Kaqchikel Women and Their Bodies. Emma Delfina Chirix

© Divergencia Colectiva

© Emma Delfina Chirix García From Desacatos 30 (2009): 149-160

© Translated from Spanish by Gloria E. Chacón and  Juan G. Sánchez Martínez ~ Copy edited by Lorrie Jayne

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Despite the western biomedical knowledge imposed over the Mayan culture, Kaqchikel women have learned to keep one foot in modernity and the other in their historical-cultural roots in order to maintain and legitimize cultural practices and beliefs that allow them to replicate a principle of care over their bodies. It is important to remember that the perception of the construction of bodies and sexuality is not the same in every culture.


Through language and their mother tongue, Kaqchikel [1] women reflected on perceptions, experiences and feelings that gravitate around the construction of heterosexual sexuality. The vehicle that allowed them to speak openly was trust. Based on trust, a dialogue was achieved, and good personal relationships were established.

[1] It is important to undertake an analysis that goes beyond gender in order to show other identities and realities present not just in Comalapa (the municipality where the research was conducted), but in Guatemalan
society at large.

The colloquial language captured in this text, made up of feminine words, trickles in in the form of stories; it responds to forms of expression, metaphors and jokes through which the experience of feelings such as love, pain, suffering or desire is transmitted. 

This language portrays diverse ideas and different ways of looking at life and expressing sexuality. The Kaqchikel language imposes other categories and, most of the time, another way of looking at the world. It also involves a model of appropriation through words that denote an understanding of sexuality and human corporeality linked to nature and culture. Kaqchikel language prioritizes collectivity. It only communicates knowledge if it is associated with the possibility of experience. For example, children and young teenagers should not know about sex, because if they learn about this subject, they will surely practice it. For this same reason, it is feared that talking about sexuality with young people will put information at their disposal that will need to be tested. On the other hand, currently the Comalapenses [2] usually express their ideas in two languages: Kaqchikel and Spanish. In both languages, the networks of power that are embedded in words and that correspond to the dominant ideology are evident, and uphold the discourses, stereotypes and normalization of heterosexuality. The latter is identified as a political system that can be questioned in order to decolonize the bodies and sexuality of indigenous women precisely because a patriarchal domination system depends upon the subjection of women through forced heterosexuality.

[2] San Juan Comalapa is a Kaqchikel town located in the
municipality of Chimaltenango, a province located in the center of Guatemala.

The Kaqchikel language has specific signs, symbols and feelings to communicate its idea of ​​human corporeality, but first and foremost it conceives the body as a whole, whose parts are interconnected. A trilogy that interrelates body, mind and spirit is one of the ways to understand the human being. These three elements form a unity, and if they are fragmented, it causes an imbalance in the person’s life. This indigenous worldview perceives the body as a living being, with energies, feelings and needs; basically, those related to nutrition and physical and mental health; however very little is said about the body’s desires. For some Mayan women (who have completed higher education), the meaning of the body is linked to self-esteem, because taking care of their body “is a way of regaining self-esteem, because they feel the need to love and take care of themselves,” which also consists of “giving up pain and suffering and learning to love each other.” (Chirix García, 2003: 184)

In reflecting on the Kaqchikel language and the body in Comalapa, I have found that there is still an abundant terminology to speak about sexuality and the body. When one says jari ruch’akul, it means “her/his/their body”, and jarirutiyojil refers to “fat”. In identifying the intimate parts of the body indirect terms related to nature are used: the male genital organ (penis) is identified as tzik’in (bird) or rab’aj achin (man’s organ). The female genital organ (vulva) is called in several ways: rab’aj ixoq, meske’l (cat) or ru tutz’. There are also double entendre expressions about some parts of the body; for example, jokingly or metaphorically, the vagina is related to the mouth; it is possible to say ri jun ixok’ k’o ka’i’ ruchi’, which means “the woman has two mouths.”

The heart is privileged as one of the important centers of the human body: it represents the person and is named ranima. The heart is identified as the main seat of reason and feelings, so it is common to hear expressions such as kan k’i nuna’ri wanima (my heart is happy), chke’ nubij awanima (what is your heart saying?) or noqa’ pa awanma chke xin bij apochawe (remember in your heart what I told you that time). Heart pain is not physically located in the location of this organ, but in the pit of the stomach, since the understanding of anatomy and physiology used is not western. In this way of knowing, things or plants also have their soul or their heart: ruk’u’x kem is translated as “heart of the textile, the essence, el nawal”, and ruk’u’x che’ refers to “heart of the tree, the essence, the tree’s core.”

