Prensa Libre interview with Gaspar Pedro González
Actualizado: 20 jul 2019
Gasper Pedro González is a revered Maya author and intellectual. The following is a translation of the interview that was published June 26, 2013 in the Prensa Libre newspaper in Guatemala. To see the original interview click here.
Gaspar Pedro: “I’m a fish out of water”
titulo-prensalibre-print-gustavo-montenegro_PREIMA20130526_0012_31Although Q’anjob’al author, Gasper Pedro González’s books are required reading in several Universities in the United States, he has a current book that is unpublished because he has not been able to find a publisher who is willing to do so. He is not surprised because he knows that in his country the topic has received little attention and when it does receive attention it is in the sense of folklore and stereotypes.
“Our authorities have a narrow vision and over the past decades have been stuck in a singular vision” says González, who left his hometown, San Pedro Soloma, Huehuetenango, at age 12, never forgetting his roots. “They threw my umbilical cord in the fire, and my world revolves around the values I learned there, which are being lost today: the passing on of family values”, he says calmly.
Why is it that your works are known and read more in the U.S. than in your own country?
I’m a Q’ajob’al Maya who has worked hard in the field of Maya identity for 40 years, but there is more interest in the subject abroad that here.
Why is there so little interest in the potentiality of culture?
Our authorities have a narrow vision and get stuck on the artistic focus, such as dances and external expressions: naked children displayed, colorfully adorned, to represent the “ancient Maya,” but nothing more. There is the academic approach, that sees everything as an accumulation of information, and the anthropological approach, which covers all of the cultural characteristics of life in a population: the material, spiritual and social. From drinking a cup of coffee, growing corn or making love.
It is common to hear about the rich culture of Guatemala, but the benefit is not felt.
This is because we have not associated culture with development. Because of ideological visions that have to do with racism and discrimination, the cultural is left only to folklore. This does generate tourism but it is not fully supported. Other countries have done this, they have opted for culture, even with less than what Guatemala has to offer and they have gained more. Look at Costa Rica.
Where do you start?
There should be an academic body to systematize the identification of cultures. I address this in an unpublished book, Culture and Identity, in which I propose that the study of culture must begin in early childhood. It difficult to see, but when these children grow up and become professionals, legislators, and citizens, they will have a broader view.
That sounds very Utopian.
Nothing is impossible. It’s a matter of changing focus, and approach education with an intercultural vision that will promote change.
How did you come to realize this?
I was born in San Pedro Soloma, Hughuetenango in 1945, but I’m a fish out of water, although my umbilical cord is there, I left my town at a young age. I was given a scholarship by some Americans who came to my town, and I don’t know why. I went to primary school in Huehuetenango and it was the first time I left my town. After that I went to boarding school in Quetzaltenango. After completing “bachillerato” I traveled to the capital to go to the university, but I didn’t like it. I was then asked “Do you want to study somewhere else?” I preferred to go to Mexico, to UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), that was around 1965.
Did you find any Guatemalans there at that time?
Actually, no. Perhaps it was because of the structure, which was a boarding school. But I met several famous people. Can you imagine that I spoke with Mario Moreno, Cantinflas, who was very interested in popular culture. I returned to Guatemala in the 1970’s.
What did you work in?
With the government. There was a very nice program in the development of artisanal specialties in Totonicapán with student interns and ten specialties that included weaving, leather and wood working and pottery.
Sometimes it seems that Guatemalan handicrafts have not evolved.
At that time I was the General Director of artisanal development and I established trade with Europe, North and South America. We introduced technology and diversification, but we lacked economic support.
To what extent did the internal armed conflict affect the development of local craftsmanship?
It was dramatic, because one of the methods of violence was the disruption of the craft guilds which make up a large part of the social fabric. I write about the violence in which the indigenous society was broken up in my novel The Return of the Maya. There were associations, cooperatives and groups whose heads were severed and thereby the economy was damaged. The people lost their tools and teachers. When those who knew how to weave or shape clay returned they realized they had forgotten their craft. What was worse, they had lost values such as fellowship, sense of community and respect for their elders.
Will it be possible to recover some of that?
Today people wonder why there are gangs in the villages and that youth do not respect anyone. Because of this I believe that we should undertake the building of a personal identity, the family and community. If a person feels that they are in a cultural vacuum they will take any course.
In your opinion, can there exist a Guatemalan identity as such?
We have to build it, but first we have to stop rejecting the indigenous part that we carry within us. In my book there is a fictional character, a general, who one day looked into the mirror and became furious. He broke the mirror and ordered: “Go and destroy the village,” because he wanted to be seen as European, not the Indian that the image reflected back at him in the mirror.
Memories of his Homeland
He spoke with mountains and Nahuales
Gaspar Pedro González has looked at Nahuales in the face, that is, if they had a face. His umbilical cord was thrown in the hearth fire of the house which created the bond he has with San Pedro Soloma, around which his life and ideas revolve without losing the desire to understand other people.
He loves the word jolobuk’u, which in q’anjob’al means “head of the sun.” The word conjures up how the sun illuminates the highest part of the mountain in front of his home.
He was the last of ten children, he was the “cho’ok,” the youngest.
“We learned to talk to the mountain, to trees and Nahuales who passed through at midnight. These were spirits that some saw as negative, but we saw them in their natural form. They had heads this big – while making a gesture with his hands – they had one eye and a blue light. I don´t know if they are still there” he recalls. Nor does he forget the poverty of the region, which is what motivated the missionaries to send him to study in the provincial capital.
What is more surprising is how his own village has changed: “Economic growth has transformed the village. It is no longer that little village, but this boom has had a high cultural cost. Now you see satellite dishes and four-story houses, thanks to so many members of the community who have gone to the United States, and for this same reason Q’anjob’al is rarely spoken. Young people speak English and Spanish, and they no longer eat ancestral food nor wear their regional dress. But above all they have lost their values of cooperation, brotherhood, and the acceptance of who we are.”
Gaspar Pedro González holds a degree in art from UNAM and has studied multiculturalism. He has written several novels inspired by the the identity and history of the Maya , including their suffering during armed conflicts. Three of his books are available at Artemis: The Return of the Maya; Mayan Words; and Life of a Maya. He has an unpublished essay Culture and Identity.
The Return of the Maya
“I come from there. From a distant past with no name. I no name, nor surname, nor papers, nor identity, nor county, nor land, nor family, nor parents, nor brothers. They were left on the road to different places and times as I continued on, when I left here, from this place called Yichkan, where everything began…I have lost everything, they have torn everything from me. Far from here I left buried my childhood and what they call youth was left buried in the rubbish of a life, like buried weeds.”