From Kachiquel to English: One Man’s Vision

Hector Sagché Ordoñez, 39, grew up in a family of 8 children in Santa Catarina Barahona, a town of about 3,500 residents in the department of Sacatepéquez. Most of the community’s inhabitants speak Kachiquel Maya and maintain a culture somewhat distinct from Guatemala’s Ladino population. In this narrative, Sagché speaks of the particularities of having an indigenous identity, his involvement in local politics, and why he plans to start a school to teach English to local youths. He begins by reflecting on his father’s migration to the US, and how that event has impacted his life. 

When my father was young he had land but no more than to grow maize and beans for the family. He needed more money so he left for the Guatemalan military when he was 22 years old, and there he began to study and learn music.  Because of his aptitude, he learned to play many instruments, but particularly the marimba, and he became a music instructor within the armed forces.  He also earned money from playing in bands, but it was still not that much.  My mother weaved clothes in the traditional style to bring in more income, but it was just not enough.

When I was eight, the military offered my father an opportunity to perform music in San Francisco, California.  He agreed and accompanied former soldiers to represent Guatemala in the Guatemalan embassy.  At the beginning he thought it was just a trip, a temporary opportunity to play, but one of the representatives told him he could stay in the United States if he wanted, and he would get a visa.  Obviously, he wanted to be with his family, but at the same time, financial necessity was bearing down on him.  He could provide for us much better in the US, so he stayed in the States.  We always communicated with him, but that was the last I saw him.

My father settled in San Rafael, CA and was there for 25 years.  At the beginning, I think it was hard for him because he did not speak English and that limited the work he could get.  And of course, the rent was high and the food expensive, he had to buy clothes, and he had to go study English, which he learned eventually. Along with playing in a marimba band, he worked in a hotel doing different jobs.  He worked in the kitchen or as a waiter, or in pubic relations.  

My father died in the US seventeen years ago of stomach cancer.  We could not afford to bring his body back, only his ashes. Later, when my mother died, we put her body in a nicho (a small edifice with spaces for the remains of the dead), and put her with my father’s ashes. We could say that they were finally rejoined.

Hector Sagché Ordoñez, Antigua, Guatemala, July 1, 2019.

If my father had stayed here in Guatemala, the truth, I don’t know what would have happened, but with such a large family to support, I doubt it would have been anything positive. As it was, we never lacked for the basics, thank God, because my father sent money to us.  We were even able to buy a lot of property.  In fact, we all received a piece of land and I live on it today alongside my brothers and sisters.  There were other pieces of land that were bought as well. 

But growing up that way was tough for me.  Imagine a ten-year-old without his father.  It was even harder for my mother because, well, let’s just say she was not only a mother but had to be a father also. She had to discipline us, and there were a lot of us children.

I was a little bit restless at school, and that was just part of my character.  I fought with some of my classmates, but I managed to get through and I finished high school. I didn’t go to university for economic reasons, but what really helped me was English. I was able to study English in the capital and in the town of Antigua, and I later got work because of it.  Learning English opened doors for me: to know more people and to communicate better is a very important part of life, and that is the case in politics also.  

Sagché became active politically some ten years ago and recently worked in the mayoral race in Santa Catarina Barahona.

I first participated in a campaign because, truthfully, politics always brings opportunities.  It’s like a bridge to some type of work in the government or elsewhere.  In the last campaign, I was an organizer, and I have to say, this time it was different.  Perhaps because I have matured a little bit, I saw it

Hector at Santa Catarina
Hector Sagché on his family’s land. Santa Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, July 5, 2019.

not as a way to gain something, but to get to know people and to get to know them well.  Through organizing, I could get closer to people in the community and to exchange ideas, and to think about how to make life better.  

The social part is very important in politics. There are many candidates with good academic preparation, licenciados (college educated), but at times they don’t win because they don’t manage to get to know people.  In contrast, there are some in my town that are not as well educated, but they win because they are able to meet and form relationships with so many in the community.  You have to have a lot of friendships.

Unfortunately, many people don’t believe in politics because there is so much corruption in it, and that’s why its reputation is so bad.  Some of the leaders take advantage of their position and are just there to enrich themselves.  In the last campaign, it was clear that it was not clean.  Not only in my community, but in the country as a whole, there are politicians who profit from those who are most in need; the candidates  give them a bit of money in exchange for their votes.  These people really need the money so they accept it, and that money is corrupt to begin with.  It’s extra money that has come in to someone already in office, perhaps as part of a construction contract between a firm and the government. In that last campaign, there was a lot of corruption, but, as I say, it’s not only in my community, but in Guatemala generally.  The national hospitals are an example.  Sometimes there aren’t enough doctors, and they say they don’t have the funds to supply them, but it is generally known that that is because people in high positions have taken the money. 

Having said that, I believe politics itself is good. You can change things in the community because through interacting with people, you become aware of people’s needs.  If you manage to get into power, and your commitment comes from the heart, you can help people.

Sagché reflects on the distinct characteristics of his community, and how coming from his town has affected his experiences and shaped his identity.

My parents always communicated in Kachiquel so I grew up speaking it.  Also, in primary school, they gave us classes in Kachiquel, and they would go over the writing and the correct pronunciation of the language. Different communities have their own pronunciations for certain words, but the Ministry of Education has a standard one, and it is slightly different from ours, at least for some words like “to walk,” which we pronounce, “P’in.” Our neighbors say, “p’en” and the Ministry of Education says, “P’enon.”

Our town is right next to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, where they also speak Kachiquel. Despite the fact that we are neighbors, there are variations in the language. In my opinion, the differences mark the communities’ identity.  It’s a way we distinguish ourselves.  If someone pronounces something differently, you know where they are from, you can identify that difference very rapidly. Also, there is a change in the culture and style as you move throughout different communities.

One of the features of my town that we are proud of is that we have clean, natural water in our houses and in public washing areas and it is free to our residents.  There is even a fountain in the park that people can drink from.  They say we are blessed because of it.   We have enough water not only for us but for our neighbors, who pay us to supply them our water. So this is part of our identity.

I would also say that many people from other places have chosen to live here because they like the atmosphere, including the good water and fertile land. The people are peaceful and we normally don’t have problems with violence.  There may be small crimes or arguments, but it’s not a dangerous place to live. It’s nice to be here in this town.

Town square with the fountain, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 1, 2019.

Unfortunately, because of the long-term consequences of the Spanish conquest, many of our customs have diminished.  Right now, frankly, more Spanish is spoken than Kachiquel.  The majority of the people in my town of course can speak Kachiquel, but the number is going down.  

Still, in my community, some of our customs have been maintained, like the creation of tejidos  (garments made from weaving threads) and there are many tejedoras (weavers).  They make the huipil (a one-piece slipover dress decorated with embroidery) and sell it or wear it.  It’s one custom that comes from our ancestors, and it has been maintained.  Another is the food dish, pepian, which we still eat.  (Pepian is a meaty spicy stew thought to have been fused from Mayan and Spanish cuisines.)

Other Guatemalans might know something of my background because I identify myself from the community I’m from, Sta. Catarina Barahona, and people might know that that is an indigenous community.  Also, my last name might sound strange to them because it is Sagché, so there again they might know that I am indigenous. 

On one hand it’s fine because I can identify where I am from and everyone can identify themselves.  The sad and negative part is that in my country there exists a lot of discrimination.  For example, when I worked in a call center in Guatemala City, some who were from the capital believed themselves to be better.  They call themselves ladino or urban mestizo, sometimes as if to say that it is superior to someone who is indigenous.  

But there are several types of discrimination. If you are poorer, they discriminate against you, if you haven’t studied, they discriminate against you, if you are indigenous, they discriminate. This hinders us from advancing as a country because people need to be united. Discrimination is always going to exist and it still exists, but the best way to eradicate it is for the people to change from within, because many say they want a better country, but what are they doing?  No one says that they are going to change their own attitude. 

I would like people in general to be broader minded, to be a little more visionary. Even in my town, If someone starts a new project, say a new business, it can be very difficult.  Some will support it, but others will ask: “what are you doing?” A few people don’t want others to get ahead or they don’t want anyone to do things differently. 

 If we lack for something it’s education.  Some kids end up going to school only up to the 6th grade because of economic necessity. Many large families with limited resources can’t afford the materials needed for their children’s schooling, like supplies, uniforms and lunch money.  As a consequence, several children leave school to go work and contribute to the family. So we need to promote more sources of employment in the community, to give people the opportunity to send their kids to school for longer periods of time.

I would really like to help kids with scarce resources, to help them learn a little bit of English.  In my community, many people find it very expensive to learn English so they don’t have that possibility.  For that reason, I am working on a project to give classes in English, and to give scholarships to students, principally children and adolescents, because they are the future.  English is important in graduating from high school, but the kids here are not going to be able to study it because they don’t have the opportunities here in this location.  Neither do they have the money to travel somewhere to study it.  So I think it would help a lot to establish a school and subsidize their learning of English in this town, so they wouldn’t have to travel outside.  All of that money for transportation is an expense.  

Santa Catarina Barahona is only a few miles from the town of Antigua, a popular tourist site with throngs of foreign visitors as well as foreign residents influential in the community. This milieu has led to a number of vending opportunities for indigenous people in the area as well as a connection to a broader world.

I feel that language study is so important because within it you study a culture, the mind changes, one is more open.  For example, the youth here, by learning English, could speak to someone from Europe and through that interaction they would hear new ideas.  But they are not going to be able to achieve that if they don’t know the language.  The school I am starting is called Escuela de Inglés de Comunicación Excepcional (Outstanding Communication English School). We need instruction to make our youth more capable, but we need the funds to do it. I am hoping to raise money to offer scholarships.

There are many people without a lot of education who have a lot of children, and there are a lot of single mothers, so their own resources become diffused, making it harder for them to maintain their children’s education. I think that helping them to study English is going to induce them to think in different ways and more positively.  To think in terms of potential.  This is what we lack.  

Perhaps in the past it was different because there was so much land then, so having 10 kids, you could still give them a plot of land.  But actually, now, in the community, the residences are getting smaller and many people now rent, so everything has changed.  This educational part is vital and one of the reasons I am forming this project.  I could connect with other educators who could come and give talks to women, to parents who are studying here, so they could become exposed to new ways of thinking.  That is how I want to help the community.

School children in the central square. Sta. Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, July 5, 2019.

This narrative was produced from an interview carried out in Antigua on July 1, 2019, and reflects the author’s translation.

The Archeologist

Forty-year old Edwin Román-Ramírez is an archeologist who grew up in Chimaltenango, a town of about 75,000 people that lies 30 miles west of the capital, Guatemala City.  In the first part of this two-part series, Dr. Román-Ramirez discusses his ideas on Mesoamerican archeology: his work in Zacapa, the public’s impressions of the Maya and his own, and the new technology that is being used to uncover gigantic settlements here-to-fore unknown. He also comments on how funding is difficult to come by for the enormous excavation projects he and others carry out.

Working in Zacapa

Zacapa has a lot of archeological sites, but this area is not well known to many people. We call the people who lived there the Motagua people since the society was near the Motagua River.  They are not Mayas, and that is something really interesting to us because when people talk about jade they only talk about Mayas, but these people were extracting jade.  They were from another culture apart from the Mayas and they had huge communities, like La Vega del Cobán, which has 800 sites.  The Motagua people seem to have been insulated, and they were able to survive for so long.  We need to know the relationship between these places, how this culture was able to sustain itself without any interference from the Mayas.  We need to think more about which strategies they deployed to communicate and negotiate the politics with the rest of the Maya region.

