Through an MCC-supported program in Guatemala, Ixil young adults and women gain new chances to grow and learn as a community.
Teresa Matóm Ramirez’s garden grows in circles — cabbage encircles the broccoli which spirals around Guatemalan greens, medicinal plants and flowers. A peach tree and a few tomato plants interrupt the circles of plants that ultimately coil around a log bench at the garden’s centre.
Ramirez, 20 designed her garden this way because she finds it more interesting and fun to work in, she says, but it took a lot of work to prepare the ground. So in the spirit of xulá, the Mayan Ixil tradition of people working together to help each other, other Ixil young adults helped create the garden. She will work with them when they need help with a project.
Digging side by side with the young adults was agronomist Elias Solis Raymundo, who works with MCC’s partner Fundamaya, a Mayan civil rights organization. He not only shares agricultural knowledge with the youth, he also encourages them to embrace Ixil cultural traditions, like xulá.
Ixil traditions, undermined ever since Spanish colonialization, were especially threatened by the 114 massacres carried out in Ixil communities in the 1980s as part of the Guatemalan civil war. Whole villages were annihilated, disrupting and spreading terror through every aspect of traditional life.
Today Fundamaya works with Ixil youth and women, encouraging them to make a “good life” for themselves using the strengths of their own culture.
“By good life, we mean living with nature — having forests, water, food and health,” says Pedro Raymundo Cedillo, an agronomist and engineer for Fundamaya. The good life isn’t as much about having a car or money, he says, “but to be in harmony with nature, family and community.”
That’s exactly where Ramirez is comfortable. She used to do housekeeping in the town of Nebaj, about 11 kilometres from her village of Antigua Xonca, but she didn’t like being away from her family so much. She prefers to be at home with her fingers in the soil.
Her garden is different from the vast fields of corn and beans that cover most of the farmland of Ixil families in Guatemala’s central highlands. As one of 25 farmers from six communities in Fundamaya’s young adult network, she followed the advice of the program’s agronomists to plant a variety of vegetables and fruit trees, not only for better nutrition but for new income possibilities.
At first, Ramirez’s father, who gave her an acre of land, had no faith that planting such a variety of food would pay off. “He told me a lot of times it wasn’t going to work, but I started to dedicate myself to it,” Ramirez says.
When she harvested enough vegetables to feed her family and earned extra money by selling greens to her neighbours and cabbages at market, her father gave her a second acre of land.
Making farming a viable career option for Mayan youth is one way to discourage youth from migrating, and it challenges stereotypes that farming is a backward way of life, Raymundo says.
He and Gaspar Cobu Corie, coordinator of the young adult network, also urge young farmers and other youth to speak out against corporations and mining companies that claim Ixil land and take natural resources for their profit.
“It is very encouraging and motivating to see so many young Mayan people embrace their culture, protect their land and seek a life based on family and in harmony with the land,” says Gabriela Ochoa of Essex Junction, Vt., MCC’s Guatemala and El Salvador representative.
In addition to respecting the earth, Fundamaya encourages respect for women, which Corie says was fundamental in Mayan tradition but has faded from Ixil culture. Too many Ixil men, he says, have adopted the attitude of machismo, or male superiority, from Spanish culture and learned through the civil war that women are objects to be violated.
Through a year-long, MCC-supported training, Fundamaya holds monthly meetings where women can learn about their rights, even as they learn new skills like making shampoo and medicine from native plants. The project, which runs from 2014 to 2017, circulates to five new villages each year, reaching some 300 women in 15 communities.
At Xepiun village last summer, the topic of domestic abuse, especially among women who married young, was all too familiar. Several of the 12 women who attended talked about being scolded or beaten for not doing what the men expected.
On the other hand, Maria Corio Ramos, 32, a mother of two, says the meetings have helped her relationship with her husband because they talk about what she learns. “If we are able to dialogue and reflect on that, then the two of us are able to change. He has rights, but so do I; so we have to work together to create understanding in the house.”
Another gain that leaders are eager to see is more women becoming members of the 52 Ixil community authorities, which are groups of locally chosen leaders who can resolve family and property disputes outside the Guatemalan judicial system.
Ramirez was selected once before to be part of a community authority, but she wasn’t at the meeting, so her father declined for her. Next time, she says, she’ll be ready.
“A lot of time it’s the men who make decisions,” she says, “but we also have the right to take positions in the community authority.”