The ancianas of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala reflect on
50 years of hardship and struggle

Don Lotter talks to a group of older women in this heavily Mayan town, surrounded by volcanoes, who lost their husbands to death squads and their farms to theft by wealthy ladinos.

By Don Lotter
February 22, 2005, Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala

Santiago Atitlán is a Tzutujil Maya community on the south shore of Lake Atitlán in the highlands of Guatemala. With over 95 percent of the town's population Mayan, Santiago is said to be the largest indigenous town in Central America. Situated in between three volcanoes - Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro, the land surrounding Santiago Atitlán has been intensively used by the growing population for many decades. Complicating this has been, over the past 100 years, the buying, or just plain taking of land by wealthy non-indigenous Guatemalans, otherwise known as ladinos, for coffee plantations and haciendas. A substantial percentage of the indigenous people in this area are landless and have lived in poverty for many generations, as the interviews below reveal.

During the civil war from the 1970s to the mid-90s, Santiago Atitlán was an area of intense guerrilla activity, whose participants attempted to address the people’s poverty. The US-backed Guatemalan military put down the guerrilla movement at a cost of 200,000 deaths countrywide. Conditions have remained substantially the same for the poor of Guatemala. There has been no land reform to speak of. The wealthy in Guatemala pay somewhere near the lowest taxes of any country in the world, and Guatemala’s poor, make up over half of the country’s population, according to the latest World Bank statistics. The elites are now pushing for a Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which will leave the rural poor here even further behind, while giving the well-off better opportunities to buy consumer goods.

The ancianas (old women) interviewed below are all widows, most lost their husbands during the war, a number to death squads. My parents, who visit Guatemala annually, help the widows survive by raising money in the US and sending it or taking it down to a friend who buys food and essentials and distributes it to them monthly. There are virtually no services in Guatemala for taking care of the elderly like these widows.

Below I ask the ancianas, plus one man, to reflect on their lives and how things have changed over the past 50 years, specifically about agriculture and food.

The women refer to milpa and tortillando. Traditional Mayan agriculture is based on the milpa system of growing corn with beans and other crops in a polyculture. Life centers around the milpa, the man’s work, and tortillando, the woman’s work of transforming the corn from stored kernels to hot, nutritious tortillas.

Also mentioned by one of the widows is
cofradia. The cofradia is a system of sacred Mayan orders, or houses, in the highlands of Guatemala. It is said that cofradia were introduced originally by Catholic friars several hundred years ago in order to organize the indigenous communities. However, with the pulling back of the church from these areas during the 18th and 19th centuries, the cofradia were transformed by the Tzutujil people of Sanitiago into a highly Mayanized fraternal society, replete with clothed, cigar-munching idols. The cofradia still thrives. Evangelical Christianity, however, has become a bigger force and has made substantial inroads into Santiago Atitlán and the rest of Guatemala, which has the highest percentage of evangelical converts in Latin America, nearly 50 percent of the population.

Interview with the women as a group:

How do you compare 50 years ago with today?

Most things were cheaper back then – corn, beans, tomatoes, even beef. There was no soda pop (gaseosas) then. These days things are more expensive, but it is also cheaper to get a soda pop.

There were three types of corn: white, yellow, and blue. We always grew it without fertilizer. The weeds that grew in the milpa nourished the corn. The men would till in the weeds with the azadon (a hoe-like tool with a head four times larger and heavier than a conventional hoe).

Also from the milpa we harvested squash (Cucurbita); chipilin (leafy green, Crotalaria spp.); huisquil and punta de huisquil (chayote and chayote shoots, Sechium edule); quilete (a leafy green, Solanum spp.); chilacayote (a watermelon-sized, viny cucurbit Cucurbita ficifolia); miltomate (Mayan husk tomato, Physalis philadelphica); bledo (leafy green, from baby Amaranthus spp.); and peaches (small criollo peaches with big pits, originally brought by Spanish). Another type of tomato grew in the milpa, a small red tomato, not miltomate. We still see it here.

How has the corn changed?

The corn doesn’t grow well nowadays without fertilizer. Back then, the corn grew tall without fertilizer. The flavor is the same now as before. It is the beans whose taste has changed. They are not as tasty and the texture is not as good. It is from the (synthetic) fertilizers. Before, with no fertilizers, the beans tasted better.

"We would have the tortillas coming off the comal good and hot by 6 am. We listened for the roosters to call. They started at 3 am and we would get up."
Did they use slash and burn back then, did they rotate ground?
The white corn, which we like best for tortillas, was always cultivated on the land that was permanent. It was grown every year on the same land. Sometimes we grew blue corn on this land. The yellow corn was grown separately, where the forest was cleared, up the mountain (the volcano nearby). The yellow corn ears from these areas were always huge.

