Q&A with Maya Market Women author S. Ashley Kistler

S. Ashley Kistler is an assistant professor of anthropology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Rollins College. In her new book Maya Market Women: Power and Tradition in San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala, Kistler presents a study of resilient Q’eqchi’-Maya vendors who use capitalism to preserve their traditional cultural identities.

Q: What status do Chamelco’s women marketer’s receive in their community and why?

S. Ashley Kistler: Chamelco’s market women achieve high status primarily through their work in the market.  As a result, they live very different lives from those of the region’s other indigenous women who have low status. Through their constant presence in the marketplace, Chamelco’s women become the town’s most powerful leaders, dominating various social domains, from religious brotherhoods and ritual events to local politics. Because Chamelqueños identify marketing as an ancient occupation that connects the community to its historical legacy, market women gain status as mediators of two, sometimes conflicting, cultural realities: the Maya past and the globalizing present. As cultural mediators, market women offer a model of contemporary Q’eqchi’ identity grounded in the strength of the Maya historical legacy.

The high status that women garner through marketing also in part stems from their role as moral exemplars. The compassion, hard-working nature, and intelligence that the women demonstrate in interactions with customers gives them great recognition in the community as individuals worthy of emulation. As a result they generate Q’eqchi’ value and become a model of Q’eqchi’ identity for those who frequent the market.

Q: In your book you say that the Chamelqueños identify marketing as an “ancient occupation that connects the community to its historical legacy.” How do market women act as mediators between the Maya past and rapid globalization?

Kistler: Today, Chamelco’s indigenous residents strive to achieve continuity with their ancestors to re-define parts of their identity lost during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war. For many Chamelqueños, the market presents a particularly viable way to connect with the past. Chamelco’s Mercado Municipal, ‘Municipal Market’, has been the town’s primary center of commerce for nearly 100 years. Many community residents told me that their ancestors had been involved in exchange, both local and long distance, since the Pre-Columbian era. As a result, Chamelqueños view marketing as the town’s most ancient occupation and an important part of the town’s cultural identity. While today’s market women use modern technologies (like cell phones, calculators, vehicles, etc.) to assist them with their sales and sell a variety of packaged goods produced by large, multi-national corporations and bought through global capitalist exchange, they connect those who shop in the market to a small piece of their past by continuing the work of their most ancient ancestors. In doing so, they remind customers about Chamelco’s strong and longstanding history. By embracing global capitalism while perpetuating their ancestors’ legacies in the market, Chamelco’s vendors act as mediators between their past and present cultural realities.

Q: What changing social circumstances currently challenge Maya identity today and how are Chamelco’s market women working to combat those changes?

Kistler: Historically, many factors have challenged Maya identity in Guatemala during the last 500 years. Following the sixteenth century Spanish invasion, the Q’eqchi’ were forced to accept new religions and a new way of life under Spanish colonial rule. More recently, however, Guatemala’s indigenous population has faced a new set of challenges. From 1960-1996, a brutal and bloody civil war targeted the Maya for public displays of indigenousness, among other reasons. One outcome of the civil war was that the government alienated the Maya from learning about their history and understanding their culture. The civil war had a devastating toll on the Maya as communities lost their ability to practice their culture freely and to maintain their connections to the traditions of their ancestors. Since the civil war ended in 1996, many Maya have sought ways to reconnect with their history and learn about their past.

However, changing circumstances in the country today present yet another set of challenges for Chamelqueños. Among other changes are the introduction of Evangelical religions, which require members to abandon indigenous practice, and Chamelco’s integration into global capitalism, which has shifted the community from a subsistence-based economy to a capitalist one. While these new introductions bring significant changes to Q’eqchi’ life, market women work to keep the community connected to its indigenous roots through their work as marketers and through the moral examples they set in the market. By embodying the characteristics that ground Q’eqchi’ identity through their work in the market, they remind everyone about what it means to be Q’eqchi’. Also, since marketing is an ancient occupation, they provide a forum through the community at large can connect to the past despite the changes going on around them.

Q: What are some examples of the interplay between the Q’eqchi’ house and the marketplace.

Kistler: During my first fieldwork in Chamelco in 2004, I often worked with market women in their stalls, learning to sort produce, sell meat, and weigh and package dry goods. My initial attempts at sales, however, were unsuccessful, as customers would not buy products from me since they were puzzled by my presence in the market. As time went on, and I became more integrated into community life, and some market women began to identify me as kin, I achieved greater success in the market. Many women left me in charge of their stalls during absences in the market and customers readily bought from me. My newfound success came from the fact that since some market women had begun to identify me as kin, my membership in their families legitimized my place in the market.  This experience made clear to me the significant interplay between the local kinship category of the junkab’al, ‘house,’ and Chamelco’s market.

In Chamelco, marketing is an occupation that passes down from family member to family member. One becomes a marketer because her grandmother, mother, or other female kin was also a marketer, and taught her the skills necessary to succeed in the market. Women express their desire to leave their market stalls to female family members so that they “won’t be forgotten” by future generations. They want to make sure that their hard work in the market, as well as the legacies of the women who bequeathed them their stalls, persist once they are gone. Choosing market heirs from among their families allows women to achieve immortality as a part of the continuing narrative of market life.

Because market positions are passed down in Q’eqchi’ families, they become an important part of family identities. The social status women accrue through marketing extends to their families as well. This phenomenon is another reason why market women want to bequeath market stalls to family members, to guarantee their families’ high status social identities in the future.

Many Q’eqchi’ families define relatedness not only through biological descent, but also through social ties, like adoption, godparenthood, employment, or sometimes, friendship.  Each junkab’al, which translates literally from Q’eqchi’ as ‘one home,’ is made up of a number of individuals who share a residence and are related to one another through a variety of means. When biological daughters cannot or do not want to work with their mothers in the market, vendors turn to other junkab’al members to serve as their market heirs. As family, these individuals work to maintain market women’s legacies in the market and the status of the family.

Another way that the house and the market intersect is that Chamelco women bring new individuals into their families through marketing. Some vendors hire employees to assist them with their businesses. Because of the proximity of their homes to the market, some employees move in with market women and their families. By living and working with market women and their families, they share life experiences and develop affection and solidarity. Over time, they become a part of the Q’eqchi’ house as a result.  In some cases, they become heirs to women’s market positions. These are just a few of many examples of the interplay between the house and market in Chamelco.

Q: How do market vendors reinforce the high social status their position gives them in avenues outside of the marketplace?

Kistler: While women create high status identities in the market, they reinforce their status as community leaders in various domains outside of the market, including getting involved in local and national politics, participating in ritual organizations, assuming leadership positions in churches, and becoming godparents. In life, market women are invited to participate in prestigious domains because of recognition they earn through their work in the market and because of their role as moral exemplars. Because participation in these domains is also prestigious, it further enhances women’s status and adds to the recognition they receive from the community.


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