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ETHNONYMS: Mames (in Spanish), Mam Maya


Identification. The Mam are contemporary Maya Indians who speak the Mam language, which is, after K'iche' (Quiché), the secondmost widely spoken of the twenty-one Maya languages currently spoken in Guatemala. Not since the Spanish Conquest, and perhaps never, have the Mam constituted a unified polity or society. They share many cultural traits with other Maya of Guatemala but remain divided into local communities and linguistically distinct subgroups with no pan-Mam or pan-Maya identity.

Location. The Mam live in southwestern Guatemala and, across the Mexican border, in extreme southeastern Chiapas. The region varies from hot tropical lowlands along the Pacific Ocean to more temperate highlands in the interior. These highlands, located mostly between 1,500 and 2,700 meters in elevation, once sustained oak and pine forests, much of which Mam have cleared for farming. There are marked rainy and dry seasons: the heaviest rains fall between April and November, and the driest days are in February and March. To the north, Mam towns in the Cuchumatán Highlands border Jakalteko, Q'anjob'al, Ixil, and Awakateko Maya. To the east, Mam have contested K'iche' Maya intrusions since pre-Hispanic times.

Demography. Estimates from the 1981 Guatemalan census suggest well over 500,000 Mam currently occupy fifty-six administratively autonomous and culturally distinctive municipios in the departments of Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Quezaltenango. The Mam share their municipios with Ladinos (Spanish-speaking mestizos disavowing any Indian identity), who comprise about 40 percent of the region's total population. The number of Ladinos generally varies with elevation: Mam outnumber Ladinos three to one in municipios above 2,700 meters, where subsistence maize agriculture prevails and about four-fifths of the Mam population lives; Ladinos dominate three to two in townships under 2,700 meters, more suitable for commercial coffee and cotton production.

Linguistic Affiliation. Mam belongs to the Mamean Branch of Eastern Mayan languages; it is most closely related to Ixil, Awakateko, and Tektiteko; Mamean separated from the K'ichean languages perhaps 3,400 years ago. Today Mam consists of some fifteen dialects grouped into three divisions: northern Mam is spoken in nineteen municipios in southern Huehuetenango and northern San Marcos, southern Mam in thirty-four municipios in San Marcos and Quezaltenango, and western Mam in three municipios in northwestern San Marcos, near the Mexican border. Considerable differences reduce intelligibility between divisions, and minor variations mark the dialects within each. Each municipio also has a distinctive style of speech, sufficient to identify speakers by their accent.

History and Cultural Relations

Mam speakers have occupied western Guatemala for perhaps 2,600 years. Some historical linguists suggest that the precursor of all Mayan languages may have diversified from a homeland just north of contemporary Mam territory beginning some four thousand years ago. During pre-Hispanic times, Mam vied for control of their lands with more powerful K'iche' lords to the east. In February 1524 Spanish forces under Pedro de Alvarado passed through the southern Mam region en route to subjugating the K'iche' and Kaqchikel. They subdued the northern Mam in late 1525, but the southern Mam evidently escaped military conquest, perhaps by initially allying with the Spaniards against their K'iche' enemies. Following the Conquest, the rugged inaccessibility of the Mam region attracted few Spanish colonists. Dominican and, later, Mercedarian friars sought to convert the Mam to Catholicism; although the friars resettled them into mission congregaciones (nucleated Spanish-style towns), aside from demands for tribute and labor and the periodic ravages of Old World epidemic diseases, the Mam remained relatively autonomous. Not until the late nineteenth century, with the expansion of commercial coffee plantations along Guatemala's southern Pacific coast, did Mam become directly incorporated into Guatemala's export economy. Mam nearest the coast lost lands to the expanding coffee plantations, whereas highland Mam were forced into migratory wage labor to harvest the crop. Only in the 1940s, as population growth outstripped available farmland in the highlands, did Mam begin migrating to the plantations of their own accord. In the mid-twentieth century short-lived agrarian and political reforms in Guatemala, and then increasingly repressive military regimes, further disrupted Mam communities. In the 1950s Mam converts to more orthodox Catholicism challenged traditional Mam "folk" religion and community organization. Missionary health, education, and technical programs eventually fostered new leadership and a renewed sense of self-determination in Mam communities. Growing political violence between leftist guerrillas and the Guatemalan government, however, subjected Mam to brutal counterinsurgency warfare during the 1980s. Although they escaped the worst of the massacres, forced resettlement, and militarization suffered by other Maya, the Mam felt caught between two antagonists who demanded their support but cared little about their problems or priorities. In the 1990s the Mam remain second-class citizens in Guatemalamostly poor subsistence farmers and rural wage laborersbut they have yet to succumb to the dominant Ladino society and seek a better place within it.


