Immersion into Maya Ixil Culture

It’s taken a little longer than I expected to get out another update. I’ve been trying to get to know my new town and my new friends so I never seem to have the right combination of free time and WiFi. But I finally took advantage of some long bus rides to continue documenting my adventures so I want to share a little more about the local culture as I’m experiencing it.

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A Day in the Life

My first week of work happened to coincide with a visit from a family who donates to our program. Our visitors often participate in tours and activities to learn about our work and the people we serve. It was great timing because I got to tag along and learn more about LHI’s programs, indigenous Ixil culture and daily life in Chajul. The week kicked off with a tour of Chajul starting of course with the church and park in the center of town and then the open air market a few steps away. Next to the local cemetery we saw an “animal jail”. We learned it was for runaway animals who were causing trouble in the neighborhood. At the time it was empty but a few days later when I saw a group of cows stuck in there I wondered whose garden they had illegally eaten.

I probably can’t explain everything I’ve learned about the culture but there were some things that stood out for me. We had a class on the regional language of Ixil to learn some key phrases. The main ones I remember and sometimes use are: Txaql axh (Good morning), Xeni (Good afternoon), Tantiuxh (Thank you), Naxbaj (Bye) and Yeele (No you can’t – sometimes said to the younger kids in our program). The “x” is pronounced like “sh”. I hope to learn to say “Yes you can” and “I want to dance” next.  Later, we watched part of a documentary on the 36 year civil war and the related genocide against indigenous peoples. The war ended in 1996 but resulted in the deaths of an estimated 140,000 to 200,000 people many of whom were indigenous.

I also spent the night with a local family whose daughter is in our program. The power went out that day so I met the family by candlelight. Their house was small with the floors made of dirt and the walls partly of wood and partly of concrete. The kitchen is a small separate building with a stove powered by firewood. While there is running water at various times of day, it comes from a curiously shaped sink outside in front of the house. It’s a concrete rectangular basin about waist high which fills with water from the tap right above it and has stands on both sides where you can wash your hands/dishes/laundry/etc with water scooped up from the basin. The two stands have drains which run out into the street (or the public sewer if that happens to reach your house). I’m not entirely sure why the basin is left uncovered but I’m conducting an informal survey. I think it’s mostly out of convenience and since the water is used up almost everyday between washing, cooking, and cleaning, dirt falling in is no great concern. The tap water is full of parasites anyway and should be boiled before drinking. It seems most people know this and their drinks are typically hot. Mainly coffee of course but also several boiled corn and wheat based drinks collectively known as atol. They’re fairly bland but sometimes they come with cinnamon or sugar or other spices.

Just about every woman is skilled in the art of backstrap weaving. We attended a workshop by the mother of the house where I spent the night – Teresa – to see this skill in action. The weaving is done on a “loom” that is really two long cords with one end tied to a tree or pole and the other around the woman’s lower back. There are a couple of small flat sticks involved as well in the 7 step process that often takes hours. If my description of this art sounds vague or confusing it’s because when I tried my hand at it, I failed miserably. I couldn’t get through the first 3 steps of making a simple bookmark without help from both mother and daughter. Now I understand why people pay so much for handwoven artisan products.

After the weaving, Teresa showed the group how to make tortillas. I redeemed myself a little as I was much better at this art. Still it is much harder than it appears. When you watch the experts (i.e. any woman here) it looks like they simply clap their hands rapidly and a perfectly round flat tortilla just falls out onto the stove. When I tried it myself, I discovered the dough sticks to your hands so you can’t just keep clapping; your fingers need to make intricate and precise movements to keep the dough spinning into a perfectly round circle as you flatten it with your clapping. I will probably stick to buying the fresh tortillas that are sold on every street at every mealtime for about a dollar. On one of the final days we experienced “a day in the life of an Ixil”. (An aside: Although most of the state is Ixil indigenous, there is a second indigenous group descended from the Maya in the region, the Quiche, whose daily lives are fairly similar to the Ixil).

We learned that in most families the gender roles are fairly fixed and traditional. The women are charged with childcare, cooking, and cleaning while the men work in the fields and chop firewood. Women also sometimes get a bit of income from selling tortillas and weaving. Two other tasks that fall to women are getting water when it’s not running at home and beating corn. To get the water they carry the jugs on their heads. It was amusing trying it ourselves. Even more amusing was beating the corn. We put dried corn on the cob in sacks and then beat it with a stick to separate the kernels. It seems a great way to relieve stress during a long day of housework. I would’ve loved to go chop firewood and show off my axe-handling skills but instead we just learned how to carry a lot of wood on our backs using straps across our foreheads.

Some Cultural Events

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My host family is part of a Mayan council here in Nebaj and they hosted a ceremony and celebration for the planting of corn which generally happens at the end of April before the rainy season starts. The festivities began sunrise – before even the rooster was up – with a giant bonfire and an even bigger pot of soup over it. After breakfast were rituals which seemed to mix Catholic and Maya traditions. I left for work but returned in the evening in time for the indigenous music using marimba, guitar and violin. The first people to hit the dance floor were the senior citizens. The dance is basically a two step involving leaning side to side and turning slightly. The ceremony didn’t end until about 9PM but besides the dancing and a few prayers it seemed more like a regular hangout with friends. Still it was interesting to be part of.

May 2nd was Dia de Los Cruces (day of the crosses). From evening to dawn every major intersection (i.e. cross) had stations with altars and musicians. The stations were often tents with the musicians and the altars underneath. A large group of us, foreigners and locals, walked around the town to several of the stations. Some of us brought our own candles to light and add to the various altars. Some of the stations also offered alcohol to accompany the religious celebration. We ended the night at a large station with a band, a spiritual guide leading prayers, and a ceremony where people lined up to ask for specific blessings and place their candles at the altar. Another interesting cultural experience of which I am sure there will be many more.

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