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Maya Indians Fight for Rights in Guatemala - 2004-09-29


Eight years after Guatemala's peace accord laid out ambitious goals for battling the discrimination and exclusion suffered by the Maya Indians, many say scant progress has been made. Now, however, there are many signs that this long-postponed issue may finally be making its way onto the national agenda.

The live music and sleek design of this bar in an upscale Guatemala City neighborhood have made it a hotspot for nightlife. So when a colleague of Maya Indian Maria Tuyuc passed his exams to become a lawyer, they came here to celebrate.

"The bouncer said, 'look, you can't come in. These kinds of places aren't made for people like you, especially not dressed like that,'" she recalls. She says it made her feel totally humiliated.

The colorfully woven traditional Maya clothing Tuyuc was wearing has made Guatemala known around the world. The government often uses images of women dressed just like Tuyuc to attract much sought after tourism dollars. But in Guatemala, the Mayas, who make up about half the population, get no such respect.

The vast majority of those who were killed during Guatemala's 36-year war were Maya. A U.N.-backed truth commission said the military's attempts to quash leftist rebels amounted to genocide against the Maya. A recent U.N. report revealed that 70 percent of the Guatemalans who live in extreme poverty are indigenous.

Some people like Ricardo Cajas, who heads the national commission against racism, say that there is a de-facto apartheid in Guatemala.

"Apartheid," Mr. Cajas says, "is when you are separated from opportunities, it isn't necessary to create boundaries to have apartheid. There are two Guatemalas not one."

Mr. Cajas says that while what happened to Maria Tuyuc at the bar may be unacceptable in other countries, things like that happen every day in Guatemala. What is far more uncommon, however, is that she reported it, that the press covered it, and that, after some prodding, prosecutors are investigating it.

Guatemala's Vice President Eduardo Stein says the government is studying the possibility of increasing the punishment for crimes of discrimination.

But some activists like Jorge Morales say that President Oscar Berger's government is repeating old patterns of discrimination. He says that despite Bergers promises of a more inclusive government, only one out of the 13 members of his cabinet is Maya.

"There are all these young Mayas in traditional dress working in the presidential palace, but as secretaries and in protocol. They are there as decoration," he said.

Most agree that a centuries-old problem can't be resolved overnight or even in a few years. But at the same time, observers say, because there is so much ground to cover, even the smallest changes can feel like great advances.

A exhibition in Guatemala City that looks at the history of the country's inter-cultural relations appears to be prompting some of these small but important steps.

"You can't get people to change their ideas they have if they don't understand why they have the ideas they have," said Tani Adams, the director of the Guatemala-based Center for Mesoamerican Research which created the show.

"We are dealing with a kind of system of identities and way of treating people that's basically invisible to people, its so naturalized we are talking about 500 years now of a structure that gives some sort of logic and seems legitimate to treat people the way they are treated," he said.

Each day hundreds of Guatemalans, mostly school-age children, take a guided tour of the exhibit. Seventeen-year-old Rodrigo Obiols came with his class from one of Guatemalas most elite private high schools. He said the show made him realize that sometimes you can discriminate against people without even noticing.

"After seeing the show," Rodrigo said, "you don't always greet an Indian they way you greet a non-indian." He said that he now realizes that while this seems like a small detail, it carries much weight. This is precisely the kind of results organizers are hoping for.

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