Traditionally swidden cultivators, the Mam favor dispersed settlements. Municipal cabeceras or "head towns" often consist of little more than a cluster of houses surrounding the church, town hall, and marketplace; the few streets usually radiate out from a central square in a grid pattern, an artifact of colonial town planning. All cabeceras now have electricity and potable water, but most lack urban amenities such as paved streets, shops, or diversions beyond the ubiquitous cantinas. Some 90 percent of Mam still live in scattered hamlets of less than 500 people. Although dispersed, hamlets maintain formal administrative ties to the cabecera of their municipio and share patterns of traditional dress and speech unique to the municipio as a whole. A high degree of endogamy also helps to maintain municipio cohesion. Mam houses typically consist of a hard-packed dirt floor, adobe walls, and a tile or corrugated metal roof. Small, usually shuttered windows leave the interiors dark and often smoky from cooking fires. Most houses have a sweatbath, and Mam bathe as often as the availability of firewood allows.


Subsistence and Commercial Activitíes. Since pre-Hispanic times, Mam have been primarily subsistence farmers, cultivating the typical Mesoamerican crops of maize, beans, and squashes. Until the 1960s, Mam cleared fields with machete and hoe, planted them for several years, then fallowed them to work other plots. Yields ranged from 570 to 1,000 kilograms of shelled maize per acre. Land was under nearly continuous cultivation in richer valley bottoms, but less promising terrain required five to ten years or more of fallow for at most two years of use. Since the 1960s, chemical fertilizers have extended periods of use and raised yields, but population growth offsets any real gains. Most clearing, planting, and weeding is done between April and August; harvests are between November and January, depending on the elevation. To generate needed income, Mam with suitable lands now also cash-crop in coffee on a small scale. Those without coffee land or enough maize land to feed themselves must migrate seasonally to lowland plantations, where coffee and cotton harvests fall mostly between July and January.

Industrial Arts. During slack periods in the agricultural cycle, many Mam traditionally engaged in artisanal production of cloth, pottery, furniture, and basic necessities such as salt, lime, and stone metates for grinding maize. Almost all Mam women still weave on traditional backstrap looms. Using commercially manufactured thread, they make their own blouses, skirts, belts, and whatever handwoven articles of clothing men in their towns still wear.

Trade. During the late nineteenth century, Guatemala's coffee economy stimulated the growth of rural marketplaces to supply Ladino towns and plantations. Mam traders still work these markets today, peddling local goods from different Mam communities and the few consumer goods that rural Mam need and can affordcoffee, salt, lime, unrefined sugar, soap, kerosene, thread for weaving, clothing, tools, and pots for cooking and for fetching, storing, and heating water; occasional luxuries include cigarettes, sweets, jewelry, radios or tape recorders, and sugarcane rum. Better roads and transportation have eased Mam access to major market centers, but the inflow of cheap imported goods has also undermined local artisanal production.

Division of Labor. Mam men work the fields, engage in trade, and construct and repair buildings; women cook, weave, wash clothes, and provide primary child care. Both men and women work for wages, and, during the harvest season, entire families migrate to the plantations, many for months at a time. Truck and bus transport and commercial weaving on foot looms are prominent among the few nonagricultural Mam professions. Younger Mam also work as schoolteachers, usually in rural posts eschewed by Ladino teachers.

