views updated


ETHNONYMS: ajNenton, ajSan Matéyo, ajSan Sabastyán


Identification. The Chuj are a Mayan people living in northwestern Guatemala, in the department of Huehuetenango. They prefer and use names based on the name of their municipality: "ajSan Matéyo" (San Mateo Ixtatán), "ajSan Sabastyán" (San Sebastián Coatán), "ajNenton" (Nentón). In 1993 the Chuj Committee of the National Academy of the Mayan Languages of Guatemala was established and began looking for a new name. The term "Chuj," in folk tradition, was first applied to the group by the Spanish on the advice of Tzeltal conscripts for whom "chuj " meant capixay, the loose wool overgarment worn by Chuj men. In modern Tzeltal, "chuj" refers to brightly printed cotton cloth. In Chuj, "chuj" means "sweat bath."

Location. The municipalities of San Mateo Ixtatán and San Sebastián Coatán, which straddle the backbone of the Cuchumatán Mountains, are Chuj. Nentón, which is the coffee-planting piedmont area of Guatemala, is about one-third Chuj. Some Chuj also live in neighboring areas of Mexico. Political violence in Guatemala, particularly during the early 1980s, forced many Chuj to abandon town centers and established villages and to live in isolation in mountainous holds or leave the country altogether. The Chuj population of Los Angeles now rivals that of San Sebastián.

Demography. The population of San Mateo Ixtatán is about 16,000; that of San Sebastián Coatán is about 9,000; and the Chuj-speaking inhabitants of Nentón number nearly 4,000. Counts of the Chuj population in Los Angeles are hampered by their irregular immigration status.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chuj is a Mayan language of the Q'anjob'alan Branch. It is most closely related to Tojolab'al, spoken in Mexico. These two languages constitute the Chujean Subgroup of the Q'anjob'alan Branch. Most Chuj men are multilingual. Almost all are bilingual in Spanish and Chuj; many can carry on basic commercial transactions and conversations in Q'anjob'al and make some further adjustments for interacting with Jakalteko as well. Since about the 1970s, Chuj women have been bilingual in Spanish and Chuj.

History and Cultural Relations

The Chuj in Guatemala have occupied their territory for millennia. According to the ethnolinguistic and glottochronological calculations of Kaufman (1976) and McQuown (1971), the Chuj occupy an area that is roughly that of the Proto-Maya language homeland. The Chuj have lived in northwestern Guatemala since Proto-Maya began its differentiation into modern Mayan languages about four thousand years ago.


Modern San Mateo Ixtatán is superimposed on pre-Columbian mounds and plazas. The structure immediately underlying the modern town dates from the Late Classic period (a.d. 600-900). A major "temple" complex and platform/courtyard lie below the city, which sits astride a rich salt deposit. Chuj salt was traded north through Tzeltal and Tzotzil regions of Mexico. The salt dome is accessible through a series of four wells. During the period of civil strife called the violencia (ca. 1979-1982), Guatemalan troops cut forests along the roadways; the deforestation lowered the water table to such a degree that only a single salt well remains in full production. A large temple mound overlooks the main well.

In the pre-Hispanic period, San Sebastián Coatán was a focal point of trade and ritual pilgrimages centering on its natural features, particularly its springs. According to local belief, Saint Sebastian and Saint Michael were walking the hills of the area, looking for a place to settle and to form towns for their followers. Saint Sebastian found a mountain ledge that he liked and called to Saint Michael, in Chuj, "Kotanh!" (come here!). But Saint Michael had also found a place that he liked; so he replied in Akateko/Q'anjob'al, "Aa Katan!" (oh, come here!). Eventually, each saint settled, with his following, on opposite sides of a ravine. The people in San Miguel Acatán share this traditional history.

The place names "Coatán" and "Acatán" are Nahuatl terms. "Coatán" (from coa:, "snake," and tlan/tan, "place") means "place of the snakes." "Acatán" (from a:ca, "reed," and tlan/tan, "place") would mean "reed place." Although there are reeds in the Acatán area, residents of San Sebastián deny the presence at any time in their history of large numbers of snakes. The Ixil, however, neighbors south and east of the Q'anjob'alan group, conserve in their oral histories an account of how San Sebastián came to be infested with snakes: a woman who had been converted into a half-human, half-snake, because of her laziness, was dropped on the plaza from a great height, and she shattered into hundreds of pieces, each of which become a serpent.

Nentón is a new settlement, dating from the early 1900s, when coffee was developed as an export crop.

