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ETHNONYMS: Aguacateco, Aguateca, Awaketeco, Balamiha


Identification. The Awakateko are an indigenous Mayan ethnic group residing in the municipio of Aguacatan in the northwestern highlands of Guatemala.

Location. The traditional home of the Awakateko is the southeastern corner of the base of the Cuchumatan Mountains, a volcanic range parallel to the Guatemalan coast, in a lush valley along the Río Buca. The township of Aguacatan is located in the department of Huehuetenango. Elevations range from 1,500 to 3,000 meters, and the annual precipitation averages from 80 to 100 centimeters. Conditions in northern Aguacatan extending into the high Cuchumatans are humid, whereas in the south, conditions are subhumid. Aguacatan falls into an ecological zone known as the Intermediate Highlands, which is characterized by areas that range from wet to dry; it is heavily forested with pines and oaks at the lower elevations, rain forest at the higher.

Demography. Extending over about 300 square kilometers, Aguacatan, the fifth-largest municipio in Guatemala, is divided into twenty-six aldeas (hamlets). Rural Indians constitute 87 percent of the population and Spanish-speaking non-Indians the other 13 percent. Four distinctive ethnic groupsthe Awakateko Easterners, the Awakateko Westerners, the Ladinos, and the K'iche'make up 99 percent of the population of Aguacatan. Both the Easterners and the Westerners are found in southern Aguacatan; the K'iche' live in the north, and the Ladinos populate towns and hamlets that adjoin the other groups. A census conducted in 1973 of individual ethnic groups indicated that, of the 2,964 households that were interviewed, 41 percent were Easterners, 31 percent K'iche', 14 percent Westerners, and 13 percent Ladinos; an additional 1 percent were Mam Indians (Brintnall 1979).

Linguistic Affiliation. The four distinctive ethnic groups speak four distinctive languages: the Ladinos speak Spanish, the K'iche' speak the K'iche' language, and the Easterners and Westerners use different dialects of Aguacateca, collectively called kayol. Differences in grammar and vocabulary linguistically fragment each ethnic group.

History and Cultural Relations

The Maya civilization flourished in the lowlands of the Petén and the Yucatán during the first millennium. Famous for their ceremonial centers and hieroglyphic system, the Mayan civilization collapsed mysteriously and suddenly. At the time of the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century, the Classic Maya had passed their peak, and Maya had settled in the municipio of Aguacatan in the western Guatemalan highlands. The Awakateko were subjugated by a rising elite class of Ladinos, which exerted political, economic, and cultural domination over the Indians and treated them as a lower class in a social structure similar to a caste system.

This system was perpetuated into the first half of the twentieth century. The Ladinos formed a local government headed by an intendente, who had dictatorial power over the Indians. Traditional Aguacatan began to dissolve in 1944, when a general strike forced the dictator Jorge Ubico to resign, and an effort to reinstate the military dictatorship failed. Political parties were formed, and a new constitution was drafted. Repressive national labor laws and the intendente system, according to which local government officials carried out the direct orders of Ubico, were scrapped. Between 1954 and 1964, the civil-religious hierarchy system collapsed. A shift of power from the elders to a younger group allowed the younger Awakateko to assert leadership, gain independence from the Ladinos, and develop pride in their communities. After the 1968 election of a Ladino alcalde, the Eastern Indians took control of the local Christian Democratic party. Gonzolo Raymundo, named as the Indian party's candidate, took office in 1970 as head of the local Aguacatan government and swept out the Ladinos. Tensions mounted in Aguacatan as the federal government suspended the constitution and took power away from the Indians and gave it to Ladino officials. In 1971 the Guatemalan military sent troops to Aguacatan because of an Indian uprising protesting Ladino intervention. Arrests and imprisonment of the Indians continued for a week. Ladinos continued to occupy government positions until the 1974 election, when a higher voter turnout resulted in a victory for the Indian Christian Democratic party. A Peasant League united the four ethnic groups, addressed issues, and gained political force within the Community. In 1974 a Western Awakateko candidate from the National Liberation party eventually became the alcalde of Aguacatan after a fraudulent negation of election results at the national level.


Awakateko settlements have focused on open central plazas, where trade and exchange take place. The pueblo of Aguacatan consists of houses scattered around agricultural plots, as well as houses in and around the central town. The Aguacatan market is the center for socializing and a place for local merchants to gather on weekends, especially Sundays.

