Creating In-between Times and Identities: Expressions of Contemporary Theatre in Guatemala
Regina Solis Miranda* and Luis Antonio Morales Rodríguez**
Theatricality in contemporary Guatemala has its own poetics shaped by a tense interaction of multiple identities in a context defined by enforced colonial logic. By recognizing Mayan and Ladino/mestizo theatrical trends, we can explore alternative ways of thinking that shape contemporary artistic production in the country.
Keywords: identity, xajoj, Ladino/mestizo theatre, decolonialization, Guatemala
Theatrical Trends in Guatemala
To fully understand contemporary theatre in Guatemala, we must first acknowledge the numerous origins and expressions of identity that converge in a small territory, which Guatemalan artists refer to as “the scenic as consolidation of signs and meanings and their connection with the social events that occurred in Guatemala” (J.H. Carrillo Padilla 209).
Although Central America gained independence in 1821, the categories created during the colonial era to identify diverse populations are still in use in Guatemala, thus reinforcing a racist interethnic dynamic. According to the latest census of 2018, 42% of the population considers itself Mayan and 56% as Ladino, a category that emerged in the seventeenth century to designate mestizo groups (Taracena). The term Ladino was later popularized through the state and municipal apparatus with the political aim of creating a homogeneous identity that denied indigenous roots and promoted a model of citizenship which consolidated the nation-state. Two hundred years after independence from Spain, these categories continue to frame the theatrical work in the country, which fluctuates between the recovery of memory and the imposition of a paradigm of modernity.
In the 1970s, Hugo Carrillo argued in Origins and Development of Guatemalan Theatre that Guatemalan theatre was composed of two simultaneous dramatic trends: the indigenous trend, which Carrillo views as popular theatre, based on its ancient pre-colonial Mayan origin and colonial influence, and the Ladino/mestizo trend based on European tradition institutionalized by the 1944 Guatemalan Revolution (39). Carrillo characterizes the indigenous theatre as one of resistance, giving it an underground character and relegating it mainly to the rural regions of the western part of the country. To this theatrical trend, ancestral cosmogonic and spiritual elements are attributed. On the other hand, the Ladino/mestizo theatrical tradition is enacted in the cities and focuses on the daily concerns of Ladinos.
More recent theatrical analyses, such as that of Jorge Hugo Carrillo Padilla, bypass this binary classification and represent the theatrical tradition in Guatemala as unitary, exclusive to academic and institutional settings in the cities. Although Carrillo recognizes the impact of Guatemalan political history on theatrical work, following the tradition of a colonial state, he tacitly excludes the stage manifestations of the Mayan people.
It is important to note that Guatemalan theatrical analysis has been produced mainly by Ladino/mestizo people, further skewing the interpretation of what transpires on stage. For this reason, voices such as that of the theatre director, actor and cultural manager Reyes Josué Morales are needed to broaden the panorama and enable a reconceptualization of entrenched categories.
Reyes Josué Morales defines Guatemalan theatre based on his experience in the west of the country (106), a primarily Mayan region where theatrical production is developed without public policies, budgets or theatre rooms. Morales problematizes the use of the word theatre based on what he calls “a historical-aesthetic connotation that in a restricted sense can leave out many important manifestations.” He conceives of a continuous line of theatricalities that stem from the efforts of Departmental Theatre Shows, which began in the 1970s and continued to flourish through processes of ethnic and political vindication. Some contemporary groups have successfully reappropriated traditional dances of ancestral origin, or indigenous dance-dramas as he calls them, and erase the borders imposed by hegemonic authorities for the study of the performing arts. Mayan theatre productions in Guatemala are nurtured by the tradition of telling stories through dialogue, movements and music.
The Mayan theatre, also called xajoj following the idiomatic tradition of some Mayan communities, is diverse but maintains shared elements such as the representation of social problems, the commitment to collective creation, the influence of Mayan theatricalities and use of training from informal non-scholarly sources.
These two streams, Ladino/mestizo theatre and Mayan theatre, differ primarily in their intentionality and scope. For Luis Carlos Pineda (Teatro 5), the diversity of context, social classes and cultural groups increases the impact of theatre in the country, not because it appeals to mass audiences but because it recognizes theatricalities that, in other circumstances, might not be considered theatre. However, the means of outreach and dissemination are determined in part by requirements of staging. For example, xajoj theatre has a high community outreach, and commercial theatre can sustain long blockbuster seasons, while independent and experimental theatre still lacks recognition from the general public, yet offers a unique perspective that contributes significantly to Guatemalan theater in general.
