Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mayanization in action: erasing Pech history

A story that caught my eye today, from the Bulgarian site FOCUS Information Agency (billing itself as "the first Bulgarian private information agency" and "the most preferred Bulgarian electronic media both in Bulgaria and abroad"), simultaneously illustrates the complexity of Honduran cultural history, and the narrowing effects of what historian Dario Euraque has dubbed mayanization: the collapse of all the diversity of Honduras' pluralistic indigenous heritage into one category, as generalized "Maya".

The story reports on an initiative by the "Friendship Society Bulgaria – Honduras" who will be traveling to La Ceiba, a city on the north coast of Honduras, east of San Pedro Sula. There, they say, is found the only river in the world named after their native country, the Rio Bulgaria:
Inquiries have shown that a Bulgarian community has been living in the Central American country for 100 years. At the beginning of 20 century they discovered an unknown river and named it Bulgaria in honor of their native country.

That brought me only a moment's pause. While I had no previous knowledge of a Bulgarian immigrant population, the North Coast is incredibly diverse, and waves of immigrants around the turn of the 20th century were drawn there by the business opportunities created by internationalization of the banana industry.

The expedition will bring Honduran photographers Nimer Alvarado and Mervin Corales to trace the course of this river from its headwaters near Tegucigalpita (a small town, not the capital city), as it runs from Pico Bonito, one of Honduras' astonishing national parks, to La Ceiba.

So far, so good. The article notes that the photographic trek is
carried out in cooperation with the culture center in La Ceiba.

This is one of the local "Casas de Cultura", an initiative pushed forward under former Minister of Culture Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle beginning in his first term in that position between 1994 and 1996. Casas de Cultura are intended to encourage public participation in the exploration of specifically local histories. It would seem like nothing could be more localized than a coherent Bulgarian community with sufficient sense of national origin to lead them to name a local landmark in memory of that country.

But wait:
The photographs taken will be displayed in an exhibition called Rio Bulgaria – the Bulgarian Presence in the Land of Maya [emphasis added]
So in what sense were Bulgarians living near La Ceiba "in the land of the Maya"? None, really.

We do know quite a lot about the prehispanic people of the north coast of Honduras. They lived in towns, the largest of which probably had populations of a few thousand people, whose remains are recognizable as mounds today, mapped by archaeologists visiting the area since the first half of the 20th century. At least one large archaeological site is directly adjacent to La Ceiba itself, although not developed for visitation. Based on ceramics, it probably dated to the Classic period-- more or less 500-1000 AD. And, also based on these ceramics, the people living near La Ceiba were not the same as the people of Copan, who we refer to today as Maya.

Who were the people living near La Ceiba? To answer that question, we enter into speculative territory, and need to take into account how archaeologists know who lived anywhere. The common approach is to take the people who Europeans described in the 16th century as most likely descendants of those who had lived in the same place earlier. Notice that this means we assume that people stayed in place, unless there is some strong evidence that they moved; this conservative assumption can sometimes be misleading.

But if we take this common approach, then the likely people of the area around La Ceiba would be the ancestors of the indigenous group today known as Pech, previously called Paya. Pech are recognized as the indigenous people who occupied the island of Roatan in the sixteenth century. The northeast coast opposite the Bay Islands was the earliest focus of Spanish occupation, including massive slave raiding of the indigenous population. This began a long history of depletion of Pech population, including forced resettlement and voluntary movement away from exploitation.

The surviving Pech are among the indigenous groups officially recognized by the State of Honduras, under ILO 160, the Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries of 1989, which was ratified in 1995. According to Minority Rights Group International (MRG), an NGO tracking global diversity, today there are about 2000 Pech who
have resisted total assimilation and, under the national bilingual programme, have developed Pech-language courses and Pech teachers.

In fact, you can find a YouTube video of Pech children singing the Honduran national anthem in translation.

Does it matter that a promotional notice of a pretty bizarre "cultural" exchange between Bulgaria, of all places, and Honduras, erases the historical connection of Pech to the land they once occupied, and replaces it with a generalized "Maya" identity?

