Previous PageTable of ContentsNext Page

VIII. The farming of maize

The participation of women in the conservation of the different varieties is characterised by their greater participation in decision-making, farming tasks and in the post-harvest processes depending on the type of genetic materials to be used. The type of agriculture practised in the area of the study fosters the multi-cropping or traditional system, which in turn fosters the conservation of the genetic resources of maize. In general terms it can be said that women participate actively at all levels in this system.

However, the level of involvement of women in maize farming varies greatly in the region, according to the customs of the different communities, their position within the family units and the social and economic level of the families themselves. In Aguacatán, they participate in the whole farming process due to the fact that a large number of women are in charge of the production teams (widows or wives of men who have emigrated); in other places, their participation is shared with the men and in certain places (such as Tzunul, Todos Santos Cuchumatán), their participation is more limited in the farming phase women are specialised mainly in handicraft. However, in all cases, women work directly in the selection of the seed for the next production cycle. In most of the cases reported, women are in charge of selecting and stripping the cobs as well as specifically selecting the grain. In certain places men also participate in this activity.

All the interviews carried out confirm that the main crop in the development of the communities is maize and that it is a family responsibility, and as such, that its cultivation involves all members of the family unit. This is dependent on the social conditions of the different communities. For example, in communities where there is an intensive craftwork activity, or where there is a large production of commercial products, such as garlic and onions, women participate less in the farming of maize than in communities where there is a high level of male migration or where there are many widows, where the farming is predominantly carried out by women. However, whether they participate directly in the actual cultivation or only in the post-harvest tasks, generally speaking the women of the region have a knowledge of the maize farming techniques and play an important part in the culture which surrounds the farming of maize through their central role in the process of selecting the grain.

Photo 3
Woman participating in the maize harvest

(Photo: Mario Fuente)

The agricultural production cycle of maize varies widely. In the cold zones, the cycle is longer and there is one harvest per year, whereas in the hot and temperate zones, on the other hand, it is possible to obtain two harvests a year. In such zones two types of maize are sown: humid maize and rainy maize. The larger farms plant only a part of their land in the dry season, leaving the other parts of the land to rest before sowing in the rainy season. However, leaving land fallow for one or more years, locally known as "guatal", is a gradually diminishing practice due to demographic pressure and the scarcity of lands.

The yield of maize varies according to factors such as altitude, soil quality, maize varieties, climate, adequate rainfall, fertilisers and pest control. According to the study, in the cold zones, the average yield is 34 quintals per hectare; in the temperate and hot zones the yields are 45 quintals per hectare and reach a maximum of 69 quintals.

Although all family members participate in the tasks involved in the production of maize, certain members of the family have greater responsibility assigned to them for specific tasks. Women have an important role in the production cycle of maize, but since the work in the maize field is associated with the responsibilities of the men, the work of women is only seen as a "help".

According to Doña Francisca, a Mam woman from Colotenango, "If the woman knows how to handle the hoe, she can help the man; if not, she just spreads the fertiliser. She also helps when he sprays the crop, she is the one who fetches the water that is required."

Various studies have shown that as well as participating as manual labourers, women also intervene in the decisions concerning the techniques to be use in the production processes, credit and marketing. A study carried out as regards the participation of women as producers of food in Guatemala22 reveals interesting figures: women account for 31.5% of rural employment in the production of staple foods, mainly maize and beans.

The information collected clearly indicates that although women participate in nearly all the tasks related to the production of maize, as shown in Table 9, this varies according to the different regions.

Apart from the northern and southern regions, the sowing, cleaning and pest control activities are predominantly carried out by the male population; however in all regions, men and women participate in an equal manner in the harvesting activities. In the southern and the northern regions there is a high level of women's participation in all farming activities.

As we shall see later, on the basis of these data, the emphasis of women's contribution to the growing of maize is mainly focused on the harvest and post-harvest activities, since their role is essential in the selection of the material to be sown.

Nevertheless, the times when women have a determining role in the definition of the genetic material to be preserved and reproduced are the post-harvest period and the pre-sowing period. By the process of husking the maize, the selection of the seeds and their preparation for sowing, women make an important contribution to the preservation of the genetic material. In the different ethnic groups present in the Huehuetenango area, as well as in other pre-Hispanic cultures, unwritten knowledge is passed from generation to generation through the maternal line.

