (older woman healer) that denounces violence and heals the characters, the three adult women who experience different forms of violence, the machista man who violates women’s human rights, and the police officer who represents the blind justice system in Guatemala.
Ix Saq’il Ik’
About the Group
The group Ix Saq’il Ik’, which means moon light women in the Kaqchikel language, is a group from San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. The group started in 2012 as the director Paula Acevedo reached out Berta Chirix to explore the themes found in Dr. Emma Chirix’s book Los deseos de nuestros cuerpos (the desires of our bodies). Together, they assembled a small group and their first play, Los tejidos de mi cuerpo (the weavings of my body), was born. This play touched upon personal themes related to sexual violence, sexuality, eroticism, healing and critical thinking about women’s conditions under patriarchal systems. Their principal objective with this exploration was to work through their own healing processes while simultaneously having the potential to resonate with other women going through similar situations. The director Paula Acevedo had experience working with indigenous women exploring themes of state and intimate violence, especially during the armed conflict in Guatemala before she started collaborating with Ix Saq’il Ik’.
Their most recent play Ix Ajmak also deals with similar themes as they continue to seek denunciation, transformation, liberation of women by finding their own voices, desires and visions for more equitable futures. Berta Chirix concludes, “Through art, one can heal” (Personal interview, 2019). I have not been able to see the group perform the play Ix Ajmak, but I have attended a couple of rehearsals and spend quality time with them. I love seeing the ways through which they bond together through theater and the joy of their friendship is inspiring. In this photoshoot we explored some of the scenes from their play Ix Ajmak, so we are still pending on the further collaboration for next year. I still want to see their play and work more in depth to create a photography project where we conceptualize the image of the group.
Actrices: Miriam Chacach, Berta Chirix, Lisbeth Sirin, Ixchel Tuyuc and Paula Acevedo
Director: Paula Acevedo
The play Ix Ajmak, means sinner woman in Kaqchikel, is inspire on the story of Ix’ik’ from the Popol Vuh, who is a woman from the underworld. She was impregnated by a spit from earth. She is stigmatized and sentenced to be killed because of her pregnancy. She protests against this sentence and escapes the underworld and from this action humanity is born. Ix Saq’il Ik’ provides a fresh interpretation of this origin myth from the Popol Vuh where women are given agency, courage and the freedom to seek their own liberation through joy, pleasure and bodily autonomy. The play explores the ways in which violence is presence in cultural traditions and social interactions, not only from the catholic church imposed by colonialism (religion), but also from the Maya cosmology and its sacred origin stories. It is a brave statement to embrace Maya culture without romanticizing gender relations. The members went through a process of self-exploration and social research to determine the themes they wanted to address within the play, such as cultural practices that inflict feelings of guilt, shame, and pain. The overall idea is to move from internalized oppression to self-liberation with pleasure, healing, and joy. The play is in the Kaqchikel language.
Photos taken October 21st, 2019 . These images are a brief recap of the play Ix Ajmak. We have the Mother moon who represent divine feminine energy that guides and provides strength to Ix’Ik’ through her tribulations. The mother in law who presents different obstacles for Ix’Ik’. She reproduces patriarchal patterns, but at the end transforms her behavior and becomes a source of support. The owls, who are the messengers from the underworld in Maya cosmology assist Ix’Ik’ in her adventure. The drummers, who use comedy to explain the rules of the underworld, where joy and pleasure are forbidden, especially for women. Finally, we have another scene of the rebirth of women, free from shame and guilt.
About the Group
The theater group Mujeres Ajchowen (Women Artists) is a group of Maya Women from El Tablón Sololá. The group was born in 2011 as a Project supported by the German Development Cooperation with the idea of promoting Maya women’s theater and perfromance arts. The Project started with 15 women with the age range from 15 to 32 years old, and it was led by Clara Sen Sipac. However, there are currently five members in their current play named Ximonïk, which means tied up in the Maya Kaqchikel language. Mujeres Ajchowen seek to promote and showcase their skills as Mayan artists, to claim their human rights as women, and through the teachings of the ancestors build peace and harmony in the world. They also have gone through a process of self-exploration and social research to better understand the condition of Maya women in their communities in order to express themselves and heal from different restrictions imposed by colonial and patriarchal systems that continue to be alive in Guatemala. The artists incorporate, dance and movement to convey the narrative of the play. The dialog in the play is in Spanish.
I was able to see them perform in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz on September 20th, 2019. They were invited by the ADIVIMA (Association for the Integral Development of Victims of Violence in Verapaces) organization. This presentation was insightful, especially while thinking about the history of Rabinal, a place highly impacted by the violence of the armed conflict in Guatemala where sexual violence against Maya Achi women was so prominent. After the performance, there was an insightful discussion as we got to hear from the artists, but also from the public who were mostly young students. The public received the message about how restricting gender roles rooted in colonial and patriarchal ideas can tied us up into accepting patterns of domination and violence. However, self and collective knowledge can help us untie and break cycles of violence . These toxic cycles have been indoctrinated in our lives since the colonial period through cultural believes, religion and social dynamics. I have not been able to fully collaborate with this group yet, but we will be working together in January to explore more who Mujeres Ajchowen are as a theater group through photography, collective writing and gender and feminist theory workshops. The images presented here are from their performance in Rabinal on September 20th, 2019 when was the first time I was able to connect with them and witness their play Ximonïk.