Well, yes, it does. Cultural diversity has been a focus of struggle in Honduras for decades. In these struggles, the erasure of other pasts and their replacement with a single Maya past breaks connections between contemporary people and the territory they once occupied. It can lead to investment in understanding one valued indigenous culture to the exclusion of understanding the others that Honduras recognizes. And it undermines attempts fostered by some Honduran intellectuals to forge a national identity that recognizes historical complexity for a nation today working to accommodate various forms of difference.

As MRG puts it
For most of its post-independence history the culture of national unity forged by the state has been on the basis of a mestizo ideal... As a consequence traditional indigenous and minority populations have historically been marginalized, ignored or discriminated against....

This despite the fact that
Unlike other countries of the region, in the 1980s Honduras officially recognized the multicultural composition of its society and the need to protect the economic, cultural and human rights of its ethnic peoples. This helped to create an official space for indigenous and minority populations to work towards having their rights recognized and their needs addressed.
So yes, it matters when a photographic exhibition planned to be shown nationally and internationally erases local identity. And it is especially ironic when this takes place in the context of re-discovering the complexity of European heritages of modern Honduras.

A historical footnote: the erasure of Pech identity and its replacement by Maya identity has a long literary history.

When Christopher Columbus made his only landfall on the mainland of the Americas in 1502, it was on the north coast of Honduras, across from the Bay Islands-- that is, in the region of La Ceiba. He had first captured a canoe off the island of Guanaja, which, like Roatan, was likely inhabited by Pech speaking people. Most reports today identify the canoe as "Maya traders", ignoring the original accounts, written closest to the time of the incident. These clearly identify the canoe as coming from one of the islands, and its passengers as local people.

Most pernicious, modern accounts base the identification of this canoe on a sixteenth-century general historian, Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, who wrote that
this vast region [the mainland of northern Honduras] is divided into two parts, one called Taïa and the other called Maïa
Or, that is what he is said to have written. In fact, the manuscript of his book clearly has "Païa", not "Taïa", the name previously used for the people who call themselves Pech.


phoenixwoman said...

Hey, there are Canadian people living in Honduras, too. Maybe Cultural Tourism can name the effluent from Pineapple Villas in Roatan "El Rio Canadiense" and use that as a hook to get tour groups from Alberta.

The Bulgarians among the Maya is too funny.

What happened to the Pech, not so much.

RAJ said...

Tenacity pays off: I have found a trace of Bulgarian immigration to Honduras. Bulgaria was recognized as an independent country in 1908, formerly incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. If we took the note in the original article seriously, then our search for La Ceiba's Bulgarian barrio should begin ca. 1910.

And indeed, an (unsourced) account in Spanish by the promoter of the Rio Bulgaria expedition claims that the original Bulgarians came to La Ceiba as labor recruited by the Italian-ownede Standard Fruit Company between 1903 and 1920.

But that does not match my best available source on European migration to Honduras (available in snippet view in Google Books).

This is from Arab and Jewish Immigrants in Latin America, an article by the indispensable historian, Dario Euraque, "Arab and Jewish Economic Presence in San Pedro Sula, the Industrial Capital of Honduras: Formative Years, 1880s-1930s" (pp. 94-124).

Euraque notes that the first attempts to encourage immigration to Honduras from Europe date to 1866. In Table 5 of his study (page 104), the 1910 European foreign population of Honduras, numbering a little more than 6000 individuals, came from Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

All Eastern European population is grouped together, and doesn't register at all until 1926, with a single immigrant from Poland. So much for the Bulgarian population supposed to be in La Ceiba a century ago.

A note on Table 5 points out Eastern Europeans may well be primarily composed of Jewish immigrants to Honduras. Jewish immigration, Euraque shows, reached a peak between 1921 and 1935, coming primarily from Germany, Russia, and Poland. Other Eastern European countries were represented: the prominent Rosenthal family is supposed to have emigrated from Rumania. By 1930, however, not even 100 Eastern Europeans were counted in the Honduran census. Euraque does not mention any specific immigrants from Bulgaria at this point.

But the 1945 census, which lists a grand total of 98 Eastern Europeans in Honduras, includes Bulgarians as one of the two largest individual groups, with 28 identified Honduran residents (two less than Poland's total of 30). So we can place the immigration of Bulgarians between 1926 and 1945.

1945 is the first year where a separate census category for Jewish immigrants is included (130). Euraque points out that religious cultural identity is not clear for those listed by their national origin. So the fascinating question remains, were the Bulgarians of La Ceiba Jewish immigrants?

This sent me to the book Los judios en Honduras, by Jorge Alberto Amaya Banegas, which I am pleased to say is also available in preview on Google books. While he does not discuss Bulgarian Jewish immigration in detail, he includes Bulgaria among the countries of origin for Ashkenazim immigration to Honduras in the last century (p. 131).

Jeff said...

Doesn't Chapman suggest that precolumbian Tolpán (Xicaque) territory extended as far east as Trujillo? I can't remember whether that was supposed to be based on her review of archival evidence or on Newson; I do know that Holt, citing Newson, says the same. Given that Holt's dissertation was on Pech language, I would hope he gets this one right.

Of course, at this point,the closest self-identifying Tol would be in one of the eastern tribes of Yoro and the closest self-identifying Pech would be somewhere near Dulce Nombre de Culmí, neither of which is really in the vicinity of La Ceiba. I guess that's the sort of thing that makes it easy to say you're in Maya Country and not have anyone contradict you. I suppose there has been at least some archaeological work in the La Ceiba... is there any particular element that matches up with Pech material culture? I'll say upfront that I am mostly in the dark as to what that would look like for the Pech, but if you put any stock in the stories of La Ciudad Blanca, you could look for stone buildings, I guess.

Addressing the message of the post itself, I would just like to say that I appreciate the anyone pointing out and justly criticizing the Mayanization of the various Honduran indigenous groups. Keep calling it out wherever you see it; I look forward to hearing more about any and all of the Honduran ethnicities in their own right.

RAJ said...

Two comments to reply: You are right on both Chapman and Newsom. But I disagree with them both. Start with the assumption that there are discrete, non-overlapping territories; add the assumption that the Tol were on the coast (instead of being inland with Pech on the coast). Then add to all of that the fact that they tend to treat "Jicaque" in early sources as unambiguously a reference to the Tol (as opposed to a relational term for unconquered indigenous; we actually have a wonderful document from the 17th century that refers to jicaque from Chetumal); and we end up with attempts to draw neat territories that all have coast included, are non-overlapping, and assign a specific ethnic identity to a relational term.

My beginning point for the sixteenth century is the 1502 Columbus account, which really assigns the canoe as passing from the Bay Islands to the coast; Pedro Martir, which has the word "Paia", mis-transliterated as "Taia"; and Cortes' letter, taken to refer to the area around the mouth of the Aguan. The simplest way to resolve these earliest documents is to see the Bay Islands as having cultural continuity with the coast from Aguan to Trujillo. But that cultural continuity, I would argue, was likely pluralistic linguistically and possibly culturally/ethnically, possibly Pech and Tol intermingled.

RAJ said...

Now, as for archaeology, given the above, it probably comes as no surprise that I am dubious about simple one-to-one connections between material and language/ethnic identity. Stone buildings are found throughout Honduras, and into Nicaragua-- one of the most shocking things for me as an archaeologist is reading online encyclopedias that describe the people of central and eastern Honduras as nomadic or hunter-gatherers, when all the evidence we have is that from 1000 BC or earlier, there were agricultural villages everywhere. Ballcourts have been mapped as far east as Dulce Nombre de Culmi. Construction techniques and plans vary somewhat across time and space but not in such a way that they would indicate the boundaries of different ethnic groups. (I don't believe in Ciudad Blanca, by the way-- although I do know that real archaeological work has mapped large sites in eastern Honduras.)

The main thing normally used to discriminate between supposed prehispanic peoples is style of material culture, primarily from the Classic period (500-1000 AD) because that is the best studied period. Which is fine-- there is a painted pottery style typical of Copán and western El Salvador, Copador; and there is a different style, Ulua Polychrome, just to the east; and then other styles east again (Sulaco Polychrome, San Marcos Polychrome). The preferences for forms of vessels and styles of decoration do mean something, and we can take that as signs of interaction.

But associating that with language is another thing. For Copán, we know that something like ancestral Chorti was written in Classic inscriptions, implying some use of the language (although not necessarily exclusive use). At the same time, the area from the lower Ulua Valley (Sula Valley today) to Comayagua and into central El Salvador, where there were no carved stone inscriptions, but produced Ulua Polychromes. That happens to correspond pretty well to the core area of Lenca speakers documented since the Spanish Conquest.

