Maya Diaspora


Guatemalan Civil War and Genocide History

Guatemala had been riddled with vicious dictators since the late 1800s who played to the desires of the elite, so when the new and reformed government came around in 1944 with promises of equal opportunities for all, the people (especially the native Mayans) backed them. However, part of this plan was that the government controlled most of the property, which meant that the US’s business interests were severely threatened. The US supported a military invasion to overthrow the government. The natives responded both through peaceful protest and guerrilla organizations. As many of these guerrilla armies were associated with Mayans, the military government started targeting Mayan civilians as a way of wiping out the resistance. The height of the killing and the period considered genocide occurred from 1980-1982. They attacked and destroyed 626 villages, killing all the civilians and destroying the culture as they went. Women nor children were spared, rape was common during torture and children were thrown against walls to crush their skulls. The US supported the government through providing arms other supplies.

After the worst period of the genocide, things cooled off a little. In 1986, while the army still had some control, a new constitution was written and power shifted toward the people. Since then, Guatemala has strived to recover from the horrific civil war and genocide. They have created a committee whose purpose is to discover exactly what happened during the darkest two years.

Source: “GENOCIDE – GUATEMALA.” Peace Pledge Union. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 May 2013. <;.

Update: 5/29

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 10.16.39 AM

Here is the latest version of our pyramid! Daniel used 3/4 inch thick laminar pine wood to cut 8 squares starting at 1 foot by 1 foot and decreasing by 1 inch in dimensions until he reached 5 inches by 5 inches.  He used the table saw to cut the squares and gorilla glue to put them together. The last task for the pyramid is to sand off the glue marks on the wood to make the piece look more refined and professional. The next step is to attach the pyramid to a base and add the fountain component. As we have decided that it would be too costly and time consuming, we will not put a working fountain in the model. We will use cardboard or paper material to create the details of the fountain shown in the sketch-up diagram from the last update.

Update: 5/24

This is the newest model for our memorial. We recently decided to make the pyramid the center of a fountain, to enhance the peacefulness and tranquility of the memorial. This is the newest model for our memorial. We recently decided to make the pyramid the center of a fountain, to enhance the peacefulness and tranquility of the memorial.

This is the newest model for our memorial. We recently decided to make the pyramid the center of a fountain, to enhance the peacefulness and tranquility of the memorial.

As a part of our planning process, we decided to switch our model. Instead of having a pyramid with Mayan symbols burned into it, we decided to turn the pyramid into the basis for a fountain. We wanted to make sure the memorial was a place of peace and healing rather than a symbol of what happened. Our initial design focused more on the event itself, but we realized that the goal of the memorial is not simply to remember what happened, but to also find a way to move forward collectively. We feel that the tranquil atmosphere of the fountain will be more toward this goal than the symbolic carvings. Below is our initial design plan, which we will leave on the blog as a significant stage in our process.


Our original design plan with approximations for dimensions.

Initial Memorial Design


We do want to stress that we intend to experiment with our materials and the final memorial may have small and some drastic differences from the proposed idea above.

Materials we expect to need:

  • Cherry wood- reddish hue, red is prominent color in Mayan culture and has obvious implications regarding genocide. We will talk to
    Daniel cuts the wood for the pyramid in the Lick-Wilmerding wood shop

    Daniel cuts the wood for the pyramid in the Lick-Wilmerding wood shop

    Youssou about the Cherry wood, if that doesn’t work out we can use plywood. Around 2 feet of wood (woodshop).

  • Mayan fabric (namely, patterned cloth); possible patterns include diamonds, zigzags, stripes. Distinct bands of vibrant colors (reds, blues, oranges, etc.) vs. simply white/black. We will both check at home for this material, but if we can’t find it me might need to purchase it.
  • Wood burner: We want to use this to carve Maya symbols into the pyramid. We will (hopefully) borrow this from the woodshop.
  • Glue (Mr. Osipoff).
  • 50 wooden toothpicks
  • (Maybe paint)

Location: Potentially, we would place our memorial in a visible urban location with a large Maya population, which, most often, resides within a larger Latino community, such as Los Angeles. Mayas distinguish themselves from ladinos (non-indigenous), whom we consider Hispanics, because indigenous Maya are not, in fact, Hispanic. Too often Mayas are considered one in the same with Hispanics, and this is an oversimplification that should be brought to light and dismantled through our memorial. [Edit: new location decided—see Curatorial Statement]

