Mam - History and Cultural Relations

Mam speakers have occupied western Guatemala for perhaps 2,600 years. Some historical linguists suggest that the precursor of all Mayan languages may have diversified from a homeland just north of contemporary Mam territory beginning some four thousand years ago. During pre-Hispanic times, Mam vied for control of their lands with more powerful K'iche' lords to the east. In February 1524 Spanish forces under Pedro de Alvarado passed through the southern Mam region en route to subjugating the K'iche' and Kaqchikel. They subdued the northern Mam in late 1525, but the southern Mam evidently escaped military conquest, perhaps by initially allying with the Spaniards against their K'iche' enemies. Following the Conquest, the rugged inaccessibility of the Mam region attracted few Spanish colonists. Dominican and, later, Mercedarian friars sought to convert the Mam to Catholicism; although the friars resettled them into mission congregaciones (nucleated Spanish-style towns), aside from demands for tribute and labor and the periodic ravages of Old World epidemic diseases, the Mam remained relatively autonomous. Not until the late nineteenth century, with the expansion of commercial coffee plantations along Guatemala's southern Pacific coast, did Mam become directly incorporated into Guatemala's export economy. Mam nearest the coast lost lands to the expanding coffee plantations, whereas highland Mam were forced into migratory wage labor to harvest the crop. Only in the 1940s, as population growth outstripped available farmland in the highlands, did Mam begin migrating to the plantations of their own accord. In the mid-twentieth century short-lived agrarian and political reforms in Guatemala, and then increasingly repressive military regimes, further disrupted Mam communities. In the 1950s Mam converts to more orthodox Catholicism challenged traditional Mam "folk" religion and community organization. Missionary health, education, and technical programs eventually fostered new leadership and a renewed sense of self-determination in Mam communities. Growing political violence between leftist guerrillas and the Guatemalan government, however, subjected Mam to brutal counterinsurgency warfare during the 1980s. Although they escaped the worst of the massacres, forced resettlement, and militarization suffered by other Maya, the Mam felt caught between two antagonists who demanded their support but cared little about their problems or priorities. In the 1990s the Mam remain second-class citizens in Guatemala—mostly poor subsistence farmers and rural wage laborers—but they have yet to succumb to the dominant Ladino society and seek a better place within it.

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