The earliest evidence we have of the Motagua culture is from 800 BC, and they were there until 900 AD, a really long occupation.  When I finished my thesis in 2006, we had discovered 100 sites, and I wrote on the sociopolitical organization that these sites reflected. For me, it was the first experience as an archeologist, being in the field.  

I think that now that we have more time and there are more people researching different sites, we can start to understand how complex this society was, but it’s hard to know everything about a culture; there are many unanswered questions.  

Impressions of ancient Maya culture

As a culture in general, I love it.  Every time I look at some of the pieces of art that they were able to create, I am amazed.  From the past to the present, I think they were unusual in their creativity.  The way they secured food was so smart also. Many of the things that we enjoy today came from their efforts, like chocolate. Other foods can be associated with Maya innovation in agriculture: tamales, avocados, maiz, tomatoes.

They also were able to adapt to a very difficult environment.  I work more in the lowlands, in the Petén region, but all the regions were difficult to live in. When you read a lot of history about Egypt, why were they so successful?  Where did they place their cities?  They are next to rivers where they can get water to drink and grow crops. But the Maya had to sustain their big cities depending only on the rain during the rainy season.  

We have different types of jungles, and in them there are some small islands where the cities were, and there are swamps around the cities we call “bajos” and for some communities, lakes were nearby.  So there was water in these bajos during the rainy season, and we know that they were able to create channels in those bajos, and that’s where they were farming.  And that’s where they could get their water to sustain the larger communities.  

The problem is that for four months you are going to have the dry season, and the rain goes not to the swamps or lakes, it goes to those places that are driest.  So it is fascinating to research how they managed to secure water for such large populations during those times.

Take El Mirador, which was one of the largest cities around 300 BC to 200 AD; it’s huge.  We don’t see a city that big again during the ancient Maya period.  It is so grand and ostentatious. This city had maybe between 60,000 to 100,000 people living there during the year.  Tikal is small compared to it.  We can see from our measurements of the lakes, how the climate became drier in the year 100 AD, and that is when you see a decline.  You see a lot of wars between cities.  Maybe it’s harder to get water, and there is fighting.  The problem with this period of time is that we don’t have a lot of writing, and the writing that exists doesn’t have those types of narratives about war.  The writing we have is “tagging,” tagging people, deities, or objects. They started to write about it later.

The public portrayal of the ancient Maya

Of course, there are a lot of things wrong about how people see Maya culture. We can talk about movies, which will always reflect what the director wants to show.  For example, Apocalypto, a film on the ancient Maya.  Much of the history was wrong, but I think some of it was cool.  You have this huge movie, a Hollywood production, where you can hear Yucatec Maya throughout the entire film.  I think that’s good.  When we look at some of the ways that the movie portrayed the kings, they are how we imagine them. I liked that part; the director did that well.  And there are also documentaries that are good.

What I don’t like is that a lot of the movie (and other productions) focused on the theme of sacrifice, and every culture has had some type of sacrifice.  Even Christian cultures did.  For Mayas, we know a lot of sacrifices happened, but the problem is that sometimes we only show that.  It’s discouraging because it will reinforce the stereotype that some people are less civilized and people will use that feeling to continue to discriminate against indigenous people today.  But the popular media are never going to show that western cultures engaged in sacrifices.  It has been part of human evolution, the history of mankind.

Archeologists have to be careful about this subject.  For example, once we were working  and we found the tomb of the founder of the dynasty at my site, and seven children had been sacrificed beside the king.  We had to issue this press release in the National Palace, and we had to report it because it was true, but we were trying to be careful about how we were going to say it.  I remember the directors (like myself), we were trying to position the information so that it would not get the attention. We did the press release and we didn’t mention a lot about it.  Some of the news came on an hour later — and we have social media now that makes the news even more immediate — and the media reported that seven kids were scarified with the royal king!  We tried to play it down so the media would not go there, but they went there.

Innovations in Mesoamerican archeology

Our understanding of these civilizations is constantly evolving.  We thought we knew a lot, but there are always developments that create a new paradigm and shifts our understanding of what happened.  For example, there was a big break in archeology when we were able to date people and events using carbon 14.  That was a big change around the world.