Land Tenure. Until the twentieth century, most Mam municipios held land communally, granting usufruct rights to individuals for specific plots. Because use rights could be sold, sublet, or passed on to heirs, renters often came to consider these parcels private property, although they were forbidden by law actually to sell the land. As competition for land intensified and the Guatemalan government sought to sustain communal land tenure, Mam turned increasingly to individual legal titles to secure access to land. By the 1950s, private landholding predominated in most Mam communities.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic Mam kin group is the patrilineal, patrilocal extended family of two to four generations. It serves as the primary locus for shared resources and socioeconomic cooperation between fathers, sons, their spouses, and unmarried children. Although families with the same surname avoid intermarrying, they currently serve no other role as kin groups. Mam also practice compadrazgo, or ritual kinship, which establishes a bond of mutual support and respect between parents and the couples who sponsor their children's baptisms; compadres are usually nonkin neighbors who extend the parent's social network.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is bilateral and Iroquoian but with sibling terms for younger sibling of either sex, older sibling of the same sex, older sister of a male, and older brother of a female; terms for cousins, nieces, and nephews are presently descriptive. Fathers have separate terms for son/child and daughter; mothers use a single term for children of either sex. The term for grandfather and grandchild of a man is reciprocal, whereas those for grandmother and grandchild of a woman are not. Reciprocal terms exist for affines of the same sex and generation, parents-in-law and sons-in-law, and parents-in-law and daughters-in-law; other affinal terms are presently descriptive. Descriptive terms may reflect the long influence of Spanish terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, the groom's father initiated marriage negotiations with the prospective bride's father, but Mam children have long had latitude in choosing a spouse. Ideally, the groom, his father, and witnesses to his good character petition the bride's father and present her family with gifts of sweet breads, cigarettes, rum, and at least a nominalin some towns substantialpayment to compensate for "raising the girl." After sometimes protracted negotiations, the bride moves into her new father-in-law's house. Within a year or so, the marriage will be formalized in the local civil registry, and, if the families are religious, in a church ceremony. Mam men usually marry in their late teens, once they can provide for a family; women marry a year or two younger, once they have mastered weaving and making tortillas. Mam gauge a potential spouse in terms of practical skills and proper character, not physical attractiveness or romantic love.

Domestic Unit. The Mam domestic unit ideally follows a cycle from newly independent nuclear family to an extended family of parents, sons, and their families, then back to a nuclear family as the sons move out, the parents die, and the remaining son inherits the house. Although ideally cooperative and collective, the extended family manifests tensions between fathers and sons over land and between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law over allocation of household resources. The extended family usually, but not always, shares a single hearth and larder.

Inheritance. By Guatemalan law, inheritance is bilateral, although sons often receive more and better land than daughters, whose husbands are expected to provide for them. Formerly, Mam fathers sought to delay inheritance of family lands as long as possible to control their sons' labor, but shrinking landholdings and increasing involvement in the cash economy have weakened patriarchal authority. Today Mam men buy, rather than inherit, much of what land they own.

Socialization. Mam children learn largely by observing and imitating others in the intimacy of one-room houses and close-knit communities. Even intricate tasks such as weaving entail little explicit instruction. Sons begin working in the fields alongside their fathers as soon as they can handle a hoe; young girls assist their mothers at an even earlier age. Although children should attend school through the sixth grade, work at home and in the fields comes first, and few Mam continue beyond primary school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Mam social organization centers on the patrilineal, patrilocal extended family and the territorial, largely endogamous municipio. Between these two units lie exogamous, patrilineal surname groups that in the past may have constituted lineages or clans, and residential hamlets ideally made up of clusters of patrilineally related households that form as fathers build houses for their married sons. Hamlets can become the nucleus of new municipios, as has happened with at least eight Mam municipios since the Conquest. Class distinction within Mam communities continues to grow, yet the line between rich and poor, landed and landless, subsistence farmer and petty commodity producer, remains relative and permeable. Racial prejudice and hostility between Indians and Ladinos can also mitigate such divisions within Mam communities.

