The Maya Q'eqchi'
The Q’eqchi’ are an indigenous Maya people in Central America. Historically, they have lived in the north central mountainous region of modern-day Guatemala, but in the last century many have migrated or been displaced to the eastern lowlands of Guatemala and Belize. The Q’eqchi’ language and culture are alive and flourishing throughout these regions.
A Brief History
Maya civilization began in Mesoamerica around 2,000 BCE. Over the next 3,000 years, Maya city-states developed throughout modern day Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico, western Honduras and El Salvador. Maya city-states had distinctive cultures, but were connected by complex trading routes. They built towering pyramids, played ball games, developed a 365 day calendar system, and wrote with hieroglyphics. It is estimated that at its peak, the population may have reached between 2 and 10 million people. By the year 900 CE, most of the city-states had collapsed due to unknown causes, but the Maya still lived throughout the region.
In 1511, the Spanish arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula to begin their conquest. Over the next two centuries, the Spanish killed, converted, and enslaved the Maya people. The Q’eqchi’ fared better than other Maya cultures during colonization, due to their isolation in the north central mountains of Guatemala. They successfully defended their land against military conquest, but agreed to let a group of friars come preach Christianity. The friars successfully converted many Q’eqchi’ people in peace, so the region earned the name Verapaz or True Peace.
Over the next few centuries, the indigenous Maya were repeatedly exploited for their land and labor. Plantation owners privatized communal tribal lands, forcing the Maya to leave their ancestral land or become workers for the plantation. Then in 1944, a new, democratically elected government began implementing economic and social reform including land reform. This threatened the interests of landowners and foreign companies like the United Fruit Company with ties to the Eisenhower administration. A military coup backed by the United States overthrew the government in 1954, setting the stage for the Guatemalan Civil War which began in 1960 when rebellion broke out.
Violence peaked during the civil war when the government launched Operación Ceniza, Operation Ash, a scorched earth campaign through the northern highlands, including Alta Verapaz. The military attacked Maya farming villages, burned their houses and crops, and slaughtered civilians. The United Nations later classified the military’s actions as genocide. The 36-year-long Guatemalan Civil War ended in 1996 with the signing of a peace accord, but left over 200,000 dead, mostly indigenous Maya.
Today, many Q’eqchi’ families still live in subsistence farming villages in Alta Verapaz. They have managed to maintain their way of life, though they contend with outside forces like foreign mining companies, climate change, and falling crop prices due to globalization. Most are Evangelical or Catholic now, but some still pay homage to Tzuultaq’a’ or local spirits that dwell in surrounding mountains and caves. They elect village leaders who organize community projects and petition the government for the resources they need. The Maya Q’eqchi’ are a resilient, supportive, and friendly people who have overcome much adversity and continue to fight for shared prosperity.
The Q'eqchi' Language
The Q'eqchi' Language
Q’eqchi’ is a Mayan language with about a million native speakers, mostly in Guatemala and Belize. In Guatemala, Q’eqchi’ is mainly spoken in the northern Mountains of Alta Verapaz and the eastern lowlands of Peten and Izabal. Q’eqchi’ is the second largest of the 22 Mayan languages in Guatemala. It is over a thousand years old and descends from the Proto-Mayan language spoken at least five thousand years ago.