Centroamérica / Culture

The Origins of Racism in Guatemala — An Interview with Marta Elena Casaús Arzú on Anti-Indigenous Racism

Friday, June 19, 2020
Carlos Arrazola

Born in “a golden crib” and raised among the same elite Hispanic families who founded the State of Guatemala, and who continue to make up its oligarchy, is what made it possible for Professor Marta Elena Casaús Arzú to study the origins and implications of racism in her native country. It was precisely because she belonged to the dominant class, Casaús Arzú says, that she was able to explore the imagination and mentality of those who “still think they own the state,” and who consider themselves superior to the region’s original Indigenous inhabitants and their descendants. “If I weren’t an Arzú,” she says, “I wouldn’t have had access to interview” the heirs of the Criollos. Having “the courage and strength to call them out,” through her academic research, Casaús Arzú has provided a crucial contribution to the ongoing project of understanding power relations in Guatemala.

Her book, Guatemala: Lineage and Racism—the first of what would become a series of publications on the orientations and ideological foundations of Guatemala’s dominant class, and on the phenomenon of racism and discrimination in the country—is now almost 30 years old. Since its publication in 1992, Guatemala’s elites have shunned Casaús Arzú as the “black sheep” of the oligarchy. And her own family, “most of all the Arzú side, they don’t even speak to me,” she says, with a hint of derision. 

“When I’ve had to attend social events, which doesn’t happen very often, with other families of the oligarchy, they always scold me,” she says. “They ask me, ‘Why do you write these things—these lies?’ They say, ‘Hey! You’re the lying Marta Casaús!’ And I tell them ‘Yeah, the lies come from the grand lie you raised me under,’” she says, laughing.

“My mother has always been pretty progressive, and the rest of my close family always defends me, but all my other relatives are terribly critical, and have even insulted me,” Casaús Arzú says. “Before,” she adds, “I didn’t take it very well; now I just laugh,” her tone becoming more didactic, though never unfriendly.

Casaús Arzú is a Doctor of Political Science and Sociology and a Distinguished Professor of Modern American History at the Autonomous University of Madrid. Under the administration of former Guatemalan president Óscar Berger (2004-2008), she directed an academic investigation that was subsequently published as A Diagnosis of Racism in Guatemala, a report that then served as the basis for A Policy for Coexistence and the Elimination of Racism in Guatemala. In the following interview from 2017, Casaús Arzú begins with a short historical explanation on the origins of racism in Guatemala, then turns to an analysis of the phenomenon as it exists today.

Why Is Guatemala Such a Racist Country?

Very few Guatemalans ever ask me that question; in fact, hardly anyone asks that question because it’s so hard for people to accept that Guatemala might be a racist country to begin with. To understand how it is, you have to go back to the origins of the colony. Every country in Latin America suffered the process of conquest and colonization, which was justified by a racial ideology, by segregation. But in Guatemala, for reasons I still don’t understand, the population became immediately divided into Indigenous and Ladino (non-indigenous Guatemalans)—the mestizo was never part of the national project or the project of the colony. Francisco Marroquín (Guatemala’s first Bishop and provisional governor), for example, always denied the existence of the mestizo.

In the 19th century, in Brazil and Mexico, for example, the theorists of liberalism followed in the footsteps of [Auguste] Comte—they took a less racial approach to liberalism. In contrast, Guatemala was anchored to a very brutal racial Darwinism—a belief in the existence of superior races. Guatemalan liberal intellectuals were inspired by the examples of Argentina and Uruguay, not Mexico. If they had followed the example of Mexican liberalism, they would have been less racist. If we had looked towards Mexico or Brazil, we would have instead deployed mestizaje or mulataje as the core element of the national project. 

In other words, racism emerged in Guatemala at the hands of the state?

Since the very foundation of the liberal state. This is precisely why I argue that Guatemala is a racist state and a eugenicist nation. From the beginning there was a belief in the need to make the nation whiter in order to improve the race. In 1979, when I began conducting interviews [with members of the hispanic families in Guatemala: Lineage and Racism], and they talked about improving the race, I started investigating the origins of these ideas, and I found that they originated with nineteenth century intellectuals, with a discourse of eugenics.

