A Guatemalan Town 10 Years Later

The history of anthropology in Guatemala is replete with village and town case studies that too often have been applied to all Guatemalans, both Indians and peasants. This orientation ignores regional variations, historical distinctions and micro-ecological differences, and has confused and annoyed researchers whose individual examples were deemed to be aberrations from archetypes of highland Mayas. Recently, theorists have begun to re-evaluate this tendency, and fieldworkers are beginning a new phase in the anthropological examination of Guatemala that will put these sweeping generalizations to rest.

After nearly a decade away from Guatemala, anthropologists are returning once more to their fieldwork sites. Since 1978, it has been difficult for researchers to work in Guatemala. Successive military regimes of Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt and Mejias Victores seemed suspicious of us; this endangered the safety of our informants, families and friends. In spite of some excellent analyses of the highlands in the 1980s by such theorists as Carol Smith (forthcoming), it has only been since the election of Vinicio Cerezo in 1986 that plans are being made to earnestly resume fieldwork. Until 1986, we had discouraged one another from attempting more than brief visits and, accordingly, switched our emphasis from fieldwork to political and advocacy analysis.

One early lesson from the advocacy work of the last 10 years is that military control has had a varied impact on the highlands. Not every department has seen its Indian population massacred or herded into model villages. Many highland villages have had active civil patrols; but even with insurgent activity a few miles away, other communities have had no overt contact with guerrillas. Guatemalan departments are as different from one another as are some countries, and response to stressful economic and social conditions varies. Careful examination of Guatemala will reveal many and varied socio-economic factors that must be considered before any but the most superficial or premature conclusions can be drawn as to the future of the Maya.

In June 1987, I returned to San Pedro Sacatepéquez, San Marcos (urban pop. 15,000) where I had lived for a year in 1976-1977 while undertaking research on the town and three of its 17 outlying villages or aldeas. I had been back to San Pedro twice during the ensuing decade, but never for more than a week. This month-long field trip was designed to initiate a comparative analysis of how this Mam Indian town had been affected by nearly a decade of military control in Guatemala and, more recently, by a serious national economic crisis.

At 7,000 ft, San Pedro lies on the escarpment between the highlands and the coast, a location that has long afforded it excellent trade opportunities. Much has been written about the prodigious rise in the town's standard of living since World War II, particularly in terms of capital investments and consumer acquisitiveness. What I found on this trip was that the tendencies toward modernization noted in the 1960s by W.R. Smith, predicting dire consequences for indigenous cottage industries that I had researched in the 1970s, were coming to pass in the 1980s - much sooner than we had imagined. Furthermore, the rapid evolution of local business away from the production of traditional goods seemed to stem not from indigenous changes, but primarily from national policies.

The Role of the Military

Currently, San Pedro finds itself just outside ORPA (Organization of the People in Arms) insurgency operations on the fincas and among the smaller communities of the coastal plain. I had anticipated that like towns in Quiche and Huehuetenango, San Pedro's close proximity to an area of military-guerrilla activity would severely affect the town. What. I found was quite different. In general terms, the considerable army presence three miles away (a military base for 3,000 troops was established four years ago) creates an atmosphere of nervousness and suspicion, but the military itself is not the most crucial variable in explaining change in San Pedro. In fact, the consensus is that relations with the military are much better than they have been for years. In the early 1980s, almost everyone in the town had heard or read about torture and massacres as nearby as Tumbador or Tajumulco, and many people had had personal contacts with uniformed "bandits" who attacked and robbed them on the highways, a sign of the lawlessness endemic in the highlands. Encounters with insurgents were, as now, limited to people being stopped on the road to hear political messages, and little more.

Three prominent citizens were assassinated in 1980. One, Rosalinda Cabrera, was a lawyer with whom I had worked in 1977. Her brutal murder by automatic weapon fire in front of her young children still baffles Sampedranos. The second victim was Jose Luis Juarez Romero, the mayor of the town, who had a history of supporting the rural poor with loans and civic improvements. Then-President Lucas Garcia had summoned public employees to Guatemala City to demonstrate in support of his government. In all likelihood, Juarez' public opposition to that order had marked him for death. Later, the leader of a teachers' strike in the neighboring town of San Marcos was also killed, and the strike postponed.

