Experiencing Kaqchikel culture is a highlight of a trip to Guatemala. The exquisite woven handicrafts made by the Kaqchikel women were the reason we had come to the Guatemalan village of Santiago Zamora, eight miles south of Antigua. But my husband Tom and I were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by three generations of the Lopez-Hernandez family who offered us a different kind of hand-made artistry: tasty tortillas, hot off the griddle.
Making Tasty Tortillas
Our guide Adolfo Cruz explained the process behind the flavorful finished product. He said families cook corn kernels for a few hours with water and some limestone and then let it sit for one night in a process called nixtamalization. The next morning they take the water out and bring the mixture to a local tortilla mill where it becomes a white mass. That mash is turned into small discs that are cooked in a clay pan to then finally become the tasty tortillas we were wolfing down.
The Lopez-Hernandez hospitality was world-class even as the setting was simple. Like the kitchens of most of the indigenous families in Guatemala, our hosts' was located in an out building with dirt floors. The stove top consisted of a cinder block platform where firewood is the fuel for cooking. With welcoming smiles and graceful fluidity, sisters Sandy and Aracely Hernandez and their mother Maria Juana Lopez moved together in the small space to create a tasty tableau of traditional dishes.
Experiencing Foreign Foods
A highlight of our luncheon was a dish called Pepián, which we were honored to learn is prepared for special occasions in Guatemala. Pepián has been made in kitchens across Guatemala's 22 departments or states for centuries and is a blend of European and Mayan influences. Pepián is stew of chicken, pork and beef smothered in recardo, a rich gravy-like sauce made from roasted tomatoes, chilies, sesame and squash seeds, and cinnamon, served accompanied with rice.
After enjoying the main course, Adolfo presented a "show and tell" tutorial on just a few of the many diverse fruits that grow in Guatemala. He passed around a succulent-looking purple slice he told us is called caimito, or "Star Apple," named for the pattern visible in the pulp. Adolfo said Chrysophyllum cainito is a tropical tree that is native to the Greater Antilles and the West Indies and has spread to the lowlands of Central America. The leaves are evergreen and the tiny flowers are purplish white and have a sweet fragrant smell. The tree is also hermaphroditic (self-seeding) and produces a strong odor. But as promised, caimito does indeed taste like "blueberries and cream!"
Next Adolfo held up what looked like a red pepper; to my surprise, he said it was a cashew, and the fruit of a tropical evergreen that contains the cashew nut—which is actually a seed. The shell of the cashew is used for a wide variety of purposes, from lubricants to paints, and other parts of the tree have traditionally been used for snake-bites and other folk remedies.
Converting Racism to Revenue
As Maria and Aracely began to clear the table, Sandy sat down in front of her back-strap loom to give us a demonstration of the double-sided brocade technique for which the women of Santiago Zamora are known. The backstrap loom is an ancient but complicated device that enables the women to produce complex designs. Made of easily-obtainable materials such as sticks, rope, the name-sake strap is worn around the weaver’s waist. Thanks to the simple nature of the technology, weavers have the flexibility to set up their studio anywhere, any time, allowing them mobility and the ability to multi-task. They can weave outside, at the market or while watching their children or socializing.
As we watched Sandy work, Adolfo said that everything the women wear is still hand-made. He noted that men, on the other hand, began dispensing with their traditional dress many years ago. He explained that one reason is the fact that nowadays Guatemala receives tons of used clothing from the U. S. that is quite cheap.
“But the main reason why men are the ones who have changed is racism,” he explained. “The indigenous groups are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and in this country being indigenous is seen as bad, due to a lot of stereotypes. Since men are the ones who go outside their villages for trading or other reasons, by changing their clothing to western style, they can blend into the dominating group.”
Expanding Entrepreneurship Through Artisans
Crista María Núñez Rouanet is doing her part to make sure that Guatemala’s Mayan women have an economic incentive to take pride in their traditional costumes—and to change the lack of appreciation for the indigenous handicrafts.
Crista had been part of our welcoming committee when we arrived and while I noticed she was the only one wearing western clothing, she seemed to be part of the family. I was surprised to learn otherwise when we struck up a conversation. Crista, 23, said she met Sandy and her family while working as a volunteer for ENACTUS, a worldwide organization that encourages university students to become social entrepreneurs and develop programs that create job opportunities for people.
“While at university, I got involved on the team for two months in 2012 and during this time we worked with the artisans to look at how much money they were receiving versus how much they were investing for each handcraft,” Crista said. “The goal was to expand entrepreneurship by artisans through giving them administrative tools and design knowledge.”
“Nowadays, artisans often do other kinds of work because handcrafts are not valued as they should and they cannot earn a living with that income,” she explained. “Traditional clothing and the techniques to make them are becoming just an old story rather than an experience for young Mayan people.”
“Every week we gave courses to artisans to help them know how much time they were spending on creating each of their products, and how much were they getting from the tourists, their clients, in order for them to visualize how much were they really earning,” Crista said. “They weren’t taking into account how much the materials cost or their transportation or packaging, all the details that it takes to sell the product. We showed them that they were selling under the price that they should, according to Guatemala’s minimum wage.”
“We worked teaching artisans on how much their product actually costs, based on the time they invested in creating it and the market for their handicrafts,” she continued. “As a result, they became aware of the importance of their time. We helped them develop a fair value for their creations.”