How is it that 200 years later, the Guatemalan state is still not evolving, not making progress? Why do the state and its institutions promote, validate, and justify racism?

Now that I've had to reread my own work, 25 years later, I've said to myself: Wow! How is it possible that everything is still so current and so accurate? When I wrote the book, I thought it was only about the ideology of the ruling class. I couldn't see that it wasn’t just the ruling class that was racist, but the state itself. It took me ten years to understand that it is actually the state itself and its institutions, its ideological apparatuses, that produce and reproduce racism: the family, the school, religion, the media, and also its repressive apparatuses.

The Guatemalan state is so racist that it deployed its repressive apparatuses to commit genocide. Why do you think that in other Latin American countries where there were armed conflicts, there was no genocide? It’s not an accident.  If you look at examples of racist states where genocide has taken place, it’s because there was state racism. Racism in Guatemala is embedded in the state, it is part of its genealogy. This makes it very difficult to dismantle, because it’s within the institutions themselves.

Is that why racism has come to pervade all social classes in the country? It’s not just the ruling class that’s racist; so are the middle and lower classes. The non-Indigenous poor are just as racist as the oligarchs.

I began studying racism because when I was a kid I would listen to my grandma and my other relatives saying, in a derogatory way, “Ay! No seas Indio. Hey! Don’t be an Indian. Don’t play with Indians. Don’t dress like an Indian.” At the time, I thought my family was strange, abnormal, and I wanted to see if this was true, if my family was actually unique, or if it was the way the whole ruling class behaved. I soon realized that it was not just the ruling class, but it was part of a larger racist ideology—it was, in Gramscian terms, dispersed to the whole of society and had become a hegemonic ideology. The hegemony of racism serves not only to discriminate, oppress and exploit others, but to unite us as a class. That is why I speak of “pigmentocracy,” because we have been divided according to the colour of our skin. It is our skin colour that situates us in the social hierarchy.

Marta Elena Casaús Arzú
Marta Elena Casaús Arzú

This idea is rooted in the mindset of Guatemalans, and has origins in the individualism and aspirationalism that exists everywhere...

It has become naturalized, because racism not only serves to justify exploitation, domination, and oppression—it also serves to unify both the ruling class as well as the middle classes, who want to 'whiten' themselves in hopes of joining the ruling class. There are authors who have begun to speak about the role of whiteness among the middle classes. There are also studies by Avancso (the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences in Guatemala) that have analyzed this.

Have you considered the role social media plays in the manifestation of racism, especially among young people?

I hadn’t considered that until the genocide trials against [José Efraín] Ríos Montt and the women of Sepur Zarco. I was shocked to see that young people were expressing themselves in such a deeply racist way on social media. Because of the way they were writing, and all the spelling mistakes, you could tell these kids weren’t from the ruling classes, and that they hadn’t gone to school. The weight of this—of young people denying racism, insulting and devaluing others, using stereotypes—it was brutal. When I testified as an expert witness [in the trial of Rios Montt], no one dared to say, “Dr. Casaús is lying.” But when Irma Alicia Velásquez or Rigoberta Menchú spoke out, the insults they received were brutal. Those who speak out are belittled; when an Indigenous person speaks out, it’s not worth anything. When the women of Sepur Zarco denounced the rapes, people said they were lying. There’s no awareness that what the other says has any value. That’s why they will never agree to recognize the validity of legal pluralism.

The same goes for poor Ladinos: They accept themselves as marginalized and exploited, but never as Indigenous.

No, because to be an Indian in Guatemala is itself an offense. And the system promotes this: on the fincas, they want Indigenous people as workers and Ladinos as bosses; the foremen are always Ladinos, just as poor as the Indians, but Ladinos. There is something more serious, and that is that we’ve demonstrated that racism and discrimination makes it impossible for Indigenous people to make a living. During the administration of [Oscar] Berger and [Eduardo] Stein (2004-2008), two members of the ruling class asked us to conduct a study on racism. I looked at some reports from the World Bank, which showed that Indigenous families—because they speak a different language, because they don’t have access to education and health services—it took them 24 years on average to get out of poverty, but for a Ladino family living in the same conditions of poverty, it only took 14 years. In other words, they’ll never escape poverty.

