Blog posts tagged with 'history'

Introduction to the Modern Maya

Once one of the most powerful civilizations in Central America, the Maya people remain an integral part of Guatemala. The rise of the Maya civilization began thousands of years ago and spread across what it now southern Mexico all the way to modern day Honduras. The Maya civilization lasted longer than any other Mesoamerican culture that came to power in the area, and as a result, traces of the culture remain very much alive even today.

Today, there are about six million Maya living in Central America. Although they have relatively modern lives, most still live a lifestyle that is distinct from that of Guatemalans descended from a European heritage. Instead of Spanish, the official language of Guatemala, most Maya speak primarily  indigenous languages, of which there are 22, each reflective of a disparate regional heritage. Because the Maya civilization was so widespread geographically, various dialects evolved into unique languages over time.

Many Maya women, in particular, may not speak fluent Spanish at all. Growing up in Maya households and, unfortunately, likely not to have attended school where the Spanish language would be taught, women and girls speak only their indigenous language. Only 48% of indigenous women are literate in Spanish. This language barrier contributes to many disadvantages including inequality in the labor force, limited access to adequate health care, and exclusion from the legal system. Unique Batik works primarily with indigenous women, seeking to create income and the possibility of an education for those who would otherwise have little to no opportunity.

A history of craftsmanship is still seen in the beautiful handicrafts of Maya people today. Although their work has evolved to take in new influences, assimilate them, and in some cases become something entirely new, a reflection of Mayan history remains in carving, painting, textiles, and more. Considering today’s prevalence of beaded jewelry, it may surprise many to learn that although weaving has been an integral part of Mayan culture for centuries, the introduction of small glass beads and the subsequent creation of woven beaded jewelry did not occur until quite recently. Since the introduction of the tiny glass bead, women in Guatemala have used their traditional weaving skills to create a wide range of jewelry designs, which have become quite popular in the marketplace.

Weaving holds a position of high importance in Maya culture, not only as a handicraft tradition,but as a religious and social tradition. Ixchel, goddess of the moon, has a special connection to women. She is represented with weaving implements in her headdress, and is said to have taught the first woman how to weave. The tradition is passed from woman to daughter, and has been for centuries. Weaving is a social activity, as well; with the portable backstrap loom, women can weave virtually anywhere. Historically, it is one of the only sources of income available primarily to women. Maya women take great pride in their weaving skills, as can be seen in the amazing textiles that come from the region.

At Unique Batik, we strive to sustain both ancient and new traditions of Mayan handicrafts through marketing these special products to buyers across the globe. Having spent many years traveling to Guatemala and the heart of the Maya culture, not only observing its beauty, but learning about it personally through friendships and long term partnerships with our artisans, we recognize both the beauty of the Maya peoples and the struggle that they face. Through fair trade, we hope to preserve the one and alleviate the other.

The Sacred Grain

The culture that brought us chocolate and guacamole is also the basis of Guatemalan cuisine. Mayan foodways reign supreme in Guatemala in traditional foods such as corn, beans, and chilis, although there is also a clear European influence. Rice, for example, now a staple of Guatemalan meals, was introduced by the Spanish during their rule which began in the 1500s. Before that, maize was the main crop, and it is still seen at almost every meal in the form of the ever present corn tortilla. Mayans first cultivated corn around 2500 BC; in fact, it was corn that helped form the great civilization when the formerly nomadic people began to settle in order to tend their crops.

A fundamental of everyday eating, the tortilla can be found virtually everywhere in Guatemala. Residents of the region have been eating tortillas for at least 3500 years. The Mayan creation myth even tells of the gods making humans out of various substances until they found one that was successful - corn. In Mayan culture, a meal is not complete unless it includes some kind of corn. In fact, the words for “tortilla” and “to eat” are almost identical.

Mesoamericans made tortillas from maize that had been nixtamalized, or soaked in an alkaline mixture, usually lime. Although historians do not know when or how nixtamalized maize became a dietary staple, we do know that through using this preparation of the grain, the nutritional value of the corn is released for human absorption of niacin, B vitamins, and amino acids. Without this process, it is impossible to live on corn as a main food source. People who consume a large amount of maize that has not been nixtamalized suffer from pellagra, birth defects, and even death. When Columbus brought maize back to Europe and Africa and it was consumed widely without the traditional preparation, the result was a devastating epidemic of pellagra which remained a medical mystery for centuries. Though they did not have the benefit of modern nutritional information, the Mayans and other Mesoamerican peoples developed and used this fundamental process for corn thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the New World.

Try your hand at making the thick, delicious tortillas of Guatemala. You don’t have to boil your own maize in limewater -- a simple trip to a Latin grocery store will yield a bag of masa harina, or nixtamalized corn flour. The ingredients are simple - flour, water, salt, and a little love.  It may take some practice to get the technique down, but that’s half the fun!

Guatemalan Tortillas

Yield: 16 medium tortillas


2 cups masa harina

1 ¼ cups water

¼ teaspoon salt


1. In a large bowl, mix the flour, water, and salt until a soft ball forms. Continue kneading until the mixture has the consistency of play-dough. Cover and allow the dough to rest for ten minutes.

2. Divide the dough into sixteen pieces of equal size and roll them into small balls. Keep the dough covered with a damp towel to keep them from drying out.

3. Shape the tortillas by clapping the ball back and forth between your hands. If you’d rather, you can roll them with a rolling pin between two pieces of plastic wrap, or use a tortilla press. Just remember that to be authentic Guatemala style tortillas, they should not be too thin (at least ¼ inch thick).

4. On a preheated griddle or large skillet over medium-high heat, cook tortillas for about one minute per side. When they are ready, there will be small black spots and the tortillas should easily come off the cooking surface without sticking.

5. As you finish cooking the tortillas, remove them to a plate or basket; cover and keep warm.

Serve warm and enjoy! Try the tortillas by themselves with butter or guacamole, or as a side with black beans or stew.