Saturday Morning around Solalá

The stage was set by a quick morning run through the small market at the central plaza in Solala, a busy community just north of and above Lake Atitzlan. We had driven in early from Tontonacapan – leaving at 7:30 since the streets would have been impassible by 8:00 since it was market day in that community. It was not a “real” market day in Sololá –  just the weekend vendors clustered in a couple of avenidas around the church. We made careful selections of a few beautiful textiles of the region – I bought a length of skirt fabric and Julia three patterned embroidered belts – purchased from their makers, perhaps a mother daughter enterprise? The women were excellent examples of both the craftsmanship and the business sensibilities of the region. We had an hour or so to kill before our appointment at noon with Raoul, one of the CASS teachers from several years ago who had promised to take us to his school in the afternoon.

We watched as a double line of boys in black paints and girls in long white gauzy first communion dresses and veils filed into the church and asked Cesár, our driver if it was all right if we went into the church. He said, of course, we filed in, sat in one of the few pews empty at the rear of the church. Perhaps he (and we) expected to stay a few minutes and then to continue our explorations of the town, but we were pulled into the celebration and the Mass by the amazing pageant of people, the spirit of peace and joy – families in both in indigenous and “western” contemporary dress and by the sound and song filling the catherdral. The choir that led the sung liturgy was accompanied by Mayan flutes and other instruments; the music and song was magical in the acoustics of the tall arched white plastered church, illuminated by huge stained glass windows with Mayan designs.

In front of us was a Mayan family, the parents in indigenous dress, a small boy in western wear, another couple (perhaps the son and daughter-in-law?) with their toddler girl. I confess I spent as much time attending to their interaction and joy in the day as I did to the priest and his homily. When we filed out, the church plaza was filled with women in their distinctive traje – dark indigo skirts with pin striping and embroidered seams, and ikat patterened huipiles, many with bright head scarves folded and balanced on their dark trensas that were braided with bright colored ribbons. Sololá is also one of the few towns where many men still wear traditional clothing, embroidered ikat weave shirts and ikat trousers with a wrapped brown wool “apron” that has a resist dyed pattern of small square dots.

Calling Raoul, we got directions to his house and met his family and mother – she is an artisan as well as the matriarch of the multigenerational home, then Raoul took us to his school. The school is a bit out of the town on the road to Panajachel – or at least the cutoff is there. Raoul walks from the highway along a dusty steep road about (30 ?) minutes to get to his classrooms, an artisan school in a small agricultural community. He had already gone there and worked in the morning, then returned back to the center to meet us.


We arrived to find the entire community, students, parents and others, dressed in their best and on their 4th day of a five day celebration in honor of the accomplishment of the community in financing and building a second story of new classrooms for the school (as well as the painting of the entire school). The road leading up to the gate was lined with food and snack stalls and filled with many of Raoul’s students who giggled to meet his “teachers.” Climbing down a few steps into the school courtyard, we found a huge tented and festively decorated stage and perhaps every chair in the town filled with an audience of village elders and families.

The feria was a complete surprise. We had expected to visit Raoul’s empty school, since it was Saturday. I can’t decide if I just missed the intent of the visit when we were invited during the workshop, or if this was another example of what seems to be a cultural moré in the Mayan world that favors a kind of indirect “direction”  --much like Juana’s guided trip to her school which from the initial description we thought would take us just a few miles off the highway, but which ended up as an hour-long journey of what she laughingly called “three canciones.” Each school day Raoul travels here – where the school only operates in the morning since everyone works in the afternoon -- and then back to Sololá where he teaches in the afternoons.

What followed over the next few hours was perhaps the purest experience of indigenous Mayan community life that I will ever experience. This was not a celebration for tourists – I spotted one other person beyond our group who looked to be an“outsider,” (I think he was an evangelical missionary). We met Raoul’s colleagues, a group of interesting and intelligent women and men, who teach the school’s students ten different subjects each week, including artisan crafts, math, natural sciences, (language), Spanish, English and oral language. The community was celebrating with all force, energy and resources the building of the school’s new classrooms. They had raised the money (and were still raising more) and organized the construction as a community project over the course of the past year. A Canadian NGO had helped them with the project’s last leg, but community had also raised funds themselves.

Everyone was dressed in their best clothing, and that was for the majority of women and many of the men, the traditional traje. After benedictions by representatives of the four churches, Catholic and four different evangelical groups, a band played Christian rock while women served soup and tamales from enormous iron pots and kettles into clay bowls. First we toured the new classrooms and tried to decline lunch, but it was soon obvious that we were honored guests to be served in a classroom set up with long tables for the important leaders (the men leaders, anyway) of the community.

The soup was a delicious corn-thickened and achiote-flavored and -colored broth with a piece of beef. The tamales were the size of thick fingers, tender corn masa wrapped in and flavored by a large leaf from a tree that grows in the region– it looked and tasted a bit like a fig leaf. We learned from our hosts that the preparations had taken two days prior to the event, and that two cows had been killed to provide the beef for the soup – the women had made 2,000 dozen tamales and a meal was served each day of the five-day feria to the entire community.

After lunch we toured the school’s computer lab. Fifteen new computers – but no internet service and not much software. They had built an internal rebar cage to make the room secure (we had already heard several stories in both countries about computers stolen from schools). The school and community leaders asked us to help them find solutions for networking the computers and for software. They also have a large printer that they have never been able to get working. They also explained that potable water was the first and foremost issue that was a problem at the school. A well is on the school grounds, but two pumps in row quickly burned out. Also, there are two small rios nearby, but so far the school has been unable to engineer a connecting aqueduct or piping to the school – another possible solution. They requested engineering advice and support to solve those issues. This is a community that has made it two-thirds of the way with technology and with water – they need help and outside knowledge for the last part. We promised to add their issues to our report – and their problems seem to be ideally suited for partnerships with one of the U.S. organizations such as the Rotary Club International. Another option might be to connect them with Texas A&M who is doing some water-related research and development work in the Lake Atitzlan area.

For more photos see the official report at blog.