Actresses: Mercedes García, Clara Sen Sipac, Jessica Tumax, and Hilda Gabriela Zabala Yac
Directors: Víctor Barillas and César Guarcax
The play Ximonïk, which means Tied up explores the different ways in which we can be tied up by religious dogmas, cultural expectations and social dynamics, especially gender roles. The play starts with the Nahual energies dancing, running and jumping freely until the Catholic church is imposed through the colonization process. Domination, persecution, and violence reign under this regime forcing the glory of each energy to be hidden under a sheep mask. The play ends with the nahual energies/women eating from the apple of knowledge where they are able to fight for their own freedom and reclaim their power as Maya women. The narrative of this play combines relevant historical facts about the intersections of colonialism, religion and patriarchy as the root of all the things that have tied up women for centuries. This is the origin of internalized oppressions which is heavily focused on women’s experiences with feelings of submission, inferiority, blind obedience, shame, and guilt. In this context, Maya women’s liberation becomes to represent the liberation of all.
Mujeres Ajchowen performing Iximonïk in Rabinal, Alta Verapaz on September 20th, 2019. These images are a glimpse of their performance, and they are in an order to tell the storyline. Three powerful Nahual energies subjected by colonization through violence and religion struggle to maintain their ancestors knowledge, power and culture. In the process of resisting, they are able to recover their former glory and defeat the colonial lord represented by the catholic church priest with the silver sword. The three powerful energies are able to free themselves from the sheep masks which represent the different ways of being tied up by religious and cultural believes of inferiority, shame and guilt imposed by colonization processes.
I continue to learn and conduct research. However, these are some reflections I have come up with after spending time with these women artists. I have spent time with them, seen their performances, attended their rehearsals and interviewed most of them. I am still working on it, so don’t expect conclusions, but rather take the few reflections I offer below.
- The work of Maya Kaqchikel women artist is indeed magical, powerful and important to learn from, as civil society, as scholars and as artists.
- The three theater groups featured on this post have common thematic interests, such as violence against women, colonization, and collective healing.
- The artistic work of these groups proves to be completely intentional, socially relevant and political. The topics they address are relevant to the Guatemalan social context. Therefore, their work and their artistic forms should not be reduced to the “folklore” of Guatemala but rather recognize them as artistic proposals deeply rooted in the personal experience of the artists and the stories of resistance of the indigenous peoples in this country.
- We are witnessing such an important moment in Guatemala’s artistic movement, and Maya women are having a pioneering role in it. Let’s be thankful for it, honor it, and support it.
- Theater and performance arts have the potential to transform social behaviors, break cycles of violence, and help us collectively heal from the deep wounds of colonial and state violence we all have been subject to either directly or indirectly.
- Through this work, I am wondering what the archetype of the Curandera may offer in the context of Maya and Mestiza women doing theater and performance as a tool/platform towards collective healing?
Especial thanks to Magdalena Morales for all her support. For teaching me about theater content and form, for driving me around, and for introducing me to all her feminist and artist networks. Thank you Víctor Barillas for our conversations and your brilliant work. I am still learning from you both.
Thank you to the theater groups Las Curanderas, Ix Saq’il Ik’ and Mujeres Ajchowen for accepting these collaborations and for their friendships. I deeply admire your artistic work, and I appreciate each of you as allies and friends. I hope this brief note makes justice to what we have been sharing for the last few months.
Thank you to the University of Texas-Austin LLILAS-Benson for believing in my scholarship.
Thank you to Texas A&M University Center on Conflict and Development for supporting this work and allow me to incorporate my passion for photography through the Student Media Grant.
Thank you to my academic advisor Dr. Gloria González-Lopéz for guiding and supporting me at all stages of this journey.
Thank you to Dr. Emma Chirix for all her support and for nurturing my academic path and always pushing me to be critical throughout this journey.
Thank you to my family, friends and anyone who takes the time to read this blog. I hope you are moved in some ways become curious and inspired.
Thank you to all of you for believing in this project and allowing me to learn from you and dream with you in order to create this visual archive, which will grow into a dissertation project that will bear witness of your powerful magic.
May we walk together
May we transform pain to wisdom and joy
May we break cycles of violence
May we heal together.
Note: Copyright of all images and text are from the author (Nathalia Hernández Ochoa). Please ask for permission and contextualized the work if you want to use any of this content.
Azacúan. Grupo de Mujeres Ajchowen. Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqlvPNXbbo8
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Chirix García, E. D. (2013). Cuerpos, poderes y políticas: mujeres mayas en un internado Católico = Ch’akulal, chuq’aib’il chuqa b’anobäl : Mayab’ ixoqi’ chi ru pam jun kaxlan tz’apatäl tijonïk.
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Franco, J. (2007). Rape: A Weapon of War. Social Text, 25(2 91), 23–37. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-2006-025
Naján Balán, Norma. Compañía de teatro en Guatemala usa arte escénico como plataforma para abordar cuestiones de género. Global Press Journal: https://globalpressjournal.com/americas/guatemala/female-theater-troupe-guatemala-drama-platform-gender-issues/es/
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2007.