Currently, the town's apprehensions regarding the military have to some extent diminished. Citizens are still hesitant to go out alone at night; raucous, drunken soldiers have been rumored to attack lone youths and women. The presence of armed soldiers, or "cuques" as they are called, in the market or at dances always occasions some negative reactions. Nonetheless, the town has grown accustomed to - if not actually welcomed - the army, in part because the army spends nearly 75 percent of its food budget locally. In addition, the construction of the base was a much-needed tonic for the local economy; 300 people from the San Pedro-San Marcos area are still employed there as drivers, nurses, administrators, seamstresses, cooks, typists and laborers.

As a footnote, I should add that because they have so little information about insurgency and counterinsurgency operations and because rumor seems to be the most powerful medium for news, most Sampedranos are quite ignorant and confused about the role of the military or the intentions of the guerrillas. Ironically, several thousand people only got their first good look at the problem two years ago when the American cable television channel Home Box Office (HBO), widely available in San Pedro, showed El Norte.

Highland Oasis?

On the surface, San Pedro Sacatepéquez seems to be a town on the make. Historically, it has always been the dominant town in San Marcos, and since World War II the standard or living of its largely Indian population has significantly risen. Its economic good fortune has been based on the trade of its commercial weavings, the size of its market, the development of a large transport industry and the entrepreneurial tendencies of its people. Located less than two hours from the Mexican border, just between highland communities and lowland plantations and towns, it has taken advantage of the frequent movement of goods and people to develop its economy, its standard of living and the educational opportunities of its children. In the last 10 years, the size of its Thursday outdoor market has doubled from 1,000 to 2,000 vendors; seven new schools have opened; telephones and Japanese cars and small trucks are common; and for Q15 a month, one can be wired for the Disney Channel and HBO. A second two-story market is stated for construction this year; all its stalls and shops have already been leased. The town now has two banks, 35 doctors and three health food stores. Children of weavers are wearing Nikes(TM); cheap photocopies are available in two locations; and where there was only one Protestant church 10 years ago, there are now nearly 40.

All these characteristics suggest a diversifying population with a growing middle class and money to spend. Two generations removed from wearing huipils (traditional women's blouses) and speaking Mam, San Pedro's urban sector is educated and relatively affluent. Many families have been able to send their children to high school and even to college so that they can become teachers, engineers, agronomists, doctors and lawyers. (The fact that the University of San Carlos is only an hour bus ride away in Quezaltenango has meant that hundreds of people have earned university degrees.) They wear Western clothing, own appliances and cars and express clear preferences for rock & roll and salsa over traditional marimba music. Conspicuous consumption seems to escalate with more schooling and a monthly salary; as the size of the middle class has grown, so has the town's profile adjusted to reflect a more national and international orientation.

At the same time that Westernization is making inroads on indigenous culture, the economic infrastructure is taking an unexpected turn for the worse. Opportunities to buy and sell in the bustling market or in dozens of other regional markets had long provided viable careers. But the increasing population and the evolution away from production and sales of traditional cottage industries have in the last few years made local commerce a very crowded way of life. Competition in the market - both daily and weekly - is intense and profits are low. Merchants who have run successful stalls and shops on less than a 10 percent profit margin have had to close their doors as dozens of competitors spring up to undercut their prices and claim their clientele. The work week is of necessity seven long days. One sign of prosperity is to take off Sunday afternoon. Even so, few families have only one business, and the coupling of trade with some other industry or job is de rigeur. In one extended family of 15, I counted five salaries and eight separate money-making activities. If customers wanted a piñata, a hand-knit sweater, a gallon of motor oil, fresh chicken or paper flowers for a grave, business was transacted on demand. The hour of the day or night was immaterial, with even the meager profit of one late-night sale not to be lost.

In short, rampant consumerism may be characteristic of enough Sampedranos to support dozens of shops and services, but the overwhelming number of people must work overtime to buy anything as expensive as a monthly pound of meat or three yards of fabric for a school uniform. This predicament is in large part quite new. For many locals, the future looked bright up until the last four or five years. The question we must ask ourselves at this point is "What happened to San Pedro Sacatepéquez's long-established, thriving, productive system to cause it to stall?"

