Repository logo

Survival, Change, and Continuity of Mayan Spirituality: The Ajq'ijab' of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title






Degree Level



The 1990s were a decade of cultural and political change in Guatemala. Negotiations led to a Peace Agreement between guerrilla forces and the Guatemalan government after a 36-year Civil War. Mayan ceremonies, based in cosmology, mystical beings, the Popol Wuh book, the 260-day calendar and the burning of natural materials, emerged in public spaces for the first time in hundreds of years. Up to the 1980s these ceremonies were still labelled “brujería” (witchcraft), were attended by few people, were held in rural places and not socially accepted. This dissertation is a study of the changes that occurred between these two decades and after. The main goal is to determine the conditions that motivated the spiritual leaders (Ajq’ijab’) to leave secrecy in the 1990s. The objectives are to describe the origins of Maya religion in the classic and post-classic periods; colonialism and the arrival in Guatemala of Catholicism and Protestantism and their hegemonic projects; how Mayan spiritual leaders, as organic intellectuals, negotiated and contested dominant ideologies, Christian religions, institutional racism and violence; and when they moved their place of prayer to rural locations. This study also shows the colonial and contemporary influences experienced by the Ajq’ijab’ in their struggle to preserve their belief system. This dissertation corroborates existing studies that demonstrate that the public resurgence of Maya identity overlaps the talks leading to the 1996 Peace Agreement; that the religious sphere in the country now includes Maya spirituality; and, while Guatemala remained under the domination of a small Creole oligarchy, Indigenous peoples were never passive actors. Whereas there is scholarly agreement about when the rituals began to be publicly celebrated, the conditions and determinants from the practitioners’ viewpoint have not been seriously studied. Therefore, the focus of this thesis is on the efforts of the Quetzaltenango Ajq’ijab’ and scholars to tell this story from their own experiences. In a series of 13 semi-structured interviews, they shared their understandings about Maya spirituality; how most of them became Ajq’ijab’ during Guatemala’s armed conflict and how they experienced such conflict; how advancing Maya people’s rights in the 1990s did not involve them. This thesis argues that Maya spirituality is currently in a transitional, changing, even contradictory, phase. On the one hand, no longer fearful of the state, with opportunities to grow organically, especially among youth and educational institutions. On the other hand, facing threats of disunity and deception through the commodification of their rituals to mere public tokenism.



Maya religion/spirituality, spiritual guides, colonialism, hegemony, resistance, change



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Interdisciplinary Studies


Interdisciplinary Studies


Part Of