Pitarch, Pedro, Shannon Speed & Xochitl Leyva Solano, Editors. HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE MAYAN REGION: Global Politics, Cultural Contentions, and Moral Engagements. 2008. Duke University Press, USA.

“The essays in this book direct our attention to the different empirical instances in which Maya culture encounters rights politics.”

Human Rights in the Mayan Region: A Book Review by Theresa WolfwoodI expected a collection of essays by mainly academics in Europe, USA and Latin America to be stuffy and esoteric and not very relevant to an activist who once lived in a Maya village as a human rights observer. I thought I knew what rights or abuses of rights that I should be observing.

But this interesting book with articles by activists and Mayas as well as academics challenges our assumptions about what human rights are all about and whether the ideas we call human rights are exclusively a product of western liberalism to which we ascribe universality without examining our own matrix. It is impossible to summarize every contribution; the whole comprises a thoughtful and helpful guide to understanding a different culture and how to support rights actions in it.

First of all the editors define the Mayan region as an area which shares a historical, sociocultural and political dynamic – the Mexican state of Chiapas and Guatemala. This is also a region which has been subjected to brutal repression of the majority Maya people by rulers of European origin for centuries into recent times.

To people who live in a culture of group norms and collective rights, the concept expressed by western liberalism may appear inexplicable. In fact the attempt to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into Tzeltal encountered many difficulties. But when massive genocide occurred in Guatemala in the 1980s and when currently repression of indigenous people continues in Chiapas and elsewhere; some concepts of human rights became concrete and obvious to people whose rights, both collective and individual, were and are being abused.

The book concludes with guarded optimism for human rights possibilities:
“Given the disposition of both the Guatemalan and Mexican states to respond with overwhelming force to perceived threats from the Mayas, we might recommend, for now, the continued capacity of human rights to establish a common medium through which Mayas communicate differences, cooperate across ethnic boundaries, an compete for the resources of both the state and the international community.”

Filed under Book Reviews, Pedro Pitarch, Shannon Speed, Xochitl Leyva Solano