February 1, 2006

In Guatemala, ancient drama outlives repressive era

By Mica Rosenberg

RABINAL, Guatemala (Reuters) - It outlived the Spanish conquest and a crushing civil war and it survived decades of repression by the Guatemala government of the Maya heartland. Now the oldest drama in the Americas has been declared a global masterpiece.

The Rabinal Achi is performed annually at a January festival. Anthropologists say it has been staged since 1400 and tells the story of the clash of two Mayan kingdoms 500 years earlier.

The play, now sponsored by the government, was almost extinguished by army massacres and repression during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, when it was viewed as a possibly subversive focus of organizing by the indigenous community.

"We were treated like witches," said the play's current director, 69-year-old Jose Leon Coloch, who oversees everything from the colorful velvet costumes and masks to other details of the staging, a role passed from father to son.

Since the war ended in 1996, the drama has made a comeback, culminating in a successful, government-backed bid for its recognition by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.

The latest performance is the first since UNESCO named the play a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity at the end of 2005. The award carries no direct financial benefit, but the government and the play's custodians hope it will attract donors to fund performances overseas.

Guatemala's cash-strapped Ministry of Culture now subsidizes the production with about $4,000 annually and pays Coloch a salary of about $400 a month.

"We are doing what we can and we hope that other, international entities start to do the same," said Deputy Culture Minister Enrique Matheu.


Before a recent performance of the play began, the actors passed in front of an altar of masks and pine incense in a back room of Coloch's house to ask for their ancestors' protection and guidance.

The main character in the drama is a Quiche warrior who invades the neighboring kingdom of Rabinal. After a battle, he is captured and sentenced to death but before the execution he is granted several wishes including a visit his homeland, giving his word he will return.

He does and is honorably killed by his captors.

The whole two-hour drama is played out several times during the week-long festival in different sacred sites around Rabinal, the capital of the former kingdom and now a small country town some three hours from Guatemala City.

The main characters speak their lines in muffled tones through layers of cloth and wooden masks that cover their faces, while pacing back and forth in a small circle.

The dialogue, passed down orally until it was written down in the 1800s, is accompanied by the muted rhythm of the Tum, a traditional wooden drum and the occasional rattling of cymbals and bells held by the actors.

The play is written in an ancient form of Achi, a language still spoken in Rabinal. It is the only piece of theater in Latin America that is set before the Spanish conquest and staged entirely in an indigenous language, although nearly 30 dances with mixed Mayan and Spanish roots are performed in Rabinal.

"The Spanish made dozens of attempts to suppress this drama," said Dennis Tedlock of the State University of New York who has translated the play to English. "It made the Spanish nervous to have a portrayal of a world that they were not in."

Dancers clandestinely continued to perform the story during colonial times, but the tradition was nearly lost during Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war that killed over 200,000 mostly Mayan civilians.


Rabinal's outlying villages were the scene of some of the country's worst massacres. According to a 1999 U.N.-backed truth report, soldiers and paramilitaries raped Maya women and smashed children's heads open on rocks, killing 143 in the nearby village of Rio Negro.

During the war, the play disappeared for several years when meetings of groups larger than two people sparked the military's fears of guerrilla organizing.

Some worry that the new UNESCO award could destroy the essence of the only surviving pre-Hispanic drama in Latin America.

"The title is a tragedy," said Virgilio Yol Jeronimo, a youth group leader in Rabinal. "This just reinforces the image of indigenous people as a tourist attraction. It turns it into a marketable object."

But for Coloch and seven actors solemnly performing in front of the cemetery for a handful of locals, the main audience is their ancestors buried behind the church or near the ruins scattered in the hills around the town.

"The Rabinal Achi is a religious service," said Sariah Acevedo, who helped Guatemala submit its proposal to UNESCO. "It's not an artistic expression; it's an act of faith."