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The Mayan in the Mall: Globalization, Development, and the Making of Modern Guatemala

The Mayan in the Mall: Globalization, Development, and the Making of Modern Guatemala

by J. T. Way
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In The Mayan in the Mall, J. T. Way traces the creation of modern Guatemala from the 1920s to the present through a series of national and international development projects. Way shows that, far from being chronically underdeveloped, this nation of stark contrasts—where shopping malls and multinational corporate headquarters coexist with some of the Western Hemisphere's poorest and most violent slums—is the embodiment of globalized capitalism.

Using a wide array of historical and contemporary sources, Way explores the multiple intersections of development and individual life, focusing on the construction of social space through successive waves of land reform, urban planning, and economic policy. His explorations move from Guatemala City's poorest neighborhoods and informal economies (run predominantly by women) to a countryside still recovering from civil war and anti-Mayan genocide, and they encompass such artifacts of development as the modernist Pan-American Highway and the postmodern Grand Tikal Futura, a Mayan-themed shopping mall ringed by gated communities and shantytowns. Capitalist development, Way concludes, has dramatically reshaped the country's physical and social landscapes—engendering poverty, ethnic regionalism, and genocidal violence—and positioned Guatemala as a harbinger of globalization's future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822351313
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/16/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

J. T. Way is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Georgia State University.

Read an Excerpt


Globalization, Development, and the Making of Modern Guatemala
By J. T. WAY

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5120-7

Chapter One

"Like Sturdy Little Animals"

Making the Modern Anti-Modern, 1920s–1944

Guatemalan modernity is paradoxical. The nation's landscape embraces malls like Grand Tikal Futura and mountain villages where no light bulb has ever shone. Its labor and wage structures are at once futuristic and anachronistic, showing where transnational corporate capital, if unchecked, is headed but simultaneously reproducing racist, colonial peonage. Guatemala, enigmatic, cutting-edge, and caught in time like a bug in amber, is the land of the modern anti-modern.

Even the busiest urban spaces can seem anti-modern in Guatemala. In part this is thanks to their chaotic organization. Mostly, though, it's due to race—to the presence of the ethnic other, the Maya, whose very bodies stand emblematically for the past. Consider La Sexta, or Sixth Avenue, the main commercial boulevard of zone 1, the city's historic center. In the early twentieth century, La Sexta was the city's most luxurious strip—a history that an urban remodeling project in 2010 and 2011 has tried to recapture. Before its facelift in the new millennium, La Sexta had been an iconic lowbrow street market for decades. Its sidewalks were lined with vendors' kiosks, each equipped with blasting boombox and offering cheap Asian Walkmans, fake Duracells, knockoff Nikes, bootlegged cds, and maquiladora-made clothes. Only a footpath separated the stalls and the storefronts, and it overflowedwith humanity.

The stores, like the vendors, did a bustling business, even those that sold exactly the same chafa (junk) that those outside were hawking, their fluorescent interiors adding value in the form of distinction. Other commercial fixtures included Payless Shoes, McDonald's, and Burger King. The portal of Electra Stereo served as a shelter for homeless paupers addicted to sniffing glue. There were several centros comerciales, precursors to the modern mall, and cinemas with Hollywood's latest. One porn theater featured b-grade Italian smut. Cantinas abounded, and in some of them the neighborhood drag queens could be heard bragging about how many of the vending campesinos they had bagged. And rounding out the local commerce were retailers on foot: shoeshine boys, gum and candy sellers, and men pushing Coke and ice cream carts as they hollered promotions for their wares.

Before a team of Guatemalans had managed to "rescue" the historic center and Sexta Avenida, I asked one rich man what was so wrong with the area. He gestured widely: "Them." The street vendors. "Indians," the gesture said. "They're why no one goes there," this man told me.

