Lago Atitlan, Guatemala

©Robert Leon

…Looming over Lago Atitlan San Pedro volcano is a witness of time where Tzutujil Mayan fishermen in wooden canoes called Hoku glide in the dusk fog over Lago Atitlan’s surface….

Latin American music pumps through cheap speakers and a pile of luggage almost falls off the bus roof as we turn a sharp curve. The old American school bus packed beyond its limit miraculously holds onto the winding mountain road. A vivacious Guatemalan energy decorates the bus with pictures of Jesus, crosses, dingle-balls and passionate hand-painted signs.

Approaching Lago Atitlan’s Tzutujil Maya village of Santiago Atitlan the driver’s assistant hangs outside the bus’s open door loudly yelling “Santiago! Santiago! Santiago!” Sitting squashed between two Mayan women I get a glimpse of Lago Atitlan and the surrounding volcanoes. The lake is an oasis of Mayan culture for thirteen villages of Tzutujil and Cakchiquel Mayans who speak dialects of Maya-Quiche from the Old Maya Empire.

Looming over Lago Atitlan San Pedro volcano is a witness of time where Tzutujil Mayan fishermen in wooden canoes called Hoku glide in the dusk fog over Lago Atitlan’s surface. The slapping sound of Mayan men paddling their boats echoes across the glass-smooth lake as their canoes glide by Mayan women beating their wet laundry against partially submerged rocks on the shoreline. The costume the women wear is called a huipile with colourful wraparound skirt, sash and cloak that Mayans still weave on backstrap looms like ones shown in pre-Columbian Mayan tomb drawings.

Most Tzutujil Mayas in the village of Santiago Atitlan wear traditional clothes, although some wear modern clothes because of the cost and time necessary of up to six or eight months to make a cos­tume. Meticulously making 50 yards of tex­tile per month, Maya women sometimes use newer wooden looms brought here by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.

Tzutujil Maya women wear a particular piece of clothing known as a tocoyal that is a red band of cloth about four centimetres wide and ten meters long. They wrap this cloth around their head and it becomes a thin round hat. Tzutujil women also wear hand-embroidered huipile with flower and bird patterns while men wear cowboy style hats, long striped shorts, and colourful shirts. Warm colours signify emotions such as red and orange for excitement, blood and passion. The colour blue or violet symbolizes passive feelings, the sky, spirit, and thought. Yellow for light and intuition, green creates transitions of colours and tonality. The colours also signify the values and attributes of the gods and aspects of nature. This ancient weaving and textile tradition with distinctive costume colours, symbols and styles distinguish individual groups of Mayans and is a connection to Old Empire Mayans.

In the market of Santiago Atitlan the noise, smell, colours, and energy saturate the senses with Central American energy. This market has abstractly identifiable food stands in a harmony of chaos. A group of Tzutujil girls wearing huipils gather around a market food stand. With tiny, work worn fingers they peek at and probe the food cultivated by fortunate land-owning families. This scene could be from centuries ago, except for the out of context signs like Pepsi Cola posters, Harley Davidson T-shirts and children wearing broken-down plastic sandals.

A growing population causes the Mayan families to divide the milpas between their children. This divided milpa becomes insufficient for the growing family’s needs and so the men must leave for work on large plantations, breaking their farming tradition. Another factor for the populations’ resource difficul­ty is disappearance of the once abundant fish in the lake. The government tried create a sport fishing industry and they stocked the lake with black bass. This broke the food chain and depleted the food source for the black bass… and the Mayas. Lack of fish for the growing population meant cultivating more land that brought deforestation and soil erosion. The problem is the population growth does not harmonize with subsistence farming methods needed to supply the required food supply in an ecological way.

Blending old Maya ritual with foreign religion creates a bizarre offspring in the Highlands with rituals and gods like Maximon. In a smoky room saturated with incense and surreal candlelight I watch a Tzutujil Maya ritual. The Mayas are worshiping a one and a half meter tall idol called Maxim­on who wears a big felt cowboy hat, western style clothes and Hermes-like scarves that wrap him up. A big cigar in hangs from his mouth and he has short legs with huge boots. Maximon represents a Franciscan Friar with short out-of- proportion legs chopped-off to cure his habit of running after Mayan girls. Around Maximon’s huge feet people offer money, aguar­diente liquor, tobacco, candles and miscellaneous donations probably prohibited by other religions.

During the ritual the cofradia seems inebriated and with exhibitions of gestures he screams chants and pleads to Maxim­on while performing the ritual. He touches the possessed person to expel curses and the Mayas offer Maximon more gifts of cigarettes, alcohol, and money and with a drink make a toast in honour of Maximon. The offerings might seem immoral for other religions but to Mayas the god Maximon has power to eliminate sickness and bad fortune. This ritual happens in Santiago Atitlan village which has twenty‑two Evangelist churches and one Catholic Church trying to convert the traditional Mayans.

