What does the everyday life of an indigenous Guatemalan family look like? Our volunteers Bethany and Marlene share their experiences:
Saqarik! Which means “Buenos Dias!” in the indigenous Maya language of K’iche, spoken in northwestern Guatemala. While spending a weekend in the rural community of Quiejel, we learned a few important words and phrases of this beautiful, yet challenging language. We are Bethany, 31, and Marlene, 29, both volunteers with Maya Traditions, and would like to share with you our experience of spending a weekend in a rural indigenous community!
Yolanda, the leader of the CHUWILA cooperative located in Quiejel—outside of Chichicastenango, commonly known as ‘Chichi’—invited us to stay with her and her family. We wanted to experience the everyday life of our lovely artisan partners while learning the art of backstrap weaving. Yolanda, 35, lives with her husband Esteban and their two children—Ana Mariela and Byron, as well as her mother-in-law, Ana. Their home is made up of three small houses on a simple property within wonderful wide-stretching cornfields. Just above their home is an amazing view over the community and of the mountains surrounding Chichi. Most of her seven siblings live in walking distance.
Life in the community of Quiejel is simple and basic—very different to the town of Panajachel, where we both live while volunteering with Maya Traditions! No shower, no flushing toilet, chickens in the bathroom, adobe floors, no gas stove, rather cooking with firewood–to name a few! Yet, in comparison to many neighbors, Yolanda’s family has a well-equipped house as many families in this area do not have running water nor electricity. We met Yolanda’s neighbor and friend, who spent the whole day washing clothes of other community members in Yolanda’s house, as she doesn’t have access to running water. Yolanda let’s her use her running water so she is able to earn an income to support her family, and in turn, her kids help pick corn from dried corncob’s for Yolanda’s family.
As many of you might know already, corn is the staple of Guatemalan diet. Dried, cooked, and grinded, corn becomes “nixtamal” which can be made into tortillas, used as an ingredient in “atol” (a warm traditional drink), “chuchitos”, “tamalitos”, “tostadas”, “dobladas” and “tacos.’’ The process to prepare these different corn variations happens at Yolanda’s house every day. Corn seeds are boiled for a couple hours with lime (calcium hydroxide) to remove the tough outside of the corn, and then taken to the corn mill, or ‘molina,’ to grind the corn into the dough. From there, the dough is ready to be used to prepare food. One big pot of “nixtamal” can feed Yolanda’s family for an entire day. Incredible!
Life at Yolanda’s house starts around 5-6 AM and ends at 9 PM, just after having dinner around the fireplace in the kitchen. Ana Mariela and Byron both attend school with support from Maya Traditions– Byron in the morning and Ana Mariela in the afternoon, as the schedule of elementary and middle schools in Guatemala differ. Yolanda is a very hard working artisan and spends her days finishing orders for Maya Traditions and other groups she works with, teaching weaving classes, traveling to Panajachel, and taking care of the household duties. She provides support to other women in her cooperative, as she is an expert in planning and calculating brocade designs. On Sundays, Yolanda travels to the market of Chichicastenango to do the grocery shopping for the week. We were able to join her. It’s unbelievable how many bags of fruits and vegetables she can fit in her textile that she is carrying on her back. She told us, that just 13 years ago, she had to walk by foot to the market. It is a hard two-hour hike through the mountains. Today, there are several pick-up trucks at low cost.
The market in Chichi
Her husband Esteban works on the nearby fields. He returns to the house at lunch time to eat with his family. Esteban’s mother Ana lives with the family. At 85, she still actively supports in the household chores: cooking, washing dishes, washing clothes, cleaning. Yolanda told us that she has been used to working her entire life and she just doesn’t want to rest. Even though Ana doesn’t speak Spanish, we had a lot of laughs with her and enjoyed spending time with her. Despite her age and the hard life she’s lived as an indigenous woman in Guatemala, she is such a positive and wonderful individual. She will always be in our hearts.
Ana, Yolanda’s mother-in-law
On our last night, we had a very interesting, new experience. Since there are no showers or bathtubs, we took a bath in a “temascal.” A “temascal” is a small hut made out of adobe with a very small entrance. The inside is heated up with a fire. A pot of water is placed on the fire, and once the water gets hot enough, you go in to bathe–similar to a steam sauna. We had to place a flashlight on the door in order to see what was inside.
The temascal we bathed in
Spending two days with Yolanda’s family was a short, but very rich experience. Besides learning the amazing art of backstrap weaving and creating an awesome handmade table cloth that we wove ourselves, we spent a wonderful time with Yolanda and her family. Life in Western countries can differ each day. It is a lot simpler here. Small surprises are a big thing, as days, weeks, and months pass by with the same activities day by day. But what we saw is that people in rural Guatemala are just like us. They search for happiness, equality, and health. We are glad that we are part of Maya Traditions and able to provide opportunities for these amazing families!