Our Language is Our Art: Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem

(All Moloj Wa'ix Ejqalem performance photos here taken by Kyle Hilken)

We just kind of stood there. Agape and uncomfortable, the walls of our hearts stretched so thin that every emotion lay waiting to explode through the tiny porous spaces.

It was not the discomfort that accompanies a late entrance into a packed house, all ears attune to the deafening click of a door latch; or when you find yourself somewhere you shouldn’t be.

It was the discomfort that arises from feeling everything at once - from searching frantically for a way to categorize and make cohesive thoughts of a billion synapses firing in unison. The last thirty minutes had been so filled with noise, movement, and color that its sudden disappearance left a vacuum of complete silence.

Comalapa high drum.jpg

When we finally regained control of motor function and sentient existence, we slowly approached a circle of flowers, tortoise shells, and censers, fixated on the four Mayan women. It still radiated with energy.

They stared back at us, and then started to laugh. What else was there to do?

***

“Every time we have a performance, we take people through the process of feeling our pain,” Marta tells us. “We can’t deliver our message without creating that feeling and that message inside of people.”

High atop a clearing at the end of pockmarked dirt road in the San Juan Comalapa highlands, Marta and three women from the Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem collective gave their performance that addresses sexual violence in Guatemala. It was filled with difficult scenes of rape and female victim shaming rectified with messages of abuser denouncement and community action.

The piece aims to raise awareness, spark discourse, and promote healing in a country with one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world. The Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem collective hopes to create a departure from the normalized status of women in Guatemala. “Through our performance we want to give women the power to think, not in the way of ‘oh us poor women,’ but instead, ‘I have the ability to make decisions about my own territory, my body,’ ” Marta says. “ ‘This territory that I control, where I decide what happens.’ ”   

***

Latin America is unfortunately well-known for its high incidence of violence against women, and Guatemala is no different. The country suffers a femicide rate of 6.2 per 100,000 and nearly 30% of women have reported physical or sexual violence by a partner.

For Marta and the women of Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem, the proximity and regularity with which cases of sexual violence occur is troubling; a problem deeply rooted in Guatemala’s history of colonial conquest, indigenous persecution, gender inequality, and impunity for abusers.

The Guatemalan Civil War, which spanned 36 years, was something more like a genocide. Between 1960 and 1996, 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, nearly 80% of whom were indigenous peoples. Believing that groups of Mayan protestors were in support of opposition guerilla units, the Guatemalan government wiped out entire communities and disposed of their bodies in unmarked mass graves.

Along with genocide, the Guatemalan military carried out a mass rape of indigenous women, forcing thousands into sexual slavery and domestic servitude. As recently as 2016, a group of Mayan women brought a case against and defeated the Guatemalan government for crimes of sexual violence and slavery suffered during the Civil War.

It’s part of a centuries-old legacy that has worked to drown out Mayan tenants and ancestry. A cultural identity shaped by the strength of female figures has much been replaced by one of resignation; languages centered around the transcendent mother pushed out in favor of colonial dialects.

The fallout has seen women occupying a subordinate social, economic, and legal status in much of the country, and violence often tolerated or even condoned by laws, institutions, and community norms. Gender inequality is not simply expressed, but enforced, through violence.

“We’d leave it up to the police but they always say, ‘No. There’s nothing we can do. We can’t detain them,’ so people feel like there’s no path forward,” Marta explains, “We’re trying to wake people up - if the justice system doesn’t work, how can we take care of one another? Because if we continue to put faith in the justice system, it’s evident nothing will happen.”

Instead, the Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem collective is putting things in the hands of the people.

***

“We don’t just have to say the things we’re thinking - we can use art to change the way people think,” says Marta, “People can hear our message and together we can use this art form that is part of our history, and the collective history of our culture. So that’s the reason I’ve continued to be involved in theatre - to give us liberty to create these changes.”

At the edge of a grassy plateau overlooking miles of Guatemalan hillside, Marta and the three Maya Kaqchiquel women prepare traditional huipil and facepaint in the reflection of smartphone cameras. The mood is light. They help compose one another’s thick, black hair into long braids adorned with colorful threads, maintaining casual conversation.

