Avexnim Cojti wants to raise awareness about Maya, a long-practiced spirituality before the Spanish colonizers came to Guatemala.
In Guatemala, a territory that had once nurtured Maya for thousands of years, many Guatemalans are devout Catholics. Yet Cojti represents one of the few who practice Maya.
“I’m not saying mine is better than theirs. All religions are good. The problem is that, as Indigenous people, we have been given this status of evil. There’s a lot of stigma. Even, for example, my mom doesn’t know that I’m living this spiritual life, and [that] I like to be a spiritual guide,” says Cojti. “It’s important to take this stigma off our spirituality. People need to know [this], so that they can appreciate it.”
To this end, Maya Spiritual Rebirth: Towards Self-Determination of Sacred Sites and Cultural Heritage will be presented October 4, at Green College, UBC.
Cojti will speak on the ways Maya peoples are struggling to have Guatemalan State recognition of their cultural rights and spiritual practices.
A stigmatized religion
Maya is something Cojti holds dear to her heart.
“In essence, Maya spirituality is about people’s connection to the land, the time, and with the use of the calendar, it’s pretty much an environmentalist spirituality, I would say. You are not worshiping idols. You are pretty much trying to get connection with nature,” says Cojti, member of the Indigenous Maya peoples.
With a population of 60 per cent Maya peoples in Guatemala, however, only four per cent are Maya in spirituality.
“Before the conquest, we used to live in these cities where we have had our system of self religion. Then after the colonization, there was a huge evangelization process,” says Cojti. “There’s a Catholic and evangelical influence in a lot of Indigenous communities. Maybe 80 per cent or 90 per cent of the population are either Catholic or evangelical.”
Yet the other side of that coin is that Maya has been stigmatized by even Maya peoples themselves.
“[Maya spirituality is taken as] something that’s only practiced in witchcraft. When you want to have easy money, for example, or when you want to make somebody sick or want somebody to have a failure, that’s when people think you would go to a Maya spiritual guide,” says Cojti.
She ascribes this misunderstood legacy to “a way to control ideology.”
“It has to do with the power. In the past, the Catholic church was tied with the state in order to colonize your people. The state had to use the religion to appease Indigenous communities. And also, they had to justify the evil so they could stabilize those people.”
Resonating with Vancouver’s First Nations
Cojti has long hoped to connect Maya with First Nations in Vancouver, where she learned more about her indigeneity.
“I came to study in Vancouver when I was 18. I actually got a scholarship to study Indigenous governance studies,” says Cojti.
She once experienced racism towards Vancouver’s Indigenous peoples, which moved her to work with First Nations communities.
“That’s the only part of the rights that I try to fight for and protect, and that’s when I got connected with my spirituality. Before, I used to be a really good Catholic,” says Cojti with a bitter laugh.
For her, Maya spirituality bears more than a passing resemblance to that of First Nations.
“There’s such a relationship between spiritual people of the First Nations in the Vancouver area with the Maya people. For example, you honor what surrounds, when it comes to our sacred beings,” says Cojti. “The other one is our ancestors. [We believe] people who have passed away live with us, and this is something that we honor in our ceremonies.”