Tucked in the Quiché highlands, Chichicastenango hosts Guatemala’s most famous indigenous market. Early every Thursday and Sunday morning in a well- rehearsed exercise the plaza is transformed into a vibrant, colorful, tightly-packed market. Many vendors set up their stalls on the same spot their family has been occupying for generations.
For locals it is their regional food market. International tourists focus on indigenous textiles, jewelry, and masks.
The beauty of the market complements the religious importance of its setting. Facing the plaza the Church of Santo Tomás’ steep stairway resembles that of a pyramid — complete with platforms on which incense burns and shamans recite prayers in rapid-fire Quiché Maya. Inside a plaque reads: “In the early 18th century in this monastery of Santo Tomás, Father Franzisco Ximénez found and translated the Popol Vuh.” Frequently called the sacred book of the Maya Quiché, it is often quoted and referenced in ancient-Maya studies.
Diego Ignacio was the ranking mask-maker in Chichicastenango until his death on Christmas Eve 2013. From his father, Miguel Ignacio, Diego inherited the morería (mask-making shop) he worked and, in turn, left to his heirs last December. The Ignacio’s morería includes a home linked to an occupation and responsibility that has been in their family for generations.
In 1938, famed U.S. anthropologist Sol Tax in search of folk tales interviewed Diego’s grandfather — also Diego Ignacio, and also a mask-maker. In his diary Tax noted “Ignacio did not volunteer any stories,” adding, “Chichicastenango seems to have a dearth of folk tales.”
In Spain a morería is the section of town where Moors live. In Guatemala it is where Moors are made — in the form of masks for the dance of Moors and Christians. Morerías also make masks for characters in all the Indigenous festival dances. Some masks portray European or African faces, most are of Indigenous faces, native animals, and fantastic and imaginary beings carved out of wood.
Anyone who has been in Mexico or Guatemala for any length of time has come across this type of mask. Folk art museums and private collectors have whole walls covered with masks on display. Souvenir shops have them for sale. Vendors walk amidst patrons in outdoor restaurants selling masks. Usually missing are the costumes that should accompany the masks.
Without a costume the mask is incomplete. When worn together in indigenous pageants, dancers give up their personality and take on another. The Ignacio children delighted in putting on costumes and masks and dancing to traditional music from a boom box. When they did so the transformation they went through was such that they were unrecognizable.
Like his grandfather, Diego did not reveal information easily. It took me several visits to Diego’s morería before I understood that his principal source of income was not from mask sales to tourists but rather hinged on the rental of expensive full sets of costumes, masks, and script to dancers performing in festivals in Chichicastenango and nearby towns and villages.
Well into my series of visits to his morería, Diego surprised me and members of my study trip by showing us notebooks filled cover-to-cover with elegant handwritten script — instructions for the set director and lines to be recited by each of the actors performing in what I had thought was restricted to dance and pantomime.
The plaza and adjoining streets is the “stage” on which these pageants are presented. Though usually packed with spectators, necessary space always opens up when the actors need it, but rarely can their recited words be heard.
The more I scratch the surface of Chichicastenango the more cyclical and enduring its life seems to be. Which member of the Ignacio family will take up the baton from Diego and keep the morería alive? Even we outsiders now have our recognized niche in maintaining the market cycle through purchases and patronage of restaurants and lodging.
My trips to Chichicastengo always include breakfast at the timelessly elegant Mayan Inn. My reading of Sol Tax’s diary leads me to believe that’s where he interviewed Diego Ignacio in 1938.
Back in the 1970s I’d rouse my college students early in Panajachel in order to get to the Mayan Inn for breakfast. Our motley appearance always led the head-waiter to caution me, “This breakfast costs five dollars.” Upon telling him that was fine we’d sit down to a grand multi-course breakfast in which the silverware, pitchers and serving dishes were sterling silver and the service impeccable.
In 1980 Guatemala’s internal war intensified. I didn’t return to Chichicastenango until 1987. But I was at the Mayan Inn for breakfast my first morning back. Midway through breakfast I told the waiter I’d returned after a long absence and complemented him on everything looking as it always had, “except for this,” as I held up a spoon. He nodded and told me an amazing story — one that someday will certainly nurture folk tales.
“When the guerrilla army was approaching Chichicastenango the owners arrived with moving vans and took everything that was portable — even windows, doors, and bathroom fixtures. All they left was walls, floors, and ceilings, yet they paid us our salary throughout that time period. Five years later they brought everything back. Except for the silver.”