Confronting the Narrative: Gladys Tzul on Indigenous Governance and State Authority in Guatemala

Gladys Tzul claims to be a direct descendant of Atanasio Tzul. Together with hundreds of others, she belongs to the sixth generation of this lineage that lives in the Paquí canton, in Totonicapán. She experienced a different sense of politics, “a collective and community one, not a liberal one in which an individual citizen exists, represented and protected by the State.” She is one of the few Latin American academics to specialize in analyzing Indigenous governance systems in Guatemala, their power relations, and the struggle that occurs between local forms of government and State authority.

Source: Plaza Pública

Gladys Tzul claims to be a direct descendant of Atanasio Tzul. Together with hundreds of others, she belongs to the sixth generation of this lineage that lives in the Paquí canton, in Totonicapán. She experienced a different sense of politics, “a collective and community one, not a liberal one in which an individual citizen exists, represented and protected by the State.” She is one of the few Latin American academics to specialize in analyzing Indigenous governance systems in Guatemala, their power relations, and the struggle that occurs between local forms of government and State authority.

“The State generally wants to govern individual subjects. And the response given by the community is always collective. The liberal State, and its forms of government, does not know how to react to this, because it has never wanted to recognize or respect and include other ways of conducting politics. At least to admit that they have always been there,” says Tzul.

Among her influences are people like Silvia Federici, Francesca Gargallo, Rita Segato, Andrés Guerrero, Edgar Esquit, and Aura Cumes. All of them, she says, have been useful to sort out life experiences and bring them into the field of critical politics. Gladys Elizabeth Tzul Tzul has published essays about community organization in the face of the State in academic journals in Chile, Mexico and Germany.

With a Masters in Latin American Social and Political Studies from the Alberto Hurtado University in Chile, Tzul has followed Michel Foucault’s footsteps to arrive at a critical approach to power dynamics, the negation of the latter, or the development of a subtle microscopic power that is nothing like the political power of State apparatuses or of a privileged class, but instead the combination of small powers and institutions at another level.

No single power exists, according to Foucault. Instead, he wrote, multiple relations of authority exist in society at different levels, mutually supporting each other and manifesting in subtle ways.

Gladys Tzul brought these concepts home in her thesis, Political Configuration and Community Power in Maya Kich’e Societies, published in Chile. In directly challenging the male chauvinist configuration of community traditions, she has become critical and controversial. Although they are defended by some academics, she considers Marxist concepts of class to be out of date. Regardless, as a PhD candidate in sociology at the Benemérita Autonomous University of Puebla, in Mexico, her interests have focused on shedding light on historical and current systems of domination.

In order to understand these systems of domination and power, Tzul emphasizes, it’s fundamental to first recognize territory as a social relation:

The driving force of the history of Indigenous peoples in Latin America is the struggle for territory. This is something that has been difficult for the traditional academy to comprehend. If we examine peoples’ uprisings throughout history – in the colonial era, the liberal moment, currently – they have always been for the defense of territory. For its defense, but also for the drive for territorial sovereignty and self-government.

Oswaldo J. Hernández: Is this the same struggle as that of people deciding for themselves? Is it possible with the way in which the State of Guatemala is constituted?

Gladys Tzul: That’s a question that merits a historical answer, one that looks at how territorial jurisdictions were fragmented over time. In the end, we are part of the territorial form of a republican State that established municipalities and departments, and that deconstructed territories prior to the colonial era. Despite this, people didn’t automatically move; something, a powerful memory, was immutable. Social relations weren’t going to disappear just because the State demarcated territories in a different way.

OJH: This natural self-determination that doesn’t fit into the modern State – is that what also doesn’t fit in the academy?

GT: There’s an academic trend, almost hegemonic since the ‘60s and ‘70s, of interpreting how Indigenous people have their own forms of governance over a territory: it’s seen from the perspective of the peasantry. So there was an attempt to locate Indigenous peoples within a framework of uses, customs and traditions. This was done with a real lack of respect, since it implies an inability to imagine that it’s possible to conduct politics from an Indigenous perspective. Communal work, the exercise of authority – they aren’t customs or traditions. From Michel Foucault’s viewpoint, it would follow that, in practice, these forms of community work and service are outside of paid, commodity production. But it was studied from several angles. On the one hand, the theoretical trend that thinks of the peasantry. The theoretical-political-legal trend that thinks of Indigenous peoples as communities working from a basis of traditions, uses and customs. And also that other trend that thinks of Indigenous societies as utopian, perfect and balanced. Of course, that’s not the case. Right here in Totonicapán, the political configuration of the local government isn’t free of tensions. All of those views prevent seeing the complexity of local power. Silvia Federici notes that this kind of work isn’t natural or pre-political; it’s the result of a broad strategic development of thinking about how things are done. How to survive collectively.