In fact, no one went there at night. When the vendors rolled their boxes off on dollies toward the shantytowns at sundown, La Sexta died a sudden death. Only the sounds of street fights and occasional pops of gunfire broke the stillness. By day, however, the area provided entertainment and low-cost shopping for thousands of lower- and middle-class families. Many of the postmodern planners who were clamoring to remake the district and who continue to opine on urban development overlook the culture and commerce of the "popular class," envisioning instead a future exemplified by Grand Tikal Futura. Theirs is a first-world future that effaces the local and enshrines the global. They see the Mayan in the mall, a commercial universe in which Sexta Avenida's brown-skinned "them" couldn't hope for a better job, ever, than starvation-wage service work. Their racism, their U.S.-influenced vision of the future, and even the shape of the social landscape they seek to transform are all elements of specific modernist, internationally influenced developments in Guatemala.

Race, just as much as Guatemala's adherence to its status as agroexporter, conditioned the nation's modernism and affected its culture of development. Race serves as the thread that connects the national imaginary that emerged from the 1920s and the new labor movement, born in the same decade, that has had cultural and political impact ever since. Notions of race affected the nation's marketing of itself abroad, its relationship with other countries and international movements, and even its perceived position in a burgeoning hemispheric system dominated by the United States. Finally, racial ideas, labor patterns, and demographics were integral to Guatemala's institution-building and infrastructure-building projects and help in part to illuminate the underlying continuity behind the shocking swings in the style of modernism from the 1920s to the end of the Second World War.

Sea changes in Guatemalan modernism were marked by outbreaks of violence. The years from 1920 to 1944, key in Guatemala's process of globalization, began and ended with democratic revolutions. Overall, these years show a trajectory from romantic to reactionary modernism. In 1920 a cross-class popular movement dating to devastating earthquakes in late 1917 and early 1918 overthrew the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920). This democratic movement heralded an era of ebullient and idealistic romantic modernism that lasted through the presidencies of Carlos Herrera (1920–21), José María Orellana (1921–26), and Lázaro Chacón (1926–30). Political chaos ensued when Chacón fell ill, and, ultimately, Jorge Ubico (1931–44) was elected. At the end of the first year of his term, Ubico began establishing himself as dictator. The nation moved into an age of "reactionary modernism," a term I borrow, as noted, from Jeffrey Herf's book on Germany during Weimar and the Third Reich. Herf argues that the Germans combined antimodernist "inwardness" with modernist "means-end rationality" and technology, a phenomenon also seen in Guatemala as the oppressive Ubico state appropriated and retooled the effervescent ideas and politics of the 1920s.

The anti-modern—or the myriad ways in which the Guatemalan landscape, culture, material culture, society, and economy reference and look like the past—is in fact fully modern, and much of what gives daily life its seemingly anti-modern texture unfolded as part of the modernizing process itself. Pausing from time to time to contrast the present and the past, I want to turn back the clock to 1920. At that time La Sexta, until recently most notable for its Mayan street vendors, occupied a very different space in the national imaginary. So too did the country's indigenous citizens.

"La Patria Nueva": Romantic Modernism, Mysticism, and Marketing the Maya

La Sexta's architecture is charming. Largely rebuilt in the 1920s and 1930s after a series of earthquakes wrecked the city in 1917–18, its structures show an aesthetic of nostalgic colonial folkloricism mixed with arts-and-crafts and art-deco idioms. The buildings bespeak the romantic modernism of the cultural and commercial elite in the twenties and early thirties. Sextear was the verb they coined for strolling along the avenue. Sexteando meant enjoying luxury stores, hotels, and restaurants, watching foreign films in palatial theaters, and even showing off the nation's first automobiles in a low-speed cruise.

The romantic modernism of the long 1920s (ca. 1918–31) left sociopolitical traces that, like La Sexta's buildings, still grace the landscape today. For example, the era saw the maturation of an ideology of biological vitalism, the sort of life philosophy alluded to in Crimolém's introduction: "LIFE microscopic, seed so fecund in your developing." Elite thinkers teamed their life philosophy with mystic spiritism, and politically with anti-imperialist Hispanic Pan-Americanism. Like their upper-class counterparts, workers were protagonists in this period of political opening. They organized the nation's first militant unions. In so doing they drew on numerous international discourses of social justice and working-class identity and solidarity.

