views updated


ETHNONYMS: Itzá, Itzá Maya, Itzaj Maya, Maya, Mayeros, Petén Maya, San Joseños


Identification. The Itza' Maya identify themselves as descendants of speakers of the Itza' Maya language and are centered in the town of San José, Petén, Guatemala. Spaniards and scholars have always referred to the San Joseños as "Itzas" but until quite recently they usually referred to themselves as "Mayas" ("Mayeros"). Children stopped learning the language in the 1930s because of the government's repressive language policy. As a result, only about two dozen older adults are fluent in Itza'. Beginning about the mid-1980s, as a consequence of the influx of rainforest activists, the Itza' have become aware of themselves as an important group on the international scene. Many of the townspeople in San José have displayed a revived interest in their traditional culture and language and have adopted "Itzaj" as their self-designation.

Location. San José is a town on the northern shore of Lake Petén Itza', in the heart of the Mayan lowlands of subtropical northern Guatemala. The town is the administrative center of a municipio of the same name. The 2,252-square-kilometer township falls within the northern subtropical region of Petéen.

Demography. Between 1978 and 1993 the population of the town of San José, almost all of Itza' descent, grew rapidly, to approximately 2,000 residents. There are perhaps another 2,000 Itza' in the region, suggesting a total population of about 4,000; however, no accurate census figures are available.

Linguistic Affiliation. Itza' Maya belongs to the Yucatecan Mayan Branch of the Mayan Language Family. Linguistic evidence suggests that Itza' separated from its sister languagesYukateko, Lakantun, and Mopan Mayaapproximately one millennium ago.

History and Cultural Relations

Little is known about the pre-Hispanic Itza'. Legend has it that the Itza' migrated to Yucatán from elsewhere in Mexico or were a remnant Classic Petén Maya group that moved north to Yucatán. After competing with the Xiu clan for control of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Itza' settled in Petén, perhaps in the 1450s (however, some scholars believe they may have settled there around 1200). According to some interpretations of indigenous history recorded in colonial-era Yucatecan Mayan documents called Books of the Chilam Balam (derived from the name of the famous prophetchilam who was known as balam, jaguar), the Itza' fled the region of Chichén Itza' in northern Yucatán to found their island capital of Tayasal in Lake Petén Itza'. There they formed a confederacy composed of four loosely allied political groups. They resisted the Spanish until 1697, about a century and a half after most Mayan groups were conquered. The Itza' maintained contact with other Mayans in Yucatán and in Belize throughout the colonial period, and there probably were waves of migrants from the north who fled the Spanish to settle in Petén. They also had intermittent contact with the Mopan Maya in southern Petén, the Lakantun to the west, and Q'eqchi' immigrants from the Verapaces, Guatemala. Until the 1970s, large stands of tropical forest and the absence of good roads made travel to Petén difficult and helped maintain its relative isolation.

Hernán Cortés passed through the region in 1524 on his way from Mexico City to Honduras, where he planned to punish a subordinate lieutenant, Cristóbal de Olid. He reported being well received by the Itza' "king" Kanek' at Tayasal, present-day Flores. During the colonial era, the Itza' periodically received Spanish emissaries but steadfastly resisted conversion to Catholicism and submission to Spanish authority. Tayasal remained a center of Itza' culture, including the Mayan hieroglyphic scribal tradition, and also inspired Mayan resistance to Spanish domination in Yucatán and Belize, until it was conquered during a Spanish military campaign in March 1697. Warfare and European diseases decimated the Itza' population, which has remained small since the seventeenth century. Indians in the region were forced to live in mission towns or to flee into the forest. San José was one of these mission towns and the only one in which an Itza' ethnic identity has survived to the present.

After 1697, the Itza' of San José were primarily traditional swidden farmers cultivating staplesmaize, beans and squashas well as many supplemental crops. They sold surplus agricultural products as well as clay water jugs, canoes, firewood, construction materials, and other forest products. Since the Conquest, San José and all of Petén have been politically and economically dominated by a mixed Creole and Ladino elite residing in Flores.

In the 1890s, demand for chicle, a tree-resin base for chewing gum, transformed the regional economy of Petén. The chicle boom lasted until about 1970. During the chicle harvest season, from July to February, men formed base camps in the forests, from which they fanned out daily to tap chicle from sapodilla trees. Almost all Itza' men participated in the chicle harvest, as did many other Peteneros. Chicleros (chicle workers) and their families were dependent on a patron, who often supported them until the men returned home from the forest. Chicleros were renowned for pre- and postharvest extravagant and exuberant celebrations. Since the 1960s and 1970s, tourism and extraction of timber and other forest products have become primary industries in the region.

In the 1960s the Guatemalan government sponsored settlement of Petén and, in 1970, completed a road from the more densely populated highlands. Since then, large numbers of immigrants have come to Petén. The Itza' have resisted allowing newcomers to settle in San José, forcing them to found new villages nearby.

In the 1980s the civil war in Guatemala affected Petén, where the military maintain a strong presence. Guerrilla groups have been active in Petén since the 1970s but decreasingly so since the peak of the violence in the mid-1980s. San José was was not occupied or attacked by either side; however, San Joseños, like other Peteneros, were terrified by the violence.

