Indigenous Drama Endures Test of Time

February 4, 2005

RABINAL, Guatemala – Dancersshade their eyes from the early morninglight reflecting brilliantly off the whitewalls of the town’s church in this aridregion of central Guatemala.Performers dressed in rainbow-striped,traditional dress and brightly paintedwooden masks lounge and chat as theywait for the music to start. Others standaround with tall, feathered adornmentsstrapped to their backs.A flock of cultural anthropologists,journalists and curious tourists set up camerasand recording equipment as the three-manband strikes up a tinkling melody ona wooden marimba. The music brings thedancers to life, as they begin to hop andtwirl.THIS is the annual festival of SanPablo, Rabinal’s patron saint.The highlight of the celebration is theancient theatrical rendition of the RabinalAchí dance, considered to be the onlywritten pre-Hispanic drama still performedtoday.The celebration, held in late January,has become a major focus for national andinternational investigators of Mayan traditionand culture.And the Rabinal Achí dance is a candidatefor the United Nations’ cultural heritagedesignation.THROUGH a combination of ceremony,dance, music and dialogue in the AchíMayan language, the drama represents a territorialconflict that existed more than 500years ago between the K’iche’ people andthe Achí K’iche’ people of Rabinal.In the story, a K’iche’ warrior is capturedby an Achí warrior after plunderingthe territory of the Rabinal people, and kidnappingthe Achí chief, Ajau Hob Toj.The K’iche’ warrior chooses to dierather than be humiliated. He is granted aseries of final wishes, one of which hecashes in for a dance with the beautifulprincess, U Chuch Gug.The performance is part of a larger andmore complex tradition of Mayan andCatholic ceremonies, illustrating the religioussynchronism that has evolved sincethe arrival of the Spanish. The drama isperformed as homage to the patron saint,San Pablo, as well as the Achí ancestorsand Mayan deities.THE ceremony is performed imperviousto outside distractions, and withoutconsideration to acoustics.The performers don’t complain – oreven seem to notice – when photographerskneel among the dancers to get a bettershot, or when drunks stumble through theartistic street reenactment. The actors’ dialogue,already muffled by their masks, isall but lost to the mercantile din of thenearby market.“What’s important is the action, notwhether the public observes it or not,”explained Magdalena Morales, who isresearching the drama for a Guatemalantheater group.For much of its known history, theRabinal Achí was not performed publicly.In 1625 the Catholic Church prohibitedthis ceremony and other traditional Indiandances, forcing the drama underground formore than 200 years.It didn’t surface again until 1862,when a French priest persuaded the performersto present the dance in public infront of the town church.The tradition was repressed again duringthe 1980s, when political violencerocked Rabinal and other nearby communities.The performance wasn’t fullyrevived again until recently, following the1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords thatended the country’s 36-year civil war.Now the drama is performed everyJanuary in conjunction with the town’sannual fair.FOR José León, 70, the Rabinal Achíhas become an integral part of life.Léon performed the role of K’iche’Achí for 40 years before taking over asdirector of the drama in 1985.“When I acted, I felt as if the characterthat I was representing took hold of me,as if I weren’t acting, as if I really were thatperson,” he said.Now he patiently works with thenew performers, cuing the actors on theirlines and correcting the young drummer’srhythm, in the hopes that theyoung Achí people will continue to keepthe tradition alive.But the drama is now facing a newthreat: a lack of resources and governmentsupport.According to Luis Tiburcio, directorof UNESCO in Guatemala, if it isdeclared international cultural heritage,the Guatemalan government would beobliged to develop plans for protectingand preserving the drama.

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