Moving east of that, to Yoro and Colón, it would be nice to be able to point to two more very distinct pottery styles. But it doesn't quite work that way. In a broad sense, this area (including the Bay Islands) uses polychrome jars, not cylinders; but there are many different variants, not just two (Pech and Tol). I conducted archaeological research in Yoro, near modern El Negrito and Cataguana, where the local style was distinct from even the areas north and south over the mountains, and these in turn were different from one another. The coastal stretch and Bay Islands do seem to have had similar pottery to each other-- not just between 500-1000 AD, but into the following period (1000-1521 AD).

Which is a long-winded way of saying, archaeologically, the north coast from the Aguan to Trujillo and extending into the Bay Islands looks quite uniform; while inland in Yoro, things look different. So my working model is that Tol were inland, Paya on the coast, acknowledging that they may well have mingled.

Jeff said...

Thank you for for both of the thorough replies. I had wondered for some time about the basis for extending Tol territory that far east. I agree that viewing the situation as two distinct, non-overlapping groups related to the (only) two languages that happen to survive in the area is a gross oversimplification. On the other hand, there is surprisingly little linguistic evidence (that has been recognized so far, anyway) for the sort of extensive contact that you imply.

I was aware of use of "Jicaque" to refer to all sorts of groups in the area, but I couldn't remember what evidence Chapman and Newsom gave for extending Tol influence that far east. It never occurred to me that they may have been led astray by the "Jicaque" problem.

I found your comments on pottery styles particularly fascinating, and I am not at all surprised to learn that the evidence suggests a vastly more complicated situation.

I had heard (from rumors, popular Honduran press, etc.) that ballcourts had been found all the way out into Olancho, but I am glad to have that confirmed by someone who knows. The ballcourts sound like they are roughly coextensive with known linguistic influence by major Mesoamerican languages, which seems pretty reasonable.

Regarding La Ciudad Blanca, apparently the name was taken from the Pech legend and given to at least one actual archaeological site at some point. I certainly don't believe in the fanciful mestizo retellings (with motifs like 'only seen from the air' 'only reached through a cave' and 'inhabited by heavily armed narcos/angry natives'). The Pech story, as I understand it at least, is just something like: 'Our ancestors built big cities of (white) stone, had territorial disputes with bad neighbors, and ended up here.' It functions as an origin myth of sorts, but it doesn't seem like a particularly unreasonable one. I was really just referring to the 'stone buildings' part(and not the 'lost city' part) since I was under the mistaken impression (which you specifically addressed) that stone construction was relatively less common in eastern central Honduras.

RAJ said...

Jeff said

The Pech story, as I understand it at least, is just something like: 'Our ancestors built big cities of (white) stone, had territorial disputes with bad neighbors, and ended up here.' It functions as an origin myth of sorts, but it doesn't seem like a particularly unreasonable one.

Sorry, most of those who ask me about Ciudad Blanca use it in a pernicious way: to imply that there was a "Lost Civilization" and thus that the Pech do not have a history or culture.

But what in fact was the case is that there were large towns throughout eastern Honduras. Chris Begley, who has been the most tenacious person working in this area, has a website with some information, including directly addressing the Ciudad Blanca legend. The British weekly New Scientist covered his work in an article in 1997.

On language and evidence of contact between Pech and Tol, the question I have is: what happens in multilingual situations? do we expect the same kinds of borrowings from one language to another if speakers are able to use each on its own?

What I am certain of is that there is no way to take the complexity of material culture in eastern Honduras and make it match older proposals. There are real differences in cultural practices implied by the differences in pottery vessels in Ulua Polychrome style and the Sulaco, Chichicaste, and San Marcos Polychrome styles made just to the east. And we know that Tol and Pech people are descendants of some prehispanic people, and the most likely area for their ancestors to have lived is where these last three (or more-- I have refrained from giving the painted pottery of the Cuyumapa river valley its own name) styles of pottery were made.

