As a follow up to our previous “Mujeres Guatemaltecas: Powerful Guatemalan Women History Forgot,” this explores Guatemalan women making a difference today. These women have an incredible variety of skills and professions but all are working to make Guatemala, and the world, a better place. All six women are relatively unknown, but deserve recognition for the tireless work they do to better the experiences for women in the country. This article aims to introduce the world to these women and bring their stories to light.
Lorena Cabnal is an indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’-Xinka feminist, healer, organizer, and activist. She grew up in a shantytown outside Guatemala City due to her family’s displacement in the Civil War. After surviving sexual violence during her adolescence, she ran away from home at 15 to study medicine and psychology. Cabnal eventually made her way to the Xalapán mountain to revive her relationship with her maternal side’s Xinka roots. It was there she became more critical of indigenous communities’ relationship with gender and the ways indigenous women are treated in Guatemalan society at large.
By 2003, she was working with the National Plan of Action against Sexual Exploitation of Children in Guatemala in the Xalapán mountains. Cabnal describes the machismo culture as especially dangerous for young girls.
“Many of the girls that grow up in Santa María de Xalapán grow up thinking that it’s normal to be taken involuntarily at 12 or 13 years old, to be any man’s woman. And if this man doesn’t like living with you he can discard you like rubbish.”
After attending her educational sessions, women started asking Cabnal about their rights. That furthered her drive to raise awareness in Guatemala broadly, and indigenous communities specifically, about the rights everyone is entitled to, regardless of gender. Cabnal began organizing in the community and eventually their efforts turned into the Association for Indigenous Women of Santa Maria Xalapán. Despite setbacks in the form of community criticism and even death threats, the government has now recognized the Association as an official political organization.
In 2015, Cabnal co-founded an organization called Tzk’at, which means network in English. The group includes healers, midwives, herbalists, sobadoras, spiritual guides, native doctors as well as women with knowledge of western medicine, psychology, law, accounting or environmental justice. Cabnal and her colleagues emphasize the interconnectedness and colonial roots in fighting for the right to land the women’s rights to bodily autonomy.
Their goal is to help women work through trauma, both intergenerational and present, and expand the definition of feminism to include indigenous notions of gender. Her work as a healer focuses on recovering the healing methods of her ancestors. Cabnal emphasizes that they cannot be political activists and advocates for social change with bodies bogged down by trauma that manifests as illness.
The western patriarchy that created the gender binary is the same system that exploited women’s bodies is the same system, and Cabnal fights against the idea that western values are the “correct” way to experience life. She has been incredibly successful in rallying communities behind her in this work and deserves more international attention for her tireless dedication to feminism and indigenous rights.
Thelma Cabrera was a top candidate in the 2019 Guatemalan presidential election and, despite the fact that Guatemala is over 60% indigenous, she was only the second indigenous candidate to run for the position, after Rigoberta Menchú. Cabrera finished fourth in the first round of the elections, missing the second round by only 3.5% of the vote. Cabrera was born in 1970 and grew up in a poor working family in a small town on the west coast of Guatemala called, El Asintal.
As a child, she worked with her parents on coffee plantations and was married at the age of 15. Starting in her adolescence, she was involved in Comité del Desarrollo Campesino (CODECA) (In English, the Committee for Peasant Advancement), the country’s largest grassroots organization aimed at protecting the rights and improving the lives of poor farm workers. In 2019, CODECA selected Cabrera to represent their new political party, Movement for the Liberation of Peoples (MLP), in the upcoming presidential election.
Although Cabrera didn’t win the election, her high vote count and fourth-place finish were historical. She ran on a leftist platform of equality for indigenous, mestizo, and Afro-Guatemalans, ending immunity for elected officials, nationalizing electricity, and more legal observation of mining and agricultural licenses, including the input of indigenous communities if the projects took place on their lands.
As stated above, Cabrera grew up in the farmlands on the west coast of Guatemala. She actually speaks Spanish as a second language, and her rural, working class upbringing is one of the core reasons she ran on such a campaign.
“I came from nothing – from under the rubbish. But for many years I’ve worked with communities suffering lack of opportunities, undignified wages, migration and violence as a result of structural problems and corruption.”
Corruption is consistently cited as a problem with government officials in Guatemala. During the 2019 election cycle, several candidates were disqualified due to legal issues and corruption charges. Some candidates without these allegations still had ties to the military and other big business that would undoubtedly cloud their leadership.
