The Odyssey
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Latin America Abeja Dispatch

A Day in Quiche

Magdelena doing her homework before the conference
Caption

The Journey:
I escaped city life for a few days and traveled to the small village of Chitatul, nestled in the mountains of Guatemala's Quiche region. My travel companion was Magdelena, a 19-year-old Quiche Mayan woman. Magdelena works with CONAVIGUA, an organization of Guatemalan widows and youth. We attended a regional conference attended by women and youth from all over the Quiche department (state) and I was lucky enough to meet some incredible adults and children!

We arrived in Chitatul by pickup truck (called "picops" here in Guatemala) from the capital of the Quiche department, Santa Cruz del Quiche. The going rate for this trip is one Quetzal per person, but they tried to charge me, la gringa (the white person), two Quetzals. Good thing I had Magdelena to stick up for me! From where the pickup truck left us, Magdelena and I walked to the CONAVIGUA compound.

The Village of Chitatul:
A firewood shed and three buildings built from wood and mud surrounded a courtyard that contained a well, two cooking areas, and a pila. All houses and typical hotels here have a pila. It's a concrete structure similar to a sink or basin with separate areas for washing clothes and dishes. Water is scooped out of the basin and poured onto clothes or dishes on the slanted, corrugated concrete cleaning areas, which are angled to send the dirty water out the drain.

Eugenia, a resident of Chitatul, standing at the well
Caption

That night I slept on a woven mat on a makeshift bed in one of these huts. I woke at sunrise to the sound of the roosters, and walked out to find women preparing for the conference that day. All the women were taking care of traditional morning activities: pulling water out of the well to fill the pila; rinsing the maize; tending the fire to cook the coffee, atole, and beans; and sweeping the ground. They all greeted me with a "Buenos Dias," ("good morning" in Spanish). I responded with "Sak'alik," ("good morning" in Quiche), eliciting smiles and giggles from all the women!

After a trip to the outhouse and a few minutes admiring the mountains around me, I asked how I could be of help. I was handed a broom. Looking around at the dirt yard, I couldn't help but wonder, "how do you know when you're done sweeping a dirt floor? And were do I stop sweeping?" It all seemed fairly arbitrary, but I guess I did okay.

The Conference and the Kids:
Women from all over the department of Quiche came to the CONAVIGUA organizational meeting. Together, they work to educate and defend the rural Mayan people, their rights, and their culture. The meeting was conducted in what I dubbed "Quichanol" -- half Quiche, half Español (Spanish). The topics of conversation -- mostly organizing groups and talking about the Constitutional Reforms -- and dates were referred to in Spanish, but all the discussion was in Quiche. The women sat, with their children in their laps or slung on their backs, wearing beautiful woven clothes and braiding strips of palm to make hats and mats.

My new buddy, Carlos
Caption

Many of the children who came along were too big to sit in their mothers' laps! One of these kids was Carlos, an eleven-year-old boy who is in the sixth grade. I met him outside of the conference where we both went to escape the talking. Because of the "Quichanol" language that all the women spoke, I had a tough time following the discussion. But Carlos, I learned, is Quiche Mayan and bilingual so he had no trouble at all! He attends a state-run school that is taught all in Spanish. Carlos' eyes lit up when I showed him the tiny computer screen on my digital camera. Like all the Mayan children I meet, he was very shy, and didn't speak much, especially not to this funny looking woman who is very tall, very white, and speaks with a strange accent. He does, however, smile a lot and is obviously very smart. After taking pictures of the conference to put on the CONAVIGUA web page that Monica and I are going to help create, we played with my compass and map of Guatemala. It was the first time Carlos had seen a compass, and he was duly impressed. He's traveled as far away as Guatemala City, but no farther.

My artistic helpers in Chitatul
Caption

Magdelena interrupted our fun to remind me that there was work to be done! I was supposed to be drawing posters to explain the constitutional reforms, since so many people in rural areas are illiterate. I was bummed because I wanted to keep playing with Carlos, but I knew I had responsibilities. Fortunately, Carlos was ready and willing to be helpful, so we moved a table into the sunlight next to the well, and set up shop. Soon, I had a collection of kids around me, helping to draw and color! One picture was of a group of men and women, supposedly symbolizing the president and his ministers (of education and health etc). Carlos immediately started coloring their faces pink. How odd, I thought, that he chose this color even though no one in this country is pink like me. I held my arm up to his and pointed out that he is Guatemalan and he is brown. Then, I pointed out that I am pink but I am certainly not Guatemalan. When I wasn't paying attention, one of the little boys decided to color a man's face blue! Wow! I guess this really is a pluricultural, multiethnic country, just like the Constitutional Reforms say! Soon, the CONAVIGUA meeting let out and Carlos and the others seemed very sad to leave me. I was sad too and realized how much I've missed being with kids. I had a lot of fun!

The Region:
This trip to the Quiche highlands has taught me a lot about the culture and history of this group of indigenous Guatemalans. The area around Chitatul is predominantly Quiche Mayan, as is apparent by the clothing and language that surrounds me. Most of the people I meet do speak Spanish, but often not as well as I do! This area was one of the most strongly affected by the civil war. It has seen many massacres and much guerilla activity. It is also one of the poorest areas of Guatemala. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, grew up in Uspantan, here in the mountains of Quiche.

The Quiche people represent the largest of the Mayan language groups. Their kingdom was the last and strongest to hold out against the Spaniards. The capital of the ancient Quiche Mayan kingdom, established in the 1400's, was about 3 kilometers from here. The kingdom included a mixture of locals and indigenous Mexicans who conquered many other cities including Huehuetenango, Sacapulas, Rabin, Coban and even cities in Southwest Mexico. This great capital city was destroyed in 1524 by the Cakchiquel people who broke away from the Quiche and formed their own capital at Iximche'. The Cakchiquel sided with the Spanish Conquistadors, captured all the Quiche leaders, burned them alive, and destroyed their capital city.

The descendents of this great kingdom are fighting for the rights that they deserve. I witnessed this hard work first-hand at the CONAVIGUA conference and met many amazing women and children that day. I join these women in feeling great hope for the future of Guatemala.

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