One of the arguments you often hear from people who justify racism is that Indigenous people are also racist and discriminatory. Is it accurate to call Indigenous practices of rejection of non-Indigenous people racist?

Racism is not the same as discrimination. I can discriminate against someone because I don’t like their tattoos and don’t want my daughter to marry someone with tattoos, for example. Everyone has the right to choose who they interact with. But racism is when you assign value to a series of differences, real or imaginary, and then these become inequalities, and then those in turn become the basis for a system of domination, humiliation, and exploitation. So, the concept of reverse racism is a false concept. Indigenous people have every right to not want to be around Ladinos. If indigenous people were to exploit, humiliate, oppress, and establish a system of domination that targets Ladinos, then they would be engaging in racism. If these conditions don’t exist, racism doesn’t exist.

And in the relations of power among different Indigenous groups, can there be racism?

There are many differences and conflicts among the Kakchiqueles and the Quichés, but they don’t normally work together, and they don’t have relationships of subalternity; they have relationships of rivalry. The same is true for the Achís and the Pocomchies, or the Kekchíes and the Pocomchies. They have relationships of conflict and rivalry. I don’t know of any cases or studies where there are relationships of subalternity—where some are masters and others slaves, where one group works and the other oversees, where people are paid less for being from one group or the other. If there were a case, for example, in which the Kakchiqueles exploited the Quichés, then maybe we could talk about racism. There’s no need to mythologize the fact that only Ladinos exploit indigenous people, but for there to be racism there has to be a system of exploitation, humiliation, and domination.

Is the folklorism with which the state and elites represent indigenous people to foreigners also an expression of racism?

Absolutely. The folklorization of the Indian is an insult and a disrespect to the indigenous population. For example, what the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing, which is a marvelous museum, has done recently is pretty questionable—they are preserving all these traditional textiles, but removing the faces from the mannequins that display the clothing. I don’t know if it was better before—with Mrs. [Carmen] Pettersen, when the mannequins were all gorgeous white dolls—than now that they’re faceless.

It’s like they want to hide them, out of shame...


Is that why it’s so hard for us to recognize and accept ourselves as a multicultural, multilingual, and multi-ethnic state, because we don’t like to look at ourselves in the mirror?

It makes our skin crawl! We break out in hives! Any time an ethnic issue comes up, the population goes crazy. It happened with the referendum on constitutional reforms in 1999, and it’s happening now with the constitutional recognition of legal pluralism. But legal pluralism has always existed! Throughout the colonial period, the Spanish Crown was smart enough to allow for the existence of legal pluralism. Everything worked well under customary law, until 1871, when positive law was imposed—but in fact even then things continued working. There is nothing new or strange about legal pluralism, and it has coexisted with positive law. So why oppose it’s constitutional recognition? Either they are using it as a pretext for not approving reforms to the judicial system, or it’s because of racism. When the genocide trial began, they at first ignored it. But when they saw that the indigenous communities were speaking up and had a chance of winning a court case against the state, then they sprang into action. Because the state belongs to [the oligarchy], but the nation, in a communal sense, belongs to the Indians.

Is there any substance to the line of argument of some liberal academics that rejects racism from a position of being a Marxist or a communist?

I’m not a Marxist or a communist; I’m a Gramscian. Marxism is just as Darwinian and just as racist as liberalism. I study theosophy, and I’ve realized that in Guatemala those who support human and citizenship rights for the indigenous are not liberals or Marxists—they’re theosophists. One group supports a kind of Fabian socialism, or utopian socialism, or in any event some kind of anarchism, but the other two camps don’t take indigenous people into account. Look at [the Guatemalan Revolution of] 1944—they didn’t even want to give them the [right to] vote. In my studies on racism, I’ve been attacked by both Marxists and liberals. I remember that here at this university [Rafael Landívar University], when I returned in 1966 and I gave my first opening lecture, and I said, “I am a woman, a Guatemalan, mestiza, Ladina, and I believe that we made the state, but the nation belongs to the Indians,” the Marxists and the liberals jumped all over me. Everyone laughed at me.

Marta Elena Casaús Arzú
Marta Elena Casaús Arzú

And what about Indigenous Marxists?