With nutshell-outfitted leather straps fastened to their ankles, the women approach equidistant edges of the performance circle, each step gently rattling as they settle in to a crouched position. And then starts the slow striking of an empty tortoise shell.

The performance unfolds in a series of crescendos and silence; crawling with chaos and climbing with composure; an explosion of texture, language and emotion tumbling down the arch of an ultraviolet rainbow.

Using a combination of music, dance, and spoken word, Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem depict the story of a young woman who falls victim to sexual abuse in the community. The performance takes its audience through scenes that enact the violent struggle between abuser and victim, the suffering that comes with the social stigmatization of domestic abuse, and conversely, the need for community members to band together, identify the abuser, and oust him from the community.

***

In Guatemala, as few as 1 in 10 domestic violence victims report sexual abuse. “There are a lot of women that are afraid to come out because they think, ‘what will the men say about us?’ ” Marta explains. “If we report the abuse, everyone will think we’re a slut and it will bring shame to the woman instead of the man. They’ll think we’re dirty - that we’re used goods.”

It is a backwards paradox that runs amok in every corner of the globe, and in Guatemala’s tight knit Mayan communities, it leaves women feeling hopeless. In the best cases, reporting abuse to the authorities yields inaction, and in the worst cases, it is met with victim blaming. Even family members take part in a woman’s indictment.

Through the use of Maya Kaqchiquel language, dress, and themes, Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem evoke a binding cultural identity that emphasizes the strength and power of women within their communities. “It’s not just the women’s obligation to defend and organize ourselves,” says Marta. “We are a community - we depend on the women, the men, and the children. It’s a joint effort. What we are trying to communicate is that the entire community can be not just participants, not just offer solutions, but actually do something.”

An important piece, Marta continues, is a strong community response to abusers, “If the sexual offender gets away before he can be shamed, everyone should make it known that he’s the one who did it. We can start bringing things to light.”

Marta to camera.jpg

***

As we come to the end of a densely wooded turnoff, Marta points to a 10-foot stone enclosure atop a gradually sloping hillside. The walled area she explains, is a mass grave where hundreds of her Maya Kaqchiquel brothers and sisters were buried during the Civil War. A cold, concrete room decorated with flowers, ethings, and prayer candles rests at its base, a place still visited by community members to remember the deceased.

Preserving cultural identity is at the forefront of Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem’s performance. As schools and hospitals in the Guatemalan highlands stop offering services in Mayan dialects, Marta asserts that important pieces of her culture and history are being swept away. Ideas and attitudes are lost.

For this reason, the collective performs a significant portion of the piece in Kaqchiquel. “There are things that are important for us to say in Spanish so that people can understand them, so we do small parts in Spanish. But most parts we speak Kaqchiquel becuause we’re Kaqchiqueles, right?” Marta asks rhetorically. “We speak in Kaqchiquel to claim our culture.”

She persists, “Some people say if you don’t perform it in the capitol, if you don’t perform it in front of foreigners, it’s not art. But we also make art. Our language is art.”

Comalapa girl being consoled.jpg

The Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem message transcends physical borders, but the performance is meant to be seen, heard, and felt by members of its own community. Marta stresses the importance of performing in front of audiences both old and young: for the old, to serve as a reminder from where they come, and for the young, an opportunity to learn the values that define their culture.

Marta points to use of a patate, a thin mat woven from wood fibers, to make her point. “We (Maya Kaqchiqueles) use things that are simple, but are charged with energy with respect to who we are,” she explains. “For example, the use of the patate. It’s not just because ‘oh, we’re too poor to afford a real bed’ - it’s because it connects us directly to mother earth. Because from her comes the liberty and energy that we need. It’s for this reason that we sleep on the floor.”

The women of Moloj Wa’ix Ejqalem want to use their collective history not just as a way to remember, but move forward. The community must respect, cherish, and protect its women, and in doing so, face the issue of sexual abuse head-on. Marta hopes that the energy that the collective brings to its performance will ignite a confidence to confront and denounce offenders.

Marta hopes to start by helping women reclaim their identities, “With single words women can demand respect. For example, ‘nobody can touch my body.’ How about, ‘nobody has the right to touch my body.’ With single words we can work towards accomplishing the goals that we are stressing.”