In Maya history, there was a great shift in the 1980s, when, after a long process, we were able to read glyphs. Now we could read the history and were able to make new assumptions.  That changed a lot of our understanding of Maya culture. 

Carbon-14 dating is a technique that provides age estimates for carbon-based material that originated from living organisms.  First developed in the late 1940s, the method revolutionized knowledge of the past.  The glyphs, or Mayan writing, are made up of symbols that represent syllables and words.  These glyphs are often found on walls, bark paper, and ceramics, and they were sometimes carved into wood and stone.

Today there is a new change: the technology to map sites. Now we have LiDAR (short for Light Detection and Ranging), a system of deploying lasers from an airplane to create images of what is below the jungle.  It’s like an MRI, when you go to a doctor and they can scan your entire body to see what is inside. That is what is happening with LiDAR.

In the Petén, the jungle is really thick and structures that are 10 meters tall can be lost.  Before LiDAR, we were not able to see everything because the jungle masked it, like areas where they were farming.  We know that the Maya were farmers, and at some sites we can see the areas where they engaged in agriculture, but we only knew that because we were excavating there.  It was by luck.

With LiDAR we can penetrate the different layers of the jungle: the top, middle and bottom. We  are able to recognize two phenomena that we were unable to see previously.  First, we can hone in and view the smallest structures and modifications and the exact locations of where they were farming. We can see terraces and things like that. Second, we can scope out and see really large structures.  Maybe we could see a part of something before, but we could not see the whole.  The area would be so large that we could not see it from our perspective on the ground. Now we can see structures like defensive walls or channels to conduct water that can be two kilometers long.  

What LiDAR can do is to remove digitally all the jungle, and then you have all the surface and any and every change that occurred. And this technology is still being developed.  In the future we will have better LiDAR.  But it is a very important technology because we can see entire cities.  We can see not just monuments or some group of houses. Now we can see some 60 structures at once.  Where I work at El Palmar on the Yucatán peninsula, findings from LiDAR made us change a lot in a book we were writing.  For instance, we used to say this site was very small compared to Tikal, but now we know that El Palmar has 920 more structures to it than we thought.  It was about the same size as Tikal, but we were not able to see it before. 

The funding challenge

Archeology is really expensive.  It cannot be done by one person, like in other fields, say history.  It requires a greater investment.  We need to pay workers for the excavation process.  We need excavators, helpers, cooks, drivers, and the number we need changes year to year.  Sometimes we need 45 to 50 people.

We know funding has to come from the government, something that we don’t have much of here. There is a Ministry of Sports and Culture that receives less than one percent of the national budget, and that one percent has to be divided among dance, painting, the symphony, everything that is culturally related, and sports as well, which takes up 60 percent of that amount that is already less than 1 percent.  

We do have money coming in from private donors in Guatemala as well as international sources.  We have private donors from the USA and others parts of the world, and also you have people that get grants from foundations.  In the USA you can get grants from the NEH (the National Endowment of the Humanities), and the NSF (National Science Foundation), and from Europe they have their own places to get money. 

The Guatemalan state does help, but it is not very much.  I think the institution in charge of archeology is doing everything it can, but it has to pay a lot of guards to protect the sites. So most of the money does not go to research, but rather to pay the salaries of people who are taking care of the archeological locations in different regions of Guatemala. I think the president should raise the budget to maybe two percent.    

The archeology being carried out by Guatemalans is very new; we started in the 1970s.  Here in Guatemala we have two universities dedicated to archeological research: San Carlos and Del Valle.  Before that, there were archeologists, but they were from the outside. Actually, most Guatemalans think archeologists come only from a foreign country and they cannot conceive of a Guatemalan archeologist.  They simply cannot believe it.  But now there are about 250 of us, and we are learning more and more about our ancient past.

Edwin
Edwin Román Ramirez, Antigua, Guatemala, June 10, 2019.