Ixcanul (2015) and the Precarity of Health Care in Iximulew (Guatemala)

Still from Ixcanul (2015): María Mercedes Coroy (María) in the center and María Telón (Juana) to the left, with the volcano prominently featured in the background

Tiffany D. Creegan Miller, PhD // Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015) is a film about a young Kaqchikel girl who lives with her parents in a humble shack on the edge of a coffee plantation on the slopes of a volcano where she and her father work during harvest seasons. The film was made in close collaboration with the Kaqchikel Maya of the Guatemalan Highlands and stars local Indigenous actors, including María Mercedes Coroy (María) and María Telón (Juana). The first full-length film in the Kaqchikel Maya Indigenous language, the film catapulted Guatemalan cinematography to the international stage. It swept accolades at film festivals across the globe, including the coveted Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2015.

In this film, Western and non-Western health care practices and institutions appear inadequate and problematic as the young protagonist, María, navigates an unplanned pregnancy. After a snake bites the pregnant María in the awän, or milpa maize fields, the family must decide how to heal her. Juana, the girl’s mother, demands that they take her to the hospital in the capital, dismissing her husband’s suggestion to turn to alternative, traditional methods and call for the tata’, or spiritual guide. Seemingly recognizing the dire situation, the family hurriedly descends from the volcano and climbs into the back of a red pick-up truck to make the long journey on the highway from their rural home to the hospital in the nation’s capital. The shaking, hand-held camera techniques underscore the frantic nature of this unexpected trip. Like many Mayas in rural Guatemala, María and her family must travel long distances to obtain Westernized health care, facing unmanageable traffic jams as they drive several hours to the nearest clinic or hospital. The abrupt spatial and formal shifts in camera techniques highlight the tensions between Western and Kaqchikel Maya epistemologies (ways of knowing) informing Indigenous understandings of health care and their bodies, leaving audiences acutely aware of the precarity of health care access for many Indigenous Guatemalans.

As subsequent scenes in the hospital indicate, Mayas face not only the geographical barrier of the volcano, which physically impedes their access to medical services, but also cultural and symbolic obstacles to their health care from the ruling Ladino (mestizo) elite. Throughout Guatemalan history, racism has been a fundamental part of the official discourses and ideology of the state (Casaús Arzú 90). Despite the promises of the Peace Accords to elevate the status of Maya languages (Helmberger 65-86), official discourses of the state—legal, juridical, medical, business, etc.—are in Spanish (Lewis 1994), not in Guatemala’s twenty-four Indigenous languages (Garífuna, Xinca, and twenty-two Maya languages). In this context, Kaqchikel and the other Guatemalan Indigenous languages are seen as antiquated, or backwards, whereas Spanish is viewed as inherently more modern (French 58-68; Maxwell 195-207). Consequently, according to Emily Tummons, Robert Henderson, and Peter Rohloff, the founding members of a Guatemalan-based medical NGO providing healthcare in the Kaqchikel Maya language to rural Indigenous patients, access to healthcare and medical professionals who speak Kaqchikel is extremely limited (127-35).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when María arrives to the hospital in Guatemala City in Ixcanul, she encounters impenetrable language barriers that lay bare Mayas’ symbolic and cultural disenfranchisement from the Guatemalan public health care system. In the hospital, María’s mother frantically calls for an aq’omanel, or a doctor, only for the medical professionals to respond by saying that they do not speak her language. Unable to communicate directly with the medical team treating their daughter, the Kaqchikel parents must trust Ignacio to be their medical interpreter/translator, who is also a Kaqchikel manager of the coffee plantation and María’s fiancé in an arranged marriage. Ignacio, however, proves to be a maliciously dysfunctional cultural and linguistic conduit between the family and the health care personnel, intentionally providing María’s family with incorrect translations. He leads the family to believe that María’s baby has died and convinces them to help María—still lying unconscious in the hospital bed—to sign documents that relinquish the mother’s rights to her child as part of adoption proceedings. This scene reminds audiences of Guatemala’s complicated past marked by intercountry adoptions of Guatemalan children, which increased notably in 1996 and steadily rose through 2008, with the majority of the children eventually adopted into families in the United States (Selman 2009). Further underscoring María’s linguistic alienation in the state-sponsored public health system, the young girl is unable to read and write in Spanish, so she provides her fingerprint instead of her written signature. As this symbolic racism goes hand in hand with the violent destruction of María’s maternal well-being, Ixcanul underscores the irony that for many Maya women, healing is only possible when they are free to reproduce as they please in safe, culturally-respectful conditions.

María and her family are acutely aware of their vulnerability throughout the film, as they are reminded of the power differentials between themselves and Guatemalan society. Representations of Kaqchikel Maya relationships to and positionalities within a health care system that culturally and linguistically alienates Indigenous peoples highlight the intersectional nature of Kaqchikel Mayas’ ongoing oppression in contemporary Guatemala.

Works Cited:

Bustamante, Jayro. Ixcanul, Kino Lorber, 2015.

Casaús Arzú, Marta Elena. La metamorfosis del racismo en Guatemala. Editorial Cholsamaj, 2002.

French, Brigittine M. “The Maya Movement and Modernity: Local Kaqchikel Linguistic Ideologies and the Problem of Progress.” Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Symposium About Language and Society, 12-14 Apr. 2002, Austin, TX, edited by Inger Mey, Ginger Pizer, Hsi-Yao Su, and Susan Szmania, Texas Linguistic Forum vol. 45, 2003.

Helmberger, Janet L. “Language and Ethnicity: Multiple Literacies in Context, Language Education in Guatemala.” Bilingual Research Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, 2006, pp. 65-86.

Lewis, Melvyn Paul. “Social Change, Identity Shift and Language Shift in K’iche’ of Guatemala.” 1994. Georgetown University, PhD dissertation.

Maxwell, Judith. “Prescriptive Grammar and Kaqchikel Revitalization.” Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala, edited by Edward F. Fischer and R. McKenna Brown, U of Texas P, 1996, pp. 195-207.

Selman, Peter. “The Rise and Fall of Intercountry Adoption in the 21st Century.” International Social Work, vol. 52, no. 5, 2009, pp. 575-594.

Tummons, Emily, Robert Henderson, and Peter Rohloff. “‘So that We Don’t Lose Words’: Reconstructing a Kaqchikel Medical Lexicon.” Proceedings of the First Biennial Symposium on Teaching Indigenous Languages of Latin America, August 14-16, 2008, Bloomington: Indiana, edited by Serafín M. Coronel-Molina and John H. McDowell, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Indiana University, 2010.

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