Xajoj: An Approach to Mayan Theatrical Poetics
In the territory known today as Guatemala, dramatic expressions were common prior to the Spanish invasion and subsequent trauma. Hugo Carrillo points out, as indigenous populations have claimed for centuries, that Mayan forms of drama were persecuted by the settlers and their Eurocentric logic, which led to the imposition of their understanding of drama (41). Carrillo posits a discontinuity between the ancestral Mayan and contemporary expressions of Mayan art, and while he recognizes the complexity, antiquity and profundity of Mayan dramatic manifestations, he resorts to categorizing them simplistically as “Guatemalan popular theatre.”
Reyes Josué Morales calls xajoj a “theatre of indigenous or Mayan matrix” and describes it as a manifestation of a “complex network of cultural, ritual, scenic, bodily practices, aesthetic conceptions, material registers of thought, philosophical concepts, etc., from which scenic works with different characteristics have emerged” (106). He lists some historical processes that have deeply impacted these Mayan scenic practices, for example, the demonization of the indigenous by Spanish invaders, the imposition of Christianity, the folklorization of their artistic proposals and the threat of NGO-ization. Morales sees indigenous matrix theatre as a living animal that walks between various times; hence, to fully understand it, the viewer must recognize and reflect on the continuity of Mayan culture in a globalized context.
Luis Carlos Pineda (“Teatro Plural” 196–98) creates three categories to describe the different streams within the Mayan theatre. These are the ancestral xajoj, described as an ancient tradition prior to colonial invasion with an unaltered cosmogonic and ritual sense, the syncretic xajoj, which hides elements of Mayan tradition, due to conflicts with the Spanish, in theatrical performances of European style, and the new xajoj, associated with the Oxlajuj B’aqtun and the “new era.” Although theatre in Guatemala finds institutional niches as a result of the 1944 Revolution, these were of benefit primarily to mestizo theatre, due to the folklorist and exoticist perspective on Mayan art. It is important to note that the documentation and analysis of theatrical productions in the country have precluded performances by Xinka and Afro communities, populations made invisible in the State’s official narrative.
The recognition of xajoj and its construction as dance-theatre (that is, theatre performed through dance and music which creates its own scenic system) was prioritized by the artist and educator Lisandro Guarcax, founding member of the Sotz’il Jay cultural centre, who was brutally murdered in 2010. Grupo Sotz’il was created in 2000 with the aim of “recovering cultural roots through research and the promotion of pre-Hispanic Mayan music and dance” (Grupo Sotz’il). The reflections on Mayan art promoted by Sotz’il have been projected into other spaces, where such art forms have materialized as collective community creations.
In response to Guarcax’s assassination, several groups of artists reacted through their creative work; their collective spirit led to the creation of the Movimiento de Artistas Mayas Ruk’ux, a group of artists devoted to the discussion and conceptualization of Mayan art, particularly the theatre. This platform gave way to the emergence of Mayan theatre groups such as Mujeres Ajchowen; these pioneering artists, by boldly claiming the theatricality of Mayan women, broke away from mainstream paradigms of the performing arts in an openly racist and sexist country. Thus, new generations of young Mayans who are increasingly linked to the arts have become fertile receptors of the seed of theatre as a means to develop their political awareness, ethnolinguistic identity and organizational savvy.
Discursive Threads: From Easy Laughter to Ritual Performance
The theatrical productions with the greatest commercial appeal in the country have been and continue to be comedies, usually staged by companies of Ladino/mestizo artists whose objective is to profit from laughter. One of the most popular, El día que Teco temió (The Day Teco Dreaded), has been running for seventeen years, performed every weekend to an audience of approximately 500 people. According to a report published in 2017 by journalist Carmen Quintela, the actors, who are also the playwrights, explain the popularity of their project as due to their staging of everyday situations and expressions that appeal to Guatemalan sense of humour. However, this commercial and popular humour is rooted in the idiosyncratic belief systems of racism, sexism and homophobia that appeal to the country’s mainstream population. Consider the following exchange from the play, cited in Quintela’s (2017) article.
The three protagonists take turns remembering their old schoolmates:
—They called her the “vitamin.” All the kids grew up with her.Between each sentence, laughter. (Quintela)
—They used to call her “multiplication table of one.” She was so easy.