So my working assumption is that prior to Spanish colonization, ancestral Pech and ancestral Tol-- and ancestral Toquegua in the Ulua valley, who we argue were multilingual Lenca, not Maya-- and all the other speakers of what today we call Lenca-- identified primarily with their most local place, their town. Ethnogenesis under colonial and republican regimes has forced that multiplicity into fewer categories, based, like 19th c. European nations, on a presumed coincidence of territory, language, and culture.

phoenixwoman said...

It would certainly make sense if the Bulgarians were Jews, since so much of the settlement of the New World was inspired by the Inquisition and subsequent acts of endearment.

Thanks for the detailed comments on tribal boundaries.


Jeff said...

I'm not even sure where to start. First, thank you for the two links; both were very interesting. I'm going to comment separately afterwards on the language issue.

For now, I hope you will excuse my ignorance regarding La Ciudad Blanca stories in popular imagination; I'm not sure where I read the supposedly Pech version of the story; I originally thought it might have been Lanza, et al. Los Pech: Una cultura olvidada but I have verified that it is not there. I was totally unaware that it had colonial roots or that it had been used in an anti-indigenous context.

A version similar to what I recall (although significantly expanded) can found in the second section of this page.

That version makes clear what I had missed: La Ciudad Blanca is not a fundamentally Pech story; instead it is an outside story that is sometimes equated, either by Pech or outsiders, with certain elements of the Pech oral tradition.

I am now clear on the point, and I will be more careful in the future when referring to this particular story.

Tambopaxi said...

In the early 80's I used to visit friends in Trujillo a lot. In those days I also ran a lot (in the early mornings before the heat!) between Trujillo and Puerto Castilla, the old U.S. submarine base, out on the point. The dirt road out that way cut through dozens of old midden heaps, and there were millions of tiestos just sticking out of road cuts waiting to be taken home - and in fact, that's what some people from Trujillo did, including my friends, who had some nice pieces on display in their home. I often wondered who the makers of all of these ceramics were, but no one could tell me.

For RAJ and RNS: Any ideas as to who those people might have been?

RAJ said...

Trujillo has been the focus of archaeology for a long time. The archaeologist Paul Healy did work at a site called Selin Farm there (where there have been violent disputes about land tenancy in the last few years). One of us (RNS) actually surveyed the land that was being reoccupied for the US base in the 1980s on behalf of the Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History. So yes, we can provide some clarification.

Healy's work identified people living near what today is Trujillo starting between 200 and 1000 AD with a group who made painted polychrome pottery that resembles pottery from the Bay Islands. This is an area that in the 16th century is believed to have been occupied by Pech. The pottery that was made after 1000 AD and through into the 16th century (based on dates Healy was able to obtain using carbon samples) was different-- incised designs replaced painted ones-- but there are significant links from the earlier period. So we think the new pots were made by descendants of the people from earlier.

And these were the people that Columbus and Cortés encountered on this section of Honduran coast.

Tambopaxi said...

Huh.Fascinating! Thanks! Yeah, the stuff I saw was polychrome in the main, although there was some incised stuff as well. Thanks again!

rrl said...

Just a note on Eastern Europeans in Honduras:

I'm from La Ceiba and my ancestry in this city begins on my mother's side, which is based, in part, on my Great Grandfather, a Hungarian. His family name was Detari, he was a businessman and owner of the formally well known Casa Detari near the downtown area of La Ceiba.

I have been told about two other Hungarians that immigrated to Honduras in the early 20th c. One family name was Popp (perhaps written Pop), if I recall correctly.

Regarding the archaeology of Yoro (El Negrito and Cataguana):
Are there any published reports available? I would enjoy reading them.

rrl said...

Just a note on Eastern Europeans in Honduras:

I'm from La Ceiba and my family history on my mother's side has its origins here, in part, with my Great Grandfather, a Hungarian, Ferenc Detari. He came to Ceiba in the beginning of the 20th c. and became a businessman and owner of formally established Casa Detari ner downtown La Ceiba.

I have been told that two other Hungarians immigrated to Honduras during the early 20th c. One family name was Popp (perhaps written Pop or Papp).

Regarding the archaeology of Yoro (El Negrito and Cataguana): Are there any published reports? I would be very interested in reading them.


RAJ said...

Delighted to have a first hand comment (and since the two versions have slightly different details, apologies for publishing both).

