Indigenous Calendar May, 2012: Chortí Maya Skills Survive Spanish Colonization

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

Western Honduras is a region of stark contrasts. Lush, rolling highlands and a temperate climate combine to provide fertile lands. Landowners here can make a fair living from crops such as coffee. It is little surprise that this region became an important hub for early Maya settlers migrating from the west.

In contrast the small village of Carrizalón provides only a harsh and mainly subsistence livelihood for the modern descendants of those early Maya settlers — the Chortí. Carrizalón has a population of just a few hundred Chortí people. Unlike its lush surroundings, the water table lies far below the ground which has eroded over time down to the bare topsoil; parts of the village even look like a desert.

I was based in Copán Ruinas — just across the border from Guatemala — for a few days. I first visited the ancient Maya site at Copán. While the site is definitely worth visiting, the modern Chortí villages that surround it are even more worthy of a visit. The visitor gets a good impression of how life has changed for the Maya since the arrival of the Spanish so many years ago. Today the Chortí, like other indigenous groups, are among the most impoverished in one of the region's poorest countries.

This observation was no more evident than in Carrizalón itself. The village has neither electricity nor running water. Many of the houses are mud huts with straw-thatched roofs that look like they could have been around since before electricity was discovered! Yet for all this, the inhabitants are friendly and very welcoming to the few outside visitors they receive.

I'd taken many photos that reflected my observations. Now I wanted to find one that painted a more hopeful picture of these people. Copán Ruinas has become quite commercialized due to the high number of tourists who stay there while visiting Copán. To a lesser extent, some of the surrounding villages have also capitalized on tourism — the most famous example being the corn husk dolls made and sold by the children of La Pintada village. Visitors to Carrizalón can buy hand-made pottery instead. As I watched this woman at work and then browsed through the shop full of items made by her and other women from the village, I was impressed to see that some Maya skills, at least, have survived five hundred years of Spanish colonization.

The Chortí Maya are featured in our documentary, Ancient and Modern Mayan Peoples.

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