Identification. The Itza' Maya identify themselves as descendants of speakers of the Itza' Maya language and are centered in the town of San José, Petén, Guatemala. Spaniards and scholars have always referred to the San Joseños as "Itzas" but until quite recently they usually referred to themselves as "Mayas" ("Mayeros"). Children stopped learning the language in the 1930s because of the government's repressive language policy. As a result, only about two dozen older adults are fluent in Itza'. Beginning about the mid-1980s, as a consequence of the influx of rainforest activists, the Itza' have become aware of themselves as an important group on the international scene. Many of the townspeople in San José have displayed a revived interest in their traditional culture and language and have adopted "Itzaj" as their self-designation.
Location. San José is a town on the northern shore of Lake Petén Itza', in the heart of the Mayan lowlands of subtropical northern Guatemala. The town is the administrative center of a municipio of the same name. The 2,252-square-kilometer township falls within the northern subtropical region of Petéen.
Demography. Between 1978 and 1993 the population of the town of San José, almost all of Itza' descent, grew rapidly, to approximately 2,000 residents. There are perhaps another 2,000 Itza' in the region, suggesting a total population of about 4,000; however, no accurate census figures are available.
Linguistic Affiliation. Itza' Maya belongs to the Yucatecan Mayan Branch of the Mayan Language Family. Linguistic evidence suggests that Itza' separated from its sister languages—Yukateko, Lakantun, and Mopan Maya—approximately one millennium ago.