The interest in conservation and ecotourism has brought many foreigners to the region, and the Itza' have become involved in conservation efforts. They are in constant contact with outsiders but so far have generally succeeded in keeping them out of San José.


After the Conquest by the Spanish in 1697, many Indians in Petén fled to the forest. Others, including non-Itza', were congregated in mission towns. By the twentieth century, San José and nearby San Andrés were the only towns in northern Petén with significant numbers of residents who spoke a Mayan language. Early in the twentieth century, a group of Itza' fleeing political repression settled in the town of Soccotz, just across the border in Belize. There were a number of Mayan-speaking people living in villages and ranches surrounding Lake Petén Itza'. Almost all these groups, however, have assimilated to Hispanic-Ladino culture. Today, San José is the only town in Petén that maintains its Itza' identity.

San José is a crowded, nucleated town climbing up the steep hillsides from the shores of Lake Petén Itza'. Traditional houses are rectangular, made of wattle and daub with thatched roofs. Houses are internally divided by framed cloth partitions into a central living area with sleeping quarters on the sides. External kitchens are smaller buildings of the same construction. Cement-block, tin-roofed construction is increasingly common.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional economy, based on swidden (milpa) horticulture has undergone radical change in the twentieth century. The chicle industry was the principal employer of men in the region from about 1890 until 1970; since 1990 it has had a mild resurgence owing to Japanese demand for a natural base for chewing gum. Since 1970, the timber industry, which is focused on the extraction of fine woods, has been a major employer, but fine woods are becoming increasingly scarce. Peteneros collect other forest products for overseas export, primarily honey, allspice, and a small palm called xate used by florists. Illegal traffic in Mayan antiquities and drugs is also significant in Petén.

Tourism is an increasingly important industry. Tikal and other archaeological ruins of the Classic Maya (a.d. 250 to a.d. 900) attract tourists from all over the world. A number of Itza' men are employed by the national park system as workers or guards. Since 1989, development and conservation groups have been promoting ecotourism as a way to provide alternative employment to the local inhabitants and to preserve the natural ecology of the Petén forest. The Itza' have established a 36-square-kilometer reserve dedicated to the conservation of the forest and of their culture.

Industrial Arts. Many San José men work in traditional and modern construction as carpenters and masons. There are also a half-dozen furniture workshops in town. Several men occasionally make dugout canoes, but these are in decreasing demand.

Trade. San Joseños sell furniture to other Peteneros and forest products destined for overseas export. There are a number of small food shops and saloons in town, mostly run by women. Most food, clothing, and modern goods are purchased in San Benito, on the south side of Lake Petén Itza'.

Division of Labor. Men are swidden farmers, cowboys, masons and carpenters, national park employees, and collectors of nontimber forest products such as chicle. Women manage the household, tend small gardens, and raise chickens and pigs. Some women are shopkeepers, and others prepare food for sale.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, all inhabitants of the township (municipio) had usufruct rights (without charge) to land for their milpas and ranches and ownership rights to improvements. One could sell rights to land previously worked. Population pressure is putting stress on the system, and land that was formerly communal has been sold to outside developers, several of whom plan to build hotels on the beaches of Lake Peten Itza'.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is reckoned bilaterally. There are no lineages or corporate kin groups.

Kinship Terminology. Spanish kinship terminology is used by all, but Itza' speakers also use Itza' Maya kin terms. The Itza' kinship system is similar to the Spanish, but distinguishes relative age of siblings, with itz'in for younger sibling, kik for older sister, and suku'un for older brother.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Ideally, marriage is monogamous and virilocal. Men and women are said to marry for love, preferring to select a partner from within the community. Women were previously eligible for marriage at age 15 and now may marry at 18. The prospective groom asks several older men to accompany his parents to petition the parents of the bride for their permission to marry. If the woman's parents agree, the man joins them several hours later. If the woman's parents refuse, the couple will probably elope. The groom must buy the bride's wedding dress and another fine dress and pay all wedding costs. After the wedding, the bride remains in her parents' house for eight days and then joins the groom. She either moves to their new house or to the groom's parents' house. Less often, the groom moves in with the bride's family.

Domestic Unit. Newlyweds ideally establish their own household but may stay with the parents of either spouse until they can afford their own house. Children stay with their parents until they marry. The youngest son is expected to remain with and care for aged parents, but this duty may fall to another child.

Inheritance. Spouses hold property rights jointly and are free to bequeath property as they wish. Ideally, children share equally in inheritance from parents; the youngest child, however, may inherit the parental house.