Political Organization. Mam political organization consists of municipio-based hierarchies of administrative and ritual offices of four or more levels with progressively fewer, more burdensome, positions at each level. Ideally, all men in the municipio take turns carrying these year-long cargos (burdens), beginning as youths in the lowest positions, then advancing from one office to the next in life-long public careers. In the past, heavy ritual expenses meant cargoholders had to "rest" after their year in office to recoup debts and to save for the even greater expenses of their next cargo. Those who completed service on all levels of the hierarchy became the town elders who chose new cargoholders each year and made all important decisions affecting the town. After the advent of nominally popular elections in Mam municipios during the 1940s, party politics slowly replaced the ritual obligations of traditional cargos with the bureaucratic legalities of the Guatemalan state. Despite the changes, cargo hierarchies persist as a way of defining membership in the community and of gaining local recognition. Political ideology or party loyalty still matters less to Mam than struggles for local advantage because, however factionalized, the municipio remains the focus of Mam politics and the basis for Mam negotiations with a national government they have long considered an instrument of Ladino domination.

Social Control. In larger towns with detachments of the National Police, social control lies formally with legal authorities, but in most municipios and hamlets, local Mam officials and elders exercise great latitude in resolving conflicts and punishing offenders as long as the parties involved agree to abide by their judgments. In serious crimes or intractable conflicts where such consensus is impossible, cases go to the national courts.

Conflict. Conflicts commonly involve jurisdictional disputes between municipios and between town centers and their outlying hamlets; political feuds between different factions; religious disputes between Catholics, Protestants, and traditionalists; and personal quarrels over land and sexual indiscretions. Resentments, especially personal ones, often smolder until drunken quarrels on market days or fiestas bring them out into the open.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most Mam consider themselves nominally Catholic, although local heterodoxies abound. Traditional Mam religion focused on Catholic saints in the local church and spirit "owners" of nearby mountain peaks. Mam saints embody powers in their own right, not Christian exemplars, which Mam domesticated by dressing their images in local Mam attire and "feeding" them candles, rum, and pine-pitch incense. Conversely, mountain spirits appeared as greedy Ladinos who enslaved Mam souls after death. Both saints and mountain spirits could send misfortune or illness to punish ritual neglect or offense; ritual specialists would then have to divine the cause and determine the restitution. Cosmologically, the paths of "Our Father Sun" and "Our Grandmother Moon" encircled "Our Mother Earth," and the twenty day-names of the Maya calendar held divinatory significance. Since the 1950s, Catholic missionaries, mostly of the North American Maryknoll order, and fundamentalists of the Central American Mission have won sizable, if shifting, Mam congregations. Not all ex-traditionalists, however, accept formal baptism into a church, and many say they now live "without religion."

Religious Practitioners. In the past, all Mam men knew the rudiments of costumbre, literally "custom" in Spanish, but used by Mam to refer to their prayers and offerings to God, the saints, and mountain spirits. Religious specialists called chmaan, "grandfathers"a reference to their status as elderscontributed both a greater eloquence to their costumbre and esoteric knowledge of the twenty-day Maya calendar to divine and protect Mam health, crops, and destiny. Particularly powerful chmaan could even bargain directly with mountain spirits in matters of illness and sorcery. Mam men also gained ritual knowledge through rotating service in the cofradías, or religious brotherhoods, dedicated to care of the saints in the local church, which often constituted an integral part of the municipio's cargo hierarchy. Religious specialists today include Mam catechists who preside over Catholic congregations in towns without a resident priest and Mam preachers in local evangelical churches.

Ceremonies. Mam celebrate Holy Week (Easter), All Saints' Day, Christmas, and the feast days of local patron saints. Celebrations generally include a holiday market, Catholic Mass, and processions of local saints' images through the streets of the town. Some Mam municipios still practice reciprocal saint exchange, in which local religious officials carry their saint to "visit" neighboring saints on their feast days.

Arts. In addition to weaving, Mam enjoy the marimbaa large xylophonelike instrument with wooden bars suspended over resonators, which is played by three or four musicians with small wooden mallets; its complex, liquid rhythms pervade all public celebrations.

Medicine. Herbal cures are often administered by female herbalists who double as midwives. Since the late 1960s, an almost magical faith in Western pills and injections has augmented the Mam pharmacopoeia. Health normally depends on the blood, which Mam view as the seat of physical strength and sensory perceptions. Curing restores the requisite "heat" to the blood through "hot" medicines and sweatbaths.

