Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mi Dia de Tecún Umán (My Tecún Umán Day)

Courtesy guatexplorer.com.

Dia de Tecún Umán is the Martin Luther King Day of Guatemala. Tecún Umán was the last ruler and king of the of K'iche-Maya people, whose life and death is celebrated in Guatemala every February 20th with parades and food.

According to legend (there is very little actual evidence), Tecún Umán was killed on February 20, 1524, while defending his land and his people from the Spanish conquistadores.

Across Guatemala, there are many paintings, statues and poems (the most famous by Miguel Angel Asturias Rosales, a Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan writer) memorializing Tecún Umán, and his image graces one side of the 50 centavos coin (currently about 6 cents).

50 centavos coin.

The national bird, the quetzal (which is also the name of the currency here) is a symbol of Tecún Umán’s heroism.

"[Tecún Umán] was mortally wounded and blood covered his chest. The Quetzal, who never submitted itself to captivity, wanted to keep Tecúm Umán’s spirit alive. So, the bird flew and landed with its own chest on the blood of the brave Maya chief. For this reason, people say, the feathers on the chest of the Quetzal are red.

"Until recently, it was thought that the resplendent Quetzal could not be bred or held for any long time in captivity, and indeed it was noted for usually killing itself soon after being captured or caged. For this reason, it is a traditional symbol of liberty. However, a zoo in Mexico has kept this species since 1992, and in 2004 breeding in captivity was announced.” ["Quetzal/Pharamachrus Mocinno." Zooms Edible Plants. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.]

The Dia de Tecún Umán is one of indigenous pride for Guatemalans. The school children participate in a colorful parade, where queens and kings reign supreme.

The traditional clothing (traje) that the kids wear is from their family village or community of origin, recognized by the colors and design of the huipil (Maya blouse) and pants. Apparently, no two huipiles are identical (like snowflakes), as each is woven and embroidered by hand.

“Through the choices of design, material and finishing technique, information can be read about the weaver's birth-place, religious background, social position, weaving skill, and personality. Indigenous women can read the complex encoded messages in each other's huipiles at a glance.” [“Huipiles.” Nim Po't. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.]

The traje are worn by many of the Maya around the country, but often it has been replaced by the more western look, especially among men, perhaps because it's too expensive, or the access to western style via the internet has increased the drive to blend in.

“The daily lives of Mayan women of Guatemala represent the continuance of the customs and traditions of the ancestors. They also represent new survival strategies as they face challenges brought on by shifting political, economic, social and natural factors. One may say that they adopt from their ancestors what is necessary for survival while looking for alternative ways to adapt to changing circumstances. Their lives vary greatly, depending on their particular socioeconomic or political status, the regions in which they live, the time period, their religion, the personal decisions that they make and other factors. However, speaking in general terms, Mayan women's everyday lives are a struggle for survival against poverty, hunger, discrimination and violence from within and without. They are on their feet daily from dawn to dusk, tending to a multitude of domestic tasks. However, they also keep their eyes on the future. At times, however, their traditional ways come into conflict with modern Ladino society, and Mayas are obliged to make difficult choices." [ALF. "Cultural Dress of the Maya." Adventure Learning Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014]

After the parade, the kids at school sell delectable treats that their parents no doubt spent hours preparing. I experienced many new ones that day.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The story of L. and my day in Santa Catarina.

I’ve got a new Spanish teacher; I’ll call her L. She’s a single mom with three kids (the youngest is 10, the eldest 24). All three have different fathers, and all three live at home. She cooks for them every day. Sometimes she brings me food when she comes to my house.

Church in Santa Catarina.

L. told me the story of a midwife she met long ago and, out of curiosity, L. asked the midwife how much she gets paid for delivering a baby. The midwife said that it depends; she receives almost twice as much for the boys because they are more valuable. Sometimes the midwife even assists in finding alternate homes for girl babies.

Santa Catarina family.
Two young girls.

Once, when L.’s youngest son was a baby, L. was at the market when an admiring woman asked if she could hold her child. Naively, L. agreed and, before she knew it, her son disappeared. Luckily L. found him in another woman’s arms about a block away. 

Through the window of a little store.

L. has told me many stories (in Español people, I’m learning!!) about the sexism in Guatemala, though she doesn’t call it that. The word is discriminación. And women are not the only ones being discriminated against (but that’s for another post). L. seems to be a lone wolf, there doesn’t appear to be any grassroots support for change in that area, at least not that she is able to connect to.


Perhaps too many people are busy just trying to stay alive. Guatemala has one of the highest poverty rates among developing nations. The Human Development Index (United Nations) ranks Guatemala 133 out of 187 countries. The World Bank says, “Guatemala is the biggest economy in Central America but is among Latin American countries with the highest levels of inequality, with poverty indicators — especially in rural and indigenous areas — among the highest in the region.” As you probably know, this index is a measure of life expectancy, education, literacy and standards of living for countries around the world.


Guatemala also has the largest indigenous population per capita, making up almost 60% of the country. In the area I’m living in, it’s about 80%. Apparently, the rough terrain (2/3 is mountainous) provided refuge during the Spanish conquest. Guatemalan government figures say that 7 out of every 10 people here of indigenous descent live in poverty.

 Traditional clothing indicates where people are from,
based on color and design.
Breakfast lunch
dinner and

The dock.

Today, I visited the little village of Santa Catarina. Beautiful, and because it’s off the beaten gringo trail, I saw only one other white person there. 

Boats at Santa Catarina.

Village of Santa Catarina.


The fact that I am a representative of privilege, and that the impoverished‎ indigenous population is something that draws me here, is also a topic for another post. It’s a conflict I’m trying to reconcile with, or at least learn about. Below are some links to a 
few resources I’ve come across lately.

A woman at the market.

Blue is the native color of Santa Catarina.
In church.
 What the boys do.

  by Aryeh Neier
The New York Review of BooksFebruary 10, 2014

  by Elizabeth Monaghan

Social Justice Solutions2/10/2014

by Oswaldo J. Hernández, Translated by Sandra Cuffe   
Upside Down World:Covering Activism and Poltics in Latin America, 10 February 2014

  by Stephen Connely Benz

  by W. George Lovell

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

You are a god – live like one! (T.Leary)

Naomi says, "Why would anyone live in the U.S. when they 
can live here?"

earlier today...
last night...

This past week Naomi and I got into a routine. She gets picked up down the dirt road in the morning by a tuk-tuk ((looks like a 3-wheeled golf cart, her school is about 2 miles away). 
Road from our house.

 I have mornings to get some work done, then I walk 
to my Spanish class. 
Carmalina, mi maestra.
Hey, if you want to feel stupid, take a one-on-one language class for 4 hours a day! But I did manage to speak a complete sentence to someone recently, so I must have learned something!!

On my way to school.
Dog day afternoon.