Independently of who does the work, certain phases of maize farming are accompanied by special ceremoniesin which the permission and the protection of deities associated with
the land, agriculture or maize are implored. Currently, in various municipalities of the Department, such as San Pedro Soloma, Santa Eulalia, San Juán Ixcoy, San Sebastián Coatán, San Rafael la Independencia, Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Jacaltenango, Concepción Huista, Aguacatán, San Pedro Necta, Ixtahuacán, Colotenango and San Juán Atitán special rites are celebrated in relation to maize farming, especially at the times of sowing and of the harvest.

These rites are expressions of a religious feeling in which pre-Hispanic and Christian elements are subtly amalgamated. Many families have altars in their houses where they do a vigil over the maize seed before sowing the crop.

This shows the respect for nature which endures in the indigenous families of Huehuetenango. This feeling for the earth is also expressed in the words of Rigoberta Menchú (Nobel Peace Prize):

The farmers of Huehuetenango, especially those who grow indigenous maize, generally have small lots. According to the last agricultural census in 1975, 29.56% of the properties were micro-farms, lands of an area inferior to 0.69 ha. 59.48% were sub-family farms whose area ranges from 0.69 ha to 6.9 ha.23 The field study revealed that the average surface area on which families grow maize was 0.78 ha in the south of the Department, 0.52 ha in the western and central regions, 0.43 ha in the eastern region and 1.04 ha in the north.

We have the earth. Our ancestors told us: "Children, the earth is the mother of humanity, because it is she who feeds humanity." ... Thus our parents teach us to respect the earth. We may only wound the earth when there is need. This conception means that before we sow our maize field, we must ask for permission from the earth. [The prayer says] "And we respect you, and we ask you, and [implore] that you love us as we love you." (Burgos-Debray, 1992)

The tasks related to the farming of maize and other crops in the Department of Huehuetenango reflect a combination of recently introduced techniques with ancestral practices and rites. A few references are given below:

In growing maize, the preparation of the land consists of manually cleaning the soil and burning the remaining weeds. The burning or clearing is done to eradicate jarahuá (Hyparrhenia rufa (Ness) Staf.), whose roots spread widely. After the burning, the stubble and the ashes are turned into the soil. Some farmers, mainly in the central area, do this traditionally with hoes or with ox-drawn ploughs. The aim of this is to put the organic matter back into the soil and to allow the earth to retain moisture deeper down. As the earth is turned over, it is exposed to the sun and this practice contributes to pest control. If the land is near the home, they use the yard birds (poultry) to feed on the eggs, larvae and adult forms of the different pests. Both men and women participate in this activity.

The complexities of the rites related to the growing of maize differ according to the various ethnic groups, religious affiliations and the economic status of each family. The blessing of the seed-grain is practised by both the Catholics and the Protestants.

In Santiago de Chimaltenango, a Mam community, during the 1930s, at the dawn of the first day of the sowing season the owner of a piece of land and his wife would celebrate the rite of the blessing of the grain.


"My God, let my maize not disappear. Father Praxil (the Lord of Maize), let there be water puddles for your feet and dry times for your hands (rain for the roots and, subsequently, dry weather for the cobs). Do not send the rains or gales that ruin your field. Forgive me Father! Let there be no misfortune in this place (the maize field). Let there be no snakes in the fields as we work this day [ ... ]" (Wagley, 1957)

The sowing of summer or rainy-season maize is carried out between January and March. The seeds are sown in the furrows formed with the tilled organic material where there is a higher concentration of humidity. In the higher and colder zones, the seed sown is at higher risk because the temperature may drop and damage the tissue of the new shoots. There are specific varieties of maize for sowing in the humid zones, which are resistant drought and cold. In this respect, don Anselmo, a farmer farmer from Malacacinto declared: "There is a seed of black maize and another that is yellow. The white or yellow seed takes eight months; black and yellow seed is fast growing and takes less time to mature, five months". It is a seed for sowing in humid soils, that is tried and tested. The behaviour of other seeds is not known. The people know which seed they need. This why maize for seed is stored after the harvest.

Taking into account the amount of land available, the farmers of the hot and temperate zones can also opt to sow rainy season maize. This is the variety that has the longest production cycle. Doña Lucía, a woman from Todos Santos, describes this sowing process as follows:

"The little pocket where the maize seed goes is called the `morral' and the stick used to push into the ground is the `coba' [coa]. Three or four seeds at a time are put in each hole. These are one short pace away from each other. Together with the seed, fertiliser is put in from the compost heap, before, and after it has grown, we put chemical [fertiliser]. We also sow black beans. Wherever the grain does not germinate, the maize does not grow, broad beans are sown. Then we say `we are going to prop up the crop' and we go out to `julear' (heap the earth around the stalks)."

The sowing is done preferably in a single day. If necessary, additional workers are hired to help with this task. According to Wagley (1957), the sowing of maize in Santiago Chimaltenango during the 1930s had to be done on a day that was favourable according to an esoteric calendar, interpreted by the shaman. Doña Remigia López y López, an 84 year-old woman resident in Malacatancito, remembers:

"In the olden days, when we sowed the grain, we ploughed three times with the oxen, and once the land was prepared, the people caught `chompipes' (turkeys) and invited everyone. It was a custom to make a tortilla paste with ground cocoa, cinnamon and peppers beaten to a froth. At twelve, after the meal, it was given to all the sowers with a slice of sugar-loaf. In the afternoon they are given `horchata' (a rice drink) and bread. It is still done today, sometimes. The morning before sowing the maize, or in the night, they put the basket of seed-grain in front of the altar of St. Isidore the Farmer and they lit candles to him."

In various communities, at the end of the sowing, it is the custom to prepare special food for those who participated in the task. For instance, in Suculque, a village in Huehuetenango, they serve an appetizer in small gourds. Each culture or each community organizes rites that are specific to its own beliefs and the natural phenomena that are most frequent in its specific area which can influence the development of the crop. In Suculque, for example, before the meal, prayers are said for the germination of the seed and the crop. In other towns like Los Huistas, other rites are celebrated for the same purpose and to avoid the scourge of the wind. In view of the importance of rain for the growth of the crop, in the 1950s, in Colotenango, a Mam community, a rite was celebrated to ask for rain and ensure the growth of the plants. The "pedidas" (ceremonies to implore rain) were celebrated on the crests of the mountains surrounding the area. In these rituals the chimán, the mayor, the regidor, certain elders and their wives all participated. The chimán was the person who had to pronounce the "call" to the Lords of the Hills to ask them to send the rain. The ceremony included prayers, the sacrifice of a turkey, the offering of candles, burning incense and a dance24 . Nowadays, in the municipalities of Malacancito, San Gaspar Ixchil and San Sebastian Huehuetenango, they still practise rites on top of the hills to ask for rain. In these ceremonies, they burn incense, copal, turkey eggs and chilli peppers.

In the 1950s, in some communities of Colotenango they also conducted rituals to ask for rain.

Various testimonies obtained in this consultation confirm that such practices still go on in the communities. It is said that a few years ago, in 1987, in San Pedro Necta, where water is very scarce, it rained once or twice and everyone went out to sow, but then it did not rain again. The people brought out in procession (the image of Jesus of Nazareth), and at that moment it began to rain. "When there is a real lack of water and they do the processions, especially in Jacaltenango, there are special persons to pray, the alcaldes rezadores". (Clara Silvestre Camposeco, 39).

Although these tasks are mainly carried out by men, in some communities women also participate. About 20 days after the maize is planted, the farmers do a first cleaning, which consists in removing the weeds that have grown around the plants. The second cleaning takes place when the stalks are knee-high. During the second cleaning the juleo or aporque is carried out, which consists of forming mounds of earth around the stalks to protect them from the wind. The fertilisation consists of adding chemical fertiliser (urea or 20/20) to the soil or organic manure (hen, sheep droppings).

The main pests which attack the maize are the gallina ciega (larva of the beetle Melolontha sp.) and the gusano cogollero (larva of the Heliotis). To control gallina ciega attacks, certain farmers plough the soil. In this way, the larvae are exposed to the heat of the sun and the attack of birds. In other cases, the general practice is to kill the adults. To do this, the farmers attract them by placing torches in barrels with water and soap.

