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Nebaj, Guatemala

Nebaj is one of the three Guatemalan villages that still have vestiges of the ancient Ixil culture.

Text by Leonor López / photos by A & P Giberstein

The state of Quiche, which fills north central and northwestern Guatemala, is home to the largest known native Maya population. These isolated Guatemalans are still so immersed in their pre-Columbian culture that, for all practical purposes, they are still pre-Hispanic people.

Nebaj street    Quiche is comprised of the Nebaj, Chajul and San Juan Cotzal municipalities, which have 115,000 inhabitants. The Maya there live in tropical rain forests on the northern skirts of the Cordillera Cuchumatanes, a mountain range which starts in Mexico and threads its way south through central Guatemala, eventually dissolving into the Caribbean.

    Inhabitants of Nebaj don't speak Spanish, the official national language of Guatemala, but converse in native languages like Ixil. Ixil has dialects which are similar to tongues in nearby San Juan Cotzal, but which differ from those spoken in the equally adjacent Chajul. The religion the people of Nebaj practice is a hybrid of Maya rituals and Catholic precepts. Their rituals are performed by Maya priests, witch doctors, seers or oracles, who solicit the Lord of the Earth, the hills and the water.

    Nebaj, Chajul and San Juan Cotzal are part of the so-called Ixil region, named for the Maya tribe which settled in the area around A.D. 200. These three municipal seats occupy 2314 square kilometers and possess a rich cultural heritage, evidenced by numerous archaeological sites where pottery and jade have been found.

    Nebaj is the largest of the three municipalities, with a mainly rural population of 50,000 people, only 15% of which live in the Nebaj county. The rest are spread throughout the cold, misty mountain.

    The traditional activity of the Ixil people is weaving. As early as 1740 Friar Olavarreta wrote that "the women of Nebaj were industrious workers, constantly weaving and sending material to Guatemala." He also stated that Nebaj was "a pretty village—with orderly and beautiful streets—that existed in the midst of a wide, deep valley.

    Thanks to their isolation the Ixils have preserved many ancient cultural traits. Partly because of this they are also the victims of a general government indifference, and thus tend to immigrate to Mexico They commonly travel north via the Usamacinta river to find work as pickers on large coffee plantations.

    Like many other indigenous peoples in the Americas, the Ixils from Nebaj also survive by producing handicrafts for the tourist trade.

Mayan girls from Nebaj    Native women make and wear traditional huipiles (a one-piece pullover) in red and white, embroidered with geometric motifs or depictions of local flora and fauna. These products have become popular in the large tourist resorts of Central America and southeastern Mexico. Ixil weavers include brilliant mauve, purple, green and varying shades of blue in their splendid embroidery, carefully stitched on white or red cloth. One concession to modernity is the use of fabric from Germany or England.

    The Ixils, one of the smallest ethnic groups in Central America, are also known for unusual fiestas held in honor of their patron saints and Maya deities. Still, they are primarily renowned for their handicrafts, surviving parts of an artistic legacy passed down from parent to child for many generations.

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