The Guatemala of Elmar Rojas
“ My land is not an exotic land. It is a matinal land whose deepest charm lies in popular creations and expressions, beyond any picturesque evolution” Luis Cardoza y Aragón. El Rio
Within this small parcel of land, nature itself offers contrasts: being “recently” emerged continental portion in American geological formation, it shows in its luxuriant flora and the typology of its -still fresh- strata, the strength of a new soil open to fecundation and filled with genetic ferments of procreating and ecological richness. It is also a contrasting country regarding its topography. At the center of a sort of high plateau, which plunges on two sides through steep into the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, mountain massifs and volcanic cones emerge everywhere, raising this highland area until it becomes so cold that temperatures lie its continental latitude.
But it is precisely in the social dimension where it offers more contrapositions. This small Central American nation is nowadays the most indigenous country in America as to ethnic composition. In Guatemala, with almost 10 million inhabitants, there are 6 or 7 million Indians ( who speak 24 different languages, which results in a complex fabric of language meanings and world perceptions). One third of the inhabitants are mestizos and a very small fraction has Spanish Creole or foreign ancestors, although it also has -perhaps without admitting it- mestizo blood. The vast majority of Indians are poor. Mestizos, in a abridging and schematic perception of their reality as a group -undoubteddly, a generic reality, although needed to basically explain our cultural problems- appear as middlemen.
Land of green trees, valleys, hills,
Jungles, volcanoes, green lakes,
Green beneath the blue cloudless sky
Miguel Angel Asturias
As a cultural link or means of communication and confrontation- without mutual exclusion -between the large absent majority; alienated from social life- namely, the Indians – and the minority that holds power and wellbeing. These middlemen form a vast set of “nominally” Castilian- speaking middle layers and values from a culture that not only is in the process of being created, but also is definitely the result of a synthesis. The mestizo carries and accumulates a huge cultural estuary involving the very material fact of the white-Indian crossbreeding process, or mestizaje, which provides him with a biological and social basis, and all the historic derivations of what we identify as Ladino culture ( as opposed to foreign and foreing-like customs which are always presented as alien, to be appropriated). This is what happened since the very moment of conquest and colonization, but was also immediately rushed into the processes of synthesis when the extraordinary phenomenon of mestizaje began.
The basis cultural mestizaje we are talking about is like a tide that brings and returns. One that is dictated by the dynamics of needs and not by voluntary or ideologized choices ( which, by force,will come later when they are expounded as postulates of aesthetic or social theses). Here -at the base of their natural conformation- they are instead the result of more elementary pressures; what Reich would call hunger for reproduction ( through sexual exchange) and hunger for production (the desire to eat). For instance, the adoption of tortillas by poor Spaniards as staple food; or the appropriation of “Castilian” chicken or metal hoes by Quiché Indians. Thus, this mestizaje is neither tragic nor shameful. It does not have any qualifications. It is just a historical fact that began weaving a fabric of unique customs, practices and visions through the force of social events.
Its accumulation through time becomes systematized into a popular culture that does not question this material source, which is responsible for its existence.
It is a primary magma, just as that of every culture and gushes continuously as a synthesis of Indian and Spanish (Western European) cultures. However, with the passage of time, its product is transformed into and transmute these real values into a subject, a basis on which to build an art or an aesthetic expression that will decant and transmute these real values into poetic values: in the case of Elmar Rojas' work, into universal plastic values. It is worth adding that only provisionally we call it popular Ladino culture. It is rather popular: pitch and ferment of this culture's deep substrate. The central issue is – in my opinion- that the Ladino popular space represents par excellence the source of what being Guatemalan is.