—They called her “the flu.” Everyone had her.
—They called her “traffic light.” No one respected her.
This formulaic humour is repeated in various productions, particularly in urban contexts where racism is more exacerbated, and provides the basis for a profitable business by foregrounding one form of Guatemalan theatre. These types of stagings are legitimized by the way in which the dialogues resonate with the audiences. Misogynistic phrases are uttered on stage without consequence, and the sexualization of women’s bodies and the possibility of occasional profanity is accepted by the audiences, who further validate this form of humour with their laughter, thus revealing the moral standard of a broad sector of the population.
However, there is another type of Ladino/mestizo theatre which departs from commercial comedies and adaptations of films and novels. It is a branch of theatre that builds on impulses from the 1950s and 1960s to dignify the theatrical craft in the country, right after the 1944 Revolution which followed decades of dictatorships. This political mestizo theatre in Guatemala today draws on contemporary debates of historical memory, existentialism and the aesthetic reinterpretation of individual and collective feelings; this represents a huge shift from the mestizo theatre of evasion, which seeks only laughter and precludes any type of reflection.
This political theatre, typically developed through collective processes involving people of indigenous and Ladino/mestizo identities, attempts to provoke a visceral reaction from the audience, aiming to disturb the viewer’s usual perspectives. For example, the Armadillo group was created in 1998 as an itinerant project that explores a language of object theatre and puppets, and the Artzénico group, founded in 2007, uses a language linked to the theatre of the absurd.
This type of theatre acknowledges well-known historical events and uses intersubjective codes that awaken nostalgia or sorrow in the audiences. For example, among the most commonly staged Guatemalan socio-historical events are the 36-year Internal Armed Conflict (1960–96) and the sixteenth-century European invasion. Social landscapes of poverty and migration are also frequent subjects of contemporary Guatemalan theatre, yet poetry, too, finds expression in current theatrical projects. In the case of stagings created by women, such as Las Poderosas group, founded in 2008 by women survivors of violence, negative effects of gender inequity are also foregrounded, in a country that has one of the highest femicide rates in the world.
However, the xajoj as described above has another function in addition to entertaining audiences or instigating collective conversations about shared problems. Significantly, this type of ancestral theatre recognizes its responsibilities in the community, and it favors spectacles that express ritual, artistic, and political intentionality (N. Carrillo Padilla 38). Such works are typically performed in open spaces and public plazas, rather than large enclosed rooms which limit their accessibility. This prioritization of open access is linked to the financial resources upon which these works rely, which include self-management, community support and NGO funding.
Mayan theatre also includes productions defined by a calendar cycle which marks the beginning of the sowing season; these productions are frequently linked to a belief system of religion and festivity that underlies the syncretism between Mayan spirituality and European Catholicism. These artistic rituals are often coordinated by groups of people who serve in their churches under the figure of a cofradía.
The cofradía originated in the sixteenth century to increase the effectiveness of the evangelization campaigns, but also allowed the populations to resist Christian indoctrination while further integrating their spiritual belief system. Cofradías commonly organize celebrations of patron saints in the community through public performances of highly symbolic dance-theatre that alludes to natural elements and moral dilemmas. Some Xajoj montages do not have a written text (or else it has been lost), while others are usually accompanied by spoken texts, mostly in Spanish, although there are some exceptions such as the Tzunún narrated in Ixil or the Rabinal Achi, with dialogues in Achi that maintain the validity of naming life through the local language of the community.
Although we have mentioned the ancestral origins of Xajoj, there are also more contemporary productions of this theatrical trend. For example, Grupo Sotz’il, whose name in the Mayan language Kaqchikel means bat and represents the protective energy of that nahual, is one of the most emblematic examples of Mayan theatre, music and dance. It is precisely this group, diligently training new members to continue the dance-theatre tradition, who initiated one of the first efforts to systematize their own theatrical methodology in Guatemala, which they term Ati’t Xajoj. This methodology, described in the book Ati’t Xajoj – Danzando con la abuela (2016), is based on a deep knowledge of the Cholq’ij, the Mayan calendar, as the basis for the creation of music and dance. It is a methodological proposal that documents and preserves fundamental kinesiological, communal and spiritual sensations.
