Reclaiming a Heritage in the Wake of Westernization
San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala — a bustling community of indigenous Mayans and global transplants.
Cobbled streets wind upwards from the shores of Lake Atitlan. Buildings are stacked haphazardly against the steep hillside of a looming volcano. At the shore, waves slosh against questionable wooden docks, shaking the rickety structures.
Access to this town is limited to a bumpy ride down a steep, potholed road, or a ride in one of the many small blue and white boats found zooming around the lake. These little boats deliver tourists and villagers from rickety dock to rickety dock and are the main transportation method between villages.
Subtropical and high in the Sierra Madre mountain range, San Pedro is located on the shore of the deepest lake in Central America. The blue waters of Lake Atitlan fill a large volcanic caldera and are surrounded by three towering volcanoes; Atitlan, San Pedro, and Toliman.
Bursts of bright bougainvillea drape down dilapidated cement buildings splashing the streets with color. In February and March, blooming jacaranda trees tint the green volcano-side with violet and lavender hues.
In the narrow, twisting streets, small red taxis called tuk-tuks careen through the chaos of street dogs and pedestrians. Mayan women wear traditional “traje” dress; intricate, colorful textiles woven on backstrap looms. Chasing children and carrying loads atop their heads, they ascend the steep streets towards the outdoor market. Long before the roosters crow, men set out to work in corn and coffee fields, climbing the volcano-side up loose dirt trails, heavy loads strapped to their backs.
At the base of a volcano, the streets of San Pedro erupt with smells, languages and colors.
San Pedro’s renowned beauty and vivid culture attracts visitors from all over the globe. Consequently, several communities on the lake have based large portions of their economies in tourism.
There are 21 different Mayan languages spoken in the countryside of Guatemala, and Spanish is a second language for a majority of the population. In San Pedro, the indigenous Mayans speak Tz’utujil.
Though the hubbub of the village is now peaceful, colonization and war wrought a disruptive shift in Mayan society. Civil war waged for decades, ftom 1960 to 1996.
Influences of western television and increasing access to the internet brought many changes to the lives of the Tz’utujil. According to one Mayan man, a shift in the intrinsic values and qualities of the Mayan community is taking place.
Juan Manuel Chavajay Cotuc is determined to educate and reunite his community with its cultural heritage. A Tz’utujil man of 44 years and born in San Pedro, Cotuc spent the ages of 13 to 23 studying in Guatemala City. It was uncommon for a San Pedro family to afford this extended level of education for a child. It remains uncommon among the families of San Pedro.
Cotuc’s story is unique.
According to him, the education of a young Mayan person took place within the familial structure for generations previous to his. Sons learned traditional ways of fishing and agriculture, often laboring with their fathers in the campesino. Daughters learned household skills and weaving from their mothers.
Cotuc believes that the values and community this type of education encouraged were stronger before the advent of western education.
“In this time there was more respect, integrity, responsibility, spirituality, and community. The people were more ecological. They had an education for life. They were more happy, more free,” said Cotuc.
With the introduction of the western economic system, families of San Pedro have experienced economic poverty, says Cotuc. In the traditional Mayan economy, a family’s richness came from the land and the natural world. According to Cotuc, the majority of families cultivated their own food, giving them freedom, sustainability, and wealth.
Cotuc believes within the last three generations a complete transformation of cultural values has taken place. Young people are educated for the western economy, a culture that contradicts the teachings and values of Mayan heritage. Instead of fostering deep connections to their land and communities, youth are diverted into thinking about business and money.
According to Cotuc, progress is now measured by earning money and material possessions. He sees a rupture in the fabric of the Mayan family and society.
Realizing that reconciliation of the two cultures was necessary to ensure his people’s survival and prosperity, Cotuc began a new way of thinking.
“I have many friends who understand both cultures; our culture and the global culture. Now we understand the need to give a different education to our children. We must give them two educations, our own, and the ability to survive in the global system,” said Cotuc.
While studying pedagogy at a university in Guatemala City, Cotuc was introduced to computers and the vital role technology would play in the future. Recognizing illiteracy as a source of economic hardship for his people, he quickly realized the education Mayans need. Reading, writing, and computers skills would be vital for their futures. Without this kind of education they would remain technologically illiterate.
To remedy the looming cultural disparity and enhance what he deems as a “minimal education system,” Cotuc began a non-profit organization: the Taa’ Pi’t Intercultural Learning Center.
He hopes to bridge the gap between Mayan teachings and western culture.
“Taa’ Pi’t is an intercultural community. We are open to the world, but we are also connected to our roots. We are creating a new Mayan.” said Cotuc.
Taa’ Pi’t serves as an extracurricular learning center for motivated Mayan children, ages 7 to 12. A donation dependent organization, the staff works with minimal to no pay to keep the center open.
The center gives children opportunities to work with computers and learn mathematics and logic. A mother nature class emphasises the environmental protection needed for the polluted lake and the direct effects polluting its waters has on their lives.
They teach a class on traditions of Mayan agriculture, ancient techniques that are finding validity in today’s scientific community as sustainable ways of farming. Young Mayans no longer work with their fathers, learning these traditions as they once did. In this way the traditions are preserved.
Students are encouraged to delve into their personal ancestry and cultural heritage. Theven purpose is bridging the cultural and generational gap between grandparents and grandchildren, the generations the which have experienced the most acute change.
“We have something really good here,” said Cotuc. “We are reclaiming our culture.”
A growing number of San Pedro community members are turning to the traditions of their culture as a way of progressing into global society.
Anita Cortez, San Pedro native and founder of the Atitlan Cooperativa, believes it is important to reclaim their cultural heritage while economically uplifting the community.
Employing the techniques of their ancestors, the 20 women involved in the weaving cooperative make goods with traditional backstrap looms. These goods are then sold at fair trade prices, with the majority of proceeds going directly to the weavers.
These women grow organic cotton, spin their own thread, and dye it using local flora and fauna. Many of the women are single mothers trying to support their families, says Cortez.
Cortez also aspires to break down the language barriers in her community. From Tz’utujil to Spanish to English, she believes these barriers reduce the opportunities children will have in their lifetimes.
As a child, Cortez learned English on the streets, listening to travelers speak and studying words spoken in western television and movies.
“Communicating brings opportunity to our lives. I was able to start this cooperative to uplift women in my community. I want to provide opportunity for our children, too. Learning English is an important step,” said Cortez.
Many children will grow up to work in the tourism industry. Speaking English could bring them numerous advantages.
Vicente Cruz Sajquell, 31, shares a similar sentiment. Born and raised in San Pedro, Sajquell attended school from the age of six to 16. At 16 she graduated the Guatemalan equivalent of high school and went on to spend three years at a local vocational school studying to become a teacher.
A common goal for many San Pedro graduates, this is the highest level of education young women are expected to reach. In more remote areas girls rarely finish high school.
Sajquell had bigger plans.
Dissatisfied with a cyclical educational system churning out teachers untrained in guiding children during their developmental stages, Sajquell refused to join the school system as a teacher.
“I did not feel capable of guiding children,” said Sajquell.
She had no desire to subject children to what she herself had experienced: a failing educational system and unqualified teachers.
Like Cortez, Sajquell has found her passion working with the women of San Pedro. Through urgings of her illiterate mother, Sajquell spent three years teaching women literacy skills. She found her own teaching space and a minimal amount of funding and supplies from the Guatemalan government
At 29, Sajquell gathered the courage to attend a university in Solola, a neighboring town about a two-hour chicken bus ride away. It is extremely uncommon for a Mayan woman to pursue her education beyond vocational school, but Sajquell couldn’t imagine her life without further education.
Every Saturday for five years she will attend classes in Solola to earn a degree in social work.
Meanwhile, she has taken a hands-on approach within her community.
Working with a new Swiss-funded organization focused on helping women create small, self sufficient businesses, she facilitates micro-loans and capacity trainings in which women learn small business management skills. Many women she works with are single mothers escaping abusive domestic situations.
She continues to teach literacy skills and provides health and family planning classes.
“I could see the need in our society, especially here in San Pedro, for this kind of work,” said Sajquell. “These are integral pieces to their lives.”
Though it has not been an easy road for any of these San Pedro natives, their innovation and strength have become pillars uplifting their communities into the 21st century.
There is a saying from the Popol Vuh, the only sacred surviving text of the Mayan culture, that of the K’iche Mayans.
“That everyone rise up, that nobody is left behind, not one, not two, but all as one.”
Story and photos by Emily Goodykoontz