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.
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 MaïaOr, 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.