The Language of Ritual

Sergio Romero discusses the politics of sickness and healing
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley and Clare Callahan

In Guatemala, a complex relationship exists between language, ethnicity, and social class. Though the national language of Guatemala is Spanish, many Guatemalan people’s native tongue is a Mayan language. Among these people are the Ixhil, a Maya people indigenous to Guatemala. The Ixhil people suffered persecution during the Guatemalan civil war, from which the country is still recovering. Consequently, many NGOs, including local health units, still focus their efforts on the Ixhil. The distinction between the national and indigenous languages is important because, as Dr. Sergio Romero (Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese) observes, ideas about colonialism and ethnicity are intertwined, formed, and expressed through one’s language. The experience of persecution and the resulting social and political awareness cannot, perhaps, be expressed as effectively in the language of the persecutor.

Dr. Sergio Romero, an HI Spring 2017 Faculty Fellow in “Health, Well-Being, Healing,” is currently conducting preliminary research on language, religion, and ritual in Mayan communities. He is trained as a sociolinguist, but also works in the field of linguistic anthropology. Committed to political activism, Dr. Romero’s research examines how people use language to accomplish social and political goals, and how language marks gender and class differences, as well as political hierarchies. He conducts his research through interviews with native speakers and shares that research with Mayan scholars and activists. Additionally, he frequently gives presentations about his research on language use to teachers and other workers in local communities.

Dr. Romero’s current project focuses on the Ixhil people of western Guatemala, and how these people use language in their religious and spiritual rituals. Specifically, he is examining how language interacts with sickness and healing. Among the Ixhil, healing is performed through language; speech acts are fundamental to healing. Dr. Romero sees sickness and healing—some rituals for which have been repressed—as a site of intense politics. His research asks questions such as: “Who defines sickness?” “Who defines healing?” “Who appropriates whose healing practices?” Sickness, for example, can be understood as both physical and social; failing elements of social order can be repaired through consultation with a shaman. While Ixhil sermon language is spoken by healers, the of ritual is not constrained to its healers. Most people in the community engage in ritual speech acts to accomplish particular objectives. For example, the Ixhil offer particular types of blessings when building a house. Dr. Romero hypothesizes that understanding the Ixhil’s use of language in ritual will illuminate their approach to communication more generally.

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