In most of Guatemala, townships have characteristic trade "garb" for both men and women, but men tend to reserve this traditional wear for feast days. In San Mateo, the woman's trade garment is a cotton broadcloth overblouse (Chuj: nip ; Spanish from Nahuatl: huipil ) elaborately embroidered in red, yellow, green, and black. Before the 1960s the design was one of concentric multicolored circles (the colors arranged roughly as on the coral snake), with birds and flowers adorning the bottom edge, below the outer circle. The overblouse was long, reaching nearly to the knees, and was typically worn over a wrapped skirt. Women wore their hair braided and wrapped with brightly colored woven ribbons. The men wore and still wear cotton pants and shirts, unembroidered, and a wool short-sleeved tunic, (Chuj: lopil ; Spanish: capixay). The tunic is lightly embroidered at the neck and arms. The arms are not closed, but open at the bottom, and the side seam is left open for several inches below the arms to allow freedom of movement while working and to facilitate pulling the arms inside while resting. In the 1960s the women's overblouse design changed. The concentric rings were rearranged as stars, three in front (one over each breast, one over the stomach), three symmetrically placed in the back. The blouse got shorter and was often worn tucked into the skirt. Since the early 1980s, many women have reserved their overblouses for festival use, and use cotton blouses, sewn in a short, puff-sleeve, square-neck pattern, for daily wear. A short "mini"-length apron, with two zippered pockets has been added. Married women now cover their braids on formal occasions with square scarves of polished cotton. The men's trade garb has remained relatively stable, although the shirt and pants may now be manufactured items. Men in San Sebastian and Nentón dress in basically the same manner, although they tend to wear the wool tunic less as the weather is warmer than in San Mateo. Women in San Sebastián wear a white cotton (often polished) overblouse with internal paisley patterning or lacelike netting, the neckline adorned with concentric rings of colored rickrack and white lace. When traveling, they often wear an overblouse inverted over their heads, as a headcloth. The headcloth overblouse and the one worn on the body can be interchanged, if one gets worn or dirty. The pattern of the women's overblouse in San Sebastián is shared with the Jakaltek, Akatek, and Q'anjob'alan towns of the region. Most women of Nentón wear occidental clothing, though some conserve the wrapped cloth shirt.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Chuj conceive of themselves as maize agriculturists. Traditionally, families have had lands in three climactic niches: cold, temperate, and hot country. In cold country they pasture animals, collect plants and firewood, and occasionally plant crops; in the temperate areas they plant corn, beans, squashes, and chilies; and in hot country they plant sugarcane, henequen, reeds, and bananas. Hunting is a marginal dietary supplement because game has become scarce. In the spring, there are migrations of birds and moths. At night, families build mountaintop bonfires to attract the flocks of birds, which they then club, roast, and consume. Households keep chickens, and some have other livestock. Red meat must be eaten to prevent soul loss during the "five bad days" at year's end, after the eighteen lunar months; all families therefore procure animals at that time.

Prior to the opening of the road through the Cuchumatanes in 1960, the San Mateo economy relied heavily on the trade of salt. Families of the political leaders controlled collection and sale of the salt. Many planted only symbolic maize fields; they hired laborers to work their fields and imported maize from tributary towns. With the road, commercial salt became easily available, and the salt trade faltered. San Mateños reverted to subsistence maize farming; the median income went from the highest in the department of Huehuetenango to the bottom tier (Hayden and Cannon 1984). Owing to this economic collapse and to the disorder of the violencia, many San Mateños left the town center and now live in lowland villages. These emigrants typically have only hot-country lands, on which they cultivate both the traditional hot-country crops and the maize-beans-squash trilogy. Residents of Nentón, being laborers on the coffee plantations that gave birth to the town, farm relatively less land. Their pay is both in cash and in kind (maize, coffee, and beans).

Chuj women do not weave, but the traditional overblouse of San Mateo is elaborately embroidered on cotton broadcloth. Since the early 1970s, a women's cooperative has marketed their embroideries, overblouses, and tourist items in the departmental capital of Huehuetenango.

Trade. The Chuj traditionally held markets every five days; under Spanish influence, a second market day was added on a seven-day cycle. San Mateo has gradually meshed these two systems into a fixed seven-day schedule. San Sebastián celebrates a regular five-day market and a seven-day market; when they coincide, Sebastianecos declare it a festival day. Nentón has a small market on the seven-day schedule, but most Nentonecos travel to San Antonio Huista, a Jakaltek town, for weekly trade.

Division of Labor. Chuj men traditionally work outside the home, especially in agriculture. Children are often sent to the fields to scare off birds and vermin just after planting and as the first sprouts come up. The whole family is usually involved in the harvest, especially that of maize. Men engage in trade outside the community, although women buy and sell in the local markets. Women are responsible for the home. In San Sebastián, women retain a working knowledge of the 260-day Mayan calendar and determine dates for household rituals accordingly.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, debt peonage was prevalent in the Chuj area. Men sometimes went to the coast alone, as laborers, but, more commonly, whole families migrated and worked the fields.