This might sound terrible, but I don't know any Marxist Mayans, and I have a lot of indigenous friends. I don't know any Marxist Mayan intellectuals.

From the time you began your investigation into the racism of Guatemala’s elites in 1979, to the publication of the first edition of Guatemala: linaje y racismo in 1992, up to today, have you witnessed any evolution in the mentality of the oligarchy? That is, since the new leaders, the new heirs, have gone to study and train abroad.

That’s really hard to answer! I would like to think so; I need to believe so; I don’t want to die thinking nothing has changed. Just the fact that people now accept that racism is a reality—only a madman like [Martin] Banus could say otherwise—indicates a change in mentality. I think there are some in the ruling class who understand and accept that racism is a scourge in this country. Otherwise, Berger and Stein wouldn’t have asked us to study racism, and that same government would not have introduced public policies against discrimination and racism. Berger once said in a speech, 'We are a racist state' He dared to say that.

But it’s also true that in moments of crisis, when there are power vacuums—every time there’s a situation like the genocide trials or the case of Sepur Zarco, or the constitutional reforms of 1999, or, now, legal pluaralism—the specter of the Indian appears, like a curse, and then racism flares up, becomes intensified.

In the lecture you gave at San Carlos University, you said, “the higher the level of education, the greater the racism.” Shouldn’t it be the other way around: more education equals less racism?

Unfortunately, no. Look at what’s happening right now in the United States or in Germany. Racism is so affixed to Western culture, so embedded in it, the foundations of white supremacy are so brutal, that the more education there is, the more racism there is. This is what [Theodor] Adorno demonstrated in The Authoritarian Personality, with German fascism. And in academia, there are still many Marxist intellectuals who reject racism, but there is also a public debate between Indigenous and Ladino perspectives on this.

On the other hand, indigenous peoples know that racism is one of the most negative forces in society, and they’ve actually turned it into a weapon of emancipation, liberation, and struggle. They’ve realized that it’s not that women are discriminated against because they’re ugly, as they’ve been told, or because they’re useless, but because they’re indigenous. In this sense, racism has provided them with an instrument of struggle for emancipation—not only political and social emancipation, but sexual emancipation as well.

An example of the relationship between education and racism: This year I received a call from a very elite college. I nearly fainted! I had a really hard time preparing my lecture. Afterwards, I asked the audience some of the same questions I had asked in the interviews for my book, and the answers the young people gave were even worse. I didn’t expect that from the youth, even from the children of the elite, that there would be such deep seated racism.

Why do you think the conservative elites are so fiercely opposed to the constitutional recognition of Indigenous justice?

The oligarchy still thinks that Guatemala is its finca, and continues to control and rule over it as such. The elites think they own the state. The two pillars of any state are law and justice. From this perspective the elites have a deep respect for the law—they’re always sidestepping it, but they respect it! You cannot touch those two pillars, because if you do, the state will crumble. Anything that pushes the boundaries of the state even a little generates a deep fear among the elite—a fear that then indigenous people will assert their rights on the fincas, or will resist the hydroelectric dams. This is what the elites said during the trial of Ríos Montt: “We can’t allow the prosecution of Ríos Montt because next they’ll come for us.” That's what they're afraid of. On the other hand, it’s also possible that their opposition to legal pluralism has to do with not wanting to support constitutional reforms aimed at fighting corruption, because those would affect them.

What’s in store for Guatemala if indigenous people continue to be denied their rights?

It doesn't really matter: whatever they deny, whatever they do, they’re doomed to have to accept [indigenous existence] and support a multicultural national project—sooner or later, because there’s no going back. And the reason there’s no going back is the trial of Ríos Montt, and all the court cases that we’ve been winning, and everything that we’ve accomplished, the community struggles against the dams. There’s no turning back. These are the last death throes, but they will be brutal ones, as we’ve seen with [Donald] Trump: there will be a return to the most brutal racism in the world. We should prepare for at least eight years of this, because there will be an era of backsliding, in terms of human rights, as two versions of white supremacy, Putin’s and Trump’s, merge into one. And the Guatemalan oligarchy will no doubt view this as an opportunity to exorcise all of its ghosts.

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