Reclaiming History Through Storytelling

August 23, 2012

Aj Poop B’atz’
A statue of Aj Poop B’atz’ sits in Chamelco’s town plaza. (Photo by Rachael Kangas ’11)

Once upon a time, there was a wise, proud leader named Aj Poop B’atz’ (pronounced Ah Pope Bots) who helped the Q’eqchi’ people of the Central Guatemalan highlands maintain their culture and dignity during the sweeping changes of Spanish colonialism.

For nearly 500 years, his legacy impressed colonists, political officials, and local citizens. But when Guatemala’s devastating 36-year civil war began in 1960, the highlands community of San Juan Chamelco found its heritage under attack, with the Maya facing death, torture, and imprisonment for representing their culture. For decades, historical documents and artifacts were hidden, lost, or destroyed. The Q’eqchi’ even stopped teaching Guatemalan history in schools.

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ashley Kistler and her Guatemalan collaborator, Sebastian Si Pop, donate their children’s book to a Guatemalan NGO.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ashley Kistler and her Guatemalan collaborator, Sebastian Si Pop, donate their children’s book to a Guatemalan NGO.

Enter Ashley Kistler, assistant professor of anthropology. During Kistler’s research in the San Juan Chamelco community, people often mentioned Aj Poop B’atz’ and told anecdotes from his reign. The more she learned about the larger-than-life figure, the more she began to see him as a link to the community’s Maya history.

To help the Q’eqchi people reconnect with this cultural hero after their storytelling was silenced during the war, Kistler worked with several Q’eqchi’ leaders to found an Aj Poop B’atz’ holiday. The annual event, which was launched in 2010 and funded by a Rollins College McKean grant, includes a conference, concert, and storytelling.

“Launching this holiday was the result of my collaborative research group in Chamelco and truly a shared effort,” Kistler said. “The community continues to celebrate this holiday on its own.”

Based on the stories and artifacts they gathered from the community members in recent years, Kistler and Sebastian Si Pop, a Q'eqchi' expert on Maya languages, wrote a children’s book (in both Spanish and the Q’eqchi’ language) that narrates the life of Aj Poop B’atz’. With vivid imagery and engaging anecdotes that appeal to all ages, the book highlights the significance of the community’s Maya roots … then and now. Kistler and Si recently donated 500 copies of the book to 40 community organizations and 100 schools in the San Juan Chamelco area.

“Working with the Q’eqchi’ people, we were able to piece together the story of Aj Poop B’atz’ and the way he cooperated with Spanish colonialists without sacrificing the people’s Maya identity,” Kistler said. “His wisdom and diplomacy still inspire people today, and offer a model for maintaining indigenous culture in the 21st century.”

These leadership skills are illustrated by the Q’eqchi’ people’s favorite story about Aj Poop B’atz’, in which he traveled to Spain to meet King Carlos V. To showcase his beloved Q’eqchi’ culture, he brought gifts of colorful quetzal and song birds, as well as intricately woven and embroidered fabrics. When he was presented to the king, the friars who accompanied him demanded that Aj Poop B’atz’ bow. To their surprise, he refused, saying “One king never bows for another king.” But the king was so charmed by his gifts and sense of honor, he returned the favor with treasures such as crosses and golden flags. His journey was a victory for Q’eqchi’ people, who were able to maintain their culture and lifestyle throughout the colonial era.

This story and others are included in the book, which is the culmination of Kistler’s and her colleagues’ continuing research about Maya heritage in Guatemala. In addition to earning media coverage and an outpouring of appreciation from the Q’eqchi’ people, the book has changed the way Kistler approaches ethnographic research.

“As anthropologists, we often develop close ties to communities while conducting research, but forget to share our results with the communities themselves,” Kistler said. “When I returned to Chamelco with the book, I was overwhelmed by the community’s reaction. I realized how important it is to share what you learn with the people who can benefit from it most.”

Thanks to Kistler’s work and the renewed interest of the Q’eqchi’ people, this story of Maya heritage and history has a happy ending.

By Erin Heston

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