OJH: This view, then, has been established solely in light of class struggle…

GT: The academy constitutes a power. It constructs a reality and constructs a meaning. In practice, from a community perspective, there’s a direct critique of work from a class struggle perspective as being abstract and producing value. Community work days aren’t remunerated and don’t produce value. Instead, they underpin collectivity. This complexity still isn’t considered because we haven’t been able to separate ourselves from the notion of liberal politics. Liberal politics converts everything into a sector. Nor is it resolved by introducing an ethnic variable. But I think our politics is a struggle that isn’t necessarily State-centric. At some point it concerns itself with the State, but it doesn’t mean that the State is the focal point of our concerns. At the end of the day, the concern of a communal government system is the safeguarding of its territory. The establishment of this work.

Confronting the narrative

Gladys Tzul recalls that in the Paquí canton, in Totonicapán, Guatemalan independence is celebrated each September in a different way than the traditional festivities of most of the country. “There isn’t a celebration to commemorate the declaration of independence of September 15th here. No. The celebration focuses on remembering the 12th, the rebellion, the disobedience of grandfather Atanasio Tzul in the face of the payment of taxes to the Spanish crown, and his struggle for the expulsion of the creoles who arrogated independence.”

The struggle between local governments and the liberal State, according to Tzul, is also debated in the narrative, in history, in memory. The realm of action that stimulates the collective imagination. “It’s a confrontation because there’s opposition to the imperative of historical patriotism. It has become something more than festive; it has become political. A political and strategic space. In the canton, the school is the clearest representation of the modern State. In that same location, there’s a statue of Atanasio Tzul that’s much taller than the school building.”

OJH: Has the community taken on the responsibility for this process of historical memory?

GT: It hasn’t been in a deliberate or conditioned way. It’s our memory. State models have a premeditated goal of making people forget what struggles for territory have meant. There’s a hegemonic project that is forced, and it’s natural that there be resistance. If that weren’t the case, hegemony would have no reason to exist. Imposing it wouldn’t make sense.

OJH: Did Indigenous governance systems survive history, the internal armed conflict, the peace process?

GT: I think they established a survival strategy when faced with war, as when faced with any historical turning point that came to pass. When going over what happened, for example when war broke out, when the actors that fought drew closer, the first thing to take place was community discussions. To decide what to do collectively. In the end, for both sides, Indigenous people were worthless. In Totonicapán, there were serious discussions about our not siding with the right or with the left, but we evaluated that the army was the one with the power to come and kill us. There was a strategic utilization of the army by the community, for protection. It was a way to cope with liberal politics in the midst of a war.

OJH: In that sense, Indigenous peoples were another active part of the war, not a population caught in the crossfire.

GT: Again, a response requires a historical outlook. One can review all the riots and uprisings that have happened, and the tactic has never been to take sides. What happens in times of war is that the presence of two enemies is accentuated. So, everyday dynamics were constructed with both sides. More than a clash between two sides, conflicts develop against the two sides, not permanently, and they take shape over the course of the war.

It’s impossible to see Indigenous governance systems as victims. Guatemalan historiography has made the mistake of considering Indigenous people to be subjects only if they joined the guerrilla or not, or the army. At the heart of this kind of historiography is the idea of conscience. Of course there was an awareness of the struggle, but there was a gap because the struggles being proposed were thought of from an urban perspective, out of the needs of the middle class in the capital. Not from an Indigenous perspective. It’s also a historiography that doesn’t take into account a reality faced by communities, of children dying from malnutrition and illness. It ends up being a disrespectful way of thinking of history, as though things can change only through ideology.

OJH: If I understand correctly, the thesis is that Indigenous governance systems, in essence, in their struggle, don’t have an ideology.

GT: I don’t think there’s an ideological project as such. I think that what have occurred are collective wills for concrete struggles. There’s a political metabolism that isn’t bound by ideology. The problem with ideology is that the struggle gets lost in the promise, in the utopia. And the struggle is lost to reach or achieve the ideology’s promise. We’re subjects of history even if the struggle is fought differently.

OJH: The peace accords, however, were signed by two actors.

GT: The peace accords are liberal, in the strictest meaning of the word. In that they conceive of two forces: the left and the right. And they’re liberal given that it appears that it’s just an agreement orchestrated by the World Bank.

