Saturday, May 28, 2011

Guatemala Part 6b: Santiago Atitlan's plaza and street markets

Tz'utujil Maya woman carries a heavy load through Santiago Atitlán's market. She is dressed traditionally, wearing the blue striped huipil design originally imposed by the Spanish colonial authorities as a method of indigenous identification. The Maya then embroidered the huipils in their own style, in this case with with birds. Behind her sit other women with pans full of various fruits and vegetables they hope to sell to passersby. Tuk-tuks, the 3-wheeled local taxis, regularly whiz by just inches away from their wares. The markets where the Tz'utujil sell to each other were particularly interesting to me. There are lots of other tourist-oriented goods to be found elsewhere, but--except for the plastic pans--this market area seemed unchanged from pre-hispanic times. Today's Maya are very industrious and entrepreneurial. However, some people still remember the old system under which every Maya owed up to 1/3 of his/her labor to the government or to a non-Maya hacienda owner in order to get the necessary papers stamped. The Spanish imposed this system throughout their New World colonial empire, and it continued to relatively recent times. Through such free (actually slave) labor, many of the great cathedrals and public buildings were raised, along with beautiful residences for the privileged.

Life around the plaza

City Hall, Maya-style. In most Spanish colonial era towns, a central plaza is bordered by a government building, usually with a long  colonnaded porch, and the local church. This public building seemed to be the gathering place for a large number of men in traditional dress. Some of these men may have been Cofradia members. Cofradias, or Brotherhoods, are a pattern of organization imported by the Franciscan friars who evangelized in the wake of the Conquest. Cofradias had existed in the European Middle Ages as guilds, before they evolved into religious organizations with the responsibility of caring for the image of a particular saint (in this case Santiago, or St. James). The Cofradia members ensure that the celebration of the saint's day is properly carried out.

Statue of a man in traditional dress. I found this statue in the central plaza. The figure wears a woven set of culottes, with a sash around his waist and an embroidered cloth around his neck. By celebrating such clothing styles, the Maya hope to keep their traditions alive.

The real thing. This man patiently waited on a street corner for a picop (pickup truck bus). He exuded great dignity, and might well be a member of the local cofradia. His striped culottes are decorated with embroidered designs which probably carry significance in the old Maya religion. By 1585, cofradias had become well established all over Guatemala. However, as the centuries wore on, the Church neglected the outlying areas. Gradually, ancient Maya beliefs and practices re-emerged and melded with local Catholic rituals, until only a thin veneer of Catholicism remained over deep layers of traditional beliefs. An example of this is the cult of Maximon, a saint/devil figure which emerged during the early colonial period and is still worshiped and respected. The Spanish priests first tried to coopt the cult, and then to eradicate it, but without success. The age-old Catholic practice of coopting pagan festivals and symbols in order to speed the evangelization process actually made reverse-cooptation easier.

A local woman is portrayed on a Guatemalan coin. I was puzzled when I saw this sculpture in the plaza. Why would anyone make such a sculpture of a 25 centavo coin? Once again, Caravan Tour Director Jorge had the answer. A local woman named Maria, now deceased, modeled for the artist who created the coin design. Her profile, wearing the unique Tz'utujil hat called toyocal, has become a symbol of Guatemala's Maya people, much like the Mexican charro, wearing his broad sombrero, has become a symbol of that country. According to Jorge, this coin may soon be replaced, so I hung onto one just in case.

Again, the real thing. I encountered this local vendor on the street near the plaza. Here you have the full-face view of the toyocal. It is comprised of a long strip of embroidered cloth, rolled up with a hollow center, kind of like a large roll of duct tape (but, of course, much more attractive).

Sword and cross, the dual nature of Spanish colonialism. Another statue I found in the plaza seemed especially symbolic. Indigenous people often find ways of ridiculing their oppressors and this may be one of them. The Spaniard grandly waves a sword in one hand and a cross in the other as he rides upon a horse much to small for his size. The conquistadors were, in the end, nothing more than free-booters and mercenaries out to seize their fortunes. They thought nothing of massacring or enslaving the indigenous people they encountered. An empire might be conquered, but it could hardly be held and administered on this basis. The conquistadors needed an ideology to justify for their actions, and to indoctrinate the conquered people into a new religion that required obedience to the new masters. Austere, rigidly hierarchical, and full of evangelical zeal, Spanish Catholicism fit the bill perfectly. The Church, in turn, needed the sword of the conquistadors to suppress the native religions, to enforce mass conversions, and to provide forced labor to build the great Catholic edifices.

