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Poqomam

Poqomam

ETHNONYMS: Pokomám, Pokomán, Pocomám, Pocomán


Orientation

The Poqomam are a member of the Poqom group, which includes the Poqomchi' Indians in northern Guatemala. The Poqomam language belongs to the Poqom Language Group, which is part of the greater Quichean Maya Group. The Poqomam live in the Guatemalan departments of Jalapa, Guatemala, Escuintla, and Chiquimula. A small number of Poqomam have emigrated to El Salvador. In the late 1980s the Poqomam numbered forty-five to fifty thousand.


History and Cultural Relations

The Poqom group, including the Poqomchi' and the Poqomam, originally inhabited a region stretching from the highlands of Guatemala to the coast of El Salvador. The Poqom group eventually grew into two distinct ethnie groups. Present-day Poqomchi' live in the northern part of this region in Guatemala, and the Poqomam live in the central part, in southeastern Guatemala. Those Poqomam who lived in El Salvador were largely displaced by the immigration of the Pipil in the eleventh century. Later, in the fifteenth century, the Poqomam fell under the control of the expanding K'iche' Empire.

They were eventually able to reestablish political autonomy, but it was short-lived. In the early sixteenth century the Spanish moved into the region and conquered the Poqomam. During the colonial period, the European diseases to which the Poqomam were exposed and warfare reduced the Poqomam population. Relocation to missionary settlements and Guatemalan policies that outlawed communal lands forced the Poqomam onto ever-decreasing parcels of land.

During the twentieth century, the Poqomam population and their landholdings have remained stable; however, increasing attempts by Guatemalan leftist political groups to restore traditional lands to the Poqomam have met with repression and military reprisals. As a result, many Poqomam have emigrated to the United States.

Settlements

The Poqomam generally live in small settlements that surround large urban centers. For example, the municipio of Chinautla is a central urban area surrounded by many rural aldeas (hamlets). Officially, the urban centers have the authority to govern the hamlets that surround them. In practice, however, most inhabitants of the hamlets like to retain a certain degree of local autonomy.

Within the hamlets, people often live in extended family compounds so they can be close to their immediate kin. Whereas the ideal household form is the nuclear family, it can be said that the traditional ideal of the extended family is preserved through the practice of clustering immediate family households into a single household compound. The process of clustering often occurs across generations, and familial lands remain in the hands of the eldest male of the compound.

Houses are constructed either in the traditional way or in the Ladino way. In the case of traditional structures, the walls are made of cane or adobe, and the roofs are thatched with long grasses. The walls of Ladino houses are generally built of brick, and the roofs are made of either tile or galvanized tin.


Economy

The local economy of the Poqomam rests on the tripartite foundation of milpa, charcoal making, and pottery production. Milpa, or plot agriculture furnishes much of a family's subsistence needs. The staple crops are maize and beans. Milpa plots average about 0.08 hectares in size and are cultivated using traditional implements such as machetes, hoes, and digging sticks. Ideally, farmers hope to raise a surplus of maize, which they can then sell for cash; however, this goal is rarely realized.

For this reason, during the part of the year when there is no agricultural work, many men produce charcoal to sell in the markets in Guatemala City. To produce charcoal, oak is purchased, or cut from one's own groves, and then burned in a covered pit in the ground. For three days, the men control the heat in the pit, making sure not to completely burn the wood. At the end of the three days, the wood is uncovered and bundled together to take to market.

Thus, men's work consists largely of agricultural and heavy-labor jobs. Women's work consists of household work such as cooking, maintaining a garden, and washing clothing. To help supplement family income, many women sell the pottery they produce. The most common product is the tinaja (water jar). These are made by building a vessel out of thick coils of clay. After the pottery dries, it is polished and then fired.


Kinship

Traditionally, families were organized patrilineally into lineages and clans. Also, extended families were common and highly valued. As a result of Spanish-colonial influences, however, the family structure of the Poqomam has been altered. Presently, the nuclear family is the most common form of organization. Nevertheless, extended-family households do exist for reasons of economic and emotional interdependence. Kinship terms are of the Eskimo type, placing emphasis on generational differences.

Kinship is traced through both the mother and the father, producing a bilateral rather than a patrilineal system; however, there are vestiges of the traditional family apparent in some current practices. Although villagers believe that they are all related to each other, marriage partners are limited by surname. That is to say, individuals with the same patrilineal surnames are not to marry. In this way, the village as a whole can be thought to loosely represent a clan, and all those with the same patrilineal surname can be thought to loosely represent the members of a patrilineal lineage.


Marriage and Family

Marriage among the Poqomam involves large expenditures and a long period of negotiations between families. Ideally, a wedding proposal begins when the parents of the prospective bride and groom enter into a long period of economic bargaining. During this period, the parents exchange gifts at their many visits until one set of parents is unable to match the gifts of the other. At this time, the family with the lesser gift offers their child in marriage to the child of the other family. After this period of negotiations, both a civil ceremony and a religious ceremony are held during a three-day period of celebration.