Land Tenure. Most Chuj families have title to several small parcels of land, at varying distances from the town center. San Mateo and San Sebastián also have communal lands. Proceeds from the usufruct of the land go to town coffers. A few communal lots are rotated among needy families for agriculture. In all the highland Chuj area, there is a severe land shortage. Land passes from parents to children, resulting in the scattered patchwork of modern holdings. The land shortage has motivated some Chuj families to move to the jungle areas of the lowlands, both in Guatemala and in Mexico. Those in Guatemala can apply for title through homesteading procedures; those in Mexico hold their land by squatting.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Chuj reckon descent bilaterally. Each child has two surnames; traditionally, the first surname is the father's first name, the second surname is the mother's first name. In San Mateo, some families have adopted Hispanic surnames for men. Thus, a child would have an Hispanic surname from the father and a Chuj-style surname from the mother (i.e., her first name). The first male child is named after the paternal grandfather; the first female child is named for the maternal grandmother. The second male child is named for the maternal grandfather, the second female for the paternal grandmother, and subsequent children may be named for the parents. In large families, the names of the grandparents may be recycled, and, as a result, full siblings may have exactly the same names.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms follow a bilateral pattern. Both sets of grandparents receive the same address forms and are equally "related." First-cousin marriage is discouraged; marriage with other cousins is permitted, although none is especially preferred. Grandparents and grandchildren use reciprocal address and namesake terms for each other. Women and men share the terms for parents and their siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, and distant relatives. The terms for children, brothers, sisters, cousins, spouses, and in-laws are gender specific. Men have separate terms for sons and daughters; women use a generic "offspring" label. Siblings are distinguished by relative age as well as by gender of the speaker. Twins are sacred and have special powers, but, even among twins, birth order ranks the pair; the younger always addresses the elder as superior.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, Chuj marriages are arranged. In the ideal courtship pattern, a youth finds a girl whom he might like; he contrives to speak with her, usually at communal water sources or along paths to washing places. If she agrees to see him, she finagles opportunities to meet him briefly by asking her parents for legitimate tasks that will take her out of the home (i.e., fetching water, going to market, washing clothes, going to school). When the young man feels he can start a household, he approaches his parents. If they approve of the girl, they take over the negotiations for the marriage. They find spokespersons to go with them to the girl's family; the girl's family may receive the visitors or not. If they reject the first visit, emissaries may set up a second visit. In subsequent visits (ideally there are three in all), the parents discuss what each spouse will bring to the marriage and what compensation will be given the bride's parents. If the groom is poor, he may work for the parents a stipulated amount of time, before or after the marriage. In extreme cases, the groom may join the uxoral compound. After the third visit, the groom's family brings the stipulated gifts to the bride's family and provides a feast for the two families and guests. There are public instructions given to the bride and groom, and they then take up their new residence. These proceedings may also include a civil service in the municipal building and/or a religious service in the church. Church weddings are relatively rare, owing to the cost of paying for the priest and the infrequency of his visits.

A second major marriage mechanism is bride-theft. Once a young man has selected a bride, he may try to carry her off rather than formally petition for her hand. He is especially likely to try this if he cannot afford a bride-price, if he suspects her family will not receive his family's visits, or if the girl seems reluctant to wed. If the girl really is opposed, bride-theft is difficult, given that the man would have to physically carry her away from public space. When such thefts are attempted, neighbors typically come out and scold the couple, until someone from the girl's family comes to escort her home. In cases where the girl allows herself to be carried off, or when the young man has friends who help with the abduction, the couple goes to a hut in the hills. The young man, leaving the girl "locked" in, then goes to his parents and enlists their aid in regularizing the relationship. They enlist a spokescouple to approach the girl's family. Sometimes they are successful in arranging a low bride-price or a short work stint, given the de facto union already realized; sometimes the girl's family refuses to bargain, and the male members of the family try to bring her back; at other times, the de facto unions continue with no financial arrangements negotiated.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the smallest domestic unit. The members typically share a patio with the husband's brothers and parents. In this compound, childcare duties are shared; the women sometimes work together. Planting and harvesting are often shared among members of a compound, or by other siblings living beyond the pale. Farm work can also be shared outside the family unit, on a reciprocal-work basis.

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral. Land and material goods should be bequeathed to all siblings; however, there is a tendency to favor the first son. He and some older siblings may be given land and goods before the death of the parents and may then also share in the posthumous redistribution.