Prices Then and Now

The critical issue here is, of course, the cost of living. Although San Pedro has always had poor aldeas and malnourished children, many of its positive steps toward a higher standard of living have been stymied by Guatemala's dismal national economic profile. Brought on by a sagging international market for Central American agricultural products and soaring interest rates, the problem has been exacerbated by the incurring of nonproductive debts to finance military operations. The country began to feel the crunch in 1984 when the quetzal-to-dollar value - which had been 1:1 since 1925 - began to drop until it reached 4:1 in 1985. Since then it has stabilized at 2.5:1. In the meantime Guatemala has lost more than $1.1 billion to the US in foreign exchange. Even by its own analysis, Guatemala is facing a serious fiscal crisis. The government announced that cotton exports alone were down by more than $100 million in 1986, putting 15,000 families out of work with a loss of $40 million in wages. According to the Bank of Guatemala, inflation is more than 40 percent, and the jobless rate is between 35 and 40 percent. Real wages dropped by 38 percent between 1981 and 1986, and government per capita spending was down 50 percent during the same period. One impact of all this is that protein consumption dropped by at least 15 percent, caloric intake by 16 percent, and the per capita intake of eggs, meat and fats was reduced in 90 percent of the population.

The following chart illustrates the repercussions that the national economic crisis has had on the prices of daily necessities in San Pedro. With less money to spend on ever more expensive commodities, there is no doubt that here, as nationally, the quality of life has seriously deteriorated.

Prices in San Pedro, 1977 and 1987

ITEM 1977 1987

black beans .08-.14/lb. .70

corn .05/lb. .22

rice .15/lb. .75

soap .04 each .22

meat .75/lb. 3.75

chicken feed 8.40/100 lb. 33.80

milk .08/liter .50

salt .03/lb. .20

chicken .29/lb. 1.80

sugar .08/lb. .30-.32

bread 6 for .05 .04 each

carrots .40/doz. 1.00

shrimp 1.20/lb. 8.00

tomato paste .15 each .75

hot sauce .10 each .50

gasoline .95/gal. 2.95

electricity .07/kwh .21

antacids .05 each .15

private school 4/month 15/month

bus fare to Quezaltenango .50 1.50

teacher's salary (beginning) 240/month 372

laborers salary 1-2/day 2.50-3.50

maid's salary 12/month 40/month

The costs of daily necessities clearly have increased fivefold in a decade, without corresponding increases in wages and salaries. One obvious result of the price increase is that peoples' diets suffer. With many families existing on a combined income of Q4 daily, few people can afford to buy what they would like to eat. Many Sampedranos subsist on tortillas and chiles, a weak soup and coffee with sugar, three times a day. In good weeks, they might be able to afford a half-pound of beans. Ten years ago, the ordinary diet of the rural Sampedrano included cereal or eggs for breakfast, and meat once a week. Today only the wealthiest people can afford meat on a regular basis, a situation that has resulted in the bankruptcy of nearly a dozen butchers in only four years. Guatemalan beef, like coffee, is almost entirely an export crop, and its domestic scarcity has added dramatically to its very high price.

Correspondingly, in spite of a growing middle class, local statistics on malnutrition and infant mortality are unchanged from 1977 and, as such, continue to be dismaying. According to the director of public health, 90 percent of the children from San Pedro and its aldeas are malnourished. Of every 1,000 new babies born, 50 die before they reach one year, a figure that although high, compares "favorably" with the national average of over 60! Medical care is far more available than it used to be, yet a doctor's visit costs Q7 or more, and the cost of drugs and patent medicines has risen nearly 400 percent.

The Demise of the Huipil

The area hardest hit by the falling value of the quetzal and the high cost of everyday necessities is the weaving of huipils, a cottage industry that has sustained San Pedro's family productive system for centuries. This industry has always been controlled by women producing either for local consumption or for distant trade with other non-weaving Indians. As such it has proven to be a satisfying and secure business, permitting women to be independent entrepreneurs and traders. For decades, San Pedro's huipils have been made with thread imported from Germany and Japan. Only the warp is Guatemalan cotton. As the value of the quetzal has dropped internationally and Guatemala's international trade has disintegrated, the costs of importing these raw materials has skyrocketed. In 1977, the thread for an excellent huipil cost Q25 or Q30; today it costs Q115. The consequences of this unexpected upturn in the price of material are far-reaching for the weaver, the storekeeper, the wearer and the town.

First of all, fewer urban women and women from the near aldeas can afford to purchase good quality huipils. Rather than feel embarrassed wearing an inferior product, many women prefer to present an upwardly mobile appearance by switching to Western dress. Poorer women from the same areas either purchase far fewer pieces of traditional clothing or combine cheaper polyester or cotton blend blouses with their traditional cortes (skirts). Almost none of these women buys huipils for their daughters. Secondly, due to the lower volume of sales and resultant competition for business, weavers have had to accept a lower profit margin on the work they sell to dealers. One woman showed me a drop in just five years from a Q30 profit to only Q15 for eight days' work. Store owners have had to pay less to their trading partners - many of whom have been weaving for them for decades - because handwoven goods no longer sell. One shopkeeper had had the same huipils on her shelf for more than two years!