Generally speaking, talking about sexuality between women, between men, or in mixed spaces – women and men – causes laughter and nervousness, both indicating there is pleasure involved when dealing with the topic. [3] What has been observable is that some women feel pleasure in talking about this taboo. In groups where there is enough trust, this topic is explored in casual chat and in jokes and jests. In this way, between jokes, Kaqchikel people express their feelings, emotions and experiences. The joke is based on what looks like a phallus or a vulva. Some women and young people joked, expressing freedom and delight, giving free rein to their imagination and the feeling of joy.

[3] The expression of laughter can be observed in informal
conversations between people and, especially, in the q’ejelonik (collective and festive meeting).
© Elisa Lipkau

Analogies are used to talk jokingly about sex: mes (cat), saq’ul (banana), ki’ (delicious), ik (chile). Throughout my fieldwork I recorded many two-way expressions or jokes with sexual connotation. For example, when women cooked chiles, some said: “Ay kan chix wa’ an, tzawi ri ik kan poralgo kan kiäq jajaja” (Oh how ugly it is, oh, this chile is so big and red! hehehe). This expression invited everyone to laugh. Faced with the joke, women with conservative thinking reacted with disapproving gestures and scolding. Two of them expressed themselves like this: “Oh so disgusting, they are already adults and look what they are teaching!” Another elderly woman added: “We come to work, not to laugh! There must be respect here!”, but a lady from the non-conservative group replied calmly: “We’re just joking.”

Women laugh and, after a moment, one takes up the subject again and adds another funny expression. They laugh again and continue the conversation with new jokes, until someone changes the subject. The most liberal women, with more experience and with a sense of humor, are those who make funny comments and guide the conversation in the group, during which a process of feedback of the joke occurs.

The kaqchikel language is rich in meanings regarding sexuality when speaking about the body which proves the interest that this topic arouses. These expressions, which are communicated in everyday contexts, are samples of the collective and cultural expressions that language adopts to approach sexuality in an informal and festive tone. To delve into what has been said, I present here more expressions of this nature recorded in the fieldwork:

  • While speaking about bananas, a woman invites: “Qa ch’olo’ ri saq’ ulk’a” (let’s peel the banana), and another one replies: “who knows if this banana will endure” while she shows a soft or overly ripe banana. A third woman suggests: “It would be good if you pass a little bit of copal smoke on it, it will straighten out”, and they all laugh.
  • While speaking about tamales, a woman asks: “Tiba’na’ utzil nib’anta nim rak’än ri suba’n, kan rak’än tzik’in nib’anche’ haha” (can you please make the tamale long as the size of a penis? ha ha), and with the movement of the hand when doing the tamale she says: “Kan na sirisape” (how you round it!); the other women give in laughing and someone adds: “Ay rat la’ utz nana’ what nib’an chawe” (ah! you like what they do to you), and they continue laughing.

Drawn from colloquial language, the examples above express personal tastes and a relationship with sexual pleasure and the body. There are different expressions to speak directly about sexual intercourse such as nab’än achk na’ (you are doing something) and nak’än apo ruwäch jun achin (you are hanging out with a man; this is said by a mother to a daughter, or one woman to another woman). The expression xa yiq’ojoman (I’m playing music) was said by a man during the interviews. 

Among the expressions that invite sexual intercourse are yatin roqij pa ch’at (I throw you in bed) and yatin chop (I will grab you). These expressions are generally said by men. According to different women, when they are invited to have a sexual relationship they are told jo’ pa awän (let’s go to the cornfield) or jo’ chuwa xan (let’s go to the wall). This last expression is used by youth. One way of expressing it respectfully is tasipaj  jub’a chuwä (give me some). Women also talk about the bold offerings of some men; expressions such as ninb’än jub’a chawä (someone will give you a little). When they refer to the attitude of women they say xb’an kan chre ixoq’ (or she got some?). When a woman has desires, nrajo’ jub’a ri ixoq cha’ (that woman wants something) or tasipaj jub’a chwä (give me some).