In the temperate and hot zones, when the grain reaches maturity, it is customary to "fold" (doblar) the cane, breaking the stalk beneath the cob. The cob is thus left hanging upside-down until the plant has dried. This practice has various functions: it diminishes the damage caused by birds, avoids the penetration of water into the cobs, which prevents fungal diseases, and it preserves the humidity the seed grain requires to germinate.

Maize plants frequently remain in the ground one or two months after the grain has reached maturity. This occurs especially in the case of winter-sown crops. The whole family participates in gathering the harvest, both in the cutting and in the transportation of the cobs. In addition to the family, the communities can count on the help of paid and unpaid day-labourers through the tradition of mutual assistance. This exchange of work is established through a ceremonial practice. To commit a person to participation in the tapisca (maize harvest), one sends them a ball of maize flour mixed with cocoa and other ingredients. When this is dissolved in water and heated, it produces it produces an appetising cocoa drink.

In the northern and western regions, such as the municipalities of Jacaltenango, Concepción Huista and Barillas, the first crop of the season is taken to the church in thanksgiving for the harvest. As samples, the biggest and most perfect cobs are chosen.

In Huehuetenango, women participate actively in the tasks of stripping the grain off the cobs, the preparation of the maize for consumption, the selection of the seed for planting and the marketing of the produce. Their contribution is more important once the maize has been harvested. At this point, they take charge of the produce, make decisions, care for it and administer it. As women with a social role in a society within which maize represents the sustenance of the family and the continuity of the community, in most cases, they suggest or decide the use of certain varieties of maize and their growing seasons so as to obtain the desired results in terms of the taste, colour, texture, malleability and durability of the foods and drinks that are prepared with maize.

The selection of the more vigorous maize cobs to be used for seed can begin in the field. As the plant grows, the farmer goes through his land and by simple observation selects the largest and healthiest maize plants. This technique is equivalent to the very well-known mass selection in plant improvement. After the harvest, the cobs are carried to the home where the cobs are sorted according to their different uses, a task carried out mainly by women.

Some families sun-dry the cobs for 10-15 days before they store them. In the cold areas, the cobs are stored in the corridors, the kitchen or the loft of the house. In the former case, the leaves are not completely stripped from the cob, some of the leaves being left to hang the cobs from. The garlands formed in this way are hung from a cross-beam, either in the corridor or in the kitchen. The aim of the first method is to air the grain, retain its natural humidity and at the same time protect it from pests. The aim of the second method is to allow the smoke from the oven to serve as a repellent and for the proximity to the heat of the fire to contribute to the drying process. Women indicate that nixtamal grain, with which tortillas are made, gives better results when the maize is well dried.

Cobs, with or without leaves (doblador), are often stored in the loft of the house, which can be built of cypress boards and roofed with shingle or corrugated iron. The cobs are taken down according to the needs of the family, to be eaten, sold or used as seed.

In the temperate zone, the storage of maize cobs in lofts is predominant. But they also store them, with or without leaves, in trojes (barn-sheds, traditional or improved). They resemble a pen with raised floor-boards 50 cm or 1 m above the ground to protect the crop from rodents. The roof can be of corrugated zinc or tiles. The larger traditional trojes can store as many as 50 racks of cobs which is equivalent to about 75 quintals.

In the hot zone, the study data indicate that the storage of grain is done in lofts (20%), trenches (60%) and metal silos (20%). In the second case, the cobs (with or without leaves) are stored in jute or raffia sacks. The sacks are closed and piled up on wooden platforms. In the third case, the silos are made of smooth zinc sheets.

In the western and northern zones, maize cobs with or without leaves, or the shelled grains, are stored in wooden crates. In these cases, most of the families interviewed for the study use chemical substances to control the insects that damage the grain. A minority, aware of the damage caused by chemical pesticides, uses organic alternatives, such as lime, ash, dried and ground chilli and flor de muerto (Tagetes erecta L.) as repellents for the maize weevil.

"I choose the seed. When I bring the maize down (from the loft) for us to eat, I separate the grain. My son-in-law tells me to do this. I teach my daughters. To store the crop we must use insecticides. Before, there was no problem; now after three or four months, we find holes in the grain. We do not leave it in the sun."

