A quick search on Wikipedia will tell you fast facts about the Jocotán area:
Population: over 40,000
Languages spoken: Spanish, Chortí
Region description: Part of what is called the “dry corridor” (corredor seco) in Guatemala. Average temperatures in the low 30ºC (86ºF)and monthly precipitation varying between 3mm – 196mm
Google Jocotán and view images and you will most likely see pretty pictures of the town’s central park, surrounding hillside scenery, pictures of the local soccer team, and the like.
Rare typical dress-Pic. MundoChapin
If you are interested enough you may Google “Famine in Jocotán” and in viewing those pictures you may find yourself before a shockingly different story of the area, but one that is, tragically, the closest to the reality of the region.
What these searches cannot tell you are stories like the one I will convey here, told to me, this very night, by my mother: Miriam Trotzke de Cebeira.
My mother and father came to this area alarmed by the horrifying news of a devastating famine in around 2001. There are many stories that they could share, spanning more than a decade of hard work in the area. And, in fact, many will be told by my mother in her new book to be published next year(I will make sure to post the publishing date, title, etc. here as soon as it is available).
However, this one story is quite interesting.
In the longest standing hotel in town, there is a long hallway on the second floor. At the end of this hallway there is a large mirror that covers the entire length and width of the wall.
One day my mother saw a Chortí woman who had come down from one of the villages, walking around the second floor of the hotel, looking a little lost and flustered. After observing her for a while, my mother approached her and asked if she needed help. The woman pointed her finger towards the mirror and said: “I want to go over there. How do I get to the other side?”
Apparently the woman had never seen a mirror so large and thought that the hallway somehow continued.
It made me wonder what it must have been like for the Maya people who first saw mirrors of any kind. They had never seen their own reflection, the historians tell us, and were so marveled by it that they were willing to trade jade and gold to receive one of these baffling objects.
The Maya Chortí people are almost a lost ethnic group. Any quick search will tell you that this group has been extremely isolated for many years. In our experience, there is no other group in Guatemala as isolated and as primitive as the Chortí people.
In a village not too far from Jocotán you will still find many women dressed only from the waist down. Illiteracy is rampant and many women who have lived in their distant, disconected villages all their lives, may not even understand Spanish.
Reports of the toughest stage of the famine indicate that one meal was to be had every 48 hours on average. And this meal was a meal of tortilla piled with salt or a small helping of black, watery beans.
To this day, malnutrition continues to be a huge problem in the area.
I write this post from my parent’s mission compound in Jocotán where a convention is to begin tomorrow. Mission church members from Honduras, Belize, Guatemala City and other regions of the country will come together tomorrow.
All have brought a donation of corn because harvests have been lost again this season.
If a Chortí is not a farmer, she may be a basket weaver, an art-form handed down from their ancestors centuries ago.
Raw material can be found close at hand but it is a painstaking job to cut, dry, weave, and carry these baskets to the nearest town (Jocotán) to sell for a very small price.
Although there are so many problems in the regions and such huge obstacles for progress, there is hope.
Many organizations, such as Fundación Emmanuel and Ron Zacapa, have invested in training and working with these women to perfect the millenial art of basket-weaving and to help them sell and distribute their products in Guatemala city and beyond.
Read more about our trip in following posts!