In the case of teenage girls, the body changes, different feelings are born, and the connection with sensuality begins. One of the interviewees refers to how two strong events in her life – the earthquake and the civil war – turned off her memory and feelings about the changes in her body. Victoria told us her situation:

“Oh, I don’t remember because of the stress we had, the earthquake, the violence, I only remember when my period came and I was very scared because I had nothing to wear, there was no underwear, I seldom wore any. I didn’t realize when my breasts grew, I felt no shame because almost nobody told me anything, they never prepared us for that.”

Marta, on the contrary, was aware of her changes and this allowed her to make comparisons: “Ah, anyway one says xinok wa läq ixöq re, xeki’iy pe nutz’um, that’s how it is, my breasts grew, I am no longer a girl.” The growth of a part of her body marked the transition from girl to adult.

In the teenage years, mothers are the ones who verbalize prohibition, fear and denial. What is behind fear and the prohibited? What are the institutions that create and reproduce this fear and the forbidden? When no argument can be made, the NO is chosen, and denial is interpreted as rejection, exclusion, dismissal, a barrier, which produces more gaps and boundaries, and separates what is united. In power relations, denial is important because it does not support the foundation of freedom to know about the theme of sexuality and to acquire knowledge about its practice.

In the teenage years, recommendations based on danger are reinforced by the mother:

“You have to take care of your body, nobody should touch you, it is dangerous if someone touches you once, and even worse if it’s after your period. Quickly you’ll get pregnant.” She told me that if it’s that time of the month for a woman, she gets pregnant right away. Just as one has experience now, with three or four, one learns.”

Both the mother and some cultural practices have been responsible for the normalization of women’s behavior, but sometimes in the messages they convey, contradictory perspectives can be identified. For example, it is common to hear expressions such as “No fucker will take advantage of my daughter ” and at the same time expressions such as “A woman has to obey her husband, she must not raise her voice to him, he is the one with authority.” These contradictory statements illustrate the possibilities for social behavior to be followed by indigenous women: either they become the eternal servants of their husbands or they lead the journey for rebelling against the patriarchal control.  

Mothers, culture and the church provide patterns of behavior that lead to prohibition. It is common to hear expressions such as “you shouldn’t see”, “you must not touch yourself there”, “you must not drink”, “you must not feel ticklish”, “you shouldn’t be alone with a man or with male family members, even less with strangers”, “you must not pay attention to the ladino (mix-race person) because he will never marry you”, “be careful with drunks [in the street], they make you believe that they are inebriated to fondle you.”

Power also applies the Law of Prohibition. Law and the church reinforce the validity of prohibitions to maintain the status quo since those institutions require relationships based on domination. In the framework of morality, the forbidden becomes a synonym of fear, danger, and is associated with sin. Therefore, the principle of care, which drives people’s health and life, becomes a mechanism to control and to freeze freedom, pleasure and love.

Estela, the youngest of the women interviewed, shares her experience: when she began to feel the changes in her body, she began to give importance to the care of her hair, feet and nails because she “likes they look good”. She is one of the interviewees who has high self-esteem and demonstrates it in the assessment towards her own body:

“I like to take care of myself and sometimes I joke to my friends: ‘I am very pretty’, then I say:’I have self-esteem.’ I like how I am, because most women say: ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like the other’, but I feel good, I love myself as I am. I accept my body as it is. I saw that my body was beautiful [laughs], but when you are a girl it is normal for the body to be straight and then I began to notice curves, widened hips, that’s all I can remember.”

One motivation to be positive in life is the ability to appreciate the body and accept it as it is. Another factor that helped her in satisfying her curiosity was that her family did not hide the theme of sexuality from her. Censorship on this issue motivates people, especially children and adolescents, to resort to other means that do not inform but misinform. Generally, women who belong to poor families and who perform multiple activities to survive do not realize the changes their daughters experience, while other mothers forbid them from dressing nicely in order to avoid the eyes of men. Stories and experiences of indigenous women are diverse, and it is necessary to make them visible to understand their reality. 


Midwives or female body specialists are still recognized. In many families, their word is still heard; they are recognized as the ancestral authority that gives specialized attention to female bodies.

Momostenango © Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

All midwives pray before starting their work in the tuj (temascal) [4]. They invoke the spirit-keeper of the tuj and of the fire also, so they both will give health to the woman’s body and avoid complications, such as fainting. For the women’s bath, the “tusa” (made of corn cob husks) is still used, and it must be large in order to call forth steam.

[4] On the temascal or steam bath in Guatemala see Virkki, 1962.

