When Diego de Landa burned the books of the Maya in the 16th century, the Spanish Roman Catholic inquisitor thought he could wipe out Indigenous memory. By destroying long sheets of bark paper, he thought he could destroy knowledge conveyed in signs and images that spoke of dreams and wars and people born before Christ, of the movements of stars and frequency of eclipses, of the respect for God in nature necessary to call for timely rain and good corn harvests.
Yet Diego de Landa, in his zeal to destroy what he deemed idolatry, was mistaken. The faith of the Maya wasn't bound in those primitive codices he turned to ash.
Evidence that he ultimately failed can be found every morning throughout the Indigenous highlands of Guatemala and southern Mexico, where Maya farmers rise from their sleep to thank father sun and mother earth for another day.
Though Diego de Landa failed in his campaign against paganism, he shouldn't be forgotten. To write about interfaith relations in Guatemala today leads back to the first encounter between two worlds -- the violence and ethnocide that followed quickly upon Christopher Columbus' journeys to what Europeans called the New World.
Although Diego de Landa, a Franciscan priest, was a fanatic who had his share of Spanish critics, his naming as a bishop shortly after his book-burning rampage indicates he carried out imperial and ecclesiastical policy. It was clearly a period of history marked by fear and arrogance, European sins for which millions of Maya paid with their lives.
By tearing down Maya altars or building their Roman Catholic churches on top of the Indians' sacred sites, and forcing the Maya to convert to Christianity or perish, the Spanish engaged in what some historians call a sacramentalization of Indigenous culture, as opposed to an authentic process of evangelization that seeks to express Gospel values within a culture.
Imposing Christian beliefs produced generations of Maya who became Christians to survive, who went to mass but in their hearts still felt the presence of the sacred altars below the cathedral floor, who practiced what became a syncretic faith mixing their ancestors' faith with elements of the colonial master's religion.