Guatemala: Volunteering in Xecam

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The Weaving Workshop in Xecam, Guatemala. Tyrel Nelson photos.
The Weaving Workshop in Xecam, Guatemala. Tyrel Nelson photos.

Leaving a Lasting Impact on Guatemala: Helping the Native Women of Xecam

By Tyrel Nelson

A view of Cantel in the distance in Xecam
A view of Cantel in the distance.

It’s T-shirt weather in Xecam (Shay-com).

Team Leader Ernie and I (present for translation purposes) sit on plastic chairs outside a two-room house.

Our counterpart Arturo sits across from us at the breakfast table. Sipping coffee in the bright Monday sun, the three of us begin to hash out a plan for the week.

We ask Arturo about our first project. He responds with one word:

chickens.

I raise an eyebrow. I have been on half a dozen volunteer trips, all of the work revolving around construction. So I wonder how such an undertaking can make a lasting impact on our host community. I am intrigued by what Arturo has to say.

Our counterpart makes clear his aim to provide women from the poorest Mayan families in the region with a few birds each. He points out that the girls have grown up on farms and, therefore, possess the knowledge required to raise the poultry. The ladies can then use the eggs for food, to sell in the markets, and, hopefully, hatch more chicks, creating a sustainable activity.

Delivering chicken to the women of Xecam.
Delivering chicken to the women of Xecam.

Ernie and I like this proposal. In fact, we believe in it so much that when Arturo offers to take the ten members of our Global Citizens Network squad in Xecam to a sauna that afternoon, Ernie and I opt-out.

Instead, we choose to track down chickens while the rest of our group rests at the spa. Arturo is elated about our choice of activity. He informed us that his friend José not only knows where to go but has a car too!

Chicken Negotiation

It’s cat-and-dog weather in Salcajá. José, Ernie, and I sit on plastic chairs inside an echoey house.

A stout man sits across from us. Next to his rubber boots is a crate full of fowl, the cement room’s lone decoration. The chirps combine with the rain pelting the metal roof to produce a cacophonous background to our negotiation.

“¿Cómo sabemos que no van a morir después de un par de días?” José questions. How do we know they aren’t going to die after a couple of days?

The farmer grabs one of the birds from the container. Cupping it in his hands, he insists that his chickens (25 days old) are strong. He explains that they eat well and they’ve had all of their shots.

“¿Cuánto cuestan?” I inquire. How much do they cost?

“11,5 quetzales por cada pollito.” 11.5 quetzals per chick.

“¿Es su mejor precio?” I challenge. Is that your best price?

He drops to 10.5 quetzals ($1.37). José tells me that this is an excellent offer. He mentions that the ones in the market normally go for about 15Q. I relay the message to Ernie, who wants to jump on it.

“¿Cuántos pollitos podemos comprar ahorita?” I ask. How many chicks can we buy right now?

“Cuatrocientos.” Four hundred.

My eyes widen.

Jose’s sedan can’t handle such a big delivery though. To that end, we ask the breeder if he’s able to haul the fuzzy freight to Arturo’s house the following morning. He agrees. Ernie pulls out a thick wad of quetzals. The chicken man shakes our hands.

A native woman weaving with a waist loom in Xecam
A native woman weaving with a waist loom.

Chicken Distribution

The farmer arrives in Xecam at 11 am on Tuesday. Several women stop by Arturo’s to take some poultry home with them.

In the afternoon, in the backs of two pickups, our team rides with José, Arturo, and his friends—Samuel and Chino—to visit feminist groups in the nearby villages of Cantel and Chuisuc (Chwee-sook).

At all three locales, the four children of our GCN crew (three boys and one girl, ages six to eleven) take the lead in distributing the four hundred chickens. The kids form the first links of a bird brigade, which passes four chirpers to each of the ladies.

And although the pueblos change, the women’s reactions are the same; they sport ear-to-ear grins. I am moved by the sincere appreciation the ladies express. My smile mirrors theirs as they approach everyone on our team to thank us for the chickens.

Xecam Project Two … Fold

Our next project is two-fold. First, we are to buy more materials to be used in training for the young women who are learning how to weave. Second, we are to grasp the initial stage of the weaving process and, subsequently, teach local women how to warp.

With new supplies and knowledge, the goal is that the ladies hone their skills and eventually weave traditional Mayan clothes to sell.

A volunteer helping a native during the Weaving Workshop.
A volunteer helping a native during the Weaving Workshop.

Aware of the insufficient amount of training supplies for the women, we walk to a shop in neighboring La Estancia to buy nearly sixty bundles of thread.

Moreover, we find out there are only four urdidoras (wooden warping instruments) for the five female groups Arturo is helping.

Even though the urdidoras are rotated among the cohorts, there is always one group that isn’t able to practice.

For that reason Arturo, Ernie, and I visit a carpenter in Xecam on Wednesday. We bring an urdidora that Arturo is renting so that the woodworker can record its dimensions and, thus, construct a new one.

Warp and Woof

On Thursday morning Samuel pounds two sets of stakes—makeshift urdidoras—into Arturo’s front yard. With the help of a couple ladies who are just starting in the trade, we practice twisting different colored yarns around the stakes, creating the warp.

These pieces of cloth will eventually be transferred to waist looms for the woof process, which is demonstrated by Samuel and a local woman.

During the two afternoons to follow, Arturo takes us to Cantel to teach warping to a handful of apprentices. The novices watch intently before grabbing hold of the threads themselves.

Not only do they catch on quickly, but they also beam with satisfaction after memorizing the pattern. We leave the final workshop quite confident that the ladies we have taught will surely pay their skills forward to other women in the area.

Nevertheless, I’m not as impressed with their knack for warping as I am humbled by how the gals treat us, non-Mayan foreigners showing them how to weave Mayan cloths. The ladies give us nothing but respect, gratitude, and friendship—a genuine generosity shown to us from the moment we set foot in the village until our farewell eight days later.

A typical House in Xecam, Guatemala.
A typical house in Xecam, Guatemala.

A Lasting Impact

On our last morning in Xecam, Arturo, José, and Samuel are there to see us off. Many of the local women also stop by our breakfast table to wish us well. Embraces, handshakes, and thank-yous are exchanged.

“Just one more (picture)” is repeated countless times. With each adios getting harder and harder, the final one is uttered, and we begin to drag our feet to our Antigua-bound microbus; all but one of us, that is.

Rounding the corner of the building, I look over my shoulder to catch one more glimpse of our Guatemalan friends. What I notice, though, is eleven-year-old Jacob (the lone straggler from our GCN team) still giving hugs and saying goodbyes.

“C’mon Jacob!” his mom yells.

Jacob runs to catch up to us.

“That was hard for you, wasn’t it?” I ask him.

He nods. I can feel his frown.

“Yeah, goodbyes are always tough,” I sigh.

Time will tell if our projects make a lasting impact on our host community. What I don’t wonder, however, is if the community has made a lasting impact on us.

*For more information on how to become part of a Global Citizens Network cross-cultural expedition, click here.
*We stayed at Hotel Casa Rustica in La Antigua on the first and final nights of the trip.
*I flew from Minneapolis (MSP) to Guatemala City (GUA) and back—with layovers in Houston (IAH)—on United Airlines.

Tyrel Nelson.

 

 

Tyrel Nelson teaches English and continues to write in his native Minnesota. His author page can be found here.