Western Honduras is in the region where the Maya Empire's expansion had progressed eastward around 1500 years ago. The majority Maya people there now, as then, are the Chortí. They are the descendants of the Maya settlers who established the site of Copán and dominated the area for over 500 years.
Very few people in western Honduras still speak the Chortí language. In the first village I visited, La Pintada, I was told that only a handful of adults and no children speak it. La Pintada is within sight of the ancient site at Copán in fact it is the closest "modern" Chortí village. While most visitors come to the area to see Copán, some also take tours to the nearby Chortí villages. La Pintada is at the top of their list because of its proximity to Copán and because it is also on the route when visiting Los Sapos an ancient rock carving of toads said to be a site of a fertility ritual where Maya women went to give birth. La Pintadans are used to outside visitors passing through their village and, not surprisingly, have capitalized on the opportunity for economic gain. This mainly takes the form of children selling corn husk dolls made by the villagers themselves.
I traveled to La Pintada early one morning with supplies for the village school that I had bought in the local town, Copán Ruinas. After my guide had left me in the village (with instructions to return for me at the end of the day), I expected I would immediately be accosted by the hoards of children I'd read about trying to sell me their corn husk dolls or offering to take me to Los Sapos in return for a tip. Instead I made my way, unaccompanied by anyone, to the village school.
I introduced myself to one of the teachers and explained who I was, the organization I represented and why I was in his village. Then I gave him the school supplies I had brought. That broke the ice and while he left his students to work on a task requiring little supervision, he and I spoke about the school, the village and the Chortí people.
Soon it was mid-morning and he was needed to attend to his students. I walked into the school's classrooms with my camera and conducted mini-interviews with some of the students. I learned many things from them and they in turn displayed a keen interest in my visit. I was told it is quite rare for an outsider especially a non-Honduran to visit the village school.
When lunchtime came I discovered that the village café was closed. But my new teacher-friend came to the rescue and offered me tortillas (which were very tasty). After eating I wandered around the village with my camera. I came to the soccer field where I recognized some boys whom I'd earlier promised I would play soccer with. Because of the heat and the age difference I decided to be the goal-keeper!
As soon as the soccer was over this young girl walked up to me and spontaneously took my hand in hers. I didn't recognize her from the school and I wondered why she was being so friendly to a total stranger especially because she had no corn husk dolls to sell to me. Through her childish and my conversational Spanish, I learned that she was nine-years-old and no longer attended school (not uncommon in the village for a child her age). She insisted that I come to her house and meet her family. I told her it would be an honor and off we went hand-in-hand to her house. Neatly laid out on a table in front of the house were dozens of corn husk dolls and a wide selection of hand-made jewelry. Despite having dropped out of school at a young age this girl was smart. I'd planned on supporting the village by buying handicrafts there, including at least one corn husk doll. Somehow I got the impression that she knew that. I ended up buying a doll and two necklaces from her.
Because I still use a film camera I don't get to see my photographs until long after I take them. When I first looked at this one on the light box, I thought to myself 'not only is she smart, she wanted to use this opportunity to show the world how smart she is.'
The Chortí Maya are featured in our documentary, Ancient and Modern Mayan Peoples.
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