The Ways of The Maya

Salt Production in Sacapulas, Guatemala

By: Ruben E. Reina and John Monaghan

Originally Published in 1981

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Guatemalans of Maya ancestry, living in rural communities, possess a wide variety of skills and technologies for the manu­facture of domestically needed items. Men and women of each community are known throughout the highlands for the production of one or two of these articles, which are distