This municipality of Maya heritage, which is located 140 km northwest of Guatemala city, is home to what is said to be the most colourful native market in Central America. A majestic display of colours, fabrics and textures, typical of ancient cultural syncretism.
In the 16th century, Dominican monks built a stucco-white church, with wood altarpieces and a colonial cupola in the heart of the Mayan world. The Santo Tomas church is situated next to the Chichicastenango market. Each of the 18 steps that lead up to the building stands for one month of the lunar calendar, and they originally led to an indigenous temple, when Chichicastenango was called Chiavar.
The descendants of the K’iche’ Maya still use the church for their religious rituals which are mixed with Catholic ceremonies. Foreigners who want to visit the church, which shamans still use for their own rituals, burning incense, and where locals bring corn or beans as an offering to the saints or spirits of the ancestors, must enter through the side door, since entrance through the main door is forbidden.
The Santo Tomas church is also revered because, for more than three centuries, the Popol Vuh, was kept hidden in its library. The manuscript is the Mayan account of the creation of the universe and mankind as well as the history of traditions and beliefs of the K’iche’ ethnic group, who today constitute the majority of the population in the country.
Later, this sacred book to Maya was taken to the Newberry Library in Chicago, but its history is indissolubly linked to the church in the municipality of Chichicastenango where apparently, a Christianized native priest translated a hieroglyphic version of the Popol Vuh into his native language of Quiché in order to rescue the traditions of his people.
On Thursdays and Sundays, the market days, the staircase of the pre-Hispanic temple becomes a showcase of flowers to be sold. Vendors, who set up portable booths around the church, also sell grain, fruit, vegetables, clothes, plants, masks, handbags, belts and all kinds of multicoloured handicrafts.
The place becomes a melting pot of colours, dialects and costumes, smoke and smells. People can find tortillas, black beans, fried chicken, and the famous pulique, a typical soup made with beef, chili and local vegetables at the food stalls. The items at this colourful market are a mix of tradition and modernity; the local arts and crafts consisting of masks, costumes, textiles and objects of wood and clay which have been produced since pre-Hispanic and colonial times, are sold, nowadays, along with cell phones, radios, jeans, and many other products from Chinese factories. The indigenous products sold at Chichicastenango market are destined for tourists and China but thanks to their low cost, also the locals, mainly the Guatemalan women, can buy the colourful textiles and traditional clothes.
In pre-Hispanic times, the Maya wore tunics made of the light brown cotton called ‘cuyuxcate’. The only loom used in that period was the backstrap loom. The Maya coloured their tunics with colours extracted from cochineal, seashells, or tree bark, and then they decorated them with feathers and stones according to their social status. Women, on occasion of ceremonies, wore the huipiles, elaborate dresses reserved for weddings, burials and other important events.
The use of costumes became widespread after the arrival of the Spaniards, who introduced the European foot pedal loom, along with silk and wool. The different indigenous communities created their identity also through their different costumes. They developed a vast repertoire of decorative forms that could show geometric pattern or mythical, geographic and animal images which represented the vision of the world, the relationship with nature, the sun, stars or rites and legends peculiar to each ethnic group. The indigenous now wear mainly machine-made costumes, and synthetic fibers, such as rayon and sedalina, a lining fabric made of silk and cotton, have been added to the traditional materials. Urbanization brought changes to clothing traditions, especially among men, who by working outside their homes, were more exposed to the Western influence.
Today, locals buy jeans, t-shirts and caps which are more economic than the elaborate traditional clothes. However, in Chichicastenango, indigenous clothing remains the pride of the local women. Their daily dress consists of the tzute, a two-panel head handkerchief; the huipil, a blouse with mythical or floral motifs made on a back-strap loom; and the refajo, a skirt which is wound around the women’s waist and is held up by a colorful scarf, or plegada, which is double-stitched on the uppermost part.
The refajo also identifies women’s social status, by showing an embroidered cross in the side of the skirt for single women and a cross at the centre for married women. For centuries, fabrics in coffee and purple colours have referred to nobility among these communities. Today, the mixture with red, yellow and fluorescent colours shows the modernity of an ancient indigenous art.