Socialization. In the child's first year of life, a "leg-spreading" ceremony is held, which prepares the child ritually for her or his gender role. At the hearth, the mother sets the child across her hip, with one leg over her stomach, one across her back, "legs spread." At the same time, the parents place a small hoe or planting stick in the hands of a boy child, while instructing him on his future occupation as a farmer. They give a little girl a small spindle or a mortar and instruct her on her life as a housewife. Children play in the house compound with their siblings and cousins; older children watch over the younger children as they play with them and are often called upon by the adults to help with chores. Young boys go out to the fields with their fathers once they can walk the distance on their own.

There are now government schools in each town. San Mateo has six grades; San Sebastián and Nentón have three. For education beyond that available locally, children must leave their homes. Even though many students in these boarding schools are Indians, the schools punish native language use and consciously try to shame students into dressing and acting like non-Indians. The schoolbooks, which are standardized nationally, depict the Indian culture as a hindrance to modernity, and the Classic Mayan florescence is passed over lightly. Emphasis is placed on the supposed nudity of the Indian populace at contact and the alleged stupidity of the K'iche' war leader, Tekun Umán, for believing Pedro de Alvarado's horse to be part of the man, and being killed before he could strike at the actual Spanish chieftain. Sistema Integral de Mejoramiento y Adecuación Curricular (Integral System for Curricular Improvement and Adaptation, SIMAC) is a Ministry of Education agency charged with the responsibility of developing educational programs that reflect Indian culture and history positively. Teachers are to be provided manuals for each of twenty-one Mayan topics such as astronomy, social structure, sports and games, and mathematics from the earliest Mayan records through modern vigesimal systems now in use, and are to find ways to incorporate these topics into the curriculum in the absence of texts for the students to read. These programs have not yet been introduced. Indian children leave the government schools with low self-esteem and low expectations for career opportunities as long as they retain their ethnic identity.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Much of indigenous Guatemala isor was until the late twentieth century involved with the cargo system, a ladder of alternating political and syncretic Catholic religious offices, through which participants earn esteem and contribute to the public life of the communities. This system was never fully developed in the Chuj region. The political offices exist, being set by Spanish rule, but the Catholic offices are undeveloped; the Chuj have no corresponding lexical items.

Factors involved in the weakening of the cargo system include the spread of Protestantism; Catholic Action's drive in the 1960s and 1970s (since reversed) opposing syncretism as impure; economic opportunities in some Guatemalan towns that made possible capital accumulation, and hence rewards outside the towns' cargo structures; and the revitalization of indigenous religious practices.

Political Organization. The municipal political offices are mayor, four bailiffs, and messengers. In San Sebastián, a council of elders meets to decide town policy, to adjudicate disputes, and to plan festivals. The elected officials serve as their executives. National political parties have a low profile in the communities, but suffrage is mandatory.

Social Control. Women are guardians of the social norm. When someone misbehaves in public, women scold them. When scolding and social ridicule cannot control actions or when disputes arise, the matter is taken to court. Each litigant pleads his or her own case. The judge delivers a harangue as his judgment; sometimes the process suffices to resolve the disputes; at other times, fines, jail terms, or services are demanded.

Since the 1970s, particularly the late 1970s, in response to increased guerrilla activity, the national military has made numerous incursions. Although there is no permanent garrison in Chuj territory, frequent field exercises are held and troops move through town centers, camping in marketplaces. The army has deforested areas along roads and major trails to monitor the transfer of people and goods. The local justice system can be circumvented by denouncing someone to the military.

Conflict. The mayor in San Mateo has control over the communal lands. Since the 1970s, mayors have been embroiled in scandals over their administration of these resources. Two mayors were removed from office after having signed contracts with lumber companies to harvest trees from còmmunal lands. A certain amount of profit taking, with preferential assignment of arable land and firewood rights, is expected of mayors, but mayors have overstepped their bounds. People point to the lack of expenditure for the public weal and for the town festival as the cause of social deterioration, decreased rainfall, unhealthy and/or infertile livestock and bad harvests.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. A few families in San Mateo and Nentón have become Protestant. In San Sebastián, the town is split between traditional religious beliefs and the robust doctrinalism of Catholic Action. The traditionalists in San Sebastián maintain the 260-day calendar and celebrate the rituals of planting and harvest, new fire, and new year. The Catholic Action sect refers to all these beliefs as "lies" and to the practitioners as sorcerers.

In San Mateo, Catholicism is much more syncretic. There is a thoroughgoing identification of Meb'a' (Orphan), a culture hero, with Jesus. Mary is both Meb'a''s mother and the moon. God incarnates the sun.