The tol [5] is also used to cover women’s faces and to protect them from the heat. Midwives also continue using tallow soap or black soap, with which they not only clean the body, but also, thanks to the effect of circular motion, stimulate blood circulation in places of the body that are cold or tense.

[5] A container made of jícara that has several uses in the kitchen and in the temascal. It is used by women.

Victoria tells of her experience:

“I have used the tuj, I have bathed with several midwives, because I remember that they told me that my uterus had descended, and when that happens, it hurts, and they recommended the temascal to me since it relieves the pain a little. Then I tried it with six or seven different midwives. They all bathe differently. I had the opportunity to meet them, out of need.” 

Midwives identify uterus prolapse through the following symptoms: pain in the belly, sometimes back pain and, in addition to difficulties in walking, feet that are almost numb when walking. In kaqchikal, the uterus prolapse is called xq’a apam, or xuya’ vuelta a pam or rob’olqotin ri’ ruk’u’x apam (your belly descended, your uterus turned over.)

It is customary to place long benches inside the temascal [6] where one can sit or lie down. The woman who takes the bath will receive her treatment lying down, an adequate position for the midwife to give her massages. The woman, at the end of the bath, can approve or disapprove of the work of the midwife, but generally this is the expression she says: “This lady does know how to bathe.”

[6] In recent years the temascal has undergone a process of extinction due to spatial, economic and cultural factors. Families do not have enough space to build a temascal nor resources to invest in its construction. Furthermore, health personnel with their “modernizing” ideas have discredited the use of the temascal.

The encounter between women’s bodies, care of the female body by another woman is one of the expressions of the principle of care: “We bathed together with the midwife, for me it was not so strange, to see ourselves as women, maybe because we are already mature”, “there is no shame, no, nothing, and she knew how to bathe me well, that first temascal warmed me up, I liked her.”

Throughout the interviews I was able to identify knowledge and techniques that midwives still apply today:

  • Entrance: the midwife prays to the tuj’s grandmother or its nawal and the fire.
  • When the midwife throws water to the stones, steam rises; at that precise moment the midwife puts a wet cloth or a tol on the face of the woman who receives the care.
  • The moment of the massage: the midwife gives massage using a tallow soap. She starts with breasts, then stomach, belly and legs. She raises the woman’s legs and hit the soles of her feet with her fist or soap. She also hits the woman’s hands. She blows in some parts of the woman’s body in order to get cold air out and hot air in.
  • Exit: it is recommended to lie down, “it is important to rest, lie down and sleep for a while”. In the process of relaxing hot drinks or beer are shared.
  • Sensation: “I feel like a new woman.”

Midwives recommend drinking beverages and tea from medicinal plants. If the disease is diagnosed as cold, it is advisable to drink some hot tea. For girls and boys who urinate at night, due to something other than a psychological problem, such as if they are cold in the stomach, are advised to use the tuj. It is well known that another benefit of the tuj is that it stimulates the production of breast milk. Chest massage has this goal. The oldest of the interviewees said that she had plenty of milk, it would spill; sometimes she tried to take it out to prevent the formation of bodoques (hard balls around her breasts) and prevent mastitis or breast infection. She wonders:

“Why do women no longer have enough milk and why the use of pachas (bottles)? Before  women had a lot of milk, but now who knows why they don’t have it anymore, what did these women do I wonder [that] they are using the bottle. Before going to the mountain, I gave milk to my son and when I returned, my breasts hurt, a whole day of work in the mountains, I helped the man to work, I had plenty of milk.”

Women who were already mothers used to give milk to a child who needed it. Sometimes the mother had to be absent and the other women in solidarity breastfed the girl or the boy who cried out of hunger. In the last three decades, indigenous women who have opted for wage labor are forced to bottle feed their babies.

The elements that correspond to the subjective part of the benefits of the tuj and the relationship it maintains with the bodies are also relevant. The meeting between a midwife and a woman who receives special care is an encounter between the healer and the woman who is the subject of healing, and is a congregation of two female bodies. Naked bodies express a type of communication. Women value the experience of female healers, and they hide or bury shame, allowing themselves to be sheltered by the trust and security that the midwife inspires. Women who receive this care gain a sense of well-being and freedom. Midwives have the ability to identify the geography of pain or well-being in the body. They clean any negative energies and reinforce positive energies. Therefore, the temascal is considered as the place that contributes to the spiritual, mental and physical cleansing of people.

