Being gay and indigenous can mean facing double discrimination, including from within the communities they belong to. But LGBTQ+ indigenous people in Guatemala are liberating their sexuality and reclaiming their cultural heritage.
CANTEL — Enrique Salanic and Arcadio Salanic are two K'iché Mayan gay men from this western Guatemalan city
Fire is a powerful symbol for them. Associated with the sons and daughters of Tohil, the god who bestows fire in Mayan culture, it becomes the mirror and the passage that allows them to see and express their sexuality. It is a portal that connects people with their grandmothers and grandfathers, the cosmos and the energies that the earth transmits.
Enrique and Arcadio say that they see in the flame of fire the light that illuminates their way to liberating their sexual orientation.
In the case of Enrique, from the age of 23, he decided to live his human experience from the perspective of Mayan spirituality: "I discovered an important difference. In religion, it is either white or black, but in Mayan spirituality, you live from what your heart and the fire tell you and you make that decision.”
Arcadio thinks the same thing: "I feel in spirituality my vital force to live as I am, to continue believing that I can contribute so that the world is different, less dangerous for everyone, and I discover that in my nahual (tonal animal counterpart), it is my guide.
Making the invisible visible
At a cafe in the historic center of the nearby city of Quetzaltenango, Enrique Salanic tells his story. His voice is serene and remains stiff, although sometimes a smile slips through. "Since I was little, I knew what it was.” Enrique is 29 years old and identifies as a Maya K'iche' gay man.
He was born and raised in Cantel, located 210 kilometers from Guatemala City. From any point of the small town, you can see the Santa María volcano, which is covered in snow between December and February.
That is the town where Enrique also sets the internal fire that he now considers the pillar of his freedom to express his sexual orientation and his art as a film and theater actor. Enrique is known for playing the main character of the film, Jósé, which was released in 2018.
It tells the love story of two young homosexuals and is directed and written by Chinese director Li Cheng, who said in an interview that he decided to film in Guatemala and with indigenous Guatemalan actors, after an investigation he did on the most homophobic and racist countries in Latin America. Enrique sees this film production as a way to make the indigenous LGBTIQ+ community visible.
Although he now lives openly in his hometown, it was not always like that. The process of accepting and recognizing himself happened outside Cantel and Guatemala. When Enrique was 15 years old, he won a scholarship to study the international baccalaureate in Canada, where he also studied acting.
Mayan ceremonies were the places where he claimed his identity as a gay man and an indigenous man.
"It was like a bucket of cold water because they told me that feeling that [emotions and attraction] for another man was normal." Enrique now says this very calmly, but he remembers that those days of personal discovery meant a period of great fear for him.
Canada was the place where he discovered himself. His nahual and the Mayan ceremonies were the places where he claimed his identity as a gay man and as an indigenous man. Enrique says that he understands his life, his mission, his profession, his dream and his sexual-cultural identity from the experience of his nahual.
“The nahual, in the Mayan worldview, is the channel of communication and connection with the energies of the cosmos. It is the energy-spirit of each person, which illuminates, inspires, guides and harmonizes life”. This is how Ana Puac, Aj'quij' (a Mayan priestess) explains it, who was consulted to better explain the processes of Mayan spirituality.
Creating your own path
It is 5 in the morning, and the cold of Cantel contrasts with the warm colors of the candles that light the elements of the Mayan altar. Incense, poom (a type of turpentine), Ocote bark (a central American tree), panela (whole cane sugar), sweets and chinchines (jar rattle) provide the smells and sounds to the Mayan ceremony that Enrique is about to start.
“It is a moment to connect with our grandmothers and grandfathers. The most important thing is to have the willingness to experience it,” says Enrique as he adds more candles to his altar, as part of the ritual that helps Enrique connect with himself.
The actor goes on to explain that a ceremony presupposes the willingness and desire to experience fire as an incandescent element. The flame of fire is seen from the Mayan worldview as the one that generates the connection with the heart of the sky and the heart of the earth, so people tune in with the desires of their hearts to connect with that energy.