All of these modernisms conditioned anti-modern Guatemala. All were imbued with notions of race, and all affected how different sectors, later to go to war, imagined the nation. The vitalism and spiritism of the generation of the 1920s, for example, later reappeared in the army high command's biological nationalism, a major contributing factor to its scorched-earth genocide against the Maya in the 1980s. Through the mechanisms of commerce and media, life force and spirit appeared in pop culture, in the marketing of the Maya, and in the commodifying of a national imaginary for the tourism industry. At the same time, anti-imperialism and Latin Pan- Americanism influenced two revolutionary generations, those of the 1940s and the 1960s, both of whom correctly identified the racism embedded in the imperial mission of the United States but failed to overcome its effects either in Guatemalan society or in their own organizations. Indeed, throughout the long haul of social space creation in the 1900s, modernist and progressive elites and workers alike consistently reproduced the great Guatemalan divide—Maya/Ladino—even when they sought specifically to erase it.

In the 1920s the elites drew on U.S. racist images of servitude even as they picked up on an image of Mayan glamour, itself created abroad. La Sexta's famous stores, both foreign-owned and national alike, used Sambo images in their ads. The National Tobacco Company depicted a boy in blackface carting a giant pack of cigarettes on his back, in an image strangely reminiscent of Mayan porters hauling firewood with tumplines.

During the same era, the international marketing invention of Guatemala as Mundo Maya was underway. Peasant Mayan themes were a hit as early as 1917, when Wanamaker's department store in New York City exhibited Mayan pyramids of yore and primitive huts of today together with purses and parasols for sale. In Guatemala, meanwhile, both ancient Mayans and indígenas, or Indians barely associated with this glorious past, were the subject of much elite discussion. In the 1920s elite media, touting the Patria Nueva, or New Nation, often portrayed the Mayan woman as the harbinger of a modern era. She appeared in newspapers and magazines as a flapper, her traditional Mayan skirt and blouse, or traje, redrawn with Jazz Age flare.

Over time, part of the allure of the elite's imagined Maya would be their claim to an esoteric spirituality. Years later, in 1947, for example, Acacia, the magazine of the Great Masonic Lodge of Guatemala, would report that the Popul Vuh, the Mayan creation myth, was the basis of western Masonry. By the end of the twentieth century the bond between Mayan spirituality and esoteric wisdom would be complete, and the whole discursive conglomeration would go down market. Tourists today can pay to become certified Mayan shamans, and no holiday in Guatemala is complete without a visit to a shrine of Maximón, a trickster saint who grants favors in return for liquor, cigars, and a tip. Maximón has accompanied the New Age into contemporary pop culture. In 2003 El Globo, a penny-press tabloid, featured a piece called "Maximón: The Most Unusual Saint." Also in its mix were articles on Jennifer Lopez's dreams, time–space travel, artificial intelligence and telepathy, and coverage of the capital's crime scene, including a feature on the discovery of a decapitated corpse. In the same year, Esotérika, a paper devoted specifically to the New Age (the "t" in its title is drawn as an Egyptian ankh cross), went on sale. Besides providing numerology and horoscopes and interpreting dreams—of seeing pigs copulate or of eating excrement—the paper promoted Mayan seers like Don Miguel Sontay of El Quiché and Maximón alike.

Esoteric spirituality was all the rage among the elite in the 1920s, but the highbrow romantic modernists still looked toward Europe, not to their own indigenous backyard. The decade saw a florescence of the theosophy movement, a mysticism teamed with modernist thinking but deeply rooted in centuries of spiritual tradition and decades of liberal discourse. Theosophical lodges sprang up at a rapid clip, lodges like "Gnosis," founded in the capital in 1923. Their proponents, among them Carlos Wyld Ospina, the editor of the magazine Brahma-Vidya, billed the movement as both modernist and rooted in ancient wisdom and secret knowledge.