After years of war the Mayas where left in economic disaster and faced malnutrition and lack of health care. The infant mortality rate was very high, 79 deaths to 1000 births. People did not have enough land to support their families making most of the men leave the villages to work on farms. They needed help desperate­ly. In 1988 Liana Ward, an American lawyer learning Spanish in Guatemala sees that situation. Studying the needs of 300 families in the village of San Juan La Laguna she noticed how the Maya textile weavers are being exploited. The middlemen sell the Mayas yarn for “free” then buy the weaving for very che­ap, taking advantage of these people and getting the work for virtually nothing.

With her own resources, Liana Ward establishes the weaving co-operative project of Los Artesanos De San Juan La Lagu­na. The artisans then received help with a donation from UNESCO. The project organized and trained twenty‑five women as health promoters and training for the weaving; manufacturing and marketing of clothes provided a helping hand for the Mayas. The community set up a fund to which workers donate that helps finance their medical care. Another American group called The Paraclete Society gives help to the people of Mexico and Guatemala gave a helping hand. They supply U.S. retailers and fair trade organizations with the cloth­ing made at Los Artesanos De San Juan. They serve as a link to the many supporters of the project. The societies, Pueblo To People, Mission Traders also buy their weaving, as well as from other Third World countries. This created a helpful industry for the Mayas. Now they make, manage, and sell their clothing to countries around the world. Caring help from a few special people realizes and accomplishes a humane cause.

The help given allows a major Maya culture element of weaving and embroider­ing to continue. Maya pride shows not only in the quality of their traditional costume but also in their per­severance to wear their costume in ‘modern time’. Maya spirits gain vitality again to continue strongly their unique culture.

In 1992 the indigenous people make more progress. Rigoberta Menchu, a Maya woman, cam­paigns for peace in Guatemala and she received the Nobel Peace Prize bringing world attention to Guatemala. According to the Amnesty International report of 1993 there where still human rights violations occurring and Amnesty International makes state­ments to the UN commission on Human Rights in February 1993 concerning the human rights violations in Guatemala and the government’s failure to end the abuses. Constantly receiving catastrophic blows for the past few hundred years, the Mayas are now under the watchful eyes of the organizations AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL and the UNITED NATIONS.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum (born 9 January 1959) is a K’iche’ political and human rights activist from Guatemala. Menchú has dedicated her life to publicizing the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous feminists during and after the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996), and to promoting indigenous rights in the country. …She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and the Prince of Asturias Award in 1998.” ~Wikipedia

The Maya’s world of rituals, magic and mystery consists of a belief that the gods determine destiny. The Maya’s custom of religion and nature relates together with artistic expression in daily life making a strong contact between the natural and supernatural. Perhaps this philosophy and their gods save the Mayas from devastation, because this ancient belief strengthens their spiritual identity. This enduring ideology gives the Mayas an unconquerable will to survive and to carry on their ancient culture over thousands of years. After 3,000 years the Mayas always persevere and hold onto their immortal heritage.

“The Tzʼutujil (Tzutujil, Tzutuhil, Sutujil) are a Native American people, one of the 21 Maya ethnic groups that dwell in Guatemala. Together with the Xinca, Garífunas (Black Caribs) and the Ladinos, they make up the 24 ethnic groups in this relatively small country. Approximately 100,000 Tzʼutujil live in the area around Lake Atitlán. Their pre-Columbian capital, near Santiago Atitlán, was Chuitinamit. In pre-Columbian times, the Tzʼutujil nation was a part of the ancient Maya civilization.
The Tzʼutujil are noted for their continuing adherence to traditional cultural and religious practices. Evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are also practiced among them. They speak the Tzʼutujil language, a member of the Mayan language family.
The Tzʼutujil date from the post-classic period (circa 900-1500) of the Maya civilization, inhabiting the southern watershed of Lake Atitlán, in the Solola region of the Guatemalan highlands.
Today they dwell in the towns of San Juan La Laguna, San Pablo La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, San Pedro La Laguna, Santiago Atitlán, Panabaj, Tzanchaj (believed to have been the inspiration, because of its similar sound, for the name “Santiago”), and a very few in San Lucas Tolimán, although they used to inhabit a much wider region. In 1523 the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, with the help of the Kaqchikel Maya, defeated them in a battle close to the town of Panajachel in which they lost a portion of their lands, and the control of the lake.” ~ Wikipedia