Mayan Guatemalans disenfranchised because their government can't spell?

As elections loom, Mayan Guatemalans are unable to get correct ID cards that will soon be required to vote.  Among the purported explanations: the government can't spell Mayan names.

By , Correspondent

  • close
    Guatemalan indigenous supporters arrive during a campaign speech by presidential candidate Otto Perez Molina in Chichicastenango, 87 miles northwest of Guatemala City on November 3, 2011. Guatemala will elect a new president on Sunday with two candidates facing off in the second and final round of voting.
    View Caption

In January 2010, Ajpub’ Pablo García Ixmatà applied for a new national ID card in his native Guatemala. He wanted to be sure he had all of his documents in order ahead of the country's presidential election.  A month later he returned to the local government registration office, but his ID wasn’t there. Mr. García Ixmatà’s application couldn’t be processed, officials told him, because of the Mayan spelling of his name.

García Ixmatà is just one of the more than 400,000 of Guatemala's indigenous voters affected by ID card issues, according to Carlos Guarquez, director of the Guatemalan Association of Indigenous Mayors. The government decided to allow citizens to vote in the current presidential elections – the second round of which will be held Sunday – using other forms of identification.

But the problems are indicative of the difficulties Guatemala continues to face in integrating its native populations and restoring national unity, 15 years after the end of its civil war. “There is institutional discrimination regarding all public processes,” says Kelsey Alford-Jones, director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA.

Recommended: Default

'Just an apostrophe'

During Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, identity played an undeniable role. The indigenous population bore the brunt of the violence, with a United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission report stating that 83 percent of the victims of Guatemala’s civil war were indigenous. Even though indigenous groups, including 4.4 million Mayans, make up nearly 50 percent of Guatemala’s population today, they face ongoing barriers to accessing government services, says Ms. Alford-Jones.

The RENAP national registry was set up in 2007 to create and disseminate the new national identification card, called the DPI. The transition to a more sophisticated ID card, complete with an embedded data chip, is meant to guarantee citizens’ rights to identification, and the government services and protections that accompany that right. But, with corruption scandals and an audit by the Organization of the American States (OAS), which led to the required correction of over 2.9 million ID cards, RENAP earned a reputation for incompetence.

But Tulane University Professor Judith Maxwell fears RENAP's inability to support the proper spelling of Mayan names goes beyond government inefficiency.

“Mayan names usually contain a symbol in them, which is not found in the standard Spanish alphabet,” says Dr. Maxwell, who has worked as a linguist, teaching and preserving indigenous languages in Guatemala, since 1973. “But it’s basically just an apostrophe … you can’t tell me those symbols aren’t on a computer.”

Maxwell worked with a team of linguists to standardize the Mayan alphabet after Guatemala’s civil war ended in 1996.

“One of the principles we used is they’ve got to be all symbols that are readily available on a standard keyboard,” says Maxwell. “I believe the government is inefficient, but I think that this is systematic discrimination.”

Rolando Yoc, the director of public policy and conflict resolution programs at Guatemala's Human Rights Investigator’s Office disagrees. He believes it’s a lack of cultural understanding that led to the majority of registration mistakes in indigenous communities. For instance, in some towns in the east of Guatemala, people have last names that are often used in Spanish-speaking communities as first names. As a result, registry employees might unintentionally mix up the order of the names.

“For example, the name Renato Pedro. It sounds like two first names, when really Pedro is the last name,” Mr. Yoc says. “When a registry employee writes it that way, it shows their cultural predisposition.”

Bureaucratic obstacles

But DPI mistakes aren’t limited to the spelling of Mayan names, and can range from incorrect addresses to marriage status or date of birth.  Cristiana Zibermann de Lujan says RENAP’s mistakes reach the entire Guatemalan population.

Originally from Spain, Ms. Zibermann de Lujan married a Guatemalan and has lived in the country for over thirty years. She spent months last year trying to fix a mistake on her new DPI. The registry listed her birth year as 1711, which would make her an impossible three hundred years old. She hired someone to take care of the lengthy bureaucratic process of correcting her ID, something she acknowledges is a luxury many Guatemalans don’t have.

“I’m scared when it comes to doing any paperwork in a public office in Guatemala,” she says. “And I’m an educated person who understands the process and can protest. But there are a lot of people who wouldn’t dare question a government office.”

Mayans hardest hit

Nonetheless, Guatemala’s indigenous population is hardest hit by RENAP’s disorganization, according to Yoc.

“Most problems and complaints have come out of departments that are majority indigenous, which is at least seven or eight departments in Guatemala,” Yoc said during an August 2011 interview in his Guatemala City office. “It’s complicated… the [registry’s] service and the DPI is supposed to benefit the population and make things easier, but instead it’s become a complication.”

The difficulty many Mayans face in obtaining a new ID could affect their civil and social rights across the board come 2013, when the DPI will be required to register for marriage, enroll in a public university, vote, apply for a passport and any other civil, administrative or legal service in Guatemala.

Part of the reason Mayan communities are hit hard by the registry’s errors is that many can’t read or write Spanish. An estimated 77 percent of the indigenous population is illiterate, according to the International Development Research Center. In some cases these citizens aren’t aware their information was misrepresented in the first place.

Guatemala has the largest indigenous population in Central America. Though there have been international advances in indigenous rights in recent years, such as the 2007 United Nation’s Declaration on the Right of Indigenous, this doesn’t translate to immediate changes for local populations. Implementation is key, and Ms. Aflord-Jones of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA says getting more Mayans elected to political office is an important first step to accomplishing this.

“The indigenous population is highly underrepresented in public office and elected positions,” said Alford-Jones. “This means there’s no one beholden to the Mayan populations and their needs.”

Room for improvement

RENAP, which has offices set up in different departments throughout Guatemala, made important improvements since its inception. Based on recommendations from the OAS’ six-week audit in 2010, RENAP worked to adapt a regulatory framework, strengthen its technological components, and train staff. But the registration process is still far from perfect.

García Ixmatà finally received his DPI two days before the September 11 elections this fall. There was an error in the number printed on the back of his card, though, which is supposed to correspond with his outgoing ID. So, García Ixmatà refused to accept his DPI, and continues to wait for an identification card that correctly reflects his personal information.

He says the simplest solution may be to hire indigenous employees who speak the local language in predominately Mayan departments.

“If they just asked questions in the applicant’s own language there would be far less misunderstanding,” García Ixmatà said. “But instead they are sending people from other areas that don’t understand the names, aren’t invested in the community, and are writing things down incorrectly.”

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...