History, Memory, and Everyday Practice in Colonial Guatemala

Posted on September 9, 2012


An unprecedented report of colonial Maya paintings from a residence, uncovered under years of overlaying plaster in the highland Guatemalan town, Chajul, provides an extraordinary window into the ways colonized Maya used what the colonial order offered in order to build a world that was not quite what the colonial authorities might have expected.

Images of the newly publicized recovered murals can be seen in a post on the National Geographic website.

One of the archaeologists quoted suggests the images may show a colonial dance, possibly a “conquest dance” (Danza de la Conquista) commemorating the Spanish invasion and conversion of the Maya to Christianity.

But there is nothing in the murals that parallels known versions of these dances. And the study of indigenous dance-drama actually provides a better candidate for a dance important enough to the residents of Chajul to merit being commemorated in painted murals inside a dwelling. Unfortunately, the dance held in Chajul well into mid-century is no longer practiced, and older sources on it are somewhat fragmentary.

Chajul’s dance is discussed in a long modern study of the Rabinal Achi, translated by Dennis Tedlock from Maya texts transcribed in the 19th century. In this dance-drama from the town of Rabinal, a character called called “Cawek of the Forest People” mentions Chajul in a first person narrative passage:

I am the brave

I am the man

of the lord of foreign Cunén

foreign Chajul

Tedlock describes the Rabinal Achi as a specific instance of a more widely practiced “Dance of the Trumpets”. He draws attention to links between the kind of musical instruments employed in the Rabinal Achi and in other dances in the same region of western Guatemala: always a wooden slit drum, and in some places– including Chajul–  trumpets, successors of those made of wood represented long before in Maya Classic period art at Bonampak.

The version of this dance at Chajul was known as the Baile de las Canastas [dance of the baskets].

Multiple figures in the newly published murals have a rectangular device at one side, with something like the image of a bird on it. The best preserved examples make it clear that these devices were attached to the costume, suspended in back. These are recognizably the kind of structures Tedlock means when he talks about backpacks.

Henrietta Yurchenko, who recorded a performance at Chajul in 1945, described objects worn by dancers there that Tedlock identified as “backpacks” as the baskets for which the Chajul dance was named, representations of “hunters’ baskets used to catch birds”.

The colonial images from Chajul published by the National Geographic offer other suggestive hints of a possible identity with the Baile de las Canastas. Figures wearing Spanish-style clothing featured on one wall are described as playing a drum, a constant feature of these related dances, and a flute.

Facing the drummer is the first of a series of costumed figures that continue around the corner onto the adjacent wall. They wear Spanish-style boots, but otherwise are dressed in costumes featuring bird helmets. Oyeb, the protagonist in the Chajul Baile de las Canastas, was described in 1945 as able to take the form of a quetzal bird or a tzunun, a hummingbird.

The Chajul dance performed in 1945 included a series of incidents ending in the death of Oyeb, who is shot by a hunter as a quetzal, rescued by the hunter’s daughter, and impregnates her. Tedlock says her father hires a ritual specialist whose prayers defeat Oyeb.

All of the dances described by Tedlock as related to the Rabinal Achi feature themes related to birds. An alternative name for the Baile de Canastas of Chajul is actually Baile del Gorrion (translated as “dance of the sparrow” rather than “hummingbird”).  Oyeb can transform himself into a hummingbird. The costumed figures in the new murals wear helmets that could be interpreted as quetzal heads, and carry baskets showing the outline of a bird.

When were the murals uncovered at Chajul painted? Who would have lived in the house where they appear?

The researchers who reported the murals compare them to the style of manuscripts from the 17th to 18th centuries, and suggest the building they are in is “at least” 300 years old– in other words, dating around 1700 as well.

The Rabinal Achi and related dances were targeted for suppression in colonial Guatemala. Orders against them were issued, Tedlock says, starting in 1593 and continuing until 1770. While these were clearly not successful, they should have led practitioners of these dances to be careful about publicizing them– including, one would imagine, taking care about painting images from similar dances on a house wall.

But Chajul was, for much of its colonial history, under somewhat less colonial scrutiny and control than other places in the Guatemalan highlands.

