Men of Corn
category: Newspaper Articles

Men of Corn

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Guest Columnist

Since our arrival in Guatemala, I’ve learned a lot about its history, people, and culture, so here I’d like to share some of it with you. The entire country of Guatemala is about the size of Tennessee, but within its borders lie a wide range of topographies and cultural groupings. In the “land of eternal spring” there are jungles, coastal plains touching the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, 34 volcanos, sweltering lowland stretches filled with coffee and rubber plantations, and frigid highland communities that raise sheep and survive on subsistence farming of wheat, potatoes, and corn. The country is home to nearly two dozen languages: Spanish, as well as 22 different dialects descended from ancient Mayan civilization. Indigenous Mayans make up just over half the total population of Guatemala, and each cultural group maintains their own language, customs, and traje (traditional dress). The one thing they have in common is corn.

Corn is cultivated and consumed in all parts of the country. Both indigenous and ladino (non-Mayan) families eat corn tortillas three meals a day. The Popul-Vuh, the Mayan creation story, names corn as the sacred food of the Mayans, and for that reason they and their descendants are sometimes referred to as Men of Corn. While we Hoosiers might feel we know corn, our relationship to the crop doesn’t hold a candle to how corn is treated here. In the midwest, corn farming is oftentimes an industrial process handled by expensive, heavy duty machinery. In Guatemala corn is planted, weeded, and harvested by hand and hoe: up and down mountainsides, along river beds, and surrounding entire homes instead of a grassy yard. For them, corn is religion, a food sent by God to allow man to live, and to waste corn is sinful. Most Mayan languages have more than a dozen different words for corn.

Guatemala’s history, as well as it’s current status, is tumultuous. The country was invaded and colonized in late 1400’s by Spaniards, who built a city at Antigua Guatemala and declared it capitol of all Central America. Later, German coffee growers came to plant their fortunes in the rich volcanic soil. The United Fruit Company, an American agri-business and at one time the world’s largest banana producer, bought considerable tracts of land for their fruit production. Cotton plantations were also established along the low-lying coastal plains. Today, this cotton supplies numerous maquilladores or clothing factories located in and around the modern capital, Guatemala City. It’s not unlikely you’re wearing something MADE IN GUATEMALA as you read this article.

What happened to the Mayans during all of this? They were pushed in to the most rural areas of the country, farming and maintaining their language and culture. To earn money, whole families from these insular communities all over the country were packed into company trucks and driven to banana, coffee, and cotton plantations. Families worked a few months to bring in the harvest, often sleeping in giant galleries side by side with families they couldn’t talk with because they all spoke a different Mayan dialect. After the harvest, they’d return home with the meager money they’d saved, to work their own fields and tend their animals until the following year.

The Mayans were largely ignored by their government until a guerrilla movement began in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Some call what followed a Civil War, others refer to it only as The Conflict, but there was fighting between the guerrillas and the Guatemalan army that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans from 1982 until 1996, when the Peace Accords were signed*. This period also marked the beginning of large scale immigration to el norte, the north, as they call the United Sates. They left for political asylum and found that working in the US was much more profitable than the seasonal migration to the coasts.

Native language and dress are easy ways to identify someone as belonging to a specific ethnic group. As such, they were used against the Mayan populations as a means of hunting supposed guerrillas, so indigenous groups began to abandon their language and dress out of fear. However, once the Peace Accords were signed, the government began a campaign to encourage bilingual education and indigenous cultural pride that has seen some success, though the legacy of the war still looms over the most devastated areas.

Guatemala hosts a throng of international aid organizations, many of which came to help rebuild after the fighting, and the indigenous communities receive the majority of this development aid. But, as I’ve mentioned before, some of the aid is positive and some is not. Complicating matters, the country continues to struggle with a long history of corruption at all levels of government. National funds as well as international aid money are mishandled more frequently than is kind to admit. Today, the Guatemalan government is working to fight corruption, wide-spread poverty, gang wars in the capital, and drug trafficking along the Mexican border. Additionally, it is still attempting to extend healthcare, education, and infrastructure to all its citizens throughout the country. And we thought Obama had great challenges when he stepped into the oval office.

Next month, I’ll tell you about the Q’anjob’al Mayans we live and work with in our village.

*For more in-depth reading on Guatemalan history and culture check out these books: Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy by Victor Perera; and Guatemala: Never Again! by Archdiocese of Guatemala; as well as a translation of the Popul Vuh.

Emily Richardson Fanjoy is a 2002 graduate of Logansport High School and a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Guatemala. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Peace Corps.

Posted by: emily