Identification. The Mam are contemporary Maya Indians who speak the Mam language, which is, after K'iche' (Quiché), the secondmost widely spoken of the twenty-one Maya languages currently spoken in Guatemala. Not since the Spanish Conquest, and perhaps never, have the Mam constituted a unified polity or society. They share many cultural traits with other Maya of Guatemala but remain divided into local communities and linguistically distinct subgroups with no pan-Mam or pan-Maya identity.
Location. The Mam live in southwestern Guatemala and, across the Mexican border, in extreme southeastern Chiapas. The region varies from hot tropical lowlands along the Pacific Ocean to more temperate highlands in the interior. These highlands, located mostly between 1,500 and 2,700 meters in elevation, once sustained oak and pine forests, much of which Mam have cleared for farming. There are marked rainy and dry seasons: the heaviest rains fall between April and November, and the driest days are in February and March. To the north, Mam towns in the Cuchumatán Highlands border Jakalteko, Q'anjob'al, Ixil, and Awakateko Maya. To the east, Mam have contested K'iche' Maya intrusions since pre-Hispanic times.
Demography. Estimates from the 1981 Guatemalan census suggest well over 500,000 Mam currently occupy fifty-six administratively autonomous and culturally distinctive municipios in the departments of Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Quezaltenango. The Mam share their municipios with Ladinos (Spanish-speaking mestizos disavowing any Indian identity), who comprise about 40 percent of the region's total population. The number of Ladinos generally varies with elevation: Mam outnumber Ladinos three to one in municipios above 2,700 meters, where subsistence maize agriculture prevails and about four-fifths of the Mam population lives; Ladinos dominate three to two in townships under 2,700 meters, more suitable for commercial coffee and cotton production.
Linguistic Affiliation. Mam belongs to the Mamean Branch of Eastern Mayan languages; it is most closely related to Ixil, Awakateko, and Tektiteko; Mamean separated from the K'ichean languages perhaps 3,400 years ago. Today Mam consists of some fifteen dialects grouped into three divisions: northern Mam is spoken in nineteen municipios in southern Huehuetenango and northern San Marcos, southern Mam in thirty-four municipios in San Marcos and Quezaltenango, and western Mam in three municipios in northwestern San Marcos, near the Mexican border. Considerable differences reduce intelligibility between divisions, and minor variations mark the dialects within each. Each municipio also has a distinctive style of speech, sufficient to identify speakers by their accent.