Girls and boys who have had the opportunity to experience the temascal construct a body sense and nudity that is without morbidity. Acquiring a very human concept of the body from its own discovery and the perception of other bodies constitutes the basis for the construction of respect for female or male bodies. The tuj is a space where you can observe human difference, in terms of male and female bodies, and also generational differences: children’s bodies, teenagers, old and young. To apprehend this diversity is to understand that bodies are different in size, color, and also in smell. This set of elements constitutes the basic material for the construction of richer concepts and more human relationships in societies, not only in Mayan culture but in other cultures that have made pain sacred and have buried pleasure.

If children’s perception of the female body is stimulated in the tuj at an early age, they may discard stereotypes and other misconceptions that induce the objectification of the woman’s body. In the tuj, without much talk, the bodies communicate, which allows clarifying doubts and prejudices, and invites us to reflect on the urgent need to know who we are, without clothes that hide us, and to strengthen our identities. The social construction of the body usually reflects difference and when it is perceived from a dominant model, social inequalities and injustices are embedded in its discourse and attitudes, for example, when large bodies are valued at the expense of small bodies, or white bodies at the expense of colored bodies. Some cultures have been founded beneath this umbrella of this superiority.

The health of the body of Comalapan Maya women depends on some humanizing social practices that promote the life and well-being of people but, above all, on the care lavished by the hands, knowledge and wisdom of midwives. They have been the ones who have strengthened the principle of care among women. The work of body caregivers is more of an expression of resistance than a maintenance of “tradition”, as it has been perceived by modernist anthropologists. This resistance lies in the reproduction and experience of ancestral practices that promote life.

Several informants maintain positive memories in relation to the use of the temascal. Victoria recounts her experience as a child:

“I remember when we bathed, we were little. I came to spy on the temascal, they used just one blanket like this, it would have been better if they had covered everything, but it half hung. I would come to spy on those who were bathing. My mother’s or my grandmother’s breasts were (this big), their breasts hung and they would all bathe in there, and when they would finish, they took them [the kids] out one by one.”

Generally it is women, especially mothers, who take care of bathing the little ones. Tuj bathing is another female practice; those responsible for bathing girls and boys are mothers. At that age, the interviewees, being girls, saw the collective women’s bathroom as normal. From childhood, Marta has always used the tuj, and has always relied on its benefits. She is currently using the tuj with her children.

When women have a life partner, the two usually enter the tuj. In that first tuj experience together there is a bit of shame, but little by little it disappears: “One body looks at the other and is different from the other body, when you are first intimate with a man it is not the same, it feels bad, but not after.” In the tuj they learn to practice reciprocity, the woman lathers with soap and scrubs the man’s back and he does the same with her: “Because one cannot scrub one’s own back with his or her own hand, one cannot.” This practice in kaqchikel is called ninjos a wij (I scratch your back).

The tuj is considered as a space to appreciate bodies, smells and nudity. Regarding the appreciation of nudity, men said they felt no shame: “You hardly feel anything, you look at your body, you look at the other, you almost don’t feel anything.” The oldest in the group of respondents said the same. Jesusa married at approximately 20 years old, in 1942, and she tells us: “Yes, I bathed him, so what is wrong with that? We live together, so I wash his back, I bathe him with paxte, lather him, and he does the same to me, we were not ashamed. If someone comes in then one does feel embarrassed but since it was just us two, then no.”

The tuj has been a place where people bathe, appreciate bodies, where a couple shares intimacy, where you can ask about the body and where women are taken care of by midwives after childbirth.

One issue I want to expand upon here is in regard to the benefits of tuj. Many generations have transmitted cultural knowledge and practices related to the tuj through oral narration. Among the Kaqchikel families, the tuj or temascal is advised not only for personal hygiene, but also as a remedy for diseases that have a cold origin or when someone “has been hit by air.” It serves to calm muscle contractions and body aches caused by emotional stress or cold; it corrects circulation problems; it prevents and corrects varicose veins and low blood pressure; accelerates the healing process of a wound; relieves respiratory problems; it is useful during pregnancy and postpartum. It is a space that heals, cleanses and purifies the body and spirit, and is conducive to having sex.

Approaching corporeality through language implies being attentive to life stories, perceptions, experiences, power relations, signs, symbols, metaphors, jokes, nudity, body transformations, violence, pleasures; this allows you to approach places where other ways of perceiving are possible and where the body is accepted without fear.

