Complementary Duality and the Popol vuj: Patriarchy, capitalism, and dispossession

SOURCE: Originally published and with authorization of La Revista de la Universidad de México, and the authors. English translation by Awasqa.

Interview by Yásnaya Aguilar to Aura Cumes

YÁSNAYA: From the point of view of community feminism, when the colonial order was established, there was a confluence between ancestral and Western patriarchy; other positions maintain that it is not possible to speak of the existence of an ancestral patriarchy; still others say that it did exist but that it was a low-intensity one. What is your position on this?

AURA: There is a persistent urge to impose Western notions on our sensemaking of the world, and that occurs with patriarchy. Such view forgets that societies are built on different times and spaces. Patriarchy is a system that places men and the masculine at the center of existence, but that takes place in specific societies, under a particular history.

I find that at its core, “Western” patriarchy built the idea of ​​man as a synonym for human being, and the idea of ​​being human as the equivalent of man, and he did so through destruction, blood, and death for several centuries. When man as a subject, not the people but man, appropriates the meaning of being human, he does so by creating antitheses whom he submits, makes inferior, and deprives. The first antithesis were women, differentiated on the basis of sex and ranked as inferior.

In the same way, man dissociates himself from nature, whom he feminizes; from this, he endows himself the power to discover it, penetrate it, torture it, and turn it into merchandise. Even the Bible gives man the power to “lord over” nature, but science also takes these postulates as part of its foundation. It is very paradoxical that we say “Mother Nature” because in our sensemaking of the world there is no dissociation between human being man and something called nature. But it is also essential to remember that the man who is synthesizing the idea of ​​being human for himself, also sets differences between him and other men, Moors, Jews, and later “blacks” and “indians”.

The European patriarchy was not built on ideas alone. The inferiorization of women through gender made it possible to question any power they had. How could they have healing powers, the ability to support their families and leadership in their communities if they were weak and inferior? So it was how the monarchical, ecclesial, and feudal power, through the inquisition, decided that women’s power could only come from the devil. This is how a large number of women were publicly persecuted, tortured, and burned for at least 800 years, much more ferociously between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, a period that coincides with the colonization of our peoples.

If we say that patriarchy is colonial and colonialism is patriarchal, it is because the colonizers already brought with them a form of patriarchy and experimental capitalism that, as I said, was forged through the murder of women, the destruction of peasant community life, the persecution of heretics, Moors and Jews.

The European patriarchy is built on the genocide of women. As other researchers have already said it, this occurs during a fundamental historical moment, when feudalism is founding capitalism. Therefore, when one talks about how ancestral patriarchy existed in our societies, it is necessary to explain what it consisted of. Is it the same as Western patriarchy, easily merged and pieced together? Because there is no evidence that our men carried out a genocide of women in our territories. There is already a great difference there, moreover, in terms of the roots of indigenous thought, according to the sensemaking of our world as contained in our languages, men are not at the center of everything.

If there was no patriarchy, was there a subjection of the feminine to the masculine? You speak of a patriarchal colonialism and a colonial patriarchy. Why is it necessary to see it from that perspective?

The categories of feminine and masculine are also problematic. We use them when we talk about the colonial moment and thereinafter, not before, because both are configured in the Western world as man and woman beings based on differentiated and hierarchical roles. It is very difficult to find that in our languages, although I do think being a woman and being a man have different meanings.

If we say that patriarchy is colonial and colonialism is patriarchal, it is because the colonizers already brought with them a form of patriarchy and experimental capitalism that, as I said, was forged through the murder of women, the destruction of peasant community life, the persecution of heretics, Moors and Jews. Upon arriving here, they organized societies based on those premises, where there is a human subject that exists to legitimately subdue, kill, take away and accumulate: that subject is man, who has stolen for himself the idea of human ​​being. Let us remember that these “human beings” denied such a condition to the inhabitants of the Original Nations in the 16th century.

Our people were subdued by force to this colonial logic. Capitalism takes on a specific racial meaning here because it did not subjugate the poor; it was instead subjugating those they called “Indians”, including women whose lives are doubly devalued for reasons of race and of sex, which gives colonial and patriarchal capitalism a double possibility of dispossession and, by defining them as rural, creates a triple possibility of dispossession and accumulation.

In Europe, the capitalist patriarchy devalued women along with everything they did and salaried men’s work, exclusively, without considering that in order for man to be fit for work, someone had to prepare his food, wash his clothes, take care of his children, and so on. Capitalists paid this man a salary that did not recognize the efforts of the family unit; moreover, man had been inoculated with the idea that he was superior and, therefore, occupied that place of wage earner.