Cabrera’s platform included closing government loopholes that allowed for corruption and lowering the pay for government officials to deter those who entered politics to get rich or give favors to their business connections. This has led to criticism from the typical career politicians; they have constantly fought to bring Cabrera down, including calling her an “uneducated communist.”
Despite the criticism, Cabrera received overwhelming support from indigenous communities and other progressive sectors of the country. After the first round’s votes were tallied and it was discovered Cabrera didn’t make it to the second round of elections, her supporters across the country held strikes and rallies.
They were protesting electoral fraud in the first round of elections, the July immigration agreement between former U.S President Donald Trump and former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, the recent criminalization of social justice leaders and protestors, and pushing for the prosecution of corrupt government officials. Cabrera herself backed the protests. Despite her loss in the election, she clearly ignited a spark for social justice in Guatemala that has the potential to carry the country a great distance.
Lucía Xiloj Cui
Lucía Xiloj Cui is a Maya Q’echi lawyer from Chichicastenango who focuses on getting justice for victims of sexual violence, especially those harmed during the country’s civil war. She migrated to Guatemala City in 1996 after gaining a bilingual secretary degree in Kiche and Spanish. After working as a secretary in the Guatemalan capital for a few years, she decided to go to law school.
Xiloj Cui graduated from University of San Carlos in 2006 as a notary and lawyer with high honors. Since her graduation, she has been involved in several high profile cases, including the 1979 fire at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City that killed 37 people.
In 2010, Xiloj Cui and two of her colleagues started the Popular Law Firm of Rabinal and began collecting testimonies from survivors of the 1981 Achi genocide. During the Guatemalan Civil War, 5,000 people (20% of the tribe’s population) were killed. From the survivors, a disturbing narrative of sexual abuse came to light.
Xiloj Cui and her colleagues decided to move forward with a case against the government that specifically focused around the 36 surviving women and sought reparations for them and other survivors that endured sexual violence as a weapon of war. This case is a bit different than other class action suits against the government and military for sexual violence against civilians because the horrors these women experienced were particularly prolonged.
They describe being forcibly kept in their homes for weeks and even months and repeatedly assaulted in front of their families. As with other cases that sought to prosecute the government or military for their actions during the civil war, this case has been met with innumerable roadblocks. The case was finally resumed in February 2020, just to be postponed again due to COVID.
Despite the setbacks faced in the Achi case, Xiloj Cui has been incredibly successful in her practice. Her activism expands outside of Guatemala and she has helped train indigenous women leaders along the coast of Nicaragua. She not only received recognition for that endeavor, but also received public praise from Rigoberta Menchú herself.
In 2019, Xiloj Cui applied to become a judge with the Guatemalan Court of Appeals. While that position is still pending, her application and the promotion of her work is paving the way for Guatemalan women, and indigenous women specifically, to become more politically active and vocal about their rights. When asked about her decision to run, Xiloj Cui said,
“There is a whole system built that limits the participation of women based on ideas, conditions and social position.”
She hopes that, by entering the system, she can change these antiquated ideas and create a country with more inclusive representation at all levels of government.
Glenda Joanna Wetherborn
Glenda Joanna Wetherborn is an Afro-Guatemalan academic working to correct the erasure of the stories of Black Guatemalans and Latin Americans. Her grandparents immigrated to Guatemala from Jamaica to work for the United Fruit Company and her family has lived in the country since.
Despite being a third generation immigrant with long-standing familial ties to Latin America, Wetherborn and other Afro-Latinx folks constantly endure racism in their countries of origin. Wetherborn and her family were the only Black family in Amatitlan and she recalls being singled out and bullied throughout her years at school, including college.
Professors would automatically expect less of her or assume that she wasn’t as capable of her peers. In spite of these roadblocks, Wetherborn graduated from University of San Carlos and got her master’s in Gender, Equity, and Development Equality from University of Catalonia in Spain.
This racism against Black and Afro-Latinx people, and women in particular, often takes the form of sexual violence as well. Black women are more likely to be targets of sexual violence, and the sexualization of Black women and girls tends to begin at a younger age than other Latin Americans. This is, of course, a remnant of colonialism and slavery. However, the increased likelihood of assault is complicated by the fact that law enforcement and other officials are less inclined to believe Black survivors.