Getting a kick out of life. Give a group of kids a ball, and they'll quickly find a use for it. The kids above engage in a pick-up game of soccer, or fútbol as it is called in Spanish, while on recess from the school in the background . These Maya youths are growing up in a very different world from that experienced by their parents, or for that matter, any of their ancestors back to pre-hispanic times. There is a genuine, if fragile, democracy. The Maya now have more economic opportunity. Their lives are no longer ruled by soldiers and hacienda owners who can demand uncompensated labor. Still, their traditions are under increasing threat from the incursions of globalism. Jorge's opinion is that much of the rich texture of Maya life may disappear in a generation or two. The future may entail the replacement of huipils, cortes, and toyocals by t-shirts, blue jeans, and NY Yankees baseball caps, with Big Macs replacing the age-old menu of beans, squash, and corn. These changes would be of dubious value in my opinion. The Tz'utujil and other Maya will have to decide.

Buying and selling at the street markets

Making a sale. A tourist puts aside her camera to reach for her wallet as a local vendor makes her pitch. She is buying embroidered strips of cloth that could easily be made into a belt. Notice the carved, wooden, animal masks behind the customer. Clearly Santiago Atitlán has come to depend upon the tourist trade for a good part of its economy. The upside is that local crafts, and craftspeople, are supported and the residents can therefore afford modern conveniences such as cell phones and electricity (as well as blue jeans and Yankee caps). The possible downside is that the tourist trade can fluctuate dramatically, influenced by political instability and reports of local crime. Perhaps a more subtle downside is the possible corruption of the local art's original religious and social purposes by the commercial impetus of what sells.

Colorful coffee beans dry in the sun. As we walked up the hill toward the plaza, we passed by a woman sitting on her concrete porch, with a bushel of coffee beans spread out to dry in the warm sun. Coffee is one of the cash crops of the area. The altitude and climate are almost ideal for its cultivation. In a later post, we will visit a coffee finca near the old colonial capital of Antigua. We tried some of the coffee in a local café and it was wonderfully rich. Most Americans have no idea what really good coffee tastes like, even though they must pay extravagant prices for the mediocre grade they get at the supermarket.

Local wares at one of many street stalls. Woven hammock-seats, bags and purses, and embroidered cloth formed a colorful array in this shop. Much of this is still handmade through the ancient mechanism of back-strap looms, or  the more "modern" foot-pedal looms introduced by the Spanish in the 16th Century.

An enticing alley. While wandering the town, opportunistically photographing everything that caught my attention, I noticed this narrow alley. It is barely wide enough for the passage of one tuk-tuk, and seems mostly for pedestrian traffic. I started up it, following the path of a small boy carrying out some errand.

Foot-pedal loom in operation. As I moved up the alley, I peeped into open doorways and was surprised to find foot pedal looms behind most of them. I stepped into this little shop, filled with 4 such looms. The young man above nodded his assent when I asked to take a photo.  In the foreground are small wooden trays containing spindles with different colors of thread. Notice the mechanism just in front of the weaver. The moving parts are held together by string, and there is little metal in the whole loom. A Spanish weaver of the 16th Century would instantly recognize the loom and be able to take over its operation without a second thought.

Carved and vividly painted wooden toys. The Maya were gifted craftspeople thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. While the Spanish are credited with the construction of the many beautiful colonial-era churches and public buildings, and the wonderful sculpture contained within, we should always remember that Maya craftspeople did most of the actual work.

Local vendors compare notes. These three paused on the steps of the church to chat and I was able to catch an unguarded moment. The woman in the toyocal is the same as in photo #6 in this posting. The Tz'utujil and other Maya we encountered were not only talented craftspeople, but strong on the sales end of the game too. They were some of the most entrepreneurial people I have ever met. Jorge told our group that, although they might live simply and with few of the conveniences that city-dwelling, middle-class, non-Maya Guatemalans might enjoy, very often the Maya's cash flow is greater than the city people's. Perhaps this will be the salvation of the Maya, if their culture can resist the onslaught of globalism's tedious uniformity.

This completes my 2 postings on Santiago Atitlán. Next we will visit a coffee finca and find out everything you ever wanted to know about Guatemala's great coffee, as well as witnessing a wonderful concert of traditional music by a young Maya trio. I welcome all feedback. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hi Jim and Carol,
    This is so strange, but i had to comment and let you know this.
    About 5 or 6 years ago, ( I dont remember if I was at carport sale or a Flea Market), anyway, I captured on to the neatest lookin "ceramic looking" heasd I had ever seen.
    I like to decorate in anything that looks Aztec ( kinda)..
    Everyone made fun of me for having this "weird looking head" on my wall..
    Soo I decided to do somem research about a month ago,and "ta-da" ..
    It is the exact same head as this "Pacal, the Great", and then I saw your page and decided to contact you.
    It looks unfinished, very plain and I'm wondering if there were very many oif them? Do you have any idea?

    Patti Woodell

  2. LOVE the discussion of co-option and reverse co-optioning!

    AND LOOMS! I very much appreciate your attention to the textiles.

    Great photo of the little boy heading down the alley/street. I can "see" you following him, camera at the ready!

  3. Thanks for the post and great tips..even I also think that hard work is the most important aspect of getting success..
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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim