Speaking Out in a Time of Repression
By Betsy Konefal
I wish I could have been there to watch the performance of Fidelina Tux Chub, a young and seemingly fearless contestant for indigenous queen— reina indígena—in the highland Guatemalan town of Carchá in June 1978. She had entered the auditorium walking solemnly toward the stage, not dancing the son as required. And then explained why.
A crowd of mostly Q’eqchi’-Mayas had gathered in the municipal auditorium that evening, an enthusiastic audience. Carchá’s reina indígena pageant resembled contests all over the highlands in the 1970s, and was quite distinct from the ubiquitous beauty pageants for ladina (non-Indian) queens in these same communities. Racially separate indigenous pageants unfolded alongside annual ladina beauty contests. Festive and popular, reina indígena pageants focused on indigenous community identity and traditions rather than Western definitions of beauty, with young Maya contestants displaying local understandings of “authenticity” and Maya difference through their clothing, actions and words. Winners could go on to regional pageants, or even the national competition for Rabin Ahau (now spelled Rabin Ajaw), where a young Maya woman representing Guatemalan indigeneity was crowned each year as part of the national Folklore Festival, again wholly separate from the Miss Guatemala beauty pageant.
The indigenous queen pageants, held in a similar fashion today, followed a standard format: the indigenous queen contestants, dressed in the most traditional clothing they could acquire, would be asked to approach the stage dancing the traditional Maya son, often carrying a basket loaded with local delicacies. When the contestant had to address the audience, she would try to speak eloquently in both her indigenous language and in Spanish, using flowery imagery to celebrate the Maya past, and often calling for respect and an end to discrimination in the Maya present. In a few places, spectators could vote for their favorite contestants. In most settings—including Carchá—juries of prominent ladino community leaders or folklorists would determine which young woman that year best represented local Maya “authenticity.”
The timing and location of the Carchá contest in 1978 help explain what Fidelina had to say. The town is located in the department of Alta Verapaz, the land of “true peace” that just days before had been the site of one of the Guatemalan army’s first large-scale massacres of Maya civilians, in the community of Panzós. In that politically charged context, the massacre shaped the pageant for indigenous queen. Fidelina's attitude helps us understand the hopes and horrors of a political moment and movement that would soon be silenced by genocide.
Panzós, Alta Verapaz, May 29, 1978
Panzós, a lowland community about eighty miles east of Carchá, was home to Q’eqchi’ Mayas long engaged in struggles with wealthy ladino landowners. The May 1978 massacre stands out historically not because it was unique (many, many massacres would follow in the next several years) but because of the tremendous outcry the episode engendered against army atrocities and the targeting of Mayas.
The facts of the case are well documented: on behalf of area landowners, the mayor of Panzós summoned army troops to the community in late May 1978 amid rising tensions with area Q’eqchi’ campesinos. At the same time, the mayor’s office reportedly called in campesino leaders to discuss their concerns. Hundreds of Q’eqchi’s—men, women and children—arrived in the central plaza, while soldiers took up positions around the plaza and on rooftops. It’s unclear what exactly sparked the violence, but we do know that soldiers opened fire onto a plaza filled with families carrying only work machetes. Forensic anthropologists recovered the bodies of 35 victims of the massacre from a clandestine grave in 1997. At the time of the killings, it was believed that soldiers had massacred even more Q’eqchi’s in the plaza and pursued survivors into the surrounding hills and river.
Coverage of the Panzós massacre galvanized mass public protest. It was also a pivotal moment for Maya opposition movements, as Panzós proved to many that the military state was targeting not just guerrilla insurgents, but the pueblo maya more broadly. Counterinsurgency thinking that equated “Maya” and “subversive” paved the way for the genocide to come.
Carchá, Alta Verapaz, June 9, 1978
The indigenous queen pageant took place just eleven days after the massacre in Panzós. So when Fidelina took the microphone, she told her audience:
Ladies and Gentlemen, … I am here with sadness. You will have noticed that I didn’t enter dancing, because our pueblo is living a tragedy…. I couldn’t be happily dancing, knowing that my brothers are crying for their loved ones who have shed their innocent blood….
Fidelina’s speech might have echoed through the auditorium—surprising and pleasing some of her audience, angering others—and then faded away, lost like so much of Guatemala’s history of resistance. But because she used a popular queen pageant to make her case—and because she was not alone in this effort—we have newspaper coverage of the event and the text of her speech itself, which was transcribed and published in a church magazine. I found the speech in a parish archive, but I soon saw another copy hanging in her living room when I went to Carchá to meet her. While I waited for Fidelina I chatted with her teenage son, and he told me that the framed article was something his mom seemed to cherish. For nearly 25 years she had kept it, and no matter how many times it was knocked off the wall by a ball or some accident, she always repaired the glass and put it back in its place, he told me.
Tux Chub’s 1978 speech reflects a combination of influences: a progressive Christianity that challenged injustice, a growing sense of Maya identity and resistance that was locally based, but extended beyond community borders. “Why am I sad?,” Fidelina had asked her listeners in the auditorium and on the local radio. It was a rhetorical question. As the young queen contestant put it, everybody already knew the answer:
Why am I sad? You all know why, and it is because of what our Christian brothers of Panzós just experienced. You know they have been killed, and we don’t know why. It could be because they, too, are indigenous, or it could be because they are poor….