In this final section, we briefly describe a system for categorizing Guatemalan theatrical works as instances of decolonizing art. Apart from adaptations of foreign drama and comedy, theatre in Guatemala is defined by a set of features which we view as decolonializing tendencies. In our estimation, classifying a theatrical production as decolonizing is not necessarily aesthetically innovative, nor does it presuppose a subversion of the Aristotelian narrative model of introduction-climax-denouement; rather, the decolonizing quality resides in what is said and who says it. More specifically, decolonizing art contests the idea that there is one and only one correct way to interpret and navigate the world and life itself.
First of all, Guatemalan productions favor notions of ancestry over history. The concept of ancestor is reformulated in such a way that it “implies avoiding the trap of so-called history, a discipline with which the memory of the peoples of the world is controlled by employing a single conceptual package” (Mignolo 134). Through such a shift, the construction of the text foregrounds systems of knowledge located within specific identity formations and seeks to highlight embodied forms of knowledge in the staging.
Generally, these productions emerge from a collective community awareness that enables its members to recognize the interconnectedness of social class, racialization, gender identity and sexual orientation and their central role in identity formation and as systems of oppression. Self-reflexive thought is always engaged as the theatrical work becomes more tangible and immediate to the viewers.
Secondly, a number of Guatemalan theatrical projects problematize, either symbolically or explicitly, the effects of modernity and colonialism on people’s lives and the historical construction of the nation-state model. In such projects, the artists use non-hegemonic languages and forms of meaning such as the sound of musical instruments or collective dramaturgy; this practice allows for works to be presented in any one of the twenty-five languages that co-exist in the territory. In short, this type of theatre introduces aesthetic-discursive provocations that invite us to question the hegemonic value system that we have learned.
In a broader international context, Guatemala has not escaped the incipient global debates over hierarchies of identity. Thus, local efforts to reconfigure interethnic dynamics will undoubtedly find their way into the scripts and languages of Guatemalan theatrical works. We can only imagine how the world of Guatemalan theatre might be reformulated if dichotomies of idenity were to cease framing sociopolitical dynamics. For this new era of possibility, we wait attentively.
 All quotations cited in the article originally appeared in Spanish and were translated to English by the authors.
 This idea was promoted primarily by the Guatemalan stage creator Norma Padilla from the Department of Theatre of the Directorate of Fine Arts, which at that time was a dependency of the Ministry of Education. Norma Padilla was assassinated by repressive forces of the state in 1984. Originally expressing deeply political content, the shows later shifted towards children’s theatre and eventually disappeared.
 For more information about these processes of ethnic vindication, see “Entre el mecapal y el cielo. Desarrollo del movimiento maya en Guatemala” (Bastos y Camus, 2003).
 Xajoj is a word in the Mayan languages that originates in the K’iche’an branch. Its more generic meaning is dance, in both the social and scenic function. However, in recent aesthetic-political interpretations, some Mayan artists and intellectuals use it to specify the performing arts where music, dance and theatre are combined. The word has ancient origins and was widely used in colonial times to name Mayan scenic expressions. Its current connotation is closely related to the anti-colonial struggles that seek to vindicate and maintain autonomous forms of aesthetic thought independently of Western European categories.
 This marks the end of a Mayan calendar cycle that was celebrated in 2012.
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Pineda, Luis Carlos. “Teatro Plural, Panorama del desarrollo del teatro guatemalteco (1996–2011).” El futuro empezó ayer. Apuestas por las nuevas escrituras de Guatemala, edited by Luis Méndez Salinas and Carmen Lucía Alvarado Benitez, Catafixia Editorial, 2014, pp. 194–209.
Quintela, Carmen. “Machismo, racismo y homofobia a escena.” Plaza Pública, 2 August 2017.
Taracena, Arturo. “Guatemala: del mestizaje a la ladinización, 1524–1964.” Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica (CIRMA), 2002.
*Regina Solis Miranda is a Guatemalan anthropologist deeply interested in identity negotiations through cultural artefacts. She holds an Erasmus MA in Literature from the Crossways in Cultural Narratives programme. Her current research is aimed at exploring how latinidades are portrayed in music and exploring new signifiers of mestizaje in Guatemala. Contact: email@example.com
**Luis Antonio Morales Rodríguez. Actor, critic, playwright and poet laureate. He graduated from the National School of Dramatic Art and holds a BA in Literature from the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, where he has been a theatre lecturer. He also has a background in Sociology. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Theatre and Performing Arts. His main interests are theatre history and trends in contemporary stage creation. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2021 Regina Solis Miranda and Luis Antonio Morales Rodríguez
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