An article by geographer George Lovell, published in 2008, says that in the 1540s, the population living in dispersed hamlets was resettled in centralized towns, congregations, under the auspices of missionary orders. Lovell quotes the account of Antonio de Remesal, around 1615, who described the congregation at Chajul as one of those accomplished by the Dominican order.

In newly congregated  Chajul, two segments of the town formed from what had previously been independent hamlets continued to have recognized independent identity, and paid tribute separately from 1664 to 1678. The people brought into Chajul already were moving out of the centralized town into a new dispersed pattern by 1579.

Ultimately, the majority of the population moved back out into the landscape. This makes it likely that the residents of any house continuously occupied since around 1700 were among those most deeply engaged in local administration.

A response to a Spanish government questionnaire dated 1771, from the priest of neighboring Nebaj (who was responsible for ministering to the religious needs of Chajul on periodic visits) helps fill in the picture of the community during the period when these murals may have been painted and visible.

The population of Chajul in 1771 was 1081 people. That made it a relatively large town, one able to support a rich ceremonial life.

The priest reported that San Gaspar de Chajul hosted four cofradias and two other “brotherhoods” (hermandades). These were community organizations, headed by people in the town, with roots in medieval European mutual aid societies that brought people together in devotion to a particular saint.

By the late 18th century, such groups provided a way for segments of indigenous towns like Chajul to accumulate and manage joint property. The members held celebrations on the feast of a specific saint, using images they controlled and cared for.

While some ceremonies took place in the church, under the nominal control of the Catholic hierarchy, others took place in the houses or yards of members of the cofradias. These included performances of dance dramas: Sergio Navarrette Pellicer, in a study of music in Rabinal, notes that the Rabinal Achí there was performed during cofradia ceremonies.

A residence adorned with murals of dances in colonial Chajul would likely have been occupied by a family that was part of one of the major cofradias, patrons of a public performance of dances like the Baile de las Canastas.

In 1771, the priest of Nebaj reported that there were three saints venerated by cofradias: Santa Cruz (May 3), San Salvador (August 6), and San Pedro (June 29). These feasts were distinct from the celebration of the patron saint of the town itself, San Gaspar, one of the three kings, on January 6.

Particular importance may have pertained to the feast of Santa Cruz, since the priest in 1771 reported that there were separate cofradias for men and women honoring Santa Cruz. A notable feature of cofradias was the participation of women as sponsors of and participants in feasts along with men.

The priest of Nebaj also reported the existence of two hermandades (brotherhoods) at Chajul in 1771.

María Lucía Soto Mayor explains that hermandades were nascent cofradías, formed as new participants joined the original devotee of a saint. Both of the hermandades in Chajul in 1771 were dedicated to saints then gaining popularity, the Virgin of Guadelupe and “Jesús”,  most likely the predecessor of the Black Christ of Chajul.

Veneration of the Cristo Negro of Esquipulas, in eastern Guatemala, had been strengthened in 1735 by devotion from a priest who subsequently became the bishop of Guatemala. A major church at Esquipulas was completed in 1759. The cult of Christ of Esquipulas reached as far north as New Mexico by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Similarly, the Virgin of Guadalupe gained popularity in the mid- to late- eighteenth century. Historian William Taylor argues that devotion to Guadalupe spread beyond Mexico City during the years between 1733 and 1756.

Leaders of cofradias (and hermandades) would have been patrons of dances performed at fiestas for the saints they venerated. Their participation in cofradias would have continued over their lives, while civil leaders of indigenous pueblos were elected for terms, and rotated in and out of office. It was cofradias that integrated leadership in religious festivals in everyday life.

While specific historical research on Chajul needs to be carried out, there is already a good case to be made for locating the murals uncovered in a residence in the town in the purview of participants in these voluntary associations, which became so troublesome for the Spanish authorities that they were the focus of efforts to limit their scope beginning in the 1770s.

We can imagine residents of a leading household in Chajul deciding to cover the murals of the dances up during this period of new surveillance and redefinition of cofradias, and the degree of historical memory they provided in everyday life.