The city of Antigua in southwest Guatemala is home to a multitude of cultures, some old, some new, some fixed and others transient. But all have had an impact on this city of thirty thousand people.
Yet whatever their background or class, Antigua's women are as compelling as the city in which they were raised and where they earn their livelihood. Conversations with Antiguan women reveal elements of the culture of the city and nation; like the vivid textiles Mayan women have woven for a millennium, theirs is a rich culture that women wear with pride, linking them to a common past.
Still, it is a fabric rent by seemingly irreconcilable socioeconomic differences and bearing the stain of social inequities. Ever since the conquest of the country by the Spanish, Guatemalan women have been depicted as a confusing amalgam of impeccable virgin and fallen temptress, their "fall" due to a perceived collaboration with the conqueror.
Though a peace agreement signed in 1996 ended a thirty-six-year civil war, three decades of fighting has had predictable effects. Seventy percent of the country's wealth is owned by 2 percent of the population. Per capita income is only $3,300, infant mortality is distressingly high, and only about half of the country's residents are literate.
And for women, sexism prevails. In a country in which the majority is underemployed, if at all, men take precedence in the job market. While women are increasingly entering the "male" world, it is often at great cost. One acquaintance who fought off an attempted rape told me of spotting her assailant the following day in a police station. In uniform. Even at the university level, it is not uncommon for women to trade sexual favors for grades.
While the peace agreement heralds change that is coming to Guatemala, it will come slowly. Woven into the lives of Antiguan women are threads hinting at a better future. Their lives may improve in a multitude of ways, but the price may be the rending of their cultural tapestry. For despite the peace agreement, a climate of violence still prevails. One woman in Antigua told me she had to sequester her son for fear he would be kidnapped. She hopes to eventually leave the country. "The war is now out on the streets," she says sadly, "and it's affecting everyone."