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
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.
Did they use slash and burn back then, did they
||"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."
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
Interview with Diego
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
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.
How did you fertilize the soil 50 years ago?
||"People worked the land for generations
and then the ladinos would come from the capital with
papers that say that they own the land."
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
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