“I was asked to be the president of the ENACTUS team for 2013 and we continued with that project, adding a design component,” Crista continued. “The next step was to create different products that could help increase income.”
Textiles Imperative to Maintaining Culture of Guatemala
“Was there any moment in working with Sandy and her family for your ENACTUS project that you felt like you were really making a difference in their lives and their sense of pride in their work?” I asked.
“Yes, there was, especially when we asked them to explain the meaning of their textiles,” she replied. “Women at first were ashamed of what they were going to say, but after they explained their concept I told them that it was really valuable and important for them to transmit the personal meaning in their products and to their clients because it would help their sales. I explained that what they were saying was unique and that no other culture had the same stories or the same experiences. I told them that was what made their work so special, because they were contributing to transmitting the culture of Guatemala to other people around the world.”
“The other activity was for each of the artisans to write down a story about their childhood or about the place where they lived when they were smaller, and develop a product based on that memory,” Crista continued. “The results were amazing! For example, one of them created a set of jewelry by using old textiles and it had a great reception at the market. She told me that everyone liked the product, and she showed me other products she had created because she liked the designing process.”
Small Details Part of the Entire Story
“What made you interested in the textiles?” I asked.
“Textiles are the handcraft that is mostly created throughout Guatemala,” she said. “I believe that artisans are the motor of different families. They provide an income. Handicrafts are not just important for the livelihood of families but also as a way to maintain the culture of Guatemala.”
“Guatemala has a lot of variety—it’s not just one technique but different techniques,” she explained. “For example, Sandy and people from other villages express in their handicrafts different things that represent the place where they live. For example, you could see drawings on their looms—these are called marcadores or “markers” in English. These are patterns that husbands create, which tell different stories or show the nature of the region on a square paper. Nowadays, most of them just buy the drawings."
Crista explained yet another kind of textile is what women give to their husband’s mother as a gift when they get married.
“In just one product, you have lots of different small details that are actually part of a huge story!” she exclaimed.
DIDART Founded to Teach Kids About Traditional Crafts and Identity
Crista graduated last year as an Industrial Designer and is involved in a new project related to Mayan handicrafts, developing a tool to enable teachers to instruct children in a structured way about the traditional artistic expression and techniques of Guatemala. They seek to produce audiovisual material that inspires students to consider the textiles as part of their national identity and create a sense of belonging.
The name of the project is DIDART—in Spanish "didáctica artisanal," or “craft teaching" in English. The program will complement the Industrial Arts Class for 10 – 12 year olds in third – sixth grades. The four-week curriculum will include one 45-60-minute period each week. During the last period the children will receive a visit from an artisan to talk about their experiences creating handicrafts and to get feedback about their work. Because there will be homework to do, the parents will be involved and see the development of the handcraft.
Crista said the idea for the project was based on the fact that tourists return to Guatemala because of the beauty of its nature—and culture.
“How come then, Guatemalan families don’t capitalize on this, and value the work it takes to create handcraft products?” she asked rhetorically.
Her project is based on the notion that eradicating the cultural ignorance of Guatemalan families about the value of Mayan handicrafts is more easily accomplished through children than adults.
“Children can appreciate the beauty of the textiles and fall deeply in love with the handicrafts, so they are the best option for creating appreciation of this national culture,” Crista observed.. “They will be able to learn where the material comes from, how the technique is done, where the people come from who create the handicrafts and about the background of the traditions. They will have the opportunity to create on their own.”
The Importance of the Culture of Guatemala
“Many people around the world know about Guatemala's major Mayan site of Tikal, but otherwise don’t necessarily know much about the culture of Guatemala,” I said. “What does the culture mean to you?”
“Guatemala’s Mayan ancient techniques are vivid representations of a cluster of natural events and the knowledge acquired by the people,” she said. “The evolution of Guatemalans is a response to the interaction between cultures. For me, through the handcrafts you learn about the richness of the culture of Guatemala, it's behaviors and natural resources.”
“I am really interested in seeking opportunities to preserve Guatemala’s cultural heritage because it has been a tool for indigenous women to have a better quality of life,” Crista continued. “The handicrafts enable a family to stay united due to being a flexible way to work. As a consequence, the traditions help eradicate poverty and support family values.”
I told Crista I admired her initiative and desire to make a difference.
“My parents have always worked a lot,” Crista said. “They encouraged my brothers and me to do different activities. But I believe that my pro-activeness comes from seeing with my parents that it is hard to find job opportunities. They’ve worked a lot for us and I just don’t want to depend on someone else.”
“I don’t like to wait,” she said. “I’m a person that has lots of friends and lots of contacts because I’ve been to open those spaces. I want to be in my own space and my own rhythm, and I like to be in everything."
“It’s great that you make your own opportunities,” I said.
“Everyone can,” Crista said.
“What do you want people to know about Guatemala?” I asked her.
“People should know that Guatemala is a very diverse country,” she declared. “Not just because of the multiple landscapes and microclimates, but because that diversity has led to develop different solutions for day-to-day living. For example, in the plateau of the country, where sheep are raised, the climate is much colder than the center part; therefore, the indigenous people used the wool of the sheep to create wonderful “ponchos” and to be protected during the cold nights.”
“My message for all is to live fully wherever they travel by seeking out the national handcraft,” Crista said. “It will provide thousands of answers about a country’s history.”
More on Guatemala
Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.