The theosophy and spiritism of the 1920s crossed paths with European vitalist philosophy, popularizing a biological language of nationalism that within a generation would be found more in the military than in any other sector. Theosophical magazines like Epoca, published by Rodolfo Leiva and Ospina, made frequent reference to metaphysics and phenomenology. Epoca's premiere issue credited Immanuel Kant with having opened the Western way to understanding hidden wisdom but lavished most of its attention on Arthur Schopenhauer. A piece entitled "Theosophical Attitude" quoted Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, evoked the new and stylish Freudian psychology, and, through a series of illogical leaps, brought the reader from Schopenhauer's thesis (watered down such that knowledge equals representation) to the more advanced Cosmic Reality and Supreme Truth. Like the new European—modernist, nationalist, and, in many circles, fascist—the new Guatemalan and the Patria Nueva were infused with spirit and endowed with a pulsing, biological energy. An article from 1929 in El Imparcial, "The New Guatemalan" by Fernando E. Sandoval, itself leading with a quotation from Schopenhauer, sums up the genre:

Within Guatemalan social biology a new type has arisen, whose characteristics make him the sign that the environment is transforming. He has no more harmony with the past than that which a root has with the earth from which it draws its juice. The vital atmosphere that is the prevalent feature of his development will be adapted to his own modalities. Life in and of itself is no more than the double-dealing of a reciprocal adaptation: of beings to the environment and of the environment to beings....

The two poles around which the personality of the new Guatemalan revolves are: dissatisfaction and creative will.... Change with the times or perish, such is the formula.... [But] it is not this postulate nor any other that would make the force of the new Guatemalan focus ... [rather,] it is the profound force that derives from instinct, and that whispers in the ear of the chosen, and the impulses, like a spur on a bridled beast—a force that crystallizes in the phrase "national survival."

Creative will and irrational force were the buzzwords of a generation. Elite thinkers challenged the positivism of the last half century, even as they revitalized (pun intended) its liberalism. Throughout the decade and into the early 1930s public intellectuals followed European modernism with great interest. Pieces covered the life and ideas of Benito Mussolini, the futurism of Filippo Tomassio Marinetti, cubism, surrealism, and the writings of Jean Cocteau. In particular, David Vela, the once and future editor of El Imparcial, the nation's main newspaper for some fifty years, attempted to introduce a generation to high intellectualism. Besides promoting European thought, Vela espoused a Hispanic Pan-Americanism with a long history, its proponents ranging from Simón Bolívar to José Martí to the Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó. Rodó's enormously influential publication Ariel (1900), written in the wake of the Spanish-American War, used the characters Ariel and Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest to contrast the civilized, spiritual nature of Latin America (Ariel) with the brute mass capitalism of the United States (Caliban).

Even as intellectual elites looking abroad espoused a biological Pan-Hispanic Americanism that included the indigenous in ways mostly imaginary, the United States, itself no stranger to racism, was promoting a different Pan-Americanism. Theirs was one of a business culture, made operational through the Pan-American Union (PAU) and promoted at the grass roots by organizations like Rotary International and the Lions Clubs. Early in the 1920s, the PAU initiated the Pan-American Highway project, promoted in propaganda as a vehicle for tourism, a road to international harmony, and a route to development. By 1927 Rotary had founded a tourist club in Guatemala City that advocated for highway construction and offered discounts on hotels and restaurants. Within a few years the club was making arrangements for Thomas Cook and American Express travelers' checks to be accepted. In 1930 the PAU was proudly reporting that Central American service workers could say "hotel," "baggage," and "I'm your man."


Excerpted from THE MAYAN IN THE MALL by J. T. WAY Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. Grand Tikal Futura: "Putting the Mayan in the Mall" 1

1 "Like Sturdy Little Animals": Making the Modern Anti-Modern, 1920S-1944 13

2 Chaos and Rationality: The Dialectic of the Guatemalan Ghetto 41

3 Oficios de su Sexo: Gender, the Informal Economy, and Anticommunist Development 67

4 Making the Immoral Metropolis: Infrastructure, Economics, and War 94

5 Executing Capital: Green Revolution, Genocide, and the Transition to Neoliberalism 124

6 A Society of Vendors: Contradictions and Everyday Life in the Guatemalan Market 152

7 Cuatro Gramos Norte: Fragmentation and Concentration in the Wake of Victory 181

Appendix. A Grass-roots List of Transnationals in Guatemala, circa 1978 210

Notes 217

Glossary 277

Bibliography 279

Index 301

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