Update: 6/02

Curatorial Statement:

The Guatemalan genocide, which took place in the early 1980s, consisted of the destruction of 626 Maya villages, the death or disappearance of 200,000 Guatemalan citizens, and the displacement of 1.6 million more. The government, using a “scorched earth” policy, specifically targeted and razed the Maya villages in a plan called “Operation Sofia” because, the government believed, the villages harbored Communist rebels and were therefore Communist sympathizers. While there are several memorials within Guatemala City dedicated to the 200 thousand slaughtered in the early 1980s, in the form of official government sponsored memorials and other private installations, there are few to no visible memorials commemorating the struggle of the displaced Maya populations who fled throughout Central and North America. Maya people have incredibly strong ties to their land and their history, distinct from a national identity, much less a mere Latino identity. Further, as American students, we recognize that the U.S. government had a significant role in the genocide, supporting monetarily and militarily the regime that carried out Operation Sofia. Therefore, the struggle of the Maya diaspora, specifically those in the U.S., was a central question to the design of our memorial.


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin.

The principal construct of our memorial consists of a square pyramid in the image of ancient Maya temples. We have found the most effective memorials to be the simplest—for instance, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, a vast grid of concrete monoliths, particularly moved us and lacks symbolism all together. Memorials of genocide are best not intellectualized. The Maya temple is a simple and understated monument, with Maya heritage implicit in its tiered limestone, which is the most abundant and easily mined rock found in the Americas and, for this reason, used for the Maya temples. Accordingly, the monument will ideally be built of limestone (for our model we chose wood as a cheap and readily available material from our school’s woodshop). A waterproof coating or an alternative to limestone may be necessary to avoid erosion.

Updated SketchUp Design

Updated SketchUp Design

Certainly, that our memorial is of a culturally-founded design invites symbolism and representation unlike that of Berlin. We do not wish to resolve all the symbolism that might be construed from the memorial, except the following: the chamber atop the pyramid will be a monolith, made of a different, heavy rock (perhaps marble), commemorating in solemn solidarity the murdered Maya of the genocide. From this chamber water will cascade down the steps of the temple into the fountain below, our analog to the Maya diaspora, who have been distanced from their home, and their heritage diluted.

In our class this semester, we have spent much time on the behavioral trichotomy within genocide of victim, perpetrator, and bystander. The U.S., as the presiding power in the Western Hemisphere, has often acted simultaneously in the latter two capacities during its diplomacy with its Central and South American neighbors. Though we stated above that a memorial should not be intellectualized, we do take some liberty in political commentary. An overt symbol denouncing the hypocrisy and dismissiveness of the U.S., we thought, would be ineffective and unnecessary. President Clinton was the first president to formally apologize for our nation’s involvement in the genocide, but it is a recognition that bears repeating. Our subtle remembrance of America’s involvement in the Guatemalan genocide lies in our memorial’s placement: within our nation’s capital, arguably the world’s political capital, where negligent politicians not only permitted but funded mass murder of a helpless indigenous population, reminding that great power bears great responsibility.

However, we stress that a memorial is not a place for bitterness or resentment against perpetrators, bystanders, and flawed institutions, but for the remembrance of victims and reconciliation of history. Our monument does not draw attention to individuals or paint ghastly images of the atrocities. We chose to make the pyramid the center of a fountain to promote a cathartic environment for the many Maya in the unfortunate position of living in the very country that condemned them to death while struggling to maintain a grasp on their proud heritage. These people often live with the knowledge that while they survived, their friends and loved ones and homes perished.


We hope that visitors to our memorial will learn the importance of all genocide victims. In the face of such horror and tragedy, it is easy to forget the less affected. Nonetheless, their struggle is significant. We have discussed this year that genocide is more than physical; it entails the destruction of a racial and cultural identity that can be as disembodying as death, and this is the crisis that displaced Maya face. There is no “choice” to move on, but constant struggles with assimilation and intense guilt of survival. Maya immigrants are oft-neglected victims of the Guatemalan genocide, and these survivors should not be forgotten.


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