June 19, 2016
SOLOLÁ, GUATEMALA – Five women sit on mats on the floor, each holding a musical instrument. They begin to play a melody.
It’s now time for Clara Alicia Sen Sipac to take the lead. The 37-year-old closes her eyes, takes a breath and sends air whooshing through the body of her flute.
The instruments that accompany the women are the flute, cymbals, a drum and a tun, a Mesoamerican percussion instrument. The women say those sounds are inspired by the songs of a grandmother, the wind, the laughter of children and of a mother preparing tortillas.
In Kaqchikel, an indigenous language commonly spoken in the area, someone sings, “Na nataj chin mata mestaj.” In English, the song means, “Remember to forget.”
These five women comprise Ajchowen, a group that uses theater to bring awareness to indigenous and gender issues in Guatemala, says Sen Sipac, the group’s founder.
The group formed in 2012, two years after Sen Sipac’s husband, Lisandro Guarcax, died. Sen Sipac says he was murdered, but she doesn’t know any details. He was the leader and founder of his own artistic group, Grupo Sotz’il, which inspired Sen Sipac to create her own, says the mother of two.
Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala
“I was left with many things in [me], many wounds, many feelings,” Sen Sipac says. “And doing theater, for me, is like a relief to be able to say what I think, what I feel.”
Ajchowen, which is a Kaqchikel word for artist, performs theatrical shows, which the group writes together, that include music and drama to create public conversations around controversial or personal issues for indigenous women and the community, Sen Sipac says.
Ajchowen’s first play, Ixkik, premiered at a local cultural center in 2012, Sen Sipac says. The play, which revolves around the life of one woman, addresses issues including gender violence and femicide.
The goal is to motivate women in the community to assert their rights, Sen Sipac says.
Denilson Yaxón, a 15-year-old student, saw the play at her school, Instituto Abraham Lincoln, Sololá.
“It left me a message about the good and the bad, what we keep quiet and face every day,” Yaxón says. “We have other issues around such as vices, drugs, gangs and no one says anything about it. And performing arts are a way to be able to talk about it.”
It was a surprise, she says, to see women acting. That’s something she says she’s never seen before.
In this southwestern region of Guatemala, traditional indigenous culture expects women to be at home and nowhere else, Sen Sipac says. She and her companions want to challenge that tradition and inspire others.
The work is difficult, Sen Sipac says. In Guatemala’s Sololá municipality, where they live, women are often told that they shouldn’t leave the house at night. But Ajchowen usually practices are night. It’s a challenge to attract new members, Sen Sipac says.
“The discipline is pretty tough, and that complicates the women’s participation,” Sen Sipac says.
Sen Sipac says she feels the community doesn’t understand what the group is doing. It’s not common for women to participate in a performance art, she says, so people don’t value what they do.
For example, religion plays a strong role in Sololá, she says, and religious people struggle to understand Ajchowen’s work.
Sen Sipac says people have told her and other group members that they participate in things of the “world.” That’s one way to refer to sin, she says.
“They tell us that what we are doing isn’t in accordance with what we should be doing as women,” Sen Sipac says. “They think that what we are doing is wrong, of the devil.”
Estela Pablo has heard of Ajchowen, but has never attended a performance, says the 63-year-old resident of Sololá municipality. She recognizes what they do is unique, especially because they are women.
But, she says, the members of Ajchowen should be ashamed of what they do. The community doesn’t value women in art, she adds, and most husbands don’t allow women to participate in such activities anyhow.
“It would make me feel embarrassed to participate,” Pablo says. “They really don’t feel embarrassed.”
Many people in the community don’t believe women should express themselves freely, Sen Sipac says, adding that she feels a responsibility to change this way of thinking.
Ajchowen’s work has immediate and powerful impact, says Magdalena Morales, a sociologist, who attended a performance of Ixkik in Guatemala City, the country’s capital. The group’s art makes Mayan women visible and neutralizes the notion that Mayan women were only born to be mothers or wives, or, if they work, that they must make tortillas or be washwomen, she says.
Morales researches performing arts culture at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala City.
“Being indigenous women in acting, they show women as warriors, fighters, all strong or contrary to how they paint them as submissive women, questioning in this way the stereotype and prejudice that exists about Mayan women,” Morales says.
Ajchowen may be the only group of its kind in Sololá, Morales says. She hasn’t found any others like it in her research.
Graciela Maribel Coz Cuy has been a member of Ajchowen for just a few months. The 19-year-old says she likes to participate because the performances are in Kaqchikel and the group members dress in their indigenous attire. It’s a way to preserve traditional culture, she says.
At the same time, Coz says, Ajchowen gives women a chance to do something unusual.
“I want to be an example for other women,” she says.
Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal, GPJ, contributed reporting. Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.