Most natural featureshills, rock outcrops, streams, and caveshave spirits. The spirits in caves, who are often ancestors of the townspeople, may be approached for aid and advice. A petitioner brings an offering, usually candles and liquor, and writes his or her question or request on a small piece of paper, leaving this at the cave entrance. The following day she or he returns and picks up the written answer.

Religious Practitioners. There are several religious specialists. Prayer-makers can petition for health, sobriety, good crops, and strong animals. Each town should have a principal prayer-maker who sets the ritual calendar for the year, does global petitioning for crops, and assigns dates for agricultural and town maintenance tasks. There are also diviners, herbalists, bonesetters, masseurs, midwives, curers, and sorcerers. When a sorcerer becomes too strong or too rich, the community may decide to immolate him or her.

Ceremonies. The life-cycle ceremonies are: at birth, purification of mother and child in a sauna, burial of the afterbirth, and burial of the belly-button stub; in the first year, "leg-spreading," in which gender roles are assigned; in the first three years, baptism/naming, whereby children acquire godparents, and first communion, which is seldom celebrated; at first menses, hair washing and purification by sweat bath; boys' passage to youth, which is less noted than that of girls; marriage; deathbed instructions; burial; postburial purification; and death anniversaries and communion with ancestors.

Annual-cycle ceremonies are: beating of fruit trees and children; blessing of seed and fields; harvest; thanksgiving; warding off evil during the five "bad" year-end days; and new fire (annual housecleaning).

Ceremonies are held to inaugurate any structure or any major acquisition (e.g., a truck, stereo, or raised hearth), and to open and close public events. Each town has an annual festival for its patron saint.

Medicine. Illness is a function of balance between the spiritual and physical worlds. Western medicine, especially patent remedies such as aspirin, antihistamines, and antacids, accompanied by herbal tonics, are used to treat microbiotic disorders, allergic reactions, and indigestion. A lesion or break will be cleaned, disinfected, set, bandaged, and later massaged. A spiritual disorder (susto ) may accompany an illness or result from the shock of an injury or near-. "Fright" is cured by a ritual specialist. Envy, anger, alcohol, holiness, and light skin, hair, or eyes make a person "hot." When someone "hot" looks at a child or a pregnant woman, they may cause the child to lose its soul or the woman to become ill and possibly abort. Elders or diviners can perform the necessary curing ritual. Illness may also be sent by ancestors or witches and must be cured by other religious healers. Minor illnesses are classified as "generic, nonhuman"; major diseases, such as whooping cough, smallpox, and cancer, are classified as "adult males."

Death and Afterlife. Traditional Chuj belief holds that death is the transition to "ancestorhood." Deathbed instructions are binding obligations, and spirits enforce them with sanctions of illness and misfortune. The spirits maintain an interest in the affairs of their families and can be approached for advice and aid, either at family altars, cave entrances, hilltops, or, in San Mateo, at cross-sites and accesses to the Classic Maya structures underlying the modern city. On All Saints' Day graves are cleaned and bedecked with flowers. Families bring feasts to the graveyard and picnic on the graves, leaving portions for the deceased. Marimbas play, and children fly kites. The kites' tails often have the names of dead relatives written on them, together with prayers or petitions.

Life after death is much like life before death. Grave goods typically include clothes, food, dishes, and implements that served the deceased in daily activities. One special task of the dead is to keep volcanic necks clear of debris; many spirits from San Mateo go to work in the Santa María volcano, overlooking Quetzaltenango. They have a market day on Sunday, when they go to a special plaza in Quetzaltenango and sell their wares. Living relatives may visit the dead there but may talk to them only via interpreters. Evangelical and Catholic Action Chuj affirm the doctrine of their faiths regarding death and the afterlife.


Cojtí Marcarlo, Narciso (1988). Mapa de los idiomas de Guatemala y Beiice. Guatemala: Piedra Santa.

Hayden, Brian, and Aubrey Cannon (1984). The Structure of Material Systems: Ethnoarchaeology in the Maya Highlands. SAA Papers, no. 3. Burnaby, Canada: Society for American Archaeology.

Kaufman, Terrence (1976). "Archaeological and Linguistic Correlations in Mayaland and Associated Areas of MesoAmerica." World Archaeology 8:101-118.

McQuown, Norman (1971). "Los orígenes y la diferenciación de los mayas según se infiere del estudio comparativo de las lenguas mayanas." Desarrollo Cultural de los Mayas. 2nd ed., edited by Evon Z. Vogt and Alberto Ruz, 49-80. Mexico: Centro de Estudios Mayas.