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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Guatemala - Part II: "Esperanza"

Her name means hope. Esperanza is seven years old and studies in the third grade. She lives with her mother and sisters in Chajul -- a community of 3000 people in the highlands of central Quiche -- and speaks Ixil, one of 22 languages spoken by 22 distinct ethnic groups in Guatemala.

The Ixil [ "ee-sheel"] people are descendants of the Mayans.  A visit to their remote villages scattered throughout the valleys and steep mountainsides of Quiche reveals women in traditional red woven skirts and whipils ["whee-peels"] which take the women on average two and half months to hand weave on homemade looms.

It's a complex process, I learn, as I make my first attempt under the supervision of Esperanza and her family.  At seven, Esperanza has already mastered the basics of weaving. As I struggle to keep track of the many wooden tools involved, her mother, Maria Asicona, smiles over me and adroitly adjusts my errors.  Esperanza studies my blonde hair and foreign features as she stands nearby, transferring a spool of thread to another tool with nonchalant expertise. Her eyes bear a quiet confidence beyond her years.

Something about her reminds me of my own little sister.  Though Tori's golden blonde hair and fair Norwegian features are a sharp contrast to the deep mahogany of Ezperanza's, both girls have baby-fine wispy locks which come alive with static electricity and float magically when combed. They are strong but slender girls, built on lean frames, and share a certain fire behind their eyes.

I turn my attention back to the loom in front of me. Smoke from the open fire in the kitchen starts to curl out of the front doorway behind me.  I turn my head as the fumes sting my eyes. "They endure this three times a day," I think, "that is - if they even have the resources to eat three meals a day." After malnutrition, respiratory diseases are the top health concern in communities like Chajul, where women cook over open fire pits inside their one-room homes.  There are no chimneys in the homes and smoke damage is pervasive and toxic to both the structure and its residents. I would stand up and move away from the smoke trail, but remember the woven strap securing the loom around my waist, ensuring tension between the post it's tied to and the end I'm working on. But even if I were not so constrained, it would take a moment to find my feet which are splayed out in front of me; the chair I'm sitting on is fit for a three-year-old. Yet this is a typical piece of furniture in the single-room dirt floor shacks dotting the hillside.


The smell of tortillas wafts out with the smoke. Esperanza's twelve-year-old sister sits inside by the fire, shaping masa paste into perfectly round tortillas and cooking them on a large metal disk balanced on two rocks, using only her hands as cooking utensils. I'm completely immersed in this little world which seems to be lost in time.  Now that I've woven nine lines of fabric, I'm starting to find a rhythm in the juggling of threads and the wooden sticks dividing them.

I smile at Adelma, our Ixil-to-Spanish translator sitting on another miniature chair across from mine. She smiles back and pulls a BlackBerry out of the intricately-woven faja securing her red cloth skirt. She holds up the phone to snap a photo of me awkwardly wrestling with the loom that is so foreign to me but must feel to her like an extension of her own limbs. The reality of the fact that Adelma's BlackBerry is nicer and newer than the simple LG phone in my own purse hits me hard and I'm abruptly transported back into the twenty-first century. 

My mind wanders to the barefoot women I've seen alongside the roads, balancing red and yellow tubs of masa on their heads, navigating up and down the sixty-degree slopes from one building to another, all the while talking on cell phones.  I study the mental snapshot I have of the weathered and deeply lined but joyful faces of the coffee producers we visited in the remote community of Chel, where adults and children gathered to stare as we walked up to Antonio's land. No foreigners had ever visited Antonio's cuadra, situated high up a slope looking down over Chel.  Antonio and the other coffee growers use smart phones to check the price of coffee on the NYSE, helping them to decide whether to take their harvest to the bodega today or wait til next week. The availability of Coca-Cola, Doritos and cell phones is the only indicator of modernity in this little mountain community and bears witness to the reaches of globalization. 

I marvel at this convergence of ancient Mayan tradition with the technologies that define life in the twenty-first century and turn back to my loom.  I'm finished.  I free myself from the device's strap and hand it over to Maria Asicona so that she can tighten things up and separate my cloth - rather more of a rectangular patch with frayed edges at two ends. My little piece of Guatemala looks like a miniature magic carpet, one that will transport me back to this dreamlike village even when I lose myself in the busyness of my postmodern obligations and lifestyle.  

Esperanza and the neighbor girls who've gathered to watch the gringos learn to weave look on with amused expressions. Maria Asicona hands us our self-made souvenirs with a grin.  It's clear that she has enjoyed the attention and amusement of hosting foreigners. Misty, Thomas, and I gather with our hosts for a photo. At 5'3", it's amazing that even I appear to be a giant next to Maria.

We say our goodbyes.
Walking away from the house, I look over my shoulder to see the women turning back to their world and realize that I am their only window to mine. And yet, for a brief few moments, sitting in child-sized furniture in front of a dirt-floor home on a mountain top in Guatemala, our two so different worlds collided; despite every barrier we laughed and joked together and found companionship. Our smiles on both ends conveyed joy and hope.

I leave Chajul forever changed, and I'll never forget the beautiful little girl who bears the name of hope. 


  1. I cried.
    Shirah, you should be on assignment for National Geographic.

  2. Shirah, that was a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing. Esperanza is charming. I am sure you will think of her as the years go by and wonder... xo


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