From the pageant stage, Tux Chub called for everyone to mourn the deaths in Panzós, but also to acknowledge the difficult realities that necessitated social organizing and land activism. Though moments before she had wondered aloud about the reasons for the massacre—it could be because they are indigenous, or it could be because they are poor—she answered her own question unequivocally: the army murdered Q’eqchi’ campesinos for their land activism:
They don’t have a piece of earth to live on and it’s for that that they are asserting their right over what truly belongs to them, … their lands; and it is for that that they have been killed…
you’ve heard the news on all the radios … , read [about] this tragedy in all the papers, now we all know….
Then Fidelina brought the events of Panzós even closer to home for her listeners: “today they [in Panzós] are living [this tragedy], and tomorrow it could be us, verdad?” From the pageant stage, the young woman asked the audience for a moment of silence in honor of the Panzós dead.
Fidelina did not become queen. The ladino jury of the contest responded to Tux Chub’s performance by disqualifying her from the contest, pointing to the fact that she hadn’t done the required dance. She believed it was because of her message about the massacre (interview July 29, 2002), and a newspaper headline suggested the same: “They disqualified a reina candidate for requesting a minute of silence for the victims of Panzós” (Prensa Libre, June 10, 1978. That newspaper also noted that the jury seemed displeased with her comments, but that the audience applauded enthusiastically). After the contest Tux Chub went into hiding for several days, but then returned home. For reasons we can only guess (paternalistic assumptions about young Maya queens?, pageant spaces assumed to be non-political?), the forces of repression chose to ignore the outspoken young reina candidate from Carchá.
Resistance and Genocide
It turns out that in 1978 vocal young Maya pageant contestants denounced the Panzós massacre in other towns, too, even mounting a coordinated reina indígena boycott of the national Folklore Festival’s celebrated Rabin Ahau competition that year. On the front page of the newspaper El Gráfico, nine queens and their supporters expressed outrage at army violence, and insisted that only a hypocritical state could celebrate folklore while murdering indigenous campesinos. They demanded the cancellation of the festival “while the wound of Panzós still bleeds.” Holding it, they asserted, “demonstrates … the degree of disrespect [they have] for the lives of us, los indios.” They expressed their own understanding of authenticity, very much at odds with that of the folklorists’: the symbolic reinas indígenas and their murdered campesino brothers in Panzós shared an identity as “genuine Guatemalan Indians,” verdaderos indios guatemaltecos.
It was a powerful and exceedingly brave statement to make on the front page of a national newspaper at that time, and people involved in it remember the audacity of that act. Their protest had no apparent effect on the Folklore Festival, which proceeded as usual, but the story did survive and became an important clue for me as I pieced together the puzzle of 1970s indigenous organizing. Carrying copies of the newspaper photo, I went knocking on doors all over Guatemala, finding out what I could about the women and men in it and connected to it. The search revealed a vast network of oppositional organizing in highland Guatemala: pageant queens and supporters turned out to be teachers and students, catechists, peasant leaders and revolutionaries linked to opposition movements of every stripe. I learned that for them, it was a time of tremendous hope and engagement, something that surprised me because that history of possibility has been so fully overshadowed by the horrors that followed.
The devastating figures of the armed conflict are all too familiar: 200,000 dead, 83% of them Maya; one in eight displaced; more than six hundred communities burned to the ground. Twenty years after the government and guerrilla armies signed peace accords, teams of archivists continue to pour over documents recovered in the National Police files and leaked from the Guatemalan military. Forensic anthropologists painstakingly piece together bones from clandestine cemeteries to identify massacre victims and establish causes of death.
But all of this death and destruction happened alongside those histories we know much less about—efforts to oppose and resist a violent state, stories of the hopes and goals of generations of Guatemalans who worked for something different. One of the most crucial determinations about the Guatemalan conflict was the CEH truth commission finding that the state committed “acts of genocide” in certain areas of the Maya highlands. It wasn’t an ethnic conflict in blanket terms. Instead, the CEH found that the army evaluated place-specific political histories to pinpoint areas where Mayas were “historically rebellious” and therefore—by the army’s reasoning—“natural support bases” for the insurgency. As geographers Elizabeth Oglesby and Amy Ross put it, “The army was not simply killing Mayans; it was killing Mayans in particular places where social organizing was most intense” (Space and Polity, April, 2009).
In the aftermath of extreme violence in Guatemala, the public seemed to require an apolitical victim. Guatemalans downplayed histories of resistance, as if activism itself were somehow to blame for genocide. But the tide seems to be shifting in interesting ways. There’s a different kind of remembering at work in Guatemala these days, one that is reinterpreting histories of activism and opposition like that of Fidelina, and looking to those histories for clues to a more just future. An organization called HIJOS, founded by children of the dead and disappeared, is leading the way, writing resistance and oppositional discourse back into public memory and Guatemala’s narrative about the war.
As HIJOS scrawled on a city building, resurrecting a history of resistance is “not nostalgia .… it’s the memory of possibility.”
That’s so good it ought to be in a queen’s speech.
Betsy Konefal is associate professor of history at William and Mary. More on Maya queens can be found in her book For Every Indio Who Falls: A History of Maya Activism, 1960-1990, and in “Reinas Indígenas and the Guatemalan State, 1978,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 89:1, February 2009. Email: email@example.com.