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My introduction to the Poqomchi' people came late on a Monday afternoon one autumn. As the bus I was traveling in approached a small town in the Guatemalan Central Highlands, two young boys had gotten into a fight. It was soon spotted and stopped by their mother. I was reminded of how people are the same allover the world. A few hundred meters further along the road, the scene was more tranquil as people were enjoying the final hour of the sun in the local park.
I spent the next few days visiting Poqomchi' communities. While it is true that, like all Maya peoples, the Poqomchi' have incorporated elements of Christianity into their religious practices, it is far from true that they are: "... dominated by a religion that combines Roman Catholicism, ancient Mayan traditions and witchcraft."
That quote is from Impact Ministries — one of many Christian missionary organizations who are effecting the erosion of Poqomchi' culture as well as misrepresenting them. Just like in most other cultures, the Poqomchi' celebrate events like births, marriages and the construction of new houses with a combination of alcoholic drinks, music and dancing. If that is witchcraft then we are a species of witches!
The Poqomchi' have, for the most part, now entered the modern world. Like most of Guatemala's Maya groups, they are attempting to regain land stolen from them in colonial times. Success is very rare. The most recent victory came in July, 2015 when close to three hundred Poqomchi' families from three communities in Alta Verapaz were officially granted title to land they had claimed for centuries.
The victory was especially sweet given that a hydroelectric dam project, Oxec II, had been approved just four months earlier. Many Poqomchi' (and their cousins, the Q'eqchi' people) are trying to fight the project, claiming it will have large, detrimental effects on their communities and their land.
Ironically, many Poqomchi' men make a living today working in the construction industry on that same land. Poqomchi' women still make elaborate blouses (huipiles) that are typical of most Maya women's dress found throughout Mesoamerica.
Increasingly, though, mass produced, imported clothing is replacing traditional attire. In fact, this has already happened for most Poqomchi' men and boys. One byproduct of this trend is that it provides a form of employment outside of construction and traditional forms of income such as farming. This supplemental income is relatively small, however, and the department of Alta Verapaz — where most Poqomchi' live — remains among the poorest economically.
On my final day in Alta Verapaz I realized something: in Poqomchi' communities, one day is much like another. I shot a time lapse video that day as the late afternoon changed into the early evening. The one-minute footage below compresses about forty-five minutes of actual time and shows people making their way home via the town square.
Once the sun goes down there is little to do. Most people are ready to go to sleep and prepare to begin the next day. In larger villages and towns there is something of a night life. Vendors set up food stalls that attract "night owls" until around 9pm. I sat at one of these on my last evening. My experience would have been richer if I understood the Poqomchi' language. Instead a little Español and the universal language of smiles and laughter conveyed mine and my hosts' appreciation of cultures that rarely meet.
Photography and videography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2020, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
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