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Communal pasture land in the Ixil community of Vikalamaj is vital to the subsistence of local farmers and sheep herders. (MCC Photo/Tobias Roberts)

Communal pasture land in the Ixil community of Vikalamaj is vital to the subsistence of local farmers and sheep herders. (MCC Photo/Tobias Roberts)

Dreams of our own: Revalidating traditional Mayan lifestyles

Tobias Roberts
September 10, 2012

NEBAJ, Guatemala – For the last six years, I have worked in Central America with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in projects aimed at helping youth accomplish dreams of their own, a striving often thwarted by external forces.

In the northern highlands of Guatemala, the Mayan-Ixil people lived as subsistence farmers in relative isolation for centuries, until the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1980s brought some 114 massacres at the hands of the Guatemalan Army. 

Since 2009, dozens of international mining and energy companies have arrived seeking land to launch mining and mega-hydroelectric projects, all of which will contaminate local ecosystems without benefiting the Ixil people. Because of population growth and unjust land concentrations, most youth have less land than did their ancestors.

With few employment options and insufficient funds to start viable businesses, young people’s dreams are either degraded into demeaning work as sweatshop laborers or dependent on a successful migration to the U.S. – something that is more dangerous and improbable every day.

José Corio is a 22-year-old from a remote village. He tried to migrate in 2009, but was caught at the U.S. border and sent back. He plans to try again.

“I am going to try to go to the north because I want to do something with my life. I want to get ahead and here there aren’t any opportunities for that.”

Getting ahead, or salir adelante in Spanish, is the most commonly used term by Ixil youth to explain their goals and aspirations in life. It is why youth migrate. It is why they choose to work for a hydroelectric company instead of standing with their community’s elders to oppose it.

Poverty – and the wish to escape it – is not a simple matter. Close to 80 percent of children in the Ixil region are malnourished. It would be unfair to overlook the callousness and suffering of poverty and its effects on the Ixil people.

However, it seems that to many youth, getting ahead means the ability to make more money and buy more stuff, and the perceived ease of living a consumer life.

The Nebaj region and the traditional Mayan lifestyle offer a life full of riches: forested mountains, plentiful rain, fertile soil, abundant rivers, peaceful communities and a vivacious cultural legacy. But these are not the riches society covets. These riches cannot be quantified or deposited into banks. They are simply part of the land and part of the community.

Few youth in the Ixil region appreciate and revere these, but Gaspar Cobo is one who does. When asked about aspirations for his life, he remarked, “All I want is to have enough land to build a small house; raise my corn, potatoes and sheep; and enjoy the peacefulness of the mountain.

“For me, there is no reason to get ahead. I am happy here. This place offers all that I need and want.”

In the struggle against poverty and the chronic lack of opportunities that affect youth in the region, MCC supports income-generating projects, vocational training and cooperative enterprises; advocates for more governmental programs benefiting youth; and supports communities’ resistance to the greed of multinational extractive and energy corporations.

Yet perhaps the best starting point is to help youth discover the riches that exist in their traditional lifestyles and to learn to value those riches. The U.S. author and poet Wendell Berry says, “The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

Life in the Ixil region is filled with adversities, and youth have good reason to seek ways to surmount those. The American Dream of an easy, consumer lifestyle, however, apart from being unsustainable and ecologically devastating, is hardly an improvement to traditional Mayan lifestyles. The challenge is to encourage youth not to “escape,” but to discover ways to “add something better” to a way of life that is filled with hidden riches.

The most important work then, is to help youth refuse to buy the dreams of others, as they simply seek to accomplish their own.

Tobias Roberts and his spouse, Yasmin Mendez, serve with Mennonite Central Committee in Nebaj, Guatemala. Roberts is an HIV/AIDS and youth development coordinator and is from Bowling Green, Ky.