People of Corn

March 6, 2013 | CELEBRATIONS | By Kristen Canales

Photo courtesy of Kristen Canales

This post is part of our “Adopt a Culture” series where bloggers tell us about customs they have adopted from a culture other than their own.

Let me tell you, as a 5′ 10″ white woman in Guatemala, you stick out. I lived there for four months as a volunteer with HELP International ( a non-profit humanitarian organization, and I absolutely fell in love with the people I worked with.

One really fun cultural nuance that took us a while to figure out was food. In Guatemala corn tortillas (so much better hand-made!) are served with every meal. However, I remember the first time someone asked me what we (Americans) ate. I was a little surprised and didn’t know quite how to answer that question. I said “I eat the same sort of things you do.” The response was, “Well, but don’t you eat bread? You don’t eat tortillas, do you?” I said that I did eat tortillas, but acknowledge that they were more often flour tortillas than corn. They seemed satisfied with that. Later I conversed with other volunteers and found out they’d had similar experiences. Our country director said she’d had a clue as to what it was really about when someone confided to her, “Well, that’s why you’re white, you eat wheat. We’re brown because we eat corn.”

I learned from a community mural in Comalapa, Guatemala that Mayan origination myth was that they had been created from corn. Later, back in the states I took an art history class that explained so much more about ancient Mayan civilization and the divine relationship that they had with corn, as a deity and life-source. The traditional life is so alive in the indigenous people that every meal has corn, just like their ancient traditions and religion dictated. Even the fast food chains had “tortilleras” (women who made tortillas) outside the door. Every man grows corn, even if he lives in the city, I found that if he considered himself Mayan he had a patch of land somewhere where he grew corn. In the rural villages women went to the mill every day to grind the corn for that day’s tortillas, and many women could show me the pestles where they or their mothers used to grind the corn by hand.

Here’s a great video (not great quality, most rural people live in mud huts with no windows so not much light) of a woman showing a group how to make tortillas the traditional way. In the rural areas this is absolutely how it’s done and there is no contest that fresh tortillas from fresh masa are a million times better than anything you can buy in a store.

I ordered Chiquita a book called “People of Corn” to teach her about the Mayan creation myth and hopefully share some of the love I have for the people of Guatemala.

I loved being in a culture so in touch with their roots, both in history and in the earth. In my heart I will always be a little “Chapina” (nickname for Guatemalan).

*side note, I can’t write anything about the people of Guatemala without urging people to become familiar with their history. Their civil war to gain basic human rights for the indigenous people only ended in 1996. The book “I, Rigoberta” by Rigoberta Menchu is heartbreakingly eye opening. Especially for me since I could put the faces of my friends on the characters in her book. I promised the women I worked with that I would share the story of their continued struggle so that they would not be forgotten. I would encourage you to find an organization that works for indigenous peoples that you can support. My current charity of choice is Heifer International. I believe in their model and appreciate their focus on women.

You may also be interested in reading Kristen’s post about Guatemalan worry dolls.

Related posts:

Home (Gifts) for the Holidays
What is an Indian Ladies’ Sangeet?
Five Cultures - Five Themes

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