“Connecting with your own energy is not only understanding the meaning of life, but feeling that what you live and do has a purpose. It is like feeling that your own self and what is around you are confirming that ‘yes, this is you and you are creating your own path’.”
Enrique Salanic preparing the altar for a Mayan ceremony
The search to vindicate their sexual orientation through the spirituality that emerges from the fire that is lit in the ceremonies is something that has been passed down from other generations. Arcadio Salanic, a 52-year-old Maya K'iché gay man from Cantel, also discovered himself that way, but his life and struggle are different from Enrique's.
“I talk to my nahual every day. It is the energy that balances me. I feel that it is like another person who accompanies me, guides me and protects me from difficulties. It is like feeling an internal force that accompanies and inspires you. This experience sometimes cannot be explained, but it is lived.”
In this way, Arcadio describes how he has faced double discrimination: in his community for being gay and in other spaces and places in Guatemala for being indigenous.
Arcadio discusses how he felt in other spaces of the LGBTIQ+ community in Guatemala.
"It is not the same to be an indigenous gay as a ladino gay (crossbred of mixed European ancestry), because they look for you because of your beautiful body, because of your lighter skin color, because of your homogeneous beauty and when someone is dark-skinned like me, they don't accept you."
Arcadio is an indigenous leader from Cantel and he says this is one of the most conservative municipalities in Quetzaltenango. His leadership and constant political and social participation have not prevented him from being discriminated against and he has received death threats for freely expressing his sexual orientation.
Threats of violence
Discrimination and threats made him seek support from other people in the LGBTIQ+ community, but he didn't always find acceptance, which led him to find his own way of working for human rights from his cultural identity. So he began working to create the LGBTIQ+ organization, K'ab'awil, which means "double view or duality".
This organization is made up of gay and indigenous men from Quetzaltenango. Its objective is to promote the pride of the indigenous LGBTIQ+ community. Arcadio says that his main focus is to reduce violence against the Mayan LGBTIQ+ community because due to their sexual orientation, they face discrimination even from their own K'iché neighbors.
This new organization represents the duality of the human being, he says. They believe that by organizing themselves, they can defend "their masculine and feminine side", while through their spiritual connection with the Mayan worldview, they find the strength and conviction to face discrimination due to their sexual orientation and racism.
As of October 2022, the Public Ministry (MP) received a total of 97 complaints of violence against the LGBTIQ+ community in Guatemala. The MP does not record cultural identity, because this is not considered in how complaints are filed. However, nine of the people who went to the MP after having been victims of an act of violence due to their sexual orientation and gender identity self-identify as Mayan indigenous people.
Lambda, an organization that defends and assists the LGBTIQ+ population, reports more than 25 murders in 2022, but the MP only reports one homicide.
Dissidence not diversity
The Kaqchiquel Mayan academic and gay filmmaker, Marco Chivalan, points out that Mayan gay people are seen as a minority within the LGBTIQ+ community, as a non-existent group and he considers that this is also a type of racial violence. "I prefer to say dissidence and not diversity. This is a Western term and it does not fully reflect our existence as dissident people," says Marco.
The academic explains that dissidence refers not only to being different and diverse, it’s also a concept that deals with altering an already established conception of "being a man or being a woman", or even what it means to be a person and how to express your sexuality.
"Dissidence because it gives strength and energy to the definite decision to live according to what you decide and not according to what is imposed by society or the LGBTIQ+ community itself."
Chivalan says that it is an exclusion that the indigenous peoples have carried over from the Spanish colony. “The social imaginary about sex from the colonial perspective is seen only from the heterosexual ideals and the search for the ‘improvement of the race’. This glorifies marriage as a safe mechanism to preserve ‘racial hygiene’. So, the ‘sodomite’ is not only frowned upon for being homosexual, but above all for his racial background.”
This article was published in Factor Cuatro and re-published in partnership with Worldcrunch.
This investigation made possible with the support of the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) as part of ¡Exprésate! in Latin America.