Our people were subdued by force to this colonial logic. Capitalism takes on a specific racial meaning here because it did not subjugate the poor; it was instead subjugating those they called “Indians”

With colonization, this logic was transferred to our territories through the idea of ​​the “tributary Indian;” colonial laws said that only men had the obligation to pay taxes, not women. This is terribly misleading. Who was harvesting all that tribute? Women, girls, and boys. Colonial law said that only men would be forcibly relocated, but in reality, women were as well. When haciendas were established during the colonial liberal republican era, the idea that only men were paid was perfectly functional for the liberals. Indigenous people had to work in the haciendas with their families, but they received only one salary, the salary of men.

Farm estates also defined the idea of ​​a colonial patriarch. We are not going to compare indigenous men, heads of a family unit, with those patriarchs who here in Guatemala were Spanish, Creole, German, white foreigners, ladinos and mestizo, but not indigenous. He had the configuration of the State in his body: on the farm he was the State, the judge, the godfather, the right to ius primae noctis. During the “publican” era, when indigenous men fled to the rain forest to escape from forced labor imposed by the farm estate, estate owners would imprison Mayan and peasant women, committing all kinds of violence against them, to pressure the men to return and thus submit to forced labor: What quality of patriarchy could these men have?

The configuration of the colonial patriarch has nothing to do with that of the indigenous patriarch. Since the sixteenth century, when the colonizers took women to be forcibly distributed as nursemaids, servants, to make textiles traded by the Spanish, to grind gunpowder and lime, the men in their families or their partners did not have the capacity to say: “Don’t take them because I’m in charge here, I’m the man.”

When I hear there were two patriarchies coming together, I ask, what did they agree on? What were the conditions of their pact? The idea of a patriarchal confluence might be shocking, but for me, the historical elements are simply not there. Colonial patriarchy is what made possible the extreme dispossession of life in indigenous societies and indigenous families. Our men do not see it that way because they have been convinced of epistemologies of dominance. Patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism have come together so that the dispossession of our peoples can be more extreme.

Diego Rivera. Hunahpú e Xbalanqué, illustration of Popol vuj (detalil), 1931 Library of Congress, Jay I Kislak Collection -fragment.

Many people talk about “women being delivered” to Hernán Cortés as evidence that there was a relationship of domination between men and women. To find an answer you looked back [into history]. Was there then an asymmetric relationship between men and women? Why did you choose the Popol vuj, and what answers are you looking for?

The language used seems absurd to me; it’s the language of dominance. When bloodthirsty Pedro de Alvarado, sent by Hernán Cortés, arrived to Kaqchikel with his people, the principals received them and housed them in the city of Iximchec to understand what was it they wanted to talk about. Alvarado did not have an ounce of ethics, he did not uphold any pact. According to Memorial de Sololá, instead of fulfilling agreements, he destroyed towns right and left, kidnapped Súchil, companion to one of the Kaqchikel leaders. When they saw the atrocities committed, they realized that Alvarado was a man without principles, bloodthirsty without limits, so they declared war on him, which lasted about six years. Alvarado was brought to trial in Mexico, where they asked him why he had kidnapped Súchil; he replied that they gave it to him as a gift, and that’s what ended up being recorded in the official history. It doesn’t say that the bloodthirsty colonizer kidnapped and tortured Súchil, but rather that she was handed over to him.

One thing that is repeated tirelessly is that our people “handed over” women [to the Spanish]; however, if true, that would have happened upon great risk of death, in any case: “You hand this woman over to us or all your people will be destroyed.” This is how deceptive history is, it hides the perverse system of death that set colonization in motion. Later, Pedro de Alvarado declared in court: “I kidnapped Súchil because I could only get to know the secrets of the land through her.” Similarly, they also kidnapped other women and men to subdue the land. There was simply no “handing over” of women on equal terms, through pacts made between men.

Why did I choose the Popol vuj? I would not be able to understand it without a discourse on the world view of Mayan languages today. Several reasons brought me closer to it. On the one hand, someone invited me to comment on a text that he/she wrote about this ancient book, and I did not agree with everything. I read it again and found such precious items there and thought to myself: “I’m missing out on so much for being entangled in ethnic studies that hardly stimulate me!”

We were polytheists to them, that is how they understood us, because we are not a world of one like the Western world, which is always obsessed with one god, one truth, one reason, one history, one language. The West cannot live with the “pluri”.

I also remember that in Mexico I heard an archaeologist make a translation of the Popol vuj that I did not agree with; she mentioned a segment of the Kiche society creation story: “This is the beginning of when man and the nature of men were created.” I wondered why she was translating as man something that in our languages is winak [person]. Through that translation, which seemed insignificant or irrelevant at the time, she was transferring the Western androcentrism to our world. It was a serious issue to me, but it is a very common translation. So I started wondering what the Popol vuj says about the founding of our communities. This coincides with the idea proposed by several feminists, who have said that if we want to understand whether or not there was patriarchy in a society, we must go to its founding myth or story.

If we go to the Adamic myth, it is very evident. A man god created Adam and from his rib came Eve. That patriarchy is supported by the Bible. But in our founding stories, how do women and men emerge? According to the Popol Vuj, about eleven couples who represent everything that gives life, summon themselves: the heart of heaven and earth, the rivers and lakes, small and large animals, women “deities” and men “deities,” among others. All those that already have life summon each other to make winak, people, not man. Furthermore, the Creators and Trainers are not one, nor is he a man, it is everything that surrounds us, what gives us life is plural; when energies are mentioned, they come always in pairs.

One can clearly see the idea of the pair in today’s rituals; we always say thanks by calling upon Matiox che k’a tit k’a mam [thanks to our grandmothers-grandfathers], Matiox che k’a te k’a tat [thanks to our mothers-fathers], and women’s energy precedes that of men. It is a completely different meaning of life from the Western view. In the creation of life story we never find man at its center or by himself. The generation of life occurs in pairs, and not always in pairs of women and men, but in pairs that are closer to one another: the lake and river pair, for example. Creation reflects the “poly”: we are a world founded on the plural.

The other day I was chatting with a spiritual guide who told me: “I am proving to Westerners that we have one god as well”, and I said to him: “I am proving to them the opposite.” We were polytheists to them, that is how they understood us, because we are not a world of one like the Western world, which is always obsessed with one god, one truth, one reason, one history, one language. The West cannot live with the “pluri”.

Now, the big question is: how did women and men live in these societies in ancient times? We have not done a thorough historical analysis, many of our sources have been destroyed, and it also seems that we cannot read what was left behind. We are historical societies like any other. It seems to me that in what I think have been 20,800 years of existence of Mesoamerican societies, we did not live just one way, surely there were moments of tension and reconfiguration of who we are. The historicization of our societies is a pending issue, but what is very clear is that we cannot say that patriarchy, comparable to the Western one, existed here. Men did not murder, torture, or massively burn women as in Europe. However, the way of understanding ourselves in the time after colonization has been very complicated because men have been convinced by patriarchy and the absurd power that it has left them; but also many women have been convinced of it.

Diego Rivera. Hunahpú e Xbalanqué, illustration of Popol vuj (detalil), 1931 Library of Congress, Jay I Kislak Collection -fragment.

Feminism emerged during a specific point in time, and women’s struggles arose in many places. The fact that they call all women’s struggles “feminism” shows a Western epistemic alleged superiority

So, do you find the idea of complementarity in your reading of the Popol vuj?

In Spanish we could call it “complementary duality”. Duality exists on many sides, but it is bipolar; our idea is that there is a complementary duality that is not the opposite of one another. There can’t be man without a woman, but none is worth more than the other.

There are feminists who have criticized this approach, “Your idea of complementarity is nothing, it has always been like that. The Bible says that women and men complement each other, but women are worth 10 percent and men 90. That is, there can be complementarity in hierarchy. What do you do for this complementarity not to be hierarchical?” Under the Mayan Peoples’ worldview, balance exists as a principle of life, and it allows for overseeing the complementary duality so that, in this case, it is not hierarchical.

I am surprised and wonder: What period of time did our societies live in to have established a language that reflects a worldview that not only includes women but names them before men and does so horizontally? Remember that languages reflect social relationships. Now we have such destructive and hierarchical relationships. In the systems in which we live in, our languages have been rescinded to a world of thoughts, no longer oriented to practice, it seems. The important thing is that they still live in our hearts and, therefore, it is possible to remember them, to place them again in dialogue so that they become our life and political horizons.

The Popol Vuj says that Ixpiyacoc and Ixmucané created the first four men and the first four women out of stone-ground corn dough. These names have the prefix ix, which is exclusive to women. So far I have seen that all the translators of the Popol vuj think that Ixpiyacoc is a man and Ixmucané is a woman, because in their description they are named as twice grandmother, twice grandfather, but no; Ixpiyacoc and Ixmucané are highly respected authorities, who had the quality of mother-father and grandmother-grandfather, but both are women’s energy.

Oyèrónké Oyèwùmí proposes that gender was not an organizing principle of the Yoruba society. From your reading of the Popol vuj, could we conclude something similar for Mesoamerican societies prior to the establishment of the colonial order?

Oyèwùmí finds that gender is a principle that does not explain the ancient social relations in Yoruba societies, but it does explain them and it almost becomes a hegemonic principle after the arrival of international organizations. The same is true in our societies. The explanatory principle could be that we all complement each other, that we are all part of life and of the whole. The principle of existence is not the individual but the pair, through which agreements can be created and life can be built on the poly and the pluri. Gender was not a basic organization of Native Peoples, that comes later.

Diego Rivera. Hunahpú e Xbalanqué, illustration of Popol vuj (detalil), 1931 Library of Congress, Jay I Kislak Collection -fragment.

In regards to the indigenous women’s movement, there is a debate about whether or not to call it feminism. Some call themselves feminists, others assume themselves as community feminists. Yet other, we prefer not to call ourselves feminists. Is it possible to talk about an indigenous feminism?

In Western societies, women’s struggle to subvert the patriarchal system was defined as feminism. Since the supremacist Western thought is not questioned, people assume all women in the world who fight against patriarchy are feminists, but feminism emerged during a specific point in time, and women’s struggles arose in many places. The fact that they call all women’s struggles “feminism” shows a Western epistemic alleged superiority. Like you, I am not an anti-feminist, but I am a critic of colonial feminism. Not all women who make radical criticisms of patriarchy want to call ourselves feminists. In criticizing colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, we are much more than feminists. Because in many cases feminism only accounts for patriarchy without its broader and perverse connection with other forms of domination.

I do not define myself as a feminist because I want to reclaim Mayan epistemologies or “indigenous” epistemologies as a way of achieving autonomy or sovereignty. If I defined myself as a feminist, I would feel in epistemic subordination or subalternity. Is there an indigenous feminism? I could say that there are indigenous feminists, but I do not know if there is one indigenous feminism or several. Community feminism is largely embraced by indigenous women, but others also participate in decolonial, anti-colonial, and anti-racist feminisms. Others, as I have said, do not call ourselves feminists, and we know why we chose not to do so.

From our epistemologies we continue to think about our Peoples, we continue to build community, because we are not only part of them, but we are nations and we are community, that is how we live and how we defend it. There is much work to be done against capitalist, colonial, racist, and patriarchal violence. I am in a thousand things, but I am happy about the possibility of doing and thinking alongside many people.

SOURCE: Originally published and with authorization of La Revista de la Universidad de México. English translation by Awasqa.

Yásnaya Aguilar

Yásnaya Aguilar

Yásnaya Aguilar, Ayutla Mixe, forma parte del COLMIX, estudió Lengua y Literaturas Hispánicas y cursó la maestría en Lingüística en la UNAM. Ha colaborado en diversos proyectos sobre divulgación de la diversidad lingüística, desarrollo de contenidos gramaticales para materiales educativos en lenguas indígenas y proyectos de documentación y atención a lenguas en riesgo de desaparición. Escribe el blog #Ayuujk en la web de Este País. Para leer más sobre la autora, ver “Yásnaya Aguilar: la defensora de lenguas que imagina un mundo sin Estados”

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Aura Cumes

Aura Cumes

Aura Cumes (Kaqchikel, Chimaltenango, Guatemala). Sus intereses de investigación y de acción política giran en torno al análisis de las relaciones y formas de poder y de dominación experimentadas en sociedades fundadas en una historia de colonización como la guatemalteca. Es desde la problematización del hecho colonial que lee las múltiples y entrecruzadas formas de poder y de dominación como el patriarcado, el racismo y el sexismo y las nociones político-analíticas de género y cultura. Doctora en Antropología Social por el CIESAS, México DF. Ha sido investigadora y docente del Área de Estudios Étnicos y el Programa de Género la FLACSO Guatemala. Coeditora de La encrucijada de las identidades. Mujeres, feminismos y mayanismos en diálogo (2006) y de la colección Mayanización y vida cotidiana. La ideología multicultural en la sociedad guatemalteca (2007). Autora de múltiples artículos publicados en revistas nacionales e internacionales.

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