Wetherborn works as a researcher and journalist to bring these inequalities to light and build coalitions to correct them. Her activism began during her adolescence when she allied herself with campesinos. Wetherborn first got involved in Black activism after reading the work of Angela Davis and entering an online chatroom for Afro-Latinx women across the region. This led to friendship and alliance with other Black women and the opportunity to travel to countries like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic to work with these women.
Wetherborn’s journalism and advocacy has led to striking revelations about the Black history of Guatemala. One of her crowning achievements is the addition of “Black” as an option on the Guatemalan census beginning in 2018. Despite her successes, Wetherborn still experiences racism and cites a refusal of the country and its citizens to interrogate the racism and stereotypes it holds against Black people.
Black stories aren’t included in mainstream Guatemalan education which only continues the cycle of racism and ignorance and prevents most Black narratives from reaching the mainstream media. In a 2019 interview, Wetherborn emphasized the need for coalitions of marginalized folks to do this work together;
“I’m not tired of fighting. I’m tired of fighting alone.”
Sandra Xinico Batz
Sandra Xinico Batz is a Kakchiquel columnist, activist, and anthropologist that works to expand the rights indigenous weavers and textile artists have over their intellectual property. She was born in 1986, in Patzún, Chimaltenango, and always wore traditional Kakchiquel clothes until she moved to the capital for school at 15.
Xinico Batz said she stopped in order to blend in, feel less discriminated against, and be less prone to catcalling. After high school, she went on to study anthropology at university and began to wear her Kakchiquel güipiles, skirts, aprons, and shawls again as a way to reclaim her identity and fight back against the racist tendencies of anthropological research.
In a 2018 article, she reflected on her decision to continue wearing her traditional Kakchiquel clothes,
“To create and wear our indigenous clothes has become an act of cultural resistance in this globalized world where everything has a price because everything can be sold.”
Since her college days, Xinico Batz has been advocating for the protection of indigenous intellectual property, particularly as it applies to different types of weaving and textiles. She explained how the government entices tourists with the narrative that Guatemala is the “heart of the Mayan world” while at the same time upholding structures that actively discriminate against and harm Mayan citizens.
They use the image of Mayan women and their traditional crafts to captivate tourists and businesses alike, all while offering no job protection or social resources to the women who produce these items. Without government support, they are often forced to sell their items to foreigners at exceedingly low prices that keep these women and their families living in poverty.
In 2016, Xinico Batz joined the Weavers’ Councils National Movement (Ruchajixik ri qana’ojb’äl). In 2017, the group filed a lawsuit against the Guatemalan government to demand collective intellectual property rights to their textiles and weaving. The government countered the suit and claimed that the clothes and textiles of indigenous Guatemalans were an “imposition” of Spanish Colonizers. To this, Xinico Batz says,
“There is material evidence, however, to the contrary, that shows that people in Mesoamerica were using clothes like these before the Spanish invasion. This is ignored because recognizing the reality that indigenous textiles are the cultural heritage of Mayan people, breaks with the vision that the Guatemalan State proclaims.”
In response, indigenous women held protests across the country that were met with unnecessary government violence. It appears as though the litigation is still pending.
September 15, 2020 marked 199 years since Guatemala had gained “independence,” which was really just a transfer of power from the Spanish and European elites to their descendants living in the country. Progressives like, Xinico Batz are careful to call the discriminatory systems and racism that have plagued Black and indigenous communities since colonization to the center of the conversation: independence was not the answer for these people.
The oligarchy continues to maintain the status quo and prevent true societal change. However, Xinico Batz highlights the undying perseverance of these communities in a September 29 interview,
“The oligarchy sustains and maintains power. But, it hasn’t been easy, because there has always been a resistance and struggle [by Indigenous communities]…The fact that Indigenous communities in our territories are alive, exist, have their own language, worldview – is because there has been a permanent resistance.”
Sara Curruchich Cúmez
Sara Curruchich Cúmez is an internationally recognized singer and songwriter who performs in Maya Kaqchikel. Curruchich Cúmez was born in San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango in 1993 to two very musical parents. Her father taught her how to play the guitar when she was a child and she fondly remembers her mother whistling throughout the house.