"We women learned to shell and select the seed from our youth. In my house, and generally at night, the women would sit around the basket of maize to shell the grain. The grandmother would separate a few large cobs; these were not to be shelled inside the basket which receives the grain for making the next day's `nixtamal' (maize paste for making tortillas and other foods). In the month of May we would put our hands in our mouths and blow on them: then we would begin shelling with our fingernails. We would always start in the middle of the cob, leaving out the tip and the base and taking care not to break the grain. The grandmother did this, telling us that we were little, that we were not grown up enough to do it and that it is something sacred" (Remigia López y López, 84, resident in Malacatancito)

As the sowing season approaches, the women undertake the shelling of the previously selected cobs. The technique means using their fingertips to remove the grains from the middle of the cob and placing them inside the tecomate (fruit of Legenaria siceraria (Mol.) Standl.). One day before sowing, the grain is soaked to soften it and enhance germination. In some cases, the selection is made throughout the year. Women select and set aside the cobs for seed-grain as they shell the maize that is to be consumed during the year.

The shelling of maize is a work that women learn in childhood. Certain testimonies show that this task is basically carried out by women and requires special know-how and skills. The size and the quality of the grain selected as seed is determined at this moment. This know-how is transmitted by mothers and grandmothers to their daughters and grand-daughters:

The selection process also reflects a knowledge of the different varieties of maize and the environments to which they are best suited.

"When they bring the maize (the cobs) to the house, it is stored and then the leaves are removed. It is put into sacks and then it is shelled with our fingernails. We choose the cobs. The largest are chosen for seed-grain; not the smaller ones, because they might not do for the next year's crop. We must find the largest. This seed comes from the highest land, far away, which we call Rancho Viejo. It is a small maize with small grains. From this we choose the largest grain as seed. It comes from the highlands, the very coldest; it is not a rainy-season crop and does not require much fertiliser."

"This is how the seed is chosen: only from the middle (of the cob). The grains, the good plump ones, are carefully extracted with our fingernails. These grains (from the tip and the base) are not used, because they are small and would give very small plants, but they are used as food." (Doña Concepción, 65, El Rancho, Chiantla)

According to this study, most of the maize produced in Huehuetenango is consumed locally. In the rural area, where there are large extended families, with eight or more family members on average, between three and three and a half quintals of maize are consumed per month. Sometimes as much as 25 pounds are milled for one day's consumption25 , including rations for the animals. In the villages, food mostly consists of tortillas, beans, chilli and coffee. On the other hand, in the municipal capitals, the consumption of maize is lower, because there is more food variety and this can include meat and other foods.

The women prepare maize in a wide variety of ways, but tortillas are the basic staple. They are eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner and constitute, for the ethnic Maya populations, the most important food.

In addition to tortillas, the women of Huehuetenango prepare various dishes and drinks derived from maize. These are eaten as part of the daily diet or as special foods related to feasts or ceremonies.

Photo 4
The shelling of the grain is the activity in which women have a preponderant role in the selection of the genetic material to be used in the next sowing of the maize crop

Administering the distribution of produce is the women's job. They are responsible for ensuring that the harvest should provide for all its different uses: seed, family meals and, if possible, a surplus to be sold for profit. By selling maize, women guarantee an income for the purchase of products of prime necessity. Occasionally, maize is bartered in kind for other produce (poultry, eggs, grain...) or for maize seed of other varieties that are required for the next sowing season.

By bartering (exchanging) to ensure the "quality of the seed", the women give maize for consumption in exchange for seed-grain of a better quality. In places like Mesilla, the Tutuapeños exchange pots for maize. There are also exchanges of certain types of maize for others, or for hybrid seed.

"I exchanged seed with my neighbours; when they have no need for seed. Some neighbours exchange it, the best seed for sowing, and they get is not for sowing, but for eating." (Doña Francisca, Colotenango)

In the different regions the post-harvest activities: shelling the grain, selecting the seed, the preparation and marketing of the maize are basically the job of the women, as can be seen in Table 10.

Photo 5
The selling of surplus maize in local markets in an activity exclusively reserved for women.

22 de León and Vargas, 1992.

23 Dirección General de Estadística, 1982.

24 Valladares, 1957.

25 24-hour recall dietary questionnaire. DIGESA and Peace Corps. October-November, 1993.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page