Chuj - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Chuj conceive of themselves as maize agriculturists. Traditionally, families have had lands in three climactic niches: cold, temperate, and hot country. In cold country they pasture animals, collect plants and firewood, and occasionally plant crops; in the temperate areas they plant corn, beans, squashes, and chilies; and in hot country they plant sugarcane, henequen, reeds, and bananas. Hunting is a marginal dietary supplement because game has become scarce. In the spring, there are migrations of birds and moths. At night, families build mountaintop bonfires to attract the flocks of birds, which they then club, roast, and consume. Households keep chickens, and some have other livestock. Red meat must be eaten to prevent soul loss during the "five bad days" at year's end, after the eighteen lunar months; all families therefore procure animals at that time.

Prior to the opening of the road through the Cuchumatanes in 1960, the San Mateo economy relied heavily on the trade of salt. Families of the political leaders controlled collection and sale of the salt. Many planted only symbolic maize fields; they hired laborers to work their fields and imported maize from tributary towns. With the road, commercial salt became easily available, and the salt trade faltered. San Mateños reverted to subsistence maize farming; the median income went from the highest in the department of Huehuetenango to the bottom tier (Hayden and Cannon 1984). Owing to this economic collapse and to the disorder of the violencia, many San Mateños left the town center and now live in lowland villages. These emigrants typically have only hot-country lands, on which they cultivate both the traditional hot-country crops and the maize-beans-squash trilogy. Residents of Nentón, being laborers on the coffee plantations that gave birth to the town, farm relatively less land. Their pay is both in cash and in kind (maize, coffee, and beans).

Chuj women do not weave, but the traditional overblouse of San Mateo is elaborately embroidered on cotton broadcloth. Since the early 1970s, a women's cooperative has marketed their embroideries, overblouses, and tourist items in the departmental capital of Huehuetenango.

Trade. The Chuj traditionally held markets every five days; under Spanish influence, a second market day was added on a seven-day cycle. San Mateo has gradually meshed these two systems into a fixed seven-day schedule. San Sebastián celebrates a regular five-day market and a seven-day market; when they coincide, Sebastianecos declare it a festival day. Nentón has a small market on the seven-day schedule, but most Nentonecos travel to San Antonio Huista, a Jakaltek town, for weekly trade.

Division of Labor. Chuj men traditionally work outside the home, especially in agriculture. Children are often sent to the fields to scare off birds and vermin just after planting and as the first sprouts come up. The whole family is usually involved in the harvest, especially that of maize. Men engage in trade outside the community, although women buy and sell in the local markets. Women are responsible for the home. In San Sebastián, women retain a working knowledge of the 260-day Mayan calendar and determine dates for household rituals accordingly.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, debt peonage was prevalent in the Chuj area. Men sometimes went to the coast alone, as laborers, but, more commonly, whole families migrated and worked the fields.

Land Tenure. Most Chuj families have title to several small parcels of land, at varying distances from the town center. San Mateo and San Sebastián also have communal lands. Proceeds from the usufruct of the land go to town coffers. A few communal lots are rotated among needy families for agriculture. In all the highland Chuj area, there is a severe land shortage. Land passes from parents to children, resulting in the scattered patchwork of modern holdings. The land shortage has motivated some Chuj families to move to the jungle areas of the lowlands, both in Guatemala and in Mexico. Those in Guatemala can apply for title through homesteading procedures; those in Mexico hold their land by squatting.

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