Surviving persecution and a civil war, Maya spirituality finds new footing

by | Aug 3, 2023 | Religion

A Maya altar is prepared for a ceremony. Photo courtesy of Javier Mendez(RNS) — Like many Indigenous people in the lands colonized by Spain, Calixta Gabriel Xiquín was raised Catholic in Guatemala, but her grandparents taught her the ancient Maya rituals. She was, in her words, “born into Maya spirituality.”
But amid the disruptions of Guatemala’s civil war, the deaths of her three brothers in the early 1980s and her exile in California, Xiquín’s journey to becoming an ajq’iq, or Maya spiritual guide, began when she found herself meeting with the Hopi in the American Southwest.
Xiquín said she was taken in “as a sister” by the Hopi community and often joined in their ceremonies. The Hopi guides were not only a vital support as she mourned — they fostered her curiosity about her own spiritual heritage. “I think I cured myself spiritually, emotionally, with them,” said Xiquín, now 66.
Xiquín, who returned to Guatemala in 1988, is among a growing movement of Indigenous Maya who, after centuries of persecution and in the face of racism in their home countries, are rejuvenating Maya spiritual knowledge.

Calixta Gabriel Xiquín. Courtesy photo
“Maya spiritual practice never died because the elders did the ceremonies in a clandestine way — very private, very closed off, very secretive,” said Xiquín, who recently published a book on Maya persecution. 
After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras in the 1500s, many Maya altars and sacred places were destroyed. Missionaries often constructed churches on these sites and prohibited Indigenous ceremonies.
It wasn’t until Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended in peace accords, signed in November 1996, that Maya spirituality began to reemerge into public life. Of the more than 200,000 people killed in the conflict, 83% were Maya, according to a 1999 report. A U.N.-supported commission found that the Guatemalan government had committed genocide against four different Maya groups. Maya spirituality had to go underground in order to survive, said Xiquín.
As the war was ending, Xiquín organized an international gathering of Indigenous spiritual guides at the ancient sacred temples of Iximché, where ceremonies were performed continually at the western highland site over four days.
The revival, Xiquín said, includes reconnecting with Maya temples deemed “archaeological sites” and presented as tourist spots. “We’ve been in different places and ancestral cities to rescue the cultural patrimony,” she said.
Maya ceremonies often take place beside rivers or lakes or in mountain caves. Fire plays an important role, with aromatic, natural elements being burned. The organization of those elements is based on the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. 
But according to Xiquín and other ajq’iq, the ceremony is just one aspect of what it means to serve as a Maya spiritual guide.
“To be an ajq’iq comes from blood, it’s a gene, it’s a code in the blood that comes from grandparents and great-grandparents,” said Javier Méndez, an ajq’iq who lives in the Tzutujil Maya town of San Juan La Laguna, on the shore of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán.
Several volcanoes line Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Photo by alq666/Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Méndez, 35, said his role as a …

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