Death and Afterlife. At death, Mam hold a wake for the deceased, then bury the body in the local cemetery. During All Saints' Day (1 November), Mam remember the dead by decorating their graves, offering them food and drink, and having a marimba played at the graveside. Concepts of the afterlife remain unelaborated: Mam formerly said that the dead worked for Ladino spirits inside nearby peaks and distant volcanoes; today they speak of being with God in heaven or burning in hell, or perhaps of wandering the earth as a ghost.


Ebel, Roland H. (1969). "Political Modernization in Three Guatemalan Communities." In Community Culture and National Change, edited by Margaret A. L. Harrison and Robert Wauchope. 131-206. Middle American Research Institute Publication 24. New Orleans: Tulane University.

England, Nora (1983). A Grammar of Mam, A Mayan Language, Austin: University of Texan Press.

Hawkins, John (1984). Inverse Images: The Meaning of Culture, Ethnicity, and Family in Postcolonial Guatemala. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Oakes, Maud (1951). The Two Crosses of Todos Santos: Survivals of Mayan Religious Ritual. Bolligen Series, no 27. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Scotchmer, David G. (1986). "Convergence of the Gods: Comparing Traditional Maya and Christian Maya Cosmologies." In Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community: Essays in Mesoamerican Ideas, edited by Gary H. Gossen, 197-226. Studies on Culture and Society, vol. 1. Albany: State University of New York at Albany, Institute of Mesoamerican Studies.

Smith, Waldemar R. (1977). The Fiesta System and Economic Change. New York: Columbia University Press.

Valladares, León A. (1957). El hombre y el mah: Etnografía y etnopsicología de Colotenango. Mexico City: Editorial B. Costa-Amic.

Wagley, Charles (1941). Economics of a Guatemalan Village. Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association, no. 58. Menasha, Wis.: American Anthropological Association.

Wagley, Charles (1949). The Social and Religious Life of a Guatemalan Village. Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association, no. 71. Menasha, Wis.: American Anthropological Association.

Watanabe, John M. (1992). Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World. Austin: University of Texas Press.



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Mam, one of twenty-nine extant Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. With approximately 600,000 speakers it is among the four largest languages and is spoken in fifty-six townships in the departments of Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, and San Marcos in Guatemala, as well as in the hills surrounding the border towns in Mexico such as Mazapa, Amatenango, Motozintla, and Tuzantán. Mam belongs to the Mamean branch of the Eastern Division of Mayan languages, along with Tektiteko (Teco/Tectiteco), Awakateko (Aguacateco), and Ixil. It is bordered by Q'anjob'alan (Kanjobalan) languages to the north and K'ichean (Quichean) languages to the east. It is the most internally divergent Mayan language, with three major dialect zones each consisting of a number of separate dialects. Mam diverged from other Mamean languages between 1,500 and 2,600 years ago. It is spoken today in a territory similar to that occupied in 1524, though somewhat reduced, through K'iche' (Quiché) incursion, from its maximum area. Although Mamean languages are historically most closely related to the K'ichean, Mam shows a number of innovative similarities to Q'anjob'alan (Western Division) languages that are due to long-term contact in the Huehuetenango region. Mam is suffering extensive loss in the western area, some loss in the south, and very little loss in the north.

See alsoMaya, The .


See Nora C. England, A Grammar of Mam, a Mayan language (1983), for a reference grammar, and "El Mam: Semejanzas y diferencias regionales" in Lecturas sobre la lingüística maya, edited by Nora C. England and Stephen R. Elliott (1990), for dialect differences.

Additional Bibliography

B'aayil, Zoila Blanca Luz García Jiménez, and Ajb'ee. Tx'ixpub'ente tiib' qyool= Variación dialectal en mam. Guatemala: Cholsamaj, 2000.

Comunidad Lingüística Mam. Toponimias Mayas mam. Guatemala: Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala, 2002.

Gutiérrez Alfonzo, Carlos and Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo. Los mames: Exodo y renacimiento. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 2000.

                                          Nora C. England


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mam (dial.) mother. XVI. prob. imit.; cf. MAMMA1.
Hence mammy (-Y6) XVI.


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MAM Computing multiple allocation memory