The only way that San Pedro's costume dealers can stay in business is either by emphasizing the different huipils and cortes from distant rural areas where women still favor traditional dress, or by stocking the Sincatex machine-embroidered blusas that are now quickly replacing San Pedro's huipils. Storekeepers like the new cotton-blend blusas because they sell for only Q10 or Q20, allowing a quick profit of at least Q18 per dozen. In the long run, however, this new costume style can only contribute to the undermining of the town's weaving industry, since the blusas are not produced locally but are brought in from factories in Quezaltenango or from cottage industries in Solala.

At issue here is not only the price of traditional clothing, but Indian identity as well. Faced with a more expensive product, rural women maintain their costume by changing styles; very few urban women (or women from the near aldeas) under the age of 40 still wear any kind of huipil. Evidence from interviews suggests that the population is divided on the question of ethnic identity: some believe that one retains indigenous roots regardless of one's clothing; others reflect the prejudice of the ruling majority by denying their Indian heritage once the obvious signs are gone. In addition, almost every urban/near-aldea family I visited had a radio-tape recorder or a television, or both. Clearly, contact with the national culture via trade, travel and television has introduced modern tastes that are supplanting traditional values; via these changes Sampedranos are forfeiting the outward symbols of their history and ethnicity. One 35-year-old woman who had until recently worn a huipil and now wore a tattered sweater and torn skirt explained it this way: Although it was clear that she was Indian, it was preferable to spend her money on a Q90 radio rather than on a Q90 huipil because the radio made her feel alegre or gay. My own analysis is that, in part, consumer goods are undermining the investment in traditional ethnic costumes less for ideological reasons than because they can be bought with monthly payments-something that artesanal work permits - even now that income is so low. Huipils and cortes must be purchased for cash that has been accumulated for more than a year or two, during which time one has nothing to show for the savings.

In short, the future for wearing and weaving traditional huipils seems bleak. As business declines, more weavers abandon their looms in favor of trade in the already overcrowded market. Some local huipil makers have switched to weaving tela tipica or Guatemalan-style fabric to make into clothing and sell in Guatemala City or the US. San Pedro has specialized in producing hand-woven tablecloths and clothes for nearly 20 years, a time in which several small fortunes have been made by enterprising individuals. Recently, however, the taste for such fabric has fallen off among the middle classes in both places, producing a strong negative trend in this business. It remains to be seen whether San Pedro will be able to find another option for its well-known weaving industry, since it seems clear that both traditional production and tela tipica are declining.


Examination of this highland town from a 10-year perspective reveals a serious decline in economic potential and the sad demise of the productive system of traditional weaving which had, in part, sustained the town for centuries. Although the middle class has managed to support its penchant for consumer goods by investing in education and its promise of salaried work, the majority of Sampedranos have seen their economic opportunities dwindle within a few years. No single villain lurks behind this dismal scenario.

On the local level, the military appears, at least for the present, to be playing a benign role in the town's economic affairs. The national level, however, presents another story; the hard currency spent on weapons and counterinsurgency operations has meant far less government support for social services and for the delivery of badly needed economic relief. Combined with Guatemala's continued emphasis on export crops, a shrinking international market and unequal terms of trade, immediate prospects for reversal of the country's fiscal miasma appear slim.

One local consequence of this dilemma is that real income is decreasing, creating a smaller market for ever more expensive huipils made with imported raw materials. The dramatically lowered demand for costumes has destroyed the profitability of making them, driving weavers out of business and into the already overcrowded commercial sector.

For the last 20 years, this movement away from indigenous clothing has been slowly fueled by growing media access and a popular national and international orientation. But the town's tendency toward assimilation has been rapidly accelerated by national policies and international economic patterns beyond its control. Indigenous cottage industries continue to die out, but nothing new has arisen to take their place. Overemphasis on market trade as an alternative occupation can only mean less profit for more people, a reality Sampedranos will continue to rationalize with their own brand of "workaholism." In the long run, however, if the national picture remains unchanged, even the most industrious families will find that merely having work is no longer enough.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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