The Odyssey
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Latin America Abeja Dispatch

The Flourishing Quiché Culture

Maria Toj's mother
Maria Toj's mother

We must look like quite a pair, walking down the street. She's less than five feet tall, a middle aged Mayan woman in traditional dress, and I'm a tall, lanky, super white gringa with short, curly, reddish hair in typical western attire. But we have become good friends over the last week, and spend a lot of time together. Maria Toj is originally from a small village near Santa Cruz del Quiché, in the heart of the Quiché Mayan region of Guatemala. Now she works for the Defensorìa Maya, an organization that works to defend the rights of indigenous peoples all over Guatemala.

Maria and Lucas Toj outside their home
Maria and Lucas Toj outside their home

Guatemala City is full of Mayan women in traditional clothing. Each different weave of the corte (wrap around skirt) and huipil (colorful blouse) indicate which village that woman comes from. Some estimate that there exist over 500 distinct traditional indigenous "fashions". Sort of like a school uniform, everyone from young girls to old ladies wear these beautiful fashions. The swirl of colors shows the mix of Mayan villages, languages, and cultures here in the capital.

Los proyectos with Coca Cola water towers!
Los proyectos with Coca Cola water towers!

Maria Toj has invited me to stay with her at her home while I'm in Guatemala City. She lives outside of town in what is known here as "los proyectos", or the projects. This haphazard settlement consists of refugees who fled the countryside during Guatemala’s Civil War. It reminds me of Palestinian refugee camps I've seen in Jordan, where people move in with nothing except what they were carrying. They slowly build with whatever they can at first, creating a small town of permanent, cinderblock structures in different states of repair. Now the streets are paved, there are cars and shops, and even a large sports field where Maria's husband Lucas and her sons go jogging every morning. Los proyectos are overshadowed by a volcano and two water towers painted like Coca Cola cans. It looks like they have a lifetime supply of Coke! All of the residents of los proyectos are indigenous, but come from different parts of the country.

There are 21 different dialects of Mayan spoken in Guatemala. Quiché is the largest Mayan dialect followed by Cakchiquel (the language spoken in Concepción, where Monica is staying). The third Mayan language is Mam, the dialect that Shawn and Kavitha hear every day in Todos Santos. The Quiche language sounds complicated and staccato. I can't wait to share with you recordings of people talking so you can listen to this language of action and movement. Although not lyrical like Spanish, it does sound musical, like rap or hip hop. I hope that I can learn some of the language while I'm here.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, the woman we will be interviewing next week, is Quiché Mayan like my friend Maria Toj. Toj is a common Quiché last name. The Mayans always introduce themselves by their full names because the last name specifies their family and home, very much the way their clothing does. Despite the great number of people displaced by the war, the indigenous people still identify strongly with their roots. However, this is changing with the younger generation; for instance, most young men no longer wear the traditional clothing. Kids growing up in the city may not even learn their native language since the other indigenous people around them may not speak their dialect. Maria and Lucas Toj live with Maria's old mother (who is very sweet and almost deaf) and her youngest children. Maria says that during the war, she didn't see her children for seven years. Can you imagine? Thankfully, they are all back together now and the family has grown to include Maria's grandchildren!

Abeja

 
 

Team - Torture and Bloodshed: Truths of the Guatemalan Civil War
Kavitha - Todos Santos Part 1: Rough Road to Paradise
Kavitha - Todos Santos, Part 2: Finding a Home Away from Home
Shawn - Uncovering the Riches of Todos Santos
 
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