Friday, January 29, 2010

Guancasco and politics at the local level

For the past seven months, we have spent most of our time writing about politics on the global scale. And today, the Honduran newspapers are full of the national scale of politics: the new congress, appointments of new ministers, proposals for a new budget, new policies and programs.

But politics keeps going on at the local level at the same time. On January 15, the town of Gualala in the Department of Santa Barbara, not far from San Pedro Sula, hosted a visit by the patron saint of the nearby town of Ilama, a tradition known by its indigenous Lenca name as guancasco. On February 2, the town of Ilama will reciprocate as host to the saint of Gualala. Chinda, another of the towns in Santa Barbara, is part of this celebration as well.

In 1998, RNS and I were in Gualala for the guancasco, arriving there with another anthropologist on his first (and last) visit to Honduras, spent driving backroads all over the countryside. We didn't come to Gualala specifically for the guancasco: we came to revisit a place RNS knew from his time working in Santa Barbara in the 1980s. But we appreciated seeing a ceremony we knew from academic writing.

The story given by academic articles is not that different from the way guancasco is described in more popular sources, like an article from 2000 in Honduras This Week that describes it as "a ceremony of peace between two villages". Marked by dances, games, and above all, the movement of the patron saint's image along the road linking two neighboring places, guancasco is a durable and flexible cultural performance with roots in times when the village was the top of the political order, and localities worked out their problems with each other directly.

What sparked my thinking about this very local way of managing relations between towns was one of the few articles in the Honduran news today that was not about national or international politics. The alcaldesa of Nuevo Celilac, yet another small town in Santa Barbara, Tiempo reports, was removed from her office. Teodolinda Anderson Mejía, just sworn in for her second term, stands accused of abuse of authority for giving someone a 915,000 lempira contract to remodel the town hall without the required competitive bidding.

What binds Nuevo Celilac to Gualala and Ilama is history, going back before the first Spanish raiding parties came on the scene in the 1530s. Old Celilac, like Gualala and Ilama, was an indigenous town that persisted throughout the centuries of Spanish colonization, Mercedarian missionization, and eighteenth-century revolution. In the sixteenth century, Celilac paid tribute directly to the King of Spain. Census records from 1703 mention people from Celilac married and living in Gualala and Ilama, and spouses from the same two towns who had settled in Celilac.

This is how the Honduran people survived centuries of colonization and exploitation by distant governments: building local networks. Not that different from today, and worth remembering that it is these things that have endured while the national governments came and went.


John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

There are guancascos among the Lencas in many towns and villages in the department of Lempira. I wish I knew more about them as potential sources of alternative conflict resolution processes. Who knows? They might offer a way to deal with the calls for peace and reconciliation that are merely calls to forget the past.
This might be an area where anthropologists might help resurrect peace processes based in indigenous knowledge and experience.
If there are any good sources on the guancascos, I'd love to know them.

RAJ said...

Easily accessible via Google Books is Anne Chapman's book on the Lenca Los hijos del copal y la candela. Chapter VI of that book is entirely about the guancasco.

Also available on Google Books is Claudia Marcela Carías' edited collection Tradición oral indígena de Yamaranguila, which includes narratives related to guancasco from pp. 193-196.