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VI. Classes of maize specific to Huehuetenango

The people of Huehuetenango classify maize according to criteria such as colour, period of growth, shape of the grain, geographical origin and length of the growth cycle. By colour, maize is classified as white, yellow, black, coloured (red) and pinto (grains of different colours on the same cob resulting from cross-polination or transplants). Table 7 shows the terms used in Spanish and 5 local languages (Q'ajob'al, Chuj, Popti' [Jakalteko], Mam and Awakateko). Depending on the period of growth, summer maize is distinguished from winter maize. The shape and size of the grains serve to identify certain named varieties: pache (plump), long, dog tooth, etc. Due to geographical origin, there is a distinction between different types of maize: Comiteco (supposed to come from Comitán, Mexico), Chiapaneco (Chiapas, Mexico) and many others. Similarly, the maíz breve (quick maize) and maíz del año (maize of the year) owe their names to the time it takes to grow them.

In Huehuetenango, 47 classes of maize have been identified. Table 8 lists the different varieties of maize identified in the study with their local names and by climatic zones. It also gives the data referring to the colour and growth cycles of the maize. In accordance with the social and historical dynamics of the Huehuetenango region, a high rate of exchange of maize seed between the different zones was recorded. For example, in the municipalities of Huista and in the north of the Department a yellow maize called Comiteco is grown which differs from the Tehua, and both these races of maize are abundantly present in Mexican territory.

Photo 1
Black maize used for the preparation of black tortillas, which are eaten on special occasions

By analysing the genetic variety as regards the races and sub-races of maize in the Department of Huhuetenango according to the agro-ecological zones, one observes that the cold agro-ecological zone presents a greater number of races (five) and sub-races (four), while in the temperate zone, three races are recorded, as in the hot zone. All together, it is certain that at least eight races and four sub-races of maize are present. Lastly, Huehuetenango is one of the Departments, if not the Department, that presents the greatest maize diversity in Guatemala, with 57% of the races and 33% of the sub-races recorded in the country.

The description of maize varieties can help to interpret the races of maize present in the Department which, as has already been said, is one of the elements that enables us to know the selection motives and to understand the role of women in the selection and conservation of the specific genetic material of maize in Huehuetenango.

A practical example with reference to Guatemala is given by Hernández, (1987) who mentions that in the zone of San Marcos one often finds seed almost exclusively of the leafy types, a characteristic generally linked to the concept of fertility. The fact that there are fewer nodes present in the chromosomes compared to the Quicho races is a clear indication that efforts are being made by the local human communities to preserve this type of maize free from contamination by other races and especially by teosinte.

In the hot agro-ecological zone there are 25 types of maize have been recorded on the basis of their common names and grain colour, which does not necessarily imply that this region provides greater genetic variety, since a single genetic material can be given different common names.

In the cold agro-ecological zone 16 common names have been recorded for the types of indigenous maize that are white, yellow, black and red. According to Wellhausen et al. (1957) the landraces of maize represented are the following:

A local variety present in the cold part of the Department is known as Otolón. There are both pure and crossed populations, both yellow and white in colour.

Quicheño ramoso is an interesting genetic material since, as its name indicates, its cob is subdivided into various branches or appendices. It is mentioned that this maize was considered as a symbol of fertility in ancient Peru; similarly, it is reported that it was used in prehistoric religious ceremonies in Guatemala, which is why it is probable that this variety was preserved in Guatemala for its religious symbolism and significance.

Photo 2
Local varieties of maize, grown by farmers who use traditional methods

Quicheño, pure and genetically crossed populations. This landrace is one of those that presents the most genetic variety in the Department of Huehuetenango, including, as it does, three sub-races: Quicheño rojo, Quicheño grueso and Quicheño ramoso. The grueso sub-race provides fasciated cobs which have no agronomic advantage over the other races. It is thought that it may be grown because it is supposed to have magical or other properties. This material presents a great number of nodes in its chromosomes which indicates a crossing with teosintle.

San Marceño is a landrace with yellow grain, endemic in Guatemala and also contains certain populations cross-fertilised with Serrano.

Serrano, a white-grained landrace, present both as a pure variety and with characteristics of the San Marceño and Nal-Tel landraces due to genetic cross-fertilisation. It is the landrace grown in the highest parts of Guatemala.

Imbricado con grano blanco, which is considered one of the most primitive landraces.

Quicheño rojo is a landrace scarcely cultivated in the region and it presents some of the faciation characteristics found in the Grueso sub-race.

Tuxpeño, which is considered rare in Guatemala but is abundant in Mexico, is the most important landrace in the Gulf of Mexico. Tehua is apparently of Mexican origin and is distributed in Chiapas, especially in the area bordering with the Department of Huehuetenango. It is considered to be closely related to Comiteco which, as has been mentioned, is considered to be of Guatemalan origin.

The Comiteco landrace with its yellow and white grain. This is somewhat surprising since, according to Wellhausen et al. (1957), when they carried out their investigation this race was distributed solely in the temperate zone of the Department of Huehuetenango, therefore it is important to note that in recent years this race of maize has been distributed in the lower regions of the Department of Huehuetenango, thus increasing its adaptability rating.

In the temperate agro-ecological zone, only six types of maize are mentioned according to their phenotype and common name, which belong to the landraces Olotón and Quicheño already listed for the cold zone. In addition, the Yellow-grained Comiteco is also present. This landrace is considered originally Guatemalan since Huehuetenango is the place where pure populations are found.

The black-grained materials listed for the cold zone could belong to the landrace Negro de Chimaltenango a cold-land sub-landrace, according to the description and distribution recorded by Wellhausen et al. (1957), although no presence of these genetic materials in the Department of Huehuetenango is indicated. However, their presence there is not surprising, since they are listed as present in the highlands of San Marcos, possibly due to recent introduction in the high areas of Huehuetenango, or simply because they were not included in Wellhausen's collection.

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