Preserving Cultural Tradition: San Juan La Laguna

Arriving in San Juan La Laguna on Thursday night, we found our hotel, a lovely eco-lodge by the name of MayaChik, and settled in.  With no wifi, a compost toilet, and crickets chirping outside our bungalow, the feelings were equal parts earthy crunchy and tranquil.

Waking early the next morning to a few (literally) roosters crowing, we enjoyed breakfast in MayaChik’s vegetarian restaurant and ventured off for the day, meeting my friend Danielle near the library in the central part of town.

San Juan is a small community on the southwest edge of Lake Atitlán, and of the approximate 6,000 residents, about 95% are Tz'utujil, one of the 21 Mayan ethnic groups in Guatemala.  The town is small and quiet, and the (perhaps sometime overlooked) neighbor to San Pedro, a larger town notorious for partying and illicit drugs. In contrast, San Juan is doing a number of things to facilitate tourism in a way that is positive to their community and preserves their culture and traditions.

Noting our mission and the objectives for this trip, we opted to stay in San Juan La Laguna for the majority of our stay here in Guatemala so as to observe the beautiful cultural preservation in practice, and in our time here, we have seen so much!

After finding Danielle, we ventured into the local library, meeting a young woman who warmly invites us in to show us the space. Her smile is wide as she talks, humbly boasting about the ways the library works to facilitate education, not just for literacy but also for cultural preservation as well. There are weaving classes for youngsters, as well as painting classes in the typical San Juan style. Even more, the library teaches children about food preparation and cooking classes. We learn about the traditional metate used to grind corn and coffee. There are also field trips arranged by the library to give children unique experiences with nature and culture outside within and outside the town.

While most children are on summer break, I noticed a few kids huddled closely around a row of computers in the corner of the large room. We learn that they have educational games on the library computers; with one that is especially popular that allows students to build virtual homes and communities.  Seeing them all clustered together brings to mind my own memories of many a summer afternoon spent in the library, my nose in a book or new computer game.

In fact, just being in this space brings to mind so many universals. I notice the main table is scratched with etchings of “Te Amo, Felipe” (etc.), the names of a crush or a secret carved into this shared space.  Books are everywhere, and color-coded by reading level and the open space gathers community in a humble and welcoming way. Just like home.

Leaving the library, we walk for a bit up and down the steep streets. Dani takes us to La Voz, an organic coffee cooperative on the edge of town. The entrance of La Voz is sectioned off into containers for green coffee beans, drying heartily in the sun. It is coffee harvest season now, and we are lucky to see this miracle in action. The majority of the San Juan population is involved in some sort of agriculture, mostly coffee and corn. Ordering iced coffee—a refreshing treat—we chat with Danielle about the area, her experience here, and the work she is involved in.

Post coffee we mosey to Gloria’s (Café Atitlán) near the docks for pizza, stopping on the way for some coconut water served directly from a freshly chopped coconut. Moseying seems to be the best verb to describe the style of San Juan. While not slow, it has an air of calm and reflectiveness that follows you—it’s hard to go fast here. The pizza is wonderful—and conversation even better—as we learn more about Danielle’s work, and are joined by two other new friends, Libby and Andrew. Libby works for Odim, and Andrew for Solcom (more on these later!), and it’s inspiring to be around so many people who are so focused on work within the social sector.

Gloria also happens to be a tremendous painter (woman of many talents I’d say) and owns an art gallery next door. After lunch, we stop inside and admire her work. The gallery is filled to the brim with paintings both large and small, and all in the traditional oil painting style. Gloria has been painting since the age of 15. Her smile is warm and genuine and she discusses the ways this art has not only allowed her financial success and the ability to support her family, but has also enabled her to preserve a cultural tradition that has been passed down through her family (and many other families in this area) for generations.

Stories, legends, and history are ever-present themes in the paintings of San Juan la Laguna. This painting style is deeply embedded in the visual landscape of San Juan, depicting colorful landscapes and magical realistic scenes that reflect the natural beauty of the surrounding areas and also the desires and wishes of the community. Murals—old and new—brighten the adobe walls of shops and homes. They add a color and life to a rustic and earthy geography.

As we head further along the main road toward the water, we notice more and more artisan shops selling high-quality artisan wares. We stop in one, selling mostly textiles, and meet the bubbly Ingrid who shares with us the traditional indigenous Mayan stories woven delicately throughout her textiles and textile products. They are reflections of love, of God, of family, of food, themes that are so universal—I am finding—across cultures and traditions.  

A short walk away from the lake, we stop in two weaving cooperatives. They are operated individually by two sisters, Amalia and Rosa. Amalia’s skill lies primarily in natural dyes, yet she is also an incredible weaver and designer. Rosa’s focus is still on the cultivation of natural dyes, yet her talents lean more toward weaving. They harvest plants from the lake such as coconut shell, saca tinta, pepper, and avocado.

Amalia tells us of what it means for a woman in this community to be an artist, to sell her product, and be able to independently provide for her family. She comments on the cultural shift of the community as the cooperative model began in San Juan La Laguna. She says that while at first some husbands of women in the cooperative were very suspicious (and some still are), there has been a positive change in their view and they value the women’s talents and see them as instrumental in the economic stability of the home.

Amalia also notes that it is especially good for the young girls to see their mothers weaving as it teaches the value of hard work and supporting oneself and family within a larger community. What is also important? The themes of inspiration and hope. She comments that when women within the cooperative feel inspired, they do their best work. Doing their best work and achieving financial success gives them hope, which has a ripple effect throughout their family and community.

Saturday morning we head again to the biblioteca and main town square, to share in a local festival. There are games and activities for the children and tons of traditional foods and drinks on sale. Locals are gathered to share in the fun and most importantly, to hear the judge’s critiques of a local cooking competition. Evelyn, the owner of our hotel is participating. Her entry? A Guatemalan take on the key-lime pie with a peanut and sugar cane crust and an avocado-lime meringue. Wishing I wasn’t allergic to peanuts in this moment.

These are only short reflections on our time here in San Juan, and we are excited to go further in depth on what makes this town so unique and reflective of our own interests and aims for this blog. Look for upcoming posts on our time spent with Amalia and her artisan weaving cooperative, our visit with Libby at Odim (a healthcare clinic), our learnings about the amazing combination of ecological preservation and community-building of our new friend Evelyn at MayaChik, and a restaurant and community center—Alma de Colores—that works to provide education and jobs to people in the community with disabilities.

We love you, San Juan la Laguna!