Three stories of resiliency in Guatemala

Just about every Guatemalteco (Guatemalan person) we have met are some of the most resilient, kind, and intelligent people around. 23 native Mayan languages are still spoken in the country. In San Pedro, Tzu’utujil (pronounced Su-too-heel), is the primary language. Spanish is taught in elementary school and used when speaking with anyone outside of the family. Because Spanish is their second language, Pedranos (San Pedro residents) speak it a tad bit slower, a tad bit clearer, and a tad bit more proper than most native Spanish speakers- which makes them excellent Spanish teachers!

During our one month stay we have heard some fascinating, uplifting, and tragic stories about the Mayan people, and we wanted to share with you three of those stories.

Story #1- Mayan Atlantis – Samabaj!


In order to learn the “subjuntivo” grammar rules of Spanish, my teacher at Orbita asked me to watch a documentary about Samabaj so we could discuss it the next day. What a fascinating story! One day, a local man named Roberto Samayoa Asmus, was scuba diving in Lake Atitlan like he always did and discovered rows of cube-shaped rocks at the bottom of the lake. He continued to find new artifacts from ancient Mayan civilizations in the lake and created a small museum.

samabaj2This city under the lake was named Samabaj (pronounced Sam-a-bawk). Sam for his middle name, and “abaj” which means “rocks” in Tzu’utujil. Roberto and a team of Guatemalan divers and researchers continued to explore the lake but had trouble seeing the bottom as the lake was suffering from a bacterial infection that made the water cloudy and a tad dangerous for swimming. Luckily, a man named Leon Reinhard from the good ol’ US of A caught wind of the search for this lost city and invested thousands of dollars to continue the exploration. This money got them a boat with sonar and one week to find and map the aquatic city. However even with sonar it was difficult to detect the bottom of the deep lake. Dramatically, on the last day, in the last hours of their search, they finally detected an island or a volcano top high enough for the sonar to detect with loads of Mayan artifacts. They had discovered an ancient ceremonial site! This discovery happened just last year and according to my teacher, the second part of the search and the documentary is being made right now! We will have to wait and see just what new discoveries surface in this Mayan Atlantis called Samabaj.

Speak or learning Spanish? Here’s the documentary I watched for class. It was great practice and  fascinating!

 Story #2- Tejadoras of Guatemala


Picture a rolling green countryside with a backdrop of a sparkling blue lake and rising purple mountains. Perched on small wooden stools circling a tall wide tree are Guatemalan women or Tejadoras weaving scarves, traditional skirts, shawls, and other handicrafts. Streaming down from high branches in the tree are hundreds of long strands of soft yarn, which has been naturally dyed by flowers and bark. The yarn stretches all the way towards the wooden sticks held by each woman. They laugh, sing, tell stories, and gossip as they weave. Sometimes they weave in their homes, only stopping to cook meals, take their children to school, clean the house, and sleep. “Weaving is relaxing, meditative, and stress-relieving work for these hard working women” explained Amalia from the Tinte Maya weaving cooperative in San Juan, where I took a four hour one-on-one weaving class. “Selling our creations allows us to be more self-sufficient as many of us cannot (and prefer not to) depend solely on our husbands to support the family financially. Most of the money we make goes towards our children’s education.” Sitting next to me as I wove, Amalia continued to tell me that women used to mainly weave traditional shirts and skirts. Now to preserve their craft they weave and sell scarves, shawls, and handbags, which are mostly purchased by the tourists. And their creations are beautiful, intricate, and special. Tinte Maya is just one of the many weaving cooperatives in San Juan and probably the largest, comprised of 25 women who each receive 90% of the sale of their handicrafts. 10% goes towards renting the space and running the Cooperative. As I left the class, barely able to walk as my rear hurt so badly from sitting so long, Jon and I talked about how by taking a class and purchasing a few scarves of our own, we felt that we were contributing in a small way to preserving the ancient art form of weaving and the resilient women behind it.


Story #3- The Civil War

Not too long ago, from the 60’s to the 90’s, Guatemala suffered a devastating civil war. It is estimated that over 200,000 people were killed or went missing during the war and many considered it a genocide against the indigenous Mayan people. At our first Spanish School, Cooperativa, we watched a video about a woman who grew up in the US, but had been born in Guatemala during this difficult time. Her future was forever changed when she was rescued from her hiding spot in a forest and placed in an orphanage. Why was she hiding in a forest? Her mother had told her to “run and never look back” with her 9 day old baby sister on her back as a group of soldiers ransacked their village. She lived off of rainwater and berries for an uncertain amount of time. Her baby sister did not survive and she buried her next to a tree. Her mother didn’t survive either and fell to the hands of the soldiers as did all of the other women in the village. Adpoted by Iowa parents, she grew up in the United States but never spoke of her past because no one believed her and it was too painful to talk about. In the movie she returns to her village more than 20 years later and is torn between her US and Guatemalan heritage. Ultimately, she follows her roots and fights for justice for the men, women and children who died and suffered from atrocious acts of violence during the war.

Upon first glance, you can’t see the awful past the behind smiling faces of the Guatemaltecos. Everyone we have met has been cheerful, friendly, vibrant, and kind. After a few weeks however, you begin to see and hear about the alcoholism, violence, and depression that reek havoc on many of the Guatemalan families- the all too common aftermath of war. One particularly devastating moment we experienced was when teaching English to a hard working and ambitious young man of 18 years who we had befriended. One afternoon a drunk, greasy man stumbled into the room, interrupted our session and begged him for money. The boy was very upset and embarrassed, gave the man some money, and pushed him out the door. He apologized profusely and told us that was his father.

Taking Spanish classes here has provided us with so much more than all (and I mean ALL) of the Spanish grammar rules. It also allowed us to befriend teachers, administrators, weavers, landlords, tour guides, workers and individuals of all ages who call Lake Atitlan and Guatemala their home; all of whom are proud of their Mayan heritage, ambitious about their future, and living fully and happily in the present. Listening, learning, and buying were some of the ways we wanted to support them, and telling their story is another.

Here are some more of the faces we met and will miss:

We wanted to wish everyone a lovely (and belated) Valentine’s Day. Remember to love yourself, your family, your heritage, the people in your neighborhood, and the people all around the world! We  also wanted to give a big Happy Birthday shout out to some of our biggest fans and followers- Carolyn’s Mom and Jon’s Dad!! We miss you and love you!


Where to next? We are headed to Antigua, Guatemala for a couple of days and then we fly into Costa Rica but will busing straight to Panama where we hope to do a work exchange for a few weeks and practice our Spanish skills! Wish us luck!