Corporality expressed in one’s own language, connected to nature, with the logic of temperature — cold-hot — and interrelated with intimacy and respect are factors and values ​​that are expressed daily, despite the sexism, violence and objectification of bodies and communities present in families.

Among the kaqchikeles, ancestral ideas, values ​​and beliefs that stimulate the taking care of bodies are saved and practiced, and it is women who nurture the continuity of these ideas and social practices. From childhood and under the principle of care you learn to watch over the body and bodies. The tuj or temascal is perceived as a physical and social space that contributes to satisfying bodily needs. Women legitimize its usefulness because it continues to grant life and well-being to people and communities. Women, tuj, language, midwives and a critical analysis are elements that energize an indigenous worldview and constantly challenge a modernist thinking of the body.


One way to approach the ancestral knowledge of the body is through the “archaeological pieces”, as they are called in archeology and western anthropology. These disciplines give an account of the conception of the body in pre-Hispanic times. The pieces found and saved from the general destruction that indigenous books and documents were victims of are an objective sample of how pre-Hispanic cultures looked at the human figure, but they are also body representations that take us back to the past to understand the present. The ancient Mayan, Nahua, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Huasteca cultures have bequeathed us artistic expressions in which it is possible to appreciate the human figure. The same happens in ancient Peru with the Salinar, Vicús, Virú and Mochica cultures. [7] Many of these manifestations not only show the human figure, but erotic signs and images, without a negative or sinful sense. Human images and figures offer different readings of the universe and the body. Each of the body parts expresses relationships and tensions with the cosmos. On a subjective level, these human figures invite us to alter ethnic and generic consciousness because they allow analysis of not only history and culture, but also of individual and collective identity. In my personal case, these figures reflect my status of belonging, and are part of my culture, because the men and women represented by them were my people. They are my fellow kind, my ancestors, because I descend from them, I am a Mayan woman. These figures lead us to reflect and articulate the past, or our past, with the present, or our present.

[7] To illustrate the meaning of the body of pre-Hispanic
cultures, I relied on Praise of the Mesoamerican body, magazine-book number 69 of Arts of Mexico (2004), and Erotic Art in Ancient Perú (Larco Herrera, 1998), edited by the Archaeological Museum of that country. Many of the archaeological pieces exhibited in the aforementioned number of Arts of Mexico are currently in the Regional Museum of Guadalajara, the National Museum of Nayarit and the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico. The Anthropology Museum of Guatemala also stores several pieces of the human figure of the Maya.
Plaza Oxlajuj Baktun. Chichicastenango © Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

Another way to enrich knowledge about the body is through history. It is important to note how some historians are contributing to the understanding of the sense of the body. Elvira Sánchez-Blake [8] analyzes the image of the body and what it represents historically:

[8] A Colombian social communicator.

The opening scene of Américo Vespucio before a naked woman who incorporates herself from the hammock is the point from which Michel de Certeau departs to develop his theory of the writing of history. This image prefigures the discourse of colonization, the representation of the New World, America, as the naked woman’s body – the blank page – where history is written, and the conformation of the nation state from that body-text. This establishes the relationship between body-text-nation, the basis of literary and historiographic study. In the specific case of Latin America, due to their historical and geographical circumstances, and the effect of colonization, these factors will play a decisive role in their political and social development. (Sánchez-Blake, 2001: 7)

Analyzing the body from a historical and political point of view allows the invasion of the new world to be remembered. This fact imposed a sexual model and a beauty model. In this regard, Miguel Güémez Pineda points out: “Western beauty models have been imposed and their male and female prototypes are governed by European physical features such as white skin, blond hair and light eyes” (Güémez Pineda, 2000: 314). This Western influence, which Güémez Pineda defines as “the coloration of the body,” implied silence for indigenous women, running over it, its use as cheap labor, and living tied to servitude and slavery, monogamy and the construction of mestizaje ideology, an ideology that “was made based on the exploitation and rape of indigenous and black women. The women were always instrumentalized to satisfy the sexual appetite of the white man and thus ensure the mixture of blood to improve the breed. Whitening policy fed and promoted by incipient states” (Curiel, 2007: 98) to legitimize exploitation, servitude and domestic work.

Regarding the conception of the body, it is important to remember how the Spaniards were scandalized by the nakedness of the natives, how Columbus felt “scandalized by the nakedness of the other.” (Todorov, 1989: 47) Institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the body were established, whose purpose was to turn people into a moralizing social being and that motivated the rationalization of pain, guilt, punishment, exploitation, double standards and fear of pain.

