Meet the Mayans
My two K’iche students bridge me into their Mayan community.
From my gringa’s distance, I have fairly gawked at how the Mayan women show up in their fancy suits (traje) to pedal their wears or just to work in the fields. No matter where they are, they appear utterly stately in their long hand loomed skirts, ornate belts, embroidered guipels and, with a head dressing added, the effect is strictly couture. And, these ladies dart in and out of the pick-up trucks gingerly hauling bundles and kids in this costume.
As for the men, their traditional dress might be hot colored woven pants and (in Solola) they wrap a knee length brown and cream wool sarong cum kidney belt over these. On market days, they top off this ensemble with an equally loud cowboy shirt and a crispy ten gallon hat. But in comparison to the majority of women in traje, seeing the men’s outfit is rare. Of the few guys that I have seen attired this way, none have been younger than fifty.
So, why do men eschew regional costumes and favor a western look? My student’s answer that only the women are about preserving tradition or that the men shucked out of their folk-wear so as not to be identified when they went out of their areas during the civil war. In any case, on the chicken bus the girls are suited up like their moms and the boys and dads are in t-shirts and jeans.
I enjoy going to Yolanda’s — Her house is situated way down a dirt road and up a path to a high tier overlooking stepped fields. One of the things I love about going there is that the Mayans travel in tight puppy piles – by choice. They will squish themselves – all friendly-like – into the first few seats and leave the rest of the bus vacant. This is oh so different from the US, where people prize “the privacy” of vacant seats. Since I do not drive, my travel is via the stereotypic, black plume spewing, old school busses or by minibus shuttles. Yesterday, the shuttle had twenty-four adults beside the driver and the wing man, who collects fares and acts as an usher/stuffer. I had a spare baby on my lap on the way to los Encuentros. Many Mayans can stand up right in a mini-van bracing themselves as it lurches and heaves around the turns but, when I get in one with no seats, I try to share a lower footing with “the stuffer” on the van’s doorstep and, even with that, I am still hunched over.
Yolanda, my more distant student wisely suggested that our lessons be on Thursdays – market day – because the pick-up trucks run 2-4 times an hour from her village, Quijel, direct to the turn-off or further on to Chichicastenango. I arrive about 10:00 AM and they are all working on Hooked Rugs for the upcoming show in Minnesota – “Mary Anne Wise and Friends.”
The schedule out here is that the family of sisters and their mom concentrate on the Oxlajuj B’atz’ project all morning and just before the kids get home, lunch is prepared up at Yolanda’s. Everyone comes home for this meal and they are way too generous with their guest. Last week my plate held a giant thigh and drum stick carefully hidden under a stack of tortillas. This week Yolanda tried (unsuccessfully) to give me half of the breast. Yolanda’s husband and the boys (cousins) ordinarily take seats at the table and the women sit on the floor. Yolanda’a mother has a dry sense of humor and pointed out between bites that even though Fire was a “Chinese invention” they use it here, anyway.
This week Yolanda’s husband, Estaban, is a baker (last week he was doing construction) and he came home with a bag of pan dulce and a fresh pressed video of an “Accion d’Gracia” held last week at the church. Since Estaban plays base in the church band, we all wanted to watch it. So, with soup bowls in hand, seven of us lunched on Mariella’s bed.
The plinking of the guitars and the singing sounded more mournful than celebratory to me and I asked what the occasion was. It was an “action of gratitude” because three brothers from the village had found work in the United States and they had left the village for a year.
As the video panned the thirty or so neighbors praying, focus fell on the three men’s father standing next to two of their wives. The lens would revisit this group and their positions and faces never changed. The two women were breathing high in their chests and held their babies tightly and stood close to their father-in-law — all three of them stiff and solemn. I asked if the men’s employment was “legitimate” or not. It is not. The brothers are currently traveling across borders with a “coyote” and everyone is waiting for news of their safe arrival.
The video went on, Estaban played while Zoila sang and the camera incidentally focused on the Calgua women in turn. At last, the orations began and the father and wives got down on their knees in front of the gushing array of flowers. From above, the camera paused and held to on to a single framed photo of one of the brothers; it was the only one they had. The camera held still over the stoic trio as they began to keen. While the two wives listened in silence, the men’s father put a hand over his eyes .
This video was stark confirmation that despite their talents and hard work, these proud K’iche Mayans live in Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in South America. And, up in Quijel, when a family does not have enough land to support itself, someone has to go north.