Beneath the Surface of Lake Atitlán

On February 28, our group left our Spanish classes early to get a head start on our weekend trip to Lake Atitlán.  After a warm and humid bus ride, we stopped at a cooperative called Campesino Committee of the Highlands.  While walking to the storehouse, Rebecca was happy to see a group of children playing soccer in an open building with a sign saying, “Se prohibe jugar fútbol.”

Once inside, many of us were surprised to see the logo of the cooperative superimposed onto chalkboard-sized, professionally printed tarps with Hugo Chavez’s face and the phrase “Continuemos la lucha!”

The politics of the coffee cooperative goes back to the Spanish, and later Ladino (non-Mayan) control of land.  In the 1950s President Jacobo Arbenz attempted to redistribute the land in Guatemala so that the lower class could have access to one of Guatemala’s greatest resources: farmland.  The redistribution would have greatly hindered United Fruit Company’s economic exploitation of Guatemala, and shortly after the United States staged a coup.  By 1960, and all the way until 1996, Guatemala was the grounds for a civil war between the US-backed military and guerrilla fighters hoping for land reform.

After seeing the cooperative’s strong principles of independence and care for the land, we continued on the way to Lake Atitlán, arriving in Santiago in time to explore the town before dinner.  Later that evening, the town plaza was alive with vendors selling pineapple cider and atole de platano, with young men playing soccer, and with old men leaning against the wall wearing indigenous clothing and broad-rimmed hats.

The next day we did a walking tour of the town and surrounding area with an MCC SALT volunteer and the president of ANADESA Community Development Organization.  We saw the sight of the military’s massacre of indigenous civilians, new houses the government built but later declared to be in a landslide zone and thus uninhabitable, and men carrying 100-150 pound loads of firewood on their backs.

During the tour, I asked the president of ANADESA, Juan, why so many men in Santiago still wear indigenous clothing; in most parts of the country I had only seen the women doing so.  Earlier I assumed since the men were out of the house more, they felt more pressure to take up Western dress and thus protect themselves from the government by appearing to be less of a target.  Most of the groups massacred by the military during the war were indigenous.  My guess was wrong and the story much more complicated.

During the armed conflict, 75% of the guerrilla fighters were Ladino.  Although Ladino means non-Mayan, this group is often Mestizo, or mixed race, and includes those who are racially Mayan but have taken up Western traditions.  When men changed to Ladino clothing, they were actually making themselves a greater target, but they did so because the government forced them to change when the government recruited young men from indigenous communities.  Their alliance would then be identified by the “jefe’s” list rather than their dress.

After the massacre in Santiago, the community successfully pushed the army out the town, one of the greatest indigenous successes of the armed conflict.  That is why so many of the men continue to wear their indigenous clothing.

The view from the roof of the hotel was gorgeous.  We were surrounded by several volcanoes, one rising right out of the lake, and a sunset beautified by the air pollution.

The next day, our last  in the area, we crossed the lake by boat to spend the morning in Panajachel.  The tourist market was down on the lake, and a few of us ventured up the crowded “normal” market uptown.  One of my own highlights of Panajachel was asking for a tortilla-making lesson at a tortilleria.  The women guessed that they made 400 tortillas a day each; it took me 10 minutes to make one lopsided tortilla.

We ended our time in a pizzeria, enjoying pizza with fresh pineapple and the shouts of people watching Real Madrid versus Athletico Madrid on the TV.  Back in Guatemala (the nickname for Guatemala City), we arrived tired and ready to be reunited with our host families.

-Emilie Raber