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Political and religious change in a Guatemalan community McDowell, Paul Vance

Abstract

This study concerns the political and religious modernization of Cantel, an Indian factory community located in midwestern Guatemala. The two primary concerns of the study were (l) the breakdown of the traditional civil-roligious hierarchy, which occurred between 1946 and 1960, and (2) the emergence of a politicized town government, together with an orthodox Catholic movement and several Protestant sects. The study involved a modification of Wolf's construct of the closed corporate community and his explanation accounting for the breakdown of such communities, which states that local leaders having access to economic and political power at the national level and who pattern their behaviour according to local and national expectations are most likely to effect local structural changes. For this purpose, I conducted work in Cantel from July, 1969 to July, 1970. The field techniques that I employed included interviews conducted with informants of varying ages, supplemented by observations and perusal of official documents available in the town hall, the church, and the National Archives of Guatemala. Local attitudes of distrust toward outsiders prevented the use of censuses and life histories. Nevertheless, I did obtain a consistent body of information, on which basis it was possible to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to modernization of Cantel's political and religious organizations. Until 1946, Cantel contained a civil-religious hierarchy similar to those of other Meso-American communities. It consisted of a graded series of offices, which discharged the secular and religious functions of the community. Service in these offices was unpaid. Service in the cofradias, or religious brotherhoods charged with the religious affairs of the community involved a financial obligation on the part of the office-holder. So did the higher-ranking civil offices. The principales, or elders who had served in offices of the higher echelons, maintained veto power over the decisions made by officials of both the civil and religious wings of the hierarchy. Pressures exerted by Protestant sects from the 1920's onward, the intendente system of direct rule imposed by Ubico in 1935, and the depression all failed to destroy the basic structure of the hierarchy. In 1946, a party sponsored by the labour union, which had been introduced into the factory the preceding year, won half the seats of the municipalidad in an election. Although tied votes prevented the passage of such community projects as improvement of the water supply system and construction of schools, the unionists effectively neutralized the power of the principales. In the 1948 election, the unionists won a commanding majority of seats, effectively removing the principales from power. From 1948 onward, the principales encountered progressive difficulties in recruiting personnel for the cofradias. An ordinance requiring all able-bodied males to serve as mayores, regardless of prior service, removed the incentive of prestige for service in the cofradias. Accion Catolica, whose leaders emphasized that Catholics could express their Christian faith without incurring substantial debt; the Protestants accomplished the same tasks. Social programmes, such as schools and a parochial Medical clinic, reinforced this process. Consequently, the cofradias either folded, were absorbed into Accion Catolica, or survived as independent sociedades. By 1960, the cofradias as such had ceased to exist. The events that occurred in Cantel show how the social defensive role of the civil-religious hierarchy, which had been present in Cantel for at least a century, became vitiated by the growing population pressure upon the land, the opportunities opened up by the union for resident Cantelense workers, and the opportunity provided by Accion Catolica and the Protestant sects for Cantelenses to escape the burdonsome tasks attached to every office of the hierarchy.

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