Awakateko farmers live in family homesteads located in the countryside on less than two hectares of land. A typical homestead has a rectangular, one-roomed dwelling of adobe (mud brick) with an orange-tiled roof. Characteristic of Aguacatan houses are the long, extended porches where the family gathers and women weave. Almost all the homes are devoid of furniture, with the exception of a bed constructed of planks. A chuj (sauna), where the Awakateko bathe, is located near the house.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. As a laborintensive society, the Awakateko practice subsistence agriculture and livestock raising, employing the use of the hoe, plow, draft animals, irrigation, and the digging stick. Sheep and goats are utilized for organic fertilizer and wool. Small livestock consists of chickens, turkeys, pigs, and goats. Cows and horses are draft animals. The diet is based on maize, the most important staple food. Maize tortillas, atole (maize gruel), and tamales are just a few examples of foods made with maize. As a source of protein, the Awakateko most commonly consume pork and poultry.

Different varieties of vegetables and fruitssuch as squashes, beans, bananas, and mangoescontribute to the diet. Coffee plantations in the coastal lands have had a great impact on the economy. Coffee emerged in the late nineteenth century as the major national export crop, and, as a result, the population and coffee production grew hand in hand. Through coerced labor operating under strict national labor laws enforced by the Ladino government, and through seasonal migration, the Indians were taken away from their own subsistence plots, resulting in a cycle of low yields and debt. The cash cropping of garlic and onions, the irrigation of new lands, and the abolition of forced labor on the coffee plantations allowed local native farming to become productive. With the profits from irrigated agriculture, Indians were able to buy back land from Ladinos and irrigate more of it.

Industrial Arts. The Awakateko create original handwoven clothing, pottery, and embroidery work, for which there is a large market in the United States. Intricately designed sashes and skirts are also produced.

Trade. Most Awakateko trade takes place in the market held in the central plaza of the pueblo. Here, numerous buyers and sellers, mainly women, exchange eggs, fruit, and vegetables for baskets, pottery, and clothes in the center of the plaza, while the men remain on the outside, bartering for potatoes, maize, beans, and animals.

Division of Labor. Cooking, washing, tending the animals, caring for the children, and collecting firewood are all responsibilities of Awakateko women. Children are taught skills by sharing the duties of the household, daughters helping their mothers and sons helping their fathers. Farming and raising cattle and horses are male activities, although in times of need, women work beside the men in the fields. Traditionally, men have played the dominant roles in Awakateko society.

Land Tenure. Land is kept within the family and passed on patrilineally. Those Awakateko possessing 30 cuerdas (57 hectares) are considered extremely wealthy. Aguacatan males who do not own their own land must rent it, work as laborers, or live with their fathers-in-law, which is looked upon by other Indians as a sign of poverty.


Kin Groups and Descent. About two-thirds of Awakateko households are nuclear, and one-third are extended. The most common extended family is formed by incorporating married sons.

Kinship Terminology. Awakateko kinship terminology is bilateral. Cousins all have the same term of reference and are not equated with siblings. Children of cousins are referred to by the same name as the cousins (wajwutz ). Terms of reference for brothers depend on the sex of the speaker and recognize relative age. Nephews and nieces are referred to by the same term.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous. Young men of 15 begin to save money; girls of 15 prepare for courtship by taking interest in their appearance. Either personally or through a representative, an Aguacatan boy will approach the female he admires. Negotiations begin between the two families, with the future bride's father setting a bride-price. Sometimes the price is too high, and the couple runs off together. Under patrilineal rules, a girl must convert her religious beliefs to conform with those of her husband. The marriage ceremony involves family, friends, and shamans: it is called quicyuj, meaning "cacao beans" which in ancient times were used as money for the payment of the bride-price. The heavy influence of missionary activity has emphasized church and civil ceremonies. After the marriage, the bride lives with her parents and receives nightly visits from her husband. In two to three weeks, the couple moves to the husband's household. Sons live on or near their parents' land, whereas daughters always leave their parental homes. Fidelity is highly valued, and divorce is not common, for it is said that unfaithfulness angers the dead. Mixed marriages with other ethnic groups are sensitive.

Domestic Unit. The two basic domestic units in Awakateko society are nuclear and extended families. The most common is the nuclear family consisting of a father, mother, and two or three children. A few family-based households include widowed or divorced parents. Households that are not nuclear or extended are mostly centered on womenwidows or divorcées living alone or with their children. Men almost never live apart from women.

