The Odyssey
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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Uncovering the Riches of Todos Santos
 
A view of the Northern Highlands
A view of the Northern Highlands
Todos Santos is a village of about 2,000 people high in the Guatemalan mountains. Most of the people living here are indigenous Mam speakers whose way of life has changed very little since the Spanish conquered Guatemala in the 1500's. It is one of the few villages of its size left in Central America where almost all the people still wear the bright and intricately woven traditional clothes of their ancestors and speak very little Spanish, holding on to traditions that have been passed down for hundreds of years. Although all the homes in the village have electricity, there are no phones in Todos Santos, and the (freezing cold!) water runs only in the mornings and must be collected from a tap outside of the tin-roofed adobe huts.

A young resident of Todos Santos
A young resident of Todos Santos
Kavitha and I had a pretty wild ride up here - check out Kavitha's article for the full story! Needless to say we were relieved when we finally pulled into the village which will be our home for the next few weeks and unfolded ourselves out onto the zocalo (town square) to stretch for a minute. I sat there watching the people go by and was instantly enthralled with the colorful sights and sounds of the scene before me. I thought to myself how very different this place was from anything I had ever experienced in the U.S.

The first thing I noticed was that all the men were wearing the same thing: straw hats with blue bands around them, brightly colored wool shirts with very intricate woven patterns around the collar, and most noticeably, bright red pants with thin white stripes (making them appear pink from far away). The women also wore a sort of uniform of brightly woven wool tunics with blue wrap-around skirts. Many of them carried large packages balanced perfectly on their heads.

Another thing that struck me was the number of children who seemed to be working. Many of the boys carried hoes or other tools and their clothes and shoes were very dirty from a hard day's work. Many young girls were working, too, either helping their mothers weave on the porches of their houses or working behind the counters of the local tiendas, or stores.

Small plots of land where each family can grow food (usually maiz, or corn) surround all of the huts in the village for themselves and their livestock. On the outskirts of town there are larger plots where commercial crops are grown and sheep are herded through the nearby mountain valleys. Crops such as broccoli and potatoes are in abundance here and are grown mainly for export to nearby cities, Mexico, and even the U.S. Although coffee is the number one cash crop of Guatemala, it does not grow well in Todos Santos because of the high altitude. Coffee does grow, however, in the nearby valleys to the west. Some of the villagers have fields there where they go each day to tend their plants. There are no tractors or threshers here; all the farming is done by hand, from tilling and planting to the painstakingly long harvest. During planting and harvest seasons, the fields are full of busy people from first light until sundown.

Aside from agriculture, the main source of income for the people of Todos Santos comes from selling beautiful hand-woven clothing to tourists. The small handlooms that they use to weave the clothing have probably not changed much since the days when Tikal was a thriving city. To make the clothing, first, wool is taken from sheep in the spring and dyed by hand. After hours and hours of arduous spinning and weaving, this wool is transformed into intricate and colorful clothing. Since this village is too remote and difficult for most tourists to find, the women must then take their wares into the cities and other more accessible tourist villages where they are sold. Although the shirts can take more than a day to make, they are often sold for less than $3 U.S.

The people in Todos Santos are very poor by U.S. standards, but their lives are rich in ways that many Americans never experience. The sounds of music and laughter fill the air of the village for most of the day, and it seems that they always have time for a fiesta, or to stop and chat on the street. That is not to say that they have nothing to do -- no, not at all. On the contrary, their work seems never-ending! Also, I often see neighbors helping each other, and even though I must appear strange to them, wherever I walk I am greeted with a pleasant "buenos dias!" The people of Todos Santos might lack the material amenities of life, but they certainly have culture and dignity, and carry with them the wisdom of their ancestors.

Shawn

 
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
Abeja - The Flourishing Quiche Culture
 
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