Maya in the US – The Maya Heritage Community Project (by Alan LeBaron, PhD)


The Ancient Maya Indians have long fascinated academic researchers and the general public. This interest follows from their many achievements, such as their construction of great cities; their independent discovery of the mathematical concept of zero; their calendars, which achieved high accuracy before those of the Europeans; and their sophisticated system of writing. Indeed, considering the grandeur and mystique of the ancient Maya—known for their abandoned cities in the jungles, with the imposing pyramids, writings in glyphs, and the calendars the image of Maya can appear exotic.  But the descendants of the ancient Maya have not disappeared and currently number about ten million, most of them continuing to live in the approximate areas of their pre-Conquest ancestors in Mexico and Central America.

Several hundred thousand Guatemalan Maya, perhaps half a million or more, have emigrated from Guatemala to the United States and now reside throughout the land; north to south and east to west, in cities, towns, and countryside.  Georgia has home to some 20-25,000 Maya from Guatemala.  If officially acknowledged to be Native Americans by the United States they would add greatly to the US Amerindian population, as according to the 2012 census the Native American population in the United States should number about 5.2 million.   As one single group,  Maya in the USA could possibly be larger than the combined two largest groups of currently recognized Native Americans, the Navajo and the Cherokee.

Maya Guatemalan immigrants to the United States share many common characteristics and experiences with Mexican and other Central American Maya, and in some respects all indigenous Americans, but only in Guatemala do the Maya make up roughly half the national population.  The Maya who we work with in the KSU Maya Project in large part originated from the poorest and most violent areas of Guatemala; indeed, a survey project conducted by the Guatemalan Consulate General of Atlanta and the Maya Project indicated that the great majority of Maya coming to Georgia and Southeast USA were from one of three highly indigenous regions of Guatemala: Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Quetzaltenango.

Inside the United States, the Maya become part of the larger questions concerning immigration policy and immigration justice.  As a new ethnic group in the United States, questions emerge on how they affect previous social and race relations.  For the children of the Maya, it becomes a question of education and how to overcome the limitations of the home life and successfully compete with children of non-immigrant and non-indigenous parents.  In addition, indigenous immigration from Latin America should inspire questions about who belongs to the Latino family in the United States; while reminding us about Latino and Hispanic inter-ethnic and class divisions.  Moreover, for all people in the United States, considering the Maya as Native Americans gives opportunities to re-imagine the debate over immigration and the immigration conflict between Anglos and Hispanics (Latinos) in the United States by remembering that all the Americas have experienced the “original sin” of the conquest and the subsequent oppression of the Amerindians, which continues unresolved in most all areas of the Americas.


“Maya” does not refer to one common people with one language, indeed the Maya family of languages reaches back some 5000 years.  When considering Maya from Mexico and Belize, taken as a whole, there are approximately 30 surviving languages and perhaps 60 dialects, the exact numbers made uncertain by linguistic complexities.  Guatemala recognizes 22 languages inside the Guatemalan nation-state.  Adding to differences would be the particular historic and current situations inside the individual nation-states or regions where the Maya live.  But the variety and differences among the Maya can be overemphasized.   Maya share significant general commonalities or “markers” that help identify them as a people; and give a powerful potential for the Maya to identify with each other.  Significantly, because it adds to the strength behind a broader Maya identity, in the centuries following the conquest the people defined as Maya have continued to live inside the parameters of their ancient lands.  Thus, geographically, Maya continue to live primarily in the historic lands once populated by the Classic Maya, in the nation-states of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.  Linguistically, they speak languages related to the Maya linguistic family.  For many Maya, one of the Maya languages remains the first language spoken among the household; or is the language spoken by older family members.  Economically and politically they have been an oppressed people, their ancestors experienced the conquest and Spanish colonialism. Additionally, Maya have claim to written books and documents such as the Popol Vuh and Rabinal Achi; the visible ruins of great cities and pre-conquest accomplishments; and stellar examples of historic armed resistance.  Governments and businesses in efforts to exploit Maya mystique and uniqueness have added to the public image of the Maya as one group of people.  Moreover, Maya intellectuals and activists in most areas of the Maya world over the past few decades have become powerful proponents for the concept of Maya unity and identity. In sum, a key factor for Maya to overcome historic divisions and imagine cultural or essential unity is to accept a number of unifying characteristics that set them apart from other groups.

Guatemalan Maya living in the United States as refugees, migrants, or immigrants do not escape the disadvantages they previously faced in Guatemala, such as political and social disadvantages, language barriers, and maintaining identity; moreover additional problems result from the complexities of coping with the US immigration system and the likelihood of incarceration and deportation.  This situation becomes more ambiguous with the mixed reception they receive from the United States, where some segments of law and society constantly strive to make survival improbable, and other segments such as churches, employers, and human rights organizations strive to protect.   During the 1980s, when the worst of the fighting occurred in Guatemala, activist groups, often working out of churches, helped Maya apply for refugee status, which gave them authorization to stay and work in the United States while the application remained pending.   Experts on the Maya testified or worked with the courts to promote the Maya as a special case; for example arguing that not speaking or reading either Spanish or English should be an acceptable reason for not knowing the rules of needing to apply for refugee status within one year of arrival.


Maya in Guatemala have a long history of community and community organizing, and in the United States they have established hundreds, perhaps thousands of self-help or hometown associations, promoting such concerns as religion, Maya spirituality, culture, youth education, and general well being.  Maya community organization has existed in the United States at least from the 1980s, and organizations can be found throughout the United States.  Some of the second generations have begun advocating for cultural or Maya self-identity as well.  Most organizations remain small and highly vulnerable to local economies and politics, and most organizations fail to expand and many fail to survive.  Communities try to achieve unity and promote community values, but internal conflict among the leaders appears commonplace.  South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, California, Nebraska, and Massachusetts are states where I have personally known strong Maya organizations.


There is reason to remember that Native Peoples were the “first witnesses” to Iberian and European immigrants; moreover that the injustices inflicted followed by the centuries of injustices have remained foundational to the reality of the Americas.

For large portions of the United States during the last decade or so the primary conversation over race and ethnicity has been focused on the injustices toward the Hispanic or Latino, especially as it pertains to modern immigration.  During the 1950s and 1960s, African-Americans captured the attention of the nation with their civil rights movements, and African-Americans continued in the limelight until the recent shift to Latino and Anglo relations and immigration.  African-Americans might be justified if they were to feel that the unfinished conversations with the Whites might have been pushed to the back burner of the stove by the new Anglo concerns over immigration.  In regard to Native Americans during the 20th century, with certain exceptions of times and places, Native American civil rights and well-being has received scant attention from the general public and the federal government.  Maya struggles for survival, which have continued for 500 years in Middle America and have now reached the USA as part of the highly visible immigration debate, presents an opportunity to remind us of the wounds that still exist throughout the Americas, and think beyond Black and White; or Latino and Anglo; or Black, “Brown”, White; and to propose broader racial discussions represented by Black, White, “Brown”, and “Red”.   Can the United States, or the rest of the Americas, overcome ethnic conflict, prejudice and racism concerning Black, White, Latino, when we continue to ignore or refuse to resolve the continuing injustices perpetrated upon the indigenous peoples?  Conceptualizing the Maya as Native Americans encourages us to look more broadly into the questions of ethnic and racial conflict in the Americas and gives opportunities to re-imagine the immigration debate and the conflicting relations between Anglos vs. Hispanics in the United States.

Essay written by Alan LeBaron Ph.D. 
Professor History and Interdisciplinary Studies; and director of the Maya Heritage Community Project
Kennesaw State University   470-578 6589/2304

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  • Mary on September 14, 2022

    I did a DNA test and I’m part Mayan! I’m NOT Latino. Why are the two synonymous?

    • Gilda Pedraza on September 15, 2022

      Thank you Mary for your comments. In the US, the labels determined by the government for people with heritage from Latin America is Latino. For people that come from countries that speak Spanish is Hispanic. There is unfortunately not label for Mayan or indigenous folks from countries in Latin America. The only labels that “count” for indigenous pueblos or groups are those recognized as Native American or First Nations originally from the US (i.e.Cherokee, Navajo, etc). There is no label to mark for “Maya” when counted at the census, when going to the hospital, when registering in school for example. They lump us all based on our heritage by geographic location. In this case, Latin America because Mayas come from Mexico and Central America. They are no synonymous at all, there are simply no options for categorization in this country. Also, we want to point out that having DNA from a particular ethnicity does not make you a member of the community. Many of us have DNA from African countries, from European countries and from indigenous communities. How we live, what traditions we keep, how we were raise and how we grow up determine in great part how we identify. If we don’t recognize this, they we are appropriating and co-opting into narratives and stories that really not belong to us.


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