Joseño: Another Maya Voice Speaks from Guatemala


IGNACIO BIZARRO UJPÁN (edited and translated by James D. Sexton): Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

The fruitful cooperation between Ignacio Bizarro Ujpán and James D. Sexton, initiated some thirty years before the publication of their latest effort, has produced four volumes: Son of Tecún Umán: A Maya Indian Tells His Life Story (1981); Campesino: The Diary of a Guatemalan Indian (1985); and Ignacio: The Diary of a Maya Indian of Guatemala (1992). The volumes follow the daily life and activities of Bizarro Ujpán, an important member of the highland indigenous community of San José la Laguna. While Son of Tecún Umán proved innovative and fresh when first published, testimonial literature has since come under fierce attack, as evidenced by the controversy over the writings of Rigoberta Menchú. David Stoll, and before him Dinesh D'Souza, has questioned the veracity of the information contained in Menchú's account and the role of Elisabeth Burgos as editor. At the heart of that debate lie questions of memory, the use of single indigenous informants, and the methodology of collecting and editing personal journals for presentation as narratives. Sexton tries to set himself apart from that controversy by presenting an explanation of the methodology employed in gathering information. But, ultimately, the work mildly suffers from a lack of background information on the events described, and from Bizarro Ujpán's self-portrayal as a humble member of his community.

Divided into subsections that revolve around momentous personal events such as the birth of a grandchild and community upheavals like the death of a guerrilla operative and the challenge of Pentecostal faiths to the dominance of the Catholic Church, Joseño covers the period from July 1987 to August 1998. Concurrently, the work also contains discussions of events that unfolded in earlier times, and how events of national importance, mainly heard over the radio, impact and are discussed among community members. The book's content reflects what Bizarro Ujpán considered important at the time of writing, in a way reminiscent of the centuries-old indigenous annals that recorded occurrences in a matter-of-fact mode. The smooth narrative, whether the result of Bizarro Ujpán's constant writing or Sexton's careful editing, makes for informative, engaging and entertaining reading.

Bizarro Ujpán did not witness first hand all the events transcribed in the volume. Occasionally, he resorts to re-telling events heard from someone else. To warn the reader, Sexton carefully uses the mechanism of a quasi-disclaimer to avoid confusion, and, perhaps as importantly, to avert future criticism hinging on whether accounts are first or second hand. Bizarro Ujpán often writes phrases like "according to the story" to clearly differentiate between what he witnesses and what he hears. In addition, he meticulously records whether the "stories" originated with community members or with the ever present and near ubiquitous radio transmissions.

Throughout the book, Bizarro Ujpán reminds readers that he neither supported guerrilla activities or the military repression that haunted Guatemala in general, but indigenous towns especially, during the cycles of internecine violence that lasted for decades and only recently ceased as a result of a peace process. He carefully presents guarded commentary on the political nature of the bloodshed and reflects on how that violence has visited residents of San José la Laguna. Past experiences with violence, even if only heard from someone else, color Bizarro Ujpán's writings. Given the perpetually unstable political situation in Guatemala, his reticence to forcefully commit or to strongly condemn the actions of one group or another makes a great deal of sense.

Throughout the book, Sexton engages in the practice of not glossing words with easily understood cognates. While some terms, to better retain their essence and effect, are best left in the original Maya or Spanish, not translating words like hombres (men) and contadores (electric meters) does little more than create a sense of The Other. Clearly, Sexton does not intend that on purpose, but the reader does not need a constant reminder of the foreignness of the text. Not glossing words without specific or ritual meaning reinforces a sense of exoticism that does little more than detract from Bizarro Ujpán's narrative.

Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult, at least for this reader, to consider Bizarro Ujpán as just another humble member of his community. Not only has he held important church and civil positions in his town, but also he receives royalties for the volumes he has published in cooperation with Sexton. Bizarro Ujpán, by the standards of industrialized nations, does not occupy a privileged economic position, but by the norms of his community, it seems likely that he outranks most of the townspeople. His unique position as an internationally recognized person also contributes to a higher status as well. It thus follows that Bizarro Ujpán's worldview differs vastly from other members of his community that have not had the same opportunity to have their testimonials published.

Readers learn not only of events that transpired around Bizarro Ujpán, but also of his dreams and hopes. His account contains not only ethnographic information but also the wisdom gleaned from years of tribulations. Bizarro Ujpán and Sexton end their latest collaboration with poetic words: "We people are exposed to the sufferings of life, we have to bear them. We cannot escape from them." On the whole, Joseño stands as a solid contribution to the genre of Central American testimonial literature. It serves as an excellent closing to the volumes that follow the life of a unique individual that straddles both the modern world and the traditional world of the indigenous community of San José la Laguna.

Robinson A. Herrera Florida State University




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