More and more corn is coming from the coast. (This is usually hybrid corn grown on large, more capital intensive holdings in the lowlands near the Pacific. It is rumored that this corn is contaminated with transgenes from corn brought illegally from the U.S.) The texture of the tortillas from coast corn is harder. They dry out faster, in one day.

Did you own land or rent?
(All of the women answer that they did not own land.) We would rent land for planting milpa by paying one third of the harvest to the owner. Many people went to the coast to work to earn cash. People still go there. (The “coast” is the lowland area along the Pacific, hot and humid, that extends 50 miles to the foothills of the altiplano.) We also rented land on the coast for growing milpa. The method of payment was to sow forage grass just before the corn harvest. The land owners then grazed their cattle on the corn stover and forage grasses. This was the agreement.

We used to go for the month of December to pick cotton on the coast. We always returned dehydrated and sick because it was hot and the work hard.

How did they grind the corn back then?
We used the grinding stone (metate). We would get up a 3am to start the grinding, after the nixtamal. (The process of boiling corn with chunks of natural calcium hydroxide. It has been shown that this practice significantly improves the nutrition of the corn meal.) We would have the tortillas coming off the comal good and hot by 6 am. We listened for the roosters to call. They started at 3 am and we would get up.

About 40 years ago they started bringing in motorized grinders. For a centavo we could have the corn ground. We would grind it again on the stone at home, but it was much quicker – one hour instead of three or four.

What kinds of meat did you have?
We only had chickens. Cattle and pigs were too expensive. We ate chicken a couple of times a year, for fiestas.

There were times of hunger, when we only had a little bit of corn and beans each day, sometimes just a few tortillas, or a huisquil (chayote). In the 1940s there was a time of hunger. In the 1980s, during the civil war, when the military occupied our land, we couldn’t plant our crops on the mountain or away from town. (The military was known to indiscriminately kill people they found in the countryside. Many of these widows lost their husbands in this way.) It was a very difficult time.

We abandoned hunting in the forests during the war. All weapons were confiscated during the war, so we have no weapons now for hunting.

Interview with Diego Ratsan, 67

I am Tzutujil, my parents were born here in Santiago Atltlan, and many generations back my forbears were born here. My father worked the land with an azadon to grow his milpa.

Did he own land?
No, like everyone else, he rented land to cultivate his milpa. My parents didn’t speak even a few words of Spanish.

I’ve interviewed many people here, and none of them own land.
Yes, (Diego shows frustration). Land is very expensive. People worked the land for generations and then the ladinos would come from the capital with papers that say that they own the land. They planted coffee. We didn’t know how to get the land ownership papers. So we had to work for the landowners for 30 or 40 centavos a day. The worst time was during the time of President Ubico (1931-45), when we were practically made into slaves. The authorities would demand payment of a tax, and if the people couldn’t pay it, they were forced to go work for months building the railroad to the coast.

We could only rent small pieces of land. We didn’t have enough food. We were hungry. We went to work in the cotton on the coast. We earned 50 centavos a day. This barely paid for tortillas and a few beans each day for a family. During the government of Arbenz (1951-54, overthrown by the CIA), our earnings doubled.

We cultivated the sides of the volcanoes. Those are communal lands. When the army occupied here however, we couldn’t go there. We were very hungry.

"People worked the land for generations and then the ladinos would come from the capital with papers that say that they own the land."
How did you fertilize the soil 50 years ago?
The plants that grew during the winter (November to March), after the harvest, fed the soil. (Diego indicates the height at four feet.) We would dig the plants into the soil before planting the corn and beans. Then more would grow and we would till that in when the corn was a meter high. This fed the soil and kept it black, very black and soft, and gave us big ears of corn, two or three per plant. Now they use (chemical) fertilizers.

When did fertilizers arrive?
About 40 years ago some began to use it. Now nearly everyone does.

They say that yellow corn was planted on the mountainsides and forest patches.
Yes, this is true, the yellow corn was always planted in the outlying areas (en el monte).

Did you practice the cofradia?
I am a strict Catholic but my father practiced the cofradia. Each week, he took candles and incense to the idol.

How was it during the time of the army occupation?
It was very difficult. People were disappeared, many people killed (by the notorious death squads, known to be run by the military and police). We couldn’t cultivate our communal land on the volcano. We were hungry. The military would take people and kill them for no reason, just people working the land.

In San Juan Comalapa, where I used to work, they are currently digging up the mass graves made by the military to bury the local people they killed.
Yes, here, there are those graves here. Just over here (he points) there is one. There are many here. (Most remain uninvestigated.)

What did you do when you got sick; did you go to the doctor?
There were no doctors for us. We went to Doña Aurora who cured us with herbs – headache, parasites, anything we had. She would charge 10 centavos or 5 centavos. She helped us poor people.

Don Lotter is a freelance agricultural researcher and journalist based in Davis, California. He is a frequent contributor to