Socialization. Women and older siblings are the primary caretakers of young children. Infants are held or laid in bed or hammocks until they are 10 months old, when they are seated on the floor. When at home, men also care for and supervise children. Breast and/or bottle demand feeding continues for about two years. Babies are in diapers until they are 2 years old, when they are toilet trained. Physical punishment is used, sparingly, after a child reaches 4 or 5 years of age. Children are trained primarily to obey and respect parents. By between ages 10 and 12, children can execute most adult tasks, which they learn mainly by imitating elders.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The elementary family in its own household is the basic unit of social, economic, and religious life. Although cross-household alliances are weak, San Joseños identify with their community, which in this case coincides with Itza' ethnic identity. Rather than joining impersonal, formal groups, San Joseños build personal networks based on kinship, ritual kinship (compadrazgo ), privileged friendship, and patronage. These networks cut across community lines and serve practical purposes. San Joseños have a reputation for honoring ritual-kinship obligations more faithfully than other Peteneros. San Joseños use formal courtesy to get along with others without becoming embroiled in their affairs. Adults who treat others with courtesy, defend community interests, and manage their own households without interfering with others are esteemed.

Political Organization. The town of San José is the center of an administrative-territorial unit, the township. The township is governed by an elected council headed by a mayor. The council is responsible for the welfare of the township, and although it has a good deal of autonomy, its actions are supervised by the central government. The council is responsible to a provincial governor, who is appointed by the national president. Almost all the new settlers reside in villages that are administratively subordinate to the township center. In 1990, for the first time in San José's history, an immigrant was elected mayor.

Within the town, politics is organized around faction leadersusually older men esteemed for their managerial skills and concern for community welfare.

The Itza' revitalization movement is not fully integrated with the Maya revitalization movement in Guatemala. The Itza' are developing a separate ethnic identity as lowland Petén Indians and do not identify with the highland Maya. Both movements have political overtones.

Social Control. San Joseños are reluctant to interfere with one another and tolerant of deviance from norms of behavior, so long as it does not directly affect their own households. When it does, they resort to gossip and avoidance. They may also ask the mayor to intervene informally to correct someone's behavior. Serious misdemeanors and crimes are referred to the formal court system.

Conflict. Until 1944, a system of debt peonage prevailed in Guatemala, and outstanding debts were frequently a source of conflict between chicle collectors from San José and other towns in Peten and their patrons. Thereafter, aside from interpersonal antagonisms, the most serious conflicts among San Joseños centered on factions fighting for control of the town council, especially for the post of mayor. The town has also had and still has conflicts with neighboring townships over tax payments for timber and nontimber (e.g., those from which chicle is extracted) forests within the township jurisdiction. Settlers are beginning to compete with San Joseños for control of the township council. The presence of outsiders promoting competing development and conservation strategies has intensified factional and personal disputes within the town and will have an impact on the ability of the Itza' of San José to maintain their traditions and language.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Until the 1980s, all inhabitants of San José were Catholic. Women are more actively involved in worship services than men. Mass was said weekly by a visiting priest until the violence of the 1970s and 1980s, and less regularly since then. In the 1980s about half the town converted to evangelical Protestantism, which stresses moral rectitude and abstinence. Belief in forest spirits or goblins (duendes ) is common.

Religious Practitioners. The visiting priests are the chief practitioners, but local men may become church stewards, who are responsible for festivals, and sextons, who take care of the church. Both men and women may be catechists.

Ceremonies. Baptisms, girls' 15th birthdays, weddings, deaths, one-year anniversaries of death, All Souls' Day, and the town's saint's day are celebrated with masses.

San José is known for an annual ceremony performed on All Souls' Eve. A skull is carried in procession from the church around the town and is returned to the church at dawn. Three skulls, said to be of former church stewards (priostes ), are housed on an altar in the church and are brought out in three-year rotations.

Formerly, 3 May, the Day of the Cross and planting time, was observed with a procession that included masked celebrants dancing with a pig's head. A feast followed the procession. There also were Mayan ceremonies in the fields, in which food was offered to the winds at planting time.

Arts. Traditional women's arts include embroidery, crocheting, and pottery making. Men made henequen hammocks and worked wood. Traditional musical instruments included marimbas, drums, flutes, mandolins, and harps. The marimbas and flutes are still played. Modern musical groups playing guitars and drums are now popular.

Medicine. Folk medicine is increasingly limited. Most medical services are provided at a local clinic or at the hospital in San Benito. Some midwives (parteras ), native curers (curanderos), herbalists (yerbateros ), bone setters, and massagers (talladores de hueso ) continue to practice; yerbateros are especially recommended for treating snakebite. Itza' suspect that sorcerers (brujos ) practice in neighboring towns.

Death and Afterlife. Family members typically mourn for six months to a year, during which time they abstain from fiestas. A mass is celebrated one year after death.


Hofling, Charles Andrew (1991). Itzá Maya Texts, with a Grammatical Overview. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Jones, Grant D. (1992). "The Canek Manuscript in Ethnohistorical Perspective." Ancient Mesoamerica 3:243-268.

Reina, Ruben E. (1965). "Town, Community, and Multicommunity." Estudios de Cultura Maya 5:361-390.

Reina, Ruben E. (1967). "Milpas and Milperos: Implications for Prehistoric Times." American Anthropologist 69(1): 1-20.

Schwartz, Norman B. (1990). Forest Society: A Social History of Petén, Guatemala. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Villagutierre Soto-Mayor, Juan de [1701] (1983). History of the Conquest of the Province of the Itza. Translated by Robert De. Wood. Edited by Frank E. Comparato. Culver City, Calif.: Labyrinthos.