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Reaching the people

Mayan TV broadcasts in Guatemala

HOUSTON - The time was right. On April 23, a television station that once was the voice of the Guatemalan military dictatorship that had massacred thousands of Mayans showed the glyph of the day from the millennial Mayan calendar and announced itself as ;'TV Maya: Guatemala's multi-cultural station.''

The indigenous people of Guatemala finally had their own television station.

''This is a dream that indigenous people have had for many years: to have a means of communication,'' Mayan Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu told Agence France-Presse at the official inauguration of the station, which was also attended by Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom and other dignitaries.

The station, funded by the Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages (ALMG), broadcasts for 30 minutes, three times a day, showing programs that teach Mayan culture, worldview and language. Its programs are broadcast in indigenous languages with Spanish subtitles.

TV Maya currently reaches four departments of Guatemala, General Director Rafael Morales Irias told Indian Country Today, but the station is planning on reaching the entire country in the future, with three hours of programming a day.

The response to the show has been ''fabulous, both on the national and the international level,'' said Irias, who is Mayan.

The station will be of particular importance, he said, in healing the wounds of the past and creating unity in Guatemala, a country that is 60 percent indigenous, with 22 different linguistic groups of Maya, as well as Garifuna and Xinca.

''We believe it is a transformative axis for the whole society; a focus of union for all the diversity that the country contains. We are separated by distance, but we have points in common, like mathematics and the calendar. We are fighting to establish a common Mayan language in all the regions.''

Before TV Maya, indigenous people in Guatemala had no input into television programming, Irias said.

The seed for TV Maya began with efforts by Guatemalan indigenous groups to bring Guatemala into compliance with the International Labour Organization's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169.

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It continues the country's commitment to peace accords made in 1996, after the Guatemalan military adopted a ''scorched earth'' policy in its efforts to fight leftist guerillas. That policy left more than 200,000 people dead, most of them rural Mayans.

The U.S. government, though aware of the massacres that U.S.-trained military personnel were inflicting on the local population, looked the other way.

Some survivors of the scorched earth policy managed to make their way into Mexico and across the border to the United States as illegal immigrants.

At the height of its power in the ninth century, the Mayan civilization extended throughout what is currently southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras, developing sophisticated technologies in astronomy, writing and the Mayan calendar.

The Spanish conquest of Guatemala in the 15th century began a European and mestizo domination of the ancient Mayan cultures - which originated around 1,000 B.C. - that continues to this day.

But Mayan political power has grown in recent years with people like Menchu, who ran for president of Guatemala last year, giving an international presence to Guatemalan and other indigenous peoples of the continent.

The station is still training people who can work with the different linguistic groups throughout the country, he said.

The biggest challenge, Irias said, is funding. The station receives no government support, and the ALMG receives .03 percent of the national budget to serve all 22 indigenous communities as well as the television station.

But, he said, the station will continue to look for additional funding to be able to maintain and expand the programming, which he believes ''can unite societies to establish values for a future generation.''

''It is an incredible advance for any indigenous people to have its own means of communicating its culture and nationality.''

He hopes the program will unite indigenous people in Guatemala and reach people of Mayan heritage who live in the United States as well as other indigenous peoples of the continent.

Copies of the program will be available to download on the Academy's Web site,