On October 4th 1975 I was in Nebaj, a small town in the Mayan higlands of central Guatemala.
I stayed at the Pension Tres Hermanas, really run by three sisters, which was comfortably primitive and served the sort of food that made you want to eat there every time. Nebaj felt different from other Mayan towns in Guatemala; it seemed less organised, less colonial, as if the Mayan influence was stronger and the ladino influence was less. It felt more rural and there seemed to be more poor people about. The journey up in the rural bus by a narrow road took you out of the big valleys of central Guatemala and over a ridge into a different world which then undulated northwards towards the jungles of the Peten.
For most foreigners at that time, Nebaj was all about the weaving; some came to study it, others to buy it. I met a friend from San Cristobal, Olivier, with whom I was to spend time the next year in Bolivia. Olivier had been studying weaving with a woman called Juana, a little way outside the town. She offered us coffee and told us about how she had learned to weave on a back-strap loom as a child. It was not really the weather to walk as a good drizzle kept up, but we did manage to go to some waterfalls and sit by the maize-fields.
The next day was market day and Nebaj was full of Mayans from all three of the villages of the little group of Ixil speakers. As I sat in the bus soon after midday, waiting to leave, I tried to describe the costumes and the scene in my notebook.
The market is in an ending state, people having atole and bread, some having a fuller meal. Mainly on the bus are are Ladinos going back to Quiche, some Indians; truck leaving for Chajul, with men and a few ladies going home, and three gringos, with their collections of what they have bought in Nebaj, going to see if there is more in Chajul.
Three main villages here, few men in traditional clothes:
- Nebaj. Bright red skirts with gold stripes, foot-loomed now. Red with white stripes and some designs. Huipiles white-based with multi-coloured, usually geometric designs, blue dominates on back, front and sleeves. Sometimes plain with a little design on neck. Headdresses with longitudinal stripes and pom-poms, can be very fine. Shawls with stripes and sometimes silver silhouette. Serviettes like huipiles but sometimes more ornate and blue.
- Chajul. Red-based huipiles with simple patterns, birds and some geometrics inside and outside the birds. Ties good and bright of similar material.
- San Juan Cotzal. Blue-based huipiles, similar to those here. Blue foot-loomed....(I think the bus left)
The seeds for change had already been sown in Nebaj. Nebaj sits on the edge of the Peten and land to the north had been designated for mineral development, given over to people close to the military and politicians, and the Indians forcibly removed. Then in June that year, just three months before my visit, the Guerrilla Army of The Poor had assassinated a despised local landowner. By 1976 local leaders were being killed and soon after the Ixil were being shot in their villages or being herded into the model villages the government used to control the indigenous population.
Ronald Wright stayed in Nebaj in 1985, at the Pension Tres Hermanas, and described in his wonderful book "Time Among The Maya" how weaving was still being taught to the young. He also found a man who was able to recite the old Mayan calendar at a ceremony in a shrine in his compound. This confirms to Wright that the Ixil have survived the latest assault on their culture just as they have been surviving for a thousand years since the heyday of the Maya.
Today tourism thrives in Nebaj and there even seems to be a Pension Tres Hermanas though I suspect not owned by the same three sisters. In 1975 my South American Handbook dealt with the Ixil triangle in one sentence, describing Nebaj as an interesting Indian village.