Sunday, September 13, 2009



I used to feel chills when I drove by the Casa Crema, the massive “Cream-Colored House" once home to the Defense Minister and his powerful offices. The Casa Crema was a house of horrors during the 1970s and 1980s. It was a time when students, intellectuals, labor leaders and anyone else presumed sympathetic to the armed left, were murdered by government death squads. Or kidnapped and tortured first, before disappearing forever. Some suffered in the Casa Crema.

A few days ago, searching for the offices of the Academy of Maya Languages, I found myself walking in the direction of the Casa Crema. It is not cream-colored at all, but battleship gray, covering a city block, walls crenellated, with the tiny rectangular windows from which men with guns can shoot, if necessary.

How ironic, I thought, for the Maya Academy offices to be near a place that once served a military that killed tens of thousands of unarmed Maya Indians.

In fact, the Academy of Maya Languages, and a Maya television station, now occupy the Casa Crema itself.

“I bet you thought you were going to be kidnapped, joked a young Maya woman inside, commenting on the building her offices have occupied for 5 years.

The Academy of Maya Languages, established to preserve the country’s 22 indigenous tongues, is part of the Ministry of Culture and Education; a former president gave the Maya the Casa Crema to use. The Defense Ministry has long since moved elsewhere.

The young woman sold me some books. She looked in her late 20s, a child during the heat of the war, which ended in 1996 . She wore the heavy woven blouse, woven belt, and long blue skirt of the Kanjobal Maya. And the black, pointed-toe high heels of a fashionable woman in the capital.

“Can a Maya remain Maya, living in a big city, speaking Spanish, far from her mountain home?” I asked.”

“I can,” said the young woman . “Because I know who I am inside.”

In the office of the director, a Pokomam Maya, it was clear that part of the Casa Crema, at least, once had been something like a home. A fireplace framed in dark wood. Stained glass windows with images of medieval ladies and hunting hounds. On the director’s desk burned incense, its scent filling the room.

All the way back to Antigua, I wondered if there were enough incense in the world to purify the Casa Crema. I wondered why the Academy accepted being housed there. The government hardly backs Maya insistence on a “multilingual, multicultural” nation; I wondered whether it pulled a cynical trick by making the Academy -- dependent for funds on the state -- an offer it couldn’t refuse.

Or whether it didn’t matter at all, to anyone who knew who she was inside.