On the archaeology of Yoro: just about to be available is the important new book by anthropologist Julia Hendon of Gettysburg College, Houses in a Landscape: Memory and Everyday Life in Mesoamerica (see the Duke University Press notice). Quoting from that notice:

Hendon conducted research on three contemporaneous Native American civilizations that flourished from the seventh century through the eleventh CE: the Maya kingdom of Copan, the hilltop center of Cerro Palenque, and the dispersed settlement of the Cuyumapa valley. She analyzes domestic life in these societies, from cooking to crafting, as well as public and private ritual events including the ballgame.

Hendon's will be the best source on archaeology in Yoro. She incorporates thorough discussions of the two doctoral dissertations from Harvard University produced from the Cuyumapa River Valley research project in the 1990s (John Fox and Christopher Fung were the authors of the dissertations).

Also recently published (2009) is a discussion of the ballcourts of the Oloman and Cataguana valleys in a chapter co-authored by Hendon, "Being in Place: Intersections of Identity and Experience on the Honduran Landscape", in The Archaeology of Meaningful Places, edited by Brenda Bowser and Nieves Zedeño, pp. 53-72. University of Utah Press.

And for Spanish-speakers, another co-authored article, describing the earliest dated finds (ca. 900-700 BC), is the 2008 book chapter "Una nueva evaluación de Playa de los Muertos: Exploraciones en el Periodo Formativo Medio en Honduras", in Ideología Politica y Sociedad en el Periodo Formativo: Ensayos en homenaje al doctor David C. Grove, Ann Cyphers y Kenneth G. Hirth, eds., pp. 283-310. Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico, D.F.

Finally, in 2000, Hendon co-authored an earlier book chapter that discusses the settlement pattern in the Oloman and Cataguana valleys: "Heterarchy, History, and Material Reality: ‘Communities’ in Late Classic Honduras", in The Archaeology of Communities: A New World Perspective, Marcello-Andrea Canuto and Jason Yaeger, eds, pp. 143-159. Routledge Press, London

rrl said...


Has there been any archaeology work in the Dept. of Atlantida? I'm a bit familiar with some work conducted by the IHAH at Cuero y Salado and I heard that recently some work was being conducted in the area of La Ceiba by IHAH.

No problems on the double post. I wasn't sure if the first post had gone through and when I wrote the second post I had decided to change a few details.

RAJ said...

There are archaeological sites throughout the Department of Atlántida, but to date, there has been little extended research done. The most recent press reports I know of, in January 2009, were about a site near the town of San Juan Pueblo, along the road from El Progreso, Yoro to La Ceiba.

Near La Ceiba itself, large sites were reported to IHAH in the 1980s, when construction work impinged on them. The ceramics collected at that time included types dating between about 200 AD and 800 AD. Intermittent recording of sites and monitoring of their condition has continued since then.

Archaeological remains were actually reported from this part of the coast quite early: in the 1920s, Dorothy Popenoe, wife of botanist Wilson Popenoe, reported prehispanic materials from the site where the Lancetilla Botanical garden was built near Tela.

There has only been one attempt to conduct systematic survey along the coast of Atlantida, in the 1980s, and the sole publication I know of is an article in Yaxkin, the journal of IHAH, in 2009 (volume XXV, no.1):

Robert Sharer, David Sedat, and Alessandro Pezzati: "Sitios arqueológicos en la Costa Norte de Honduras".

This project included survey of a strip of territory from La Ceiba to Balfate, Colon, in which were located 10 archaeological sites, of which 4 had been previously noted.

In the same issue of Yaxkin, IHAH archaeologists Oscar Neil Cruz and Ranferí Juarez report on their research on eight archaeological sites near La Ceiba, including sites originally reported to IHAH in the 1980s:

Patrón de asentamiento en el Rio Cangrejal, sus afluentes y la llanura costera.

Included is the site called Casa Blanca, south of La Ceiba, first documented in 1994 by IHAH archaeologist Juan Alberto Durón. Casa Blanca was a focus of proposed development as part of cultural heritage policy during the Zelaya administration.

It is probably one of the sites about which you heard; San Juan Pueblo is most likely the more recent one you heard about.

Yaxkin volume 25 (1) can be downloaded from the website of IHAH.