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On the Road: San Juan Cotzal

On the Road: San Juan Cotzal

Our venture to San Juan Cotzal is the first of many trips to strengthen our connection to the women in our most rural highland pueblos. By the end of the year, we hope to visit all our communities of weavers to conduct interviews about how we can improve as our cooperative continues to grow.  By learning as much as we can about their education levels, family size, income, and what skills they’d like to learn, we can understand exactly how to best support our cooperative. 

If you aren’t familiar with the chicken bus it can be hard to imagine how dizzying it is for quick trips, let alone 7 hours on the winding mountain roads. Leaving on the first bus from the Minerva Terminal here in Quetzaltenango, Trama president Oralia, Volunteer Coordinator Kerri, and two volunteers left for the long journey north. 

After several hours we reached the terminal in San Jesus Kiche, where we paused for a light breakfast and to buy bread as a gift for the leaders in Cotzal. The chicken bus is always an unpredictable venture- the seats come with handlebars for a reason. You might think the farther from cities you travel, the lighter the load, but really - the more rural communities depend on public transportation like the buses and shared vans, called collectivos. 

On our last connecting bus from San Jesus Kiche to San Juan Cotzal, the bus couldn’t have been more full. Three to a seat with parcels and baskets and babies piled high, the driver stopped for everyone who flagged him down. Standing-room only is an understatement. Single file down the full length of the bus aisle, the ayudante finds a way to navigate the sea of cowboy hats and trajes to collect everyone’s bus fare. Standing room only became breathing room only, just before we finally reached San Juan Cotzal. 

That fresh air was snatched away soon after, because you haven’t seen steep until you’ve seen the vertical roads and alleys of Cotzal. We felt some light effects of altitude sickness, but nothing that water and an ice cream couldn’t cure. We walked from the center of town to the afueras where Conception, the leader of the weavers in Cotzal,  lives with her husband, son, and two daughters Cindy and Teresa, who are also weavers.  Cindy and Teresa were vital to our trip, as they worked as translators for our interviews. 

There are over two dozen languages throughout Guatemala, and this region speaks Ixchil, an indigenous language of the highlands. Many communities of past generations speak only their Mayan language, so having translators fluent in both Ixchil and Spanish is what made our journey possible. Our president Oralia, speaks Spanish and Mam, an indigenous language of her home in Solola. Though Oralia couldn’t communicate directly with many of the weavers, her positivity and excitement was clear at every moment of the trip. 

As soon as we arrived, Conception greeted us with warm leaves of chuchitos and guanabana juice. We enjoyed a walk along the rocky stream just behind her house, with a beautiful view of a distant waterfall, grazing horses, and the ever present sounds of roosters. Conception’s home was built by her husband, on the same plot of land as her old home, made of natural adobo bricks. Oralia remarked how she prefers adobo homes, as their beautiful traditional style out shines that of more modern brick homes. Nicholas, Concepcion’s husband, invited us to return later that evening to enjoy the temazcal that he built adjacent to the kitchen. 

Early the next morning, chimney smoke mixed with the low clouds of the mountains. After a light breakfast we joined Oralia who rose even earlier than we did. At Concepcion's house, the kitchen was already busy with weavers preparing food for the day. We started off stuffing punta de guixquil leaves with masa, to make the Ixchil delicacy boxbol. Boxbol is served with spicy salsas and a creamy sauce called pepian, made of seeds crushed by hand with stones.  Many of the women beside us, lead by example, as they didn’t speak Spanish. Though, it was very easy to see them giggle at our sloppy first attempts. 

You couldn’t notice that there was no music playing, as the energy was amazing. For some families, three generations joined us, grandmothers, mothers, and children, all dressed in traje and happy to be together in the smells of the kitchen. Once the boxbol was left on the stove to cook for the rest of the morning, we started our interviews. 

The data we collect covers a wide array of topics to provide us with the demographic information necessary to best support our communities. As we continue to research and explore the lives of our 400 weavers, we will publish more organized data! A sneak peak at what we are studying are the education levels, family sizes, community needs, and what other crafting skills they hope to learn. We are working with an extended team of workers at Cornell University to organize and utilize this information. 

After a long morning of work and an afternoon feast, we parted ways and left for Nebaj, a nearby city, if an hour by bus is considered nearby. In only a day, we learned so much about the history and  traje of Cotzal, and were able to experience the  beautiful community nestled in the mountains.  

To learn more about the traje of Cotzal, you can visit our new page on Traje.

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