The first to question the nakedness of the Indians was the small group of Spaniards who invaded the territory, but the most moralistic were the Spanish priests, who questioned the fact that the Indians wore so little clothing. Colon narrates his encounter with the inhabitants of these lands: “These people are very meek and very fearful, naked as I have said, without weapons and without law (…) the Indians resemble each other because they are all naked, deprived of distinctive characteristics (…) particularly those belonging to a lower social strata.” (Todorov, 1989: 44) (It should be remembered that attire was another sign of social position). The Dominican chronicler Tomás de la Torre stated that in the Tzotzil town of Zinacantán, Chiapas, the men went naked, and when the cold or a party forced them to dress, they  wore only a knotted blanket over their shoulders. For his part, his co-religionist Ximénez pointed out that in Guatemala, dresses “were so few that they can hardly be called such.” (Ruz, 1996)

There are more recent examples of the disapproval of nakedness and of ideological imposition.  The women of Cahabón (Guatemala) previously did not cover their breasts, and now the only one who continues to  dress in this way is one grandmother. The Poqoman women of Palín used to wear a short huipil that covered only their breasts until General Ubico ordered them to wear long huipiles. [9] Faced with the dilemma that nakedness unleashes in which on the one hand the desire and freedom to show the body persists, and on the other, in this oppressive society, mitigating freedom with the objectification of the body of women is easier, whether indigenous or mestiza.

[9] This story is currently told by the Poqoman women of Palín. A young woman tells how this change happened. Poqoman women used to sell fruit to the vans that went to the south coast, and by offering their fruits in baskets over their heads, the huipil was lifted, leaving their breasts uncovered. On one of his tours, General Ubico observing this expression of nakedness, did not agree with it and ordered women to cover their breasts.

For indigenous men, nakedness creates an ambivalence that fluctuates between the desire to see and at the same time to hide the body. In Ladino men, it provokes a racial ambivalence that, together with anxiety, is expressed in jokes that underlie a base of mockery that suggests a self-betrayal that calls into question their Indian side. According to Diana Nelson, the jokes:

[…]  help understand the diverse and complex ways in which ethnic and national political bodies rely on gender. The traditional costume of Mayan women occupies a prominent place in jokes and seems to mark a space of particular ambivalence or challenge to the notions of national ethnic identity […] that is why the corte (or the long wrap skirt of Mayan women) is a topic of particular interest in jokes, in many of them with the idea of ​​”unwrapping it.” (Nelson, 2006: 298) [10].

[10] Diana M. Nelson makes an in-depth analysis of the gender issue in the ethnic-national issue in her book Man Ch’itïl. A finger in the wound: political and political bodies of the body in Guatemala of the Fifth Centenary (2006).

In racial ambivalence, Nelson continues, “the jokes allow ladinos to satisfy their opposite instincts” (Nelson, idem). There is the symbolism of undressing indigenous women in order to send the following message: “Look, she doesn’t ‘have it’.” This also reflects the “ladino fear”, the fear of seeing what you don’t want to see. In racial ambivalence two ideas are combined, on the one hand, the symbolism of undressing indigenous women to affirm that they have a desirable body, but what a pity that this body is that of an Indian.

Oppressive, conservative and moralistic thinking has forced indigenous Christian women to cover themselves and dress “like the Virgin Mary,” but other women, especially younger women, have transgressed these conservative ways of dressing in order to show a body freely owned. Some women have started the fashion of using huipiles with a lower neck, or raising the hem to show the “yams” or calves. The women of the Q’eqchi’ people, who live in a warm climate, take off their huipil and expose their necks and shoulders. Another way to expose the body freely is to breastfeed by showing the breast, since Mayan women do not cover themselves or hide their young ones with “mantillas” [11].

[11] A recommended reading: Marilyn Yalom's Breast Story(1997).

Indigenous people learned to see themselves with moralistic eyes and to submit. The rooting of this perspective changed the concept of nakedness and sexuality. Another vision was applied, another value system, another way of dressing. [12] They were instructed to live sexuality as a sin, as dirty and impure, as something private and as a shameful activity: “Thus, the concepts of transgression and immorality were emptied of sexual delight.” (Ruz, 1996: 6) The human body was considered unworthy of enjoying pleasure.

