May began the corn season with controlled burns. By the middle of july, the charred plots were bristling with green stalks high enough to hide a Pedro. The corn is ready in September, but harvest is delayed for a month while the stalks dry where they stand.
On October second, I surprised the men of Sanimtac√° when I went with them to q’olok (harvest corn). The tracts of cropland are steep in Sanimtac√° and this late in the rainy season, muddy and slick. While the men trooped downhill from the road to the corn, I lagged behind, warily negotiating the muddy grade.
The procedure for harvesting the corn is fairly simple. The ear is pulled from the stalk and the stalk is bent to the ground (to mark it spent). The apical remainder is snapped off the ear and the outermost leaves come with it. What’s left is a heavy elongate teardrop of a missile. At this point the corn is pitched toward a common pile somewhere in the field. From a distance, the process resembles trench warfare. Potato-mashers rain in on shared targets from obscured positions.
The harvest was fun. The haul was not.
Each man loaded up a huge sack with as many ears of corn as it could hold. It’s important to make use of the natural wedge-shape of the ear to maximize your carrying capacity. Each person then takes his 100+ pound sack of corn, straps it to his head, and hikes to the house.
I chickened out and (taking the distance ahead of us into account) carried about forty pounds over my shoulder. The climb back up to the road was even trickier than the descent. Back on the road, I did manage to slip and fall, corn and all. The president of the cooperative offered his cargo for me to carry. He thought it would make a good photo. I assured him that it would kill me.

In keeping with the cooperative nature of the community, all the men pitch in with their neighbors’ harvests and receive help with their own. So we all worked the same plot of land that day and we all carried the day’s harvest to one house.
The houses in Sanimtac√° are wooden structures with dirt floors and peaked thatch or corrugated zinc roofs. Living and cooking space occupies the bottom floor, but most buildings have a second-floor attic space for furniture and supply storage. The space above the kitchen is blackened by cooking fire and receives twelve hours of heat and smoke every day. This is where we deposit the corn.
Sanimtacans are tough. Even so, as we neared our destination, heavy steps quickened and furrowed brows dripped. Each of us in turn climbed the ladder to the second floor to add our hauls to the larder. When I got to the second level, the hot smoke hit me hard. I emptied the bag and got myself outside in a hurry, coughing and tearing up.
It’s possible to grow corn twice annually. But where we live, cardamom and coffee season block the people from growing corn more than once. Corn is a staple crop in Guatemala, but it’s not a cash crop. It’s worth the investment for a family to grow its own corn, but it doesn’t pay to grow more than they need. So in October the people harvest all the corn they’ll need for the year. Then the small mountain of corn is stashed above the daily fires where the smoke discourages weevils, mice, and moisture from ruining the family’s reserve.
Over the year, the corn is separated from the cob by hand and ground on a heavy stone with water to make a masa, or corn dough. The masa is used to make tamal and tortilla. Corn tortillas (wa) are the dependable companions to all meals. We have tortillas with our breakfast eggs. We have tortillas with our lunch beans. We have tortillas with our dinner (eggs again). And in the city, it’s not unusual to see someone at a comedor scraping their spaghetti into a tortilla.
After the work, the women brought us hot fruit drinks and we waited for everyone to come in from the fields. Once everyone was back, there were a few prayers and we had chicken stew with tortillas. Everyone took turns asking if I was tired.
To which I replied, “Tawajenaqin, usta yo’o jun sut chik.”
I’m tired, but let’s do it again.
And in typical reaction to my Q’eqchi’, they laughed and repeated it for anyone who might have missed it.

One Response to “harvest”

  1. sarah Says:

    what beautiful photos! thanks for posting, it’s awesome getting this kind of ‘behind the scenes’ idea of what you do over there. (I’m a big fan of your blog, if I never told you before)