It is paramount to understand the trap the Peace Accords laid for territories. The issue of land was presented in market terms. It was determined that the land problem would be resolved by way of trusts. In other words, the purchase and sale of lands, without coming to an understanding of communal territories. All of the local political and social processes, for example, went unacknowledged, and in their place, liberal thought gave the green light for establishing co-operatives, NGOs, the technical-monetary framework established by the only mechanism for access to land. That’s how, with the signing of the Peace Accords, the expropriation of the commons was sealed. And the door was left open for evictions. It was also established that land is for productivity, not for sustenance.

OJH: What are your thoughts on the certain level of participation opened up by entities such as the Community Development Committees [Codedes] and Municipal Development Committees [Comudes]? And on the tolerance, to some degree, stemming from the Guatemalan Indigenous Development Fund (Fodigua), the Office for the Defense of Indigenous Women (DEMI), and the Presidential Commission against Discrimination and Racism (Codisra)?

GT: The modernization of the State, the decentralization of the State, is quite a malicious concession. If we don’t analyze it from [the standpoint of] government systems, and we believe the fiction that the State organizes us, this system of development councils appears to be a democratic concession, a great achievement. But if we read the situation from the standpoint of Indigenous governance systems, the Codedes and Comudes are a direct negation of local authority.

With regards to the other [institutions], they’re a result of multicultural policies, a trend that appeared in the ‘90s. The State continues at the center, trying – again, just as during the colony – to manage cultures.

Limits to the State

Gladys Tzul defines herself as a deconstructionist, post-structuralist, Foucauldian, feminist of Abya Yala, critic of State configurations. Because of this, is she also a threat to tradition, to community?

On Saturday, October 26, 2013, just a week before Tzul was to give a seminar in her community, the rumor that she had been murdered, and that her body would soon arrive, spread throughout Paquí. It was a rumor first of all, but also a threat, intimidation.

OJH: To whom might your positions represent a threat?

GT: What they don’t want is for people to speak about communal land, for the promotion of a critical understanding of communal territory to continue. It might be a threat for those who continue to see Totonicapán as a part of the colonial encomienda system, for those who want to continue to govern from an individualistic liberal system.

OJH: So what can be done in the face of the liberal State?

GT: Beyond a social contract, the State is leviathanic. Its work is to control, monitor, and punish. To provide security. The State is like god, and we’re not going to say we can’t criticize it. But our political struggle, as Indigenous governance systems, should be aimed at placing limits on the State. The State wants to regulate life, from a market framework, from the negation of other ways of conducting politics. That’s why, in the State’s ambition of a single nation, Indigenous peoples are only played up for the value of their identity. Governance systems function to place limits on the State. Just as women have also been able to establish limits – limits on representation, in a collective way. I come from a theoretical trend that’s currently under construction. It’s called “webs of community and political forms.” In terms of community, it establishes that nothing works in isolation. Instead, it is all dependent on separate local, global and international story lines. Within them, one has the opportunity to decide what gets negotiated and what doesn’t. On the other hand, political forms refer to a release from the liberal idea of politics.

OJH: Is it possible to free Indigenous governance systems from the structural male chauvinism with which they have functioned?

GT: These challenges of the symbolic masculine order operate, function and are permanently denying not only participation and representation. It’s a symbolic order founded on work, on the symbolic work of women, which is used by men. Women are the ones who take care of planting, children, and much of the communal work. This work is what creates a climate of stability for everyone in the household. That’s how all women in all families in all communities work. The Indigenous system of government exists because of women’s work. The challenge for both men and women is to understand this process. When half of those involved are oppressed, it’s impossible to sustain a system of government, a struggle for change. It’s impossible to conceive. Silvia Federici calls it affective work, because it isn’t recognized as work, and yet it sustains the entire fabric of community.

OJH: Is yours a feminist perspective on community?

GT: Liberal feminism doesn’t resolve the issue either. There’s a lot of discussion on this subject. Many Indigenous women don’t want to call themselves feminists because they say it’s a western label, and I completely respect that. Prior to feminism, what happens in communities is a “doing among women.” According to Raquel Gutiérrez, it’s a women’s politics that concerns itself with the organization of intimate and collective life. Of the reproduction of labour that is understood as community survival. All of this goes beyond the use of women’s identity by the State. There’s currently a political process to see the world from the perspective of women – Mam, Ixil, Kakchiquel, Kiche’ women – that counters the cultural expropriation, for example, of huipils. Along with many other powerful sectors, the State presents the Indigenous woman as its face, using her, romanticizing her, taking her political value away from her, and even criminalizing her. Feminism as a “doing among women” refutes these conditions.