6. Empowering the Oppressed – The Mayas


In the western corner of Honduras live the 51,000 strong Ch’orti’ Maya people, cousins of the Cholán Mayans in the Guatemalan lowlands who were responsible for many of the city states like Tikal that the Mayans are famous for. The once mighty Copán state controlled many other city states and influenced the whole Central America. After the collapse of Copán the Ch’orti’ continued to live in the area they had traditionally inhabited. As in other areas in the Americas, social and cultural collapse due to newly introduced infectious diseases and regional and ethnic strife made the Spanish conquest possible.

Beside the Mayan-speaking Ch’orti there are the Lenca who number about 137,000, Tolpán (Jicaque) who number about 8,600, the Chibchan-speaking Pech (Paya) who number about 3,800 and Mayangna (Sumu) who number about 10,000 and the Nahua-speaking Pipil who are spread around Honduras.

In the following centuries there emerged in Honduras, as in other areas the Spanish conquered, a culture of exploitation where a ruling clique of Spanish descended overlords, criollos, upsurged the region. The dirty job of enforcing the rule of the criollos, fell to an emerging class of mixed bloods called mestizos, of Spanish and Amerindian descent. This new class became with time the majority group in the later Honduras state. Many indigenous communities became members of this majority when they emerged from the resulting end of the cultural genocidal process conducted by the Spanish elite, the Christian priests and emissaries of the colonial and later state powers. Since then the question of ethnic origin has been a contentious issue in Honduras.

The Ch’orti’ people, led by their Mayan Chief Galel, strongly but unsuccessfully resisted the Spanish conquerors. The fact that the Ch’orti’ people live in mountainous areas, although mixed with mestizos, has helped them survive much of the cultural genocide being conducted in other lower lying areas. This enabled them to keep much of their culture intact. Traditional dresses, music, dance, food and adherence to nature deities still survives. Today numbering about 52,000 people, very few however still speak the Ch’orti’ language.

Politically the road has been littered with death and destruction for the Ch’orti’ as well as other indigenous groups in Honduras. Anyone opposing the ruling elite is risking their lives. Recent US backed coup in 2009 installed a right wing government. Although Honduras has nominally returned to democracy, political instability and corruption is rife. The country has the highest murder rate in the world. Criminal gangs do as they please as drugs are transported through the country and on to the main market in the US. Assassinations are common on all levels of society. This has also meant assassinations of Native American leaders. Native rights campaigns have stalled as ordinary people have been terrorized by the violence to keep a low profile.

In Honduras politics have been unstable for a long time. A US backed coup in 2009 brought yet another crisis to the country. The political scene in Honduras grew even more contentious with presidential elections in November 2017 leading to a stalemate between the two contestants, leading to both claiming victory. The conservative Juan Orlando Hernández claimed the elections after his opponent, the anti-corruption campaigner and TV personality Salvador Nasralla had been in the lead after more than half the votes had been counted. A sudden unexplained hours long pause in the tally ended with a results reversal and Nasralla’s five percent lead disappearing and Hernández suddenly almost 2% ahead. Nasralla has enjoyed both a huge following in the country as well as international support, while Hernández has instead relied on the support of military generals. On December 18th, the Honduras Elections Commission officially declared Hernández the winner and legitimate president of Honduras. The Organization of American States (OAS), which had expelled Honduras in 2009 after the coup, called for new and fair elections in the country. The opposition has called for a national strike in protest.

The results of the elections could influence the lives of the indigenous people in Honduras as left leaning and center governments are more likely to be sympathetic to their cause than conservative right leaning governments such as Hernández represents.

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