Inheritance. Land is inherited patrilineally by male children through a patrilocal-residence pattern. Inherited land is classified by soil quality, irrigability, rockiness, etc., and inheritance can be a difficult decision for the father. At times, wives will create animosity among the brothers over the inheritance. Through gradual installments over a period of time, the father will issue the land to his sons, retaining his power and role as the patriarch.

Socialization. Children are raised to perform adult tasks and to help with feeding the animals and other farming tasks. Fathers take control over their sons, and mothers, over their daughters. Obedience and respect are instilled at a very early age, but threats of physical punishment are not employed.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Prior to 1964, each ethnic group had its own political organization, based on a civil-religious hierarchy that supported the power of the elderly. A group of male elders were leaders of all the people. Age-graded positions in Awakateko society were like a ladder upon which the younger males ascended toward a higher level of respect, honor, and authority. A range of age barriers controlled the passing from one political rank to another, enabling the Awakateko male society to postpone the transfer of political power to younger males. The duties of the elders included organizing fiestas and supplying the shamans with goods, food, and services.

After the civil-religious hierarchies lost their power in the early 1960s, national political institutions became the focus of local politics. At first, Ladinos dominated the local political parties and won the elections, but Indians began to wrest control from the Ladino minority. Indian-controlled local wings of national political parties became the important organizers of political power in the municipio in the 1970s. Mild Easterner-Westerner ethnic opposition has emerged in this context.

Social Control and Conflict. Language and isolation are utilized by the Ladinos as a means of controlling the Indian groups. Within the Awakateko groups, authority and punishment are exercised by the elders and shamans of the community.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Present Awakateko religion is a mix of Catholicism, Protestant religions, native elements, and ancestor worship. In addition, there are many gods representing natural features, such as mountains and springs, that are sites for their supernatural owners. Celestial bodies are gods in themselves. Traditional (but disappearing) ancestor worship (the cult of the dead) acknowledges power beyond the grave. Deceased parents and grandparents continue to play an active part in the lives of the living, helping when the Awakateko have resided harmoniously and punishing when animosity and jealousy occur. The dead communicate with the living through the divination of shamans and through daily natural occurrences that are taken as messages from the dead. The dead influence Awakateko public ritual life. When an Awakateko is mistreated by another, a shaman is hired to contact the dead ancestor of the offended individual and to file a complaint. The dead elders send a close dead relative of a wrongdoer to a "jail." The jailed, suffering ancestor then sends a mantar (punishment) to the living wrongdoer. To rid themselves of this punishment, the Awakateko call upon a shaman to free the ancestor by paying fines to the ancestor elders.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans lead both magical and public rituals (costumbres ). They question the dead ancestors and relay the conversations back to the families. Spiritual cleansing is achieved by scattering beans on the ground and picking them up while reciting the days of the week from the ancient Mayan calendar. Mediums are also involved in conversations with the dead.

Ceremonies. Prior to 1960, regular festivals called k'ej (fiestas) lasted seven days and involved parades, music, dancing, and much drinking. During these festivals, shamans performed ceremonies and rites. There were three ritual-dance groupstwo Eastern (Tz'Unum and Muztec) and one Western (Moros). Dance obligations were inherited from father to son and from mother to daughter; minor rituals were the duties of certain families.

Medicine. In the traditional religion, dead ancestors play a prominent role in illness and curing. The dead may heal through shamanic intervention. Shamans are hired to call upon the dead for spiritual consultation, healing, and advice. Morality is mixed with medicine in Awakateko society. Wellness or health may depend upon the actions and behavior of the individual.

Death and Afterlife. The Awakateko do not conceive of the afterlife as a heaven or a hell, but a place where the dead ancestors reside and are active in the lives of the living. The afterlife once had such a strong hold on the people that their daily lives were consumed by ancestor worship.

Religious Change. The traditional Awakateko practice of ancestor worship was supplanted by new religions in the 1950s, when Protestant and Catholic missionaries came to Aguacatan and offered the Indians a secularized alternative to their religious system. As a result, the Eastern Indians were the first to abandon the political-ritual system; the Westerners followed suit shortly thereafter. Missionary involvement drastically changed Awakateko society. Young Indians who based their prestige on the new religious organizations emerged as the new community leaders. Internal unity in each ethnic group was destroyed, as some were converted and others retained the traditionalist practice.


Brintnall, Douglas E. (1979). Revolt against the Dead: The Modernization of a Mayan Community in the Highlands of Guatemala. New York: Gordon & Breach.