Because of the expense accrued by following the traditional marriage pattern, many individuals have opted for alternative forms of marriage. Juntados, are those who simply live together without a civil or religious ceremony. Often, couples who have lived together for a period of time and who have children will go ahead and be married in a formal ceremony. This is called an unión de hecho.

Children are socialized into their gender roles from an early age. Female children are taught by their mothers to cook and to make clothing and pottery. Male children are taken to the milpa plot and are expected to help their fathers in making charcoal. They are also allowed to carry machetes and to smoke.

Inheritance patterns provide a means for parents to ensure their care in old age: the children who take care of their parents inherit their material possessions.

Sociopolitical Organization

The social organization of Poqomam culture is affected by a civil-religious hierarchy and by the ritual relations of compadrazgo and camaradería. Village organization, similar to that of other Latin American indigenous groups, centers around the civil-religious hierarchy. The civil hierarchy consists of an alcalde (mayor) who presides over a council, who in turn preside over a number of other lesser officials, such as police. The alcalde conducts the formai business of the town and represents his village both to other villages and to regional government.

Within the religious hierarchy, there is a system of cofradías (religious brotherhoods) that conduct the business of the church and help to cement social ties between members of the village. The most important office within the religious hierarchy is that of mayordomo, which is held jointly by a husband and wife. For a period of one year, they are responsible for cleaning the church and sponsoring the annual celebration held in honor of the patron saint of the village.

Compadrazgo also helps to organize social life among the Poqomam. Compadrazgo is the system of fictive-kin relations that is created between godparents and the families of their godchildren. These relations are often the basis of social interaction and mobility.

Camaradería functions on a lesser scale than compadrazgo in organizing social interaction. Young unmarried men may enter into special bonds of friendship, known as camaradería, with other men. These individuals usually spend much time together drinking and dancing. These friendships provide bonds of loyalty before marriage but are often dissolved abruptly after marriage.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Present-day Poqomam religion consists of a traditional framework into which Catholicism has been assimilated. Although they accept elements of Catholicism, it is clear that the Poqomam tailor Catholic beliefs to reinforce local beliefs and practices. For instance, the Catholic stories about creation and Jesus are interpreted from their perspective to mean that God taught the original Poqomam the secret of milpa and that Jesus came into the world to distribute land.

Creencias, secretos, and luck are other integral components of Poqomam religious life. Creencias are the myths that explain the unknown. Central to many of these stories is a belief in charmed places where it is possible to pass into the underworld. In the underworld, it is possible to find wealth and knowledge. Secretos are carefully guarded formulas that can be used to solve both physical and spiritual problems. It is believed that luck comes to individuals either through birth or as a gift from the underworld.

Disease is thought to be largely caused by supernatural forces. Since Poqomam believe that brujos (witches) cast spells that cause illnesses, many people search out other brujos to counteract the effects of a spell; however, if God has decided that it is a person's time, no cure will succeed in making the patient well again.

Numerous rituals and ceremonies maintain the balance between the realm of the supernatural and the earthly. In fact, there are sixty-eight days during the year when formal rituals are conducted. These rituals include fertility rites, veneration of saints, and the Day of the Dead.

At death, the family gathers together and holds a feast. The descendants of the departed are obligated to pray for the soul of the deceased for nine days, after which time they must pray for the soul of the deceased during each Day of the Dead for the next seven years. It is thought that these prayers will help the soul to pass into heaven. Other services offered to the departed include the placement of food, drink, and candles at the grave and the placement of water at the home altar.

Bibliography

Feldman, Laurence H. (1981). "Definiendo un estado pokom." Ana/es de la Academia de Geografia e Historia de Guatemala 55:7-22.

Fox, John W. (1978). "Chinautla Viejo: Un sito estratégico en la frontera pokoman-cakchiquel." Anales de la Sociedad de Geografia e Historia de Guatemala 51:13-25.


Ghidinelli, Azzo (1984). "Traje de los pocomames orientales en Guatemala." Tradiciones de Guatemala 21-22:66-72.

Ghidinelli, Azzo, and Rosalba Terranova (1974). "The Tree Test and the Study of Acculturation among the Pokomam." Current Anthropology 15(3): 338-342.

Muñoz, Jorge Luján (1985). "Cambios en la estructura familiar de los indígenas pokomames de Petapa (Guatemala) en la primera mitad del siglo XVI." Mesoamerica 6(10): 355-369.

Reina, Ruben E. (1966). The Law of the Saints: A Pokomam Pueblo and Its Community Culture. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Reina, Ruben E. (1969). "Eastern Guatemalan Highlands: The Pokomames and Chortí." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 7, Ethnology, Part One, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 101-120. London: University of Texas Press.

IAN MAST

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