Curruchich Cúmez knew she wanted to be a musician since she was young and recalls wanting to be a music teacher when she was in primary school. She looks back at this time fondly, and shared the following in a 2019 interview;
“Since I have memory — which is well, a long time — I really enjoyed singing. I would accompany my mamá when she went to wash other people’s clothes at their homes. So I would listen to my mamá start to whistle or sing something. I liked seeing how happy she was when she sang or whistled or hummed. In the case of my papá, he had a guitar and knew how to play. When he realized how much I liked music, he would call me into the living room at night and say, ‘Let’s sing!’ In the living room, I remember that he would put out a candle and we would sit there, my dad playing the guitar and me singing. And it was like that for many, many nights.”
She had a bit of a roadblock in her adolescence when her father died, which caused her to stop making music and singing for a few years because it reminded her so much of him.
Despite that setback, her mother decided to use her savings to send her daughter to a public music school in Guatemala City; she encouraged Curruchich Cúmez to seek a different life for herself than the one that society pushes on indigenous women. Generally, in rural areas of Guatemala, indigenous women are directed to paths of motherhood and domestic employment, and often kept home from school to take care of younger siblings or earn money selling goods at local markets.
Curruchich Cúmez was aware of this discrepancy even as a child, and spoke about her transition to living in Guatemala City and even living there now in a 2018 interview. She said,
“I was scared of coming here [Guatemala City] because I wear traje [traditional Mayan clothing]. A lot of the time you’ll be walking down the road and people shout horrible things at you, or stare at you in a perverted way. That’s also a form of violence… Coming to the city can go two ways: it can make us stronger and strengthen our identity… or it can make us submissive.”
Life in Guatemala City strengthened both Curruchich Cúmez’s resolve to be a musician and her devotion to her indigenous identity. The first song she wrote was in Kaqchikel, and she continues to write in the language to this day, often drawing on themes important to their culture; such as the strength and resilience of indigenous women and their ancestors, the importance of respecting nature, and the importance of community and village to the development of an individual’s humanity. Her music is typically categorized under the genres of “world music” or “ethno-music” due to her blending of contemporary and traditional ingenious themes, instruments, and messages.
Curruchich Cúmez is the first Maya Kaqchikel performer to receive international recognition, and her career began shortly after she graduated music school in 2012. First she was performing with a local marimba group, “Teclas en Armonía,” and later in the same year, she was invited by a popular Mayan rock group called “Sobreviviencia” to sing at one of their concerts.
In 2014, she performed with the Dresdner Philharmonie Orchestra in Mexico City and eventually recorded and filmed a video for her song “Ch’uti’xtän (Niña),” that was wonderfully successful in Guatemala. In 2016, she toured Europe and the United States, including a performance at the United Nations headquarters in New York, during the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues. In June 2017, she performed with the Dresden Symphony Orchestra at an open-air protest against Trump’s border wall in Tijuana, Mexico.
Although Curruchich Cúmez doesn’t consider herself to be an activist per se, but acknowledges the ways she uses her music to “influence political and cultural spaces,” primarily as a way to encourage indigenous revolutionaries fighting for social justice. Her single “Ralk’wal Ulew (Sons and Daughters of the Earth)” is a key component on the soundtrack of the Mayan resistance documentary 500 Years. She said,
“In Guatemala certain people try to hide many things from view, and one of the ways they do so is to keep the people quiet in the face of injustice. There is a lot of criminalization, violence and persecution of activists and community leaders… After I had been singing, the women told me they had never seen an indigenous woman do that before. It’s about breaking down those barriers and showing all those people that try to belittle us or dominate us that they are wrong and we are able to achieve these things.”
Hannah is a senior at Harvard University studying the History and Literature of Latin America, Government, and Spanish. She’s currently writing a thesis about the connection between the state-sponsored violence of the Guatemalan Revolution and the lack of prosecutorial and judicial success for women who are survivors of sexual violence in the country today. When writing about communities she isn’t a part of, Hannah emphasizes their voices and experiences, telling their stories as they want them to be told and highlighting the successes of organizations and movements working to make their communities better. Hannah wants to go to law school and practice some form of social justice law; whether that’s immigration law or criminal defense with a social justice lens, she wants to focus on using her privilege to help marginalized folks get the justice they deserve. She currently volunteers with a bilingual preschool program, La Escuelita, near her hometown in Wisconsin and works with the Small Claims Advisory Service to offer legal information to Spanish speakers in Massachusetts going through the small claims process. As a Latin American correspondent, she hopes to further her understanding of women’s movements and legal advocacy in Guatemala, as well as elevate the stories of survivors of sexual violence through articles and her own thesis.