Culture and Ethnicity: Constructed and Reconstructed Identities

Even with substantial research on cultural or ethnic tourism (MacCannell, 1984; George et al., 2009; Baud and Ypeij, 2009), there remains a shortage of research on domestic tourists as the consumers of ethnic tourism in developing countries (Yang and Wall, 2009; Xie, 2010). Yang and Wall (2009) explain that, ‘Most studies on this subject concentrate on visits to exotic and often peripheral destinations, which involve performances, representations, and attractions portraying or presented by small, often isolated, ethnic groups’ (p. 235). Ethnic tourism is increasingly being viewed as a strategy to generate income and foreign exchange, which is evidenced by several tourism strategies that have emerged in Latin America in recent years to promote ‘authentic’ ethnic destinations (Xie, 2010). This is also becoming an important component of domestic tourism (Baud and Ypeij, 2009).

Maya ethnic groups are a large part of the Guatemalan landscape, and are therefore integral to the tourism infrastructure. The population of Guatemala is approximately 40% indigenous (Sochtig et al., 2015). Some regions, such as the communities surrounding Lake Atitlan, boast an indigenous population of more than 90% (Facultad de Ciencias Economicas, 2008). Due to a number of factors, including relative isolation for a period of time, the various Maya groups in the Western Highlands have retained many of their outward cultural markers (i.e. language, dress). It is estimated that there are approximately 20 Maya ethnic groups in Guatemala. Other groups include ladinos as well as some residents of European or African descent (Sochtig et al., 2015). The term ladino historically was used to describe individuals of mixed European and indigenous or African descent (Martinez Pelaez, 2011). However, it has evolved to indicate most nonindigenous individuals in Guatemala. While Spanish is the first language of ladinos, it is the second language of most Maya. It is not uncommon for rural Maya, particularly of older generations, to speak very little or no Spanish. Yet, this is the language of commerce in the tourism industry. Subsequently, the cultural markers that make the Maya culture appealing to tourists can sometimes serve as barriers to success in the tourism industry.

As a result, rather than generating cultural linkages, domestic tourism can actually exacerbate existing tensions. Ghimire (2001) explains,

In some ways, the development of national and regional tourism in itself is the result of a growing social differentiation: firstly, between the urban and rural populations, and secondly, with the rise of the middle classes usually bringing considerable penury among the mass of the population. (p.18)

In some ways, notions of what is rural have been constructed in contrast with what is urban (i.e. rural equals non-urban). Scholars have suggested that tourists perceive those in rural areas as having unusual social structures and cultures that are quite different from those in urban communities. Rural inhabitants are often perceived as ‘backward’ in relation to their urban counterparts (George et al., 2009), a characteristic that has regularly been attributed to the Maya. Indigenous Maya have long been perceived as a relic from the past (Fernandez and Fernandez, 2011) and are viewed by tourists as ancient, simple and stagnant. This perception has been embellished for the purposes of tourism. This has specific consequences for women, who are generally perceived as the keepers of Maya culture, especially with regard to maintaining traditional dress. Most men (other than the very old) no longer wear traditional dress in their day-to-day lives and many young women are choosing Western style clothing. These transformations are at odds with the perception of the Maya culture as static, and changes could threaten foreign tourists’ satisfaction with their travels if they begin to perceive them as inauthentic. Furthermore, discarding outward markers of indigeneity (e.g. dress, language) is perceived by some as necessary for social mobility.

While domestic tourism may highlight tensions, international tourism is elevating the Maya culture in certain ways. In interviews with Maya residents, I found that there has been a resurgence of indigenous pride among the Maya around Lake Atitlan, some of which was directly attributed to tourism. One young man explained, ‘Because if you practice the culture, tourists like that - it calls attention to tourism. And maybe that is why so many come to visit San Juan ... because they still maintain a tradition’. In this way, ladino and expatriate residents are both dependent upon and intolerant of Maya residents. Foreign tourists generally expect to see Maya when they visit Guatemala, but there are occasionally conflicts between Maya vendors and non-Maya business owners, particularly regarding the presence of street merchants. Little (2009) observed these types of conflicts in Antigua. He argues that this tension is rooted in historical racism and ethnocentrism and is aggravated by Antigua’s World Heritage designation. Mayas are viewed as both essential and a nuisance. He explains, ‘Because Mayas are considered to both beautifully adorn and pollute this contested city, their sociocultural place in Antigua can be ambiguous’ (p. 217). Little describes instances of racism he observed when he’s heard ladinos refer to Mayas as ‘an Indian pig’ and a ‘typical filthy Indian’ (2009, p. 236). In several interviews, Mayas also described to me how there has historically been much discrimination against them. One woman explained, ‘Because previously ... those 35 and older, truthfully, suffered a lot of discrimination. Yes, because unfortunately in our areas, they have discriminated a lot’. They emphasized that this was especially intense for older generations as well as women.

Therefore, ethnic tensions in Guatemala are complicated by the presence of foreign tourists. Little explains, ‘Although Antiguenos feel that they must temper their attitudes about Mayas when they are around tourists, more recent, wealthier Guatemala City immigrants do not feel such compulsion, since they are less concerned about what foreigners think of them’ (2009, p. 26). He explains that middle class and poorer ladinos who find themselves competing more directly with Mayas have to soften their opinions due to their dependence on international tourism. In some ways, foreign tourists have been powerful in elevating the status of the Maya in Guatemala.

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