[12] This statement is not made with the aim of legitimizing the version of the Ladino domination that states that the current indigenous attire was imposed by the Spaniards because this argument, paraphrasing Diana Nelson: is to strip indigenous people of their garb and of the fact  that the body shows national equality. It is possible that the encomenderos uniformed their Indians, but they did not create the Mayan designs.
Tz’ib’ de Don Luis Ajtun. Momostenango 2013 © Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

Another element of analysis in the perception of the colonizers towards the natives is the following: they saw Indians as things, “because after all, they are also part of the landscape.” (Ruz, 1996: 26) This thought is still alive and is reproduced by criollos, mestizos and some state institutions. The Guatemalan Tourism Institute (Inguat) and the Ixchel Museum, specifically, continue to see the attire of Mayan women and bodies with indigenous dress as part of the landscape [13]. That is why it is important to reveal the history of sexuality, because revealing it implies undressing history and confronting a reality of submission to indigenous peoples by the State, private initiative and NGOs that work with a folkloric and patronizing perspective.

[13] No indigenous weaver participates in the board of
directors of the Ixchel Museum; all of its members are “white” women who live off of Mayan art.

However, despite the invasion, evangelization, colonial life, modernity and capitalism, both the Indigenous worldview and the resistance of indigenous women come alive in the construction of autonomy and self-determination of communities and bodies. The human body that is mentioned today in Mayan languages ​​is interrelated with nature and the cosmos, but it has not been associated with the territory, because doing so implies seeing the body as a political body and the territory as a woman’s body, because in wars and in the process of colonization, the ultimate representation of invasion has been the penetration or rape of women, and in this case of indigenous women. It is necessary to remember how “in patriarchal culture, women are seen as the property of men, and, in the context of war, as the property of the enemy, which, like all other properties, is expropriated and destroyed in order to weaken the enemy.” (Actoras de Cambio Consortium, 2006: XIV)

So far, the indigenous movement and indigenous women’s organizations have not delved into this issue departing from the invasion in the processes of assimilation and in the recent war in Guatemala, [14] and we must not forget the daily sexual violence indigenous women continue to be subjected to by indigenous, mestizo and white men.

[14] There is a significant contribution written by mestiza Guatemalan Women in the book, Rompiendo el silencio. Justicia para las víctimas de violencia sexual durante el conflicto armado en Guatemala (Actoras de Cambio Consortium, 2006).

To recall a sense of the body through human figures from a critical perspective allows us to rescue the memory, not to stay in the past, but as a way to link that past with the present in order to understand the diversity of cultures, but also the diversity of knowledges and truths about bodies. Social groups, especially those who identify as indigenous, have defined corporeality through their worldview, and this has been the privileged place from which to express a dialogue with the world. [15]

[15] On this subject see also García, 2000.

About the translators

Gloria E. Chacón is Associate Professor in the Literature Department at UCSD. Both her research and teaching focus on indigenous literatures, autonomy, and philosophy. She is the author of Indigenous Cosmolectics: Kab’awil and the Making of Maya and Zapotec Literatures (2018). She is currently working on her second book tentatively titled Metamestizaje, Indigeneity, and Diasporas: Challenging Cartographies. She is co-editor of Indigenous Interfaces: Spaces, Technology, and Social Networks in Mexico and Central America by Arizona Press (2019). She is also co-editing an anthology Teaching Central American Literature in a Global Context for MLA’s Teaching Options Series. Chacón’s work has appeared in anthologies and journals in Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, and the USA. She has co-edited a special issue on indigenous literature for DePaul’s University academic journal, Diálogo.

Juan G. Sánchez Martínez is originally from Bakatá (the Colombian Andes). He is the author of Memoria e invención en la poesía de Humberto Ak’abal (Abya-Yala, 2011) He is co-editor of several collaborative projects dedicated to Abya-Yala’s literatures: Arte, Literatura y Cine Indígena Frente al Extractivismo en Latinoamérica (Diálogo 22.1), The Five Cardinal Points in Contemporary Indigenous Literatures (Diálogo 19.1), K’obéen. Indigenous subjectivities in Latin American Literatures (RCEH 39.1), Indigenous Message on Water (IWFWP, 2014), and Poetics and Politics of Indigenous Americas (Cuadernos de Literatura 22). In 2016 he won the National Prize for Literature in Colombia, awarded by the University of Antioquia, with his book Altamar. He is Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville, where he works in the Department of Languages ​​and Literatures, and collaborates with the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program.