Campus Life

MacKenzie investigates modern religious choices in a traditional Maya community

Atop a bookshelf in Dr. Jamie MacKenzie’s office at the University of Lethbridge are several wood carvings of Catholic saints like the Virgin Mary, artifacts he’s purchased on one of his many field trips to Guatemala. Nearby, on top of a filing cabinet are other artifacts, bottles of lotions and elixirs to solve common human problems, such as infidelity and financial difficulties, that he bought from shops that supply materials for the ritual activities of shamans.

MacKenzie’s collection reflects the variety of religious beliefs in the community of San Andrés Xecul, a community he was drawn to as an anthropologist of religion interested in understanding how religion and people’s identity as Maya intermingled. Xecul, a mostly rural community with an urban population of about 5,000, while almost entirely K’iche’ Maya, is nonetheless rather diverse.

“I’d assumed they shared the same sort of religion but I found pretty quickly that there’s a range of different ways to approach religion in this town. It took a lot of work to try to figure out how these different sorts of religious options were all playing out and how all that contributed to what they thought about themselves,” he says.

MacKenzie has studied the community for almost 20 years and he’s compiled his findings into a new book titled Indigenous Bodies, Maya Minds: Religion and Modernity in a Transnational K’iche’ Community. The book identifies the religions, including costumbre, a religion featuring elements of shamanism, Charismatic styles of Christianity, a Mayanized Catholicism, and a purified form of Maya spirituality.

Shamanism generally refers to religious practices that involve a part-time religious specialist who claims certain abilities to engage in healing and, to employ, in some way or another, spiritual helpers to resolve particular problems. Still, most Xeculenses, including followers of costumbre, profess some sort of Christian identity.

“There’s a range of different churches in the town. I found the strongest conflict probably was within the Catholic church itself where charismatic Catholics would be also selling their particular version of Christianity,” he says. “Beyond the shamans, I really wanted to show how the K’iche’ Maya and their religion is a contemporary thing and it’s in dialogue with Evangelical Protestants. They actually share something in common, although they fight.”

A convert to Evangelical Christianity in Xecul isn’t likely to have anything good to say about shamans who go off to the mountain and pray to different kinds of gods. That has created tension between the followers of both religions.

“I found that people who convert to something like Pentecostal Christianity did it for almost the same reasons that folks approach shamans. They’re having trouble with alcohol, they’re sick, they’re having bad luck in various ways, maybe some of their animals are dying, maybe their kids are getting sick,” says MacKenzie.

However, not all Christians reject traditional religion in the town. Xecul’s first resident Catholic priest, an indigenous K’iche’ man called Padre Tomás García, attempted to develop a Mayan type of Catholicism when he arrived in the mid-1970s. A visual legacy of his project is the Catholic church in the centre of the community which he had painted using colours associated with Maya directional symbolism. Padre Tomás also recited the liturgy in K’iche’, wrote hymns in K’iche’ and started a Maya dance troupe which proved extremely popular.

While some people supported the idea of a Maya Catholicism, others did not, sometimes founding evangelical churches or joining congregations which had been established shortly before Padre Tomás arrive. By the late ‘90s, a further religious option emerged, as some local Maya began promoting a purified form of Maya spirituality which can be somewhat independent from or critical of Catholicisim, especially at levels beyond the community.

“I really wanted to show that the people in these towns, like anywhere, have a range of choices and a range of ways of being human and addressing the challenges we all confront. There are a range of answers even in a supposedly small, homogenous community,” he says.

Living in a small community like Xecul means everyone knows everyone else’s business, including the religion they’ve chosen. Inevitably, conflicts ensue, whether over religion or local politics.

“It’s not necessarily a bastion of stability and harmony. It always seems that communities are just on the brink of being torn apart by something. People were fighting quite a lot. There’s some interesting new work that suggests, in making a community, it may be more important to pay attention to conflict. The sharper the conflict the more people depend on each other,” he says. “We can’t just ignore people we disagree with. We have to deal with them. Conflict, rather than being something that just threatens community, actually is what creates a community. When I go back to Xecul, people who I thought were mortal enemies, all of a sudden they’re godfathers and godmothers to each other’s children in five or 10 years.”

The book also has a chapter about out-migration from Xecul, as a great many have left the town in search of better economic opportunities in various cities in the United States. MacKenzie spent time with K’iche’ migrants in San Diego to see how they felt about their religion and identity and found a few surprises.

“One man told me he’d converted to Mormonism and part of the reason he offered for this shift was that the Mormon message emphasized his identity as an indigenous person of the Americas,” says MacKenzie, noting that migrants from Guatemala are often subject to racism and misidentification as Mexican.

MacKenzie is looking to expand his research to focus on urban areas of Guatemala and consider how Maya spirituality and identity has developed in this context.

“I have the feeling that is easier to avoid tension in urban centres. There may be a greater freedom to be Maya in a modern way than it is in a town that has a big Catholic church in the middle of it, even though it is arguably a ‘Maya-Catholic’ church,” he says.

Indigenous Bodies, Maya Minds is available at the U of L Bookstore.