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
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 rotate
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
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
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
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,
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
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?
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
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 NewFarm.org.