This popular Ladino system ( which in the strict sense is already a cultural and not – by any means- a racial reality) conjoins the foreign-cosmopolitan and the local-ethnic countercurrents. It is in this place, inhabited by mestizo and popular elements, where there is an intermingling and synthesis of the meanings that give Guatemalan identity its permanence. But, properly speaking, these do not make this identity. It is the magma that produced such creators as Miguel Angel Asturias, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Carlos Mérida, Jesús Castillo, Jorge Sarmientos, Elmar Rojas and others, who have managed to transmute that reality by upgrading it to an expression of Guatemalan and universal content and scope. Radically away from any reference to local picturesquism or folklorism. Indigenism or unlikely archeological task of “cultural excavation”. Only retaining the guiding thread of the “sandman of our dreams”, referred to by Miguel Angel Asturias in his extraordinary and pioneering “Leyendas de Guatemala”.
This is also the moment to add, not without pointing out that this issue is subject to polemics and even diatribe, that what is Indian today does not mean any more what was originally pre-Hispanic. Indianness would remain unaltered only if it were inert matter, such as a stone or a documentary codex. But not even so.
Overwhelmed by the domination installed since the conquest, Indian values are able to endure; but they are also profoundly modified by the dominator's own culture. There is not such a thing as an unvarying Indian domain. No pure domain. That myth is the expression of vulgar indianism.
No one question that Indian culture exists as a historical differentiation, very much impregnated with segregation and backwardness ( and made essential by a body of indisputable human and moral values and virtues); but is takes place and arises more as a response than as a historic result of the survival of nationalities living in an autharchic and unaltered fashion. Its existence stems from a dialectic that is not without cruelty and illusion.
But, it is exalted and recovered in the survival of the mestizo cultural complex, identified as the popular Ladino, which, as we know, expresses a synthesis that carries its irreplaceable historic contribution. There, another one reappears.
In the popular Ladino sphere, antagonizing meanings are inevitably found and solved in functional syntheses, which are preceded by the strength of real life needs rather than by some subtle precipitation, anticipated, foreseen or designed as to its results. Guatemala's parlance itself -the castilla- spoken by Indians and Ladinos of popular extraction, is a suitable and eloquent example. It contains a chromatism and richness that makes it strongly different from other regional parlances. Undoubtedly, this is result of words and forms, contributed by the Indian culture's languages and idiosyncrasy, from which it receives a shapely stream of terms, turns and idiomatic expressions. In addition, the very structure of basic forms of address among social subjects, which -among other examples- exhibits the familiar pronoun “vos” (thou) as an “alternative” treatment of the second person singular (different from “tu” (you). Answering other needs dictated by social reality) is unique, in this mode, in the world.
Also as a paradigm of the mestizo synthesis, from original Indian contributions, is the appropriation, within the language structure og Guatemalan literary creation, of narrative forms used by pre- Hispanic literature classic works. We are referring to that reservoir of myths in this region of the world known as the Popol Vuh and also to chronicles written by Indian analysts after the conquest, intended to preserve their memory for posterity; such as the Annals of the Xabil (Sololá Memorial) and the Title of Totonicapan's lords. This style of narration with its unique – and even palpitating- rhythm has been grafted on to such narrative forms as those of Asturias himself, or in extraordinarily original stories, as those of López Valdizón in “ La Vida Rota”, where it becomes revitalized in the new cultural Guatemalan dimension.
Moreover, we have to concur that imprints left by these possibilities, similar to just retrieving from a torrent the crystals formed by its inaudible murmur, are found shining and instructing in the unsurmountable work of Luis Cardoza y Aragón. His absolute devotion to mestizaje, found in his works on American art theory, such as “Apolo y Coatlicue”, and his Ladino, hallucinating and devoted exegesis of: “Guatemala: las líneas de su mano” ( Guatemala: the lines of its hand), only confirm these evidences.
Guatemalan elements appear as a synthesis. Always as a result whereas, in contrast, Indian elements are the subject matter. A starting point to “ return to the future”.
That is how it luminously appears to us in the plastic work of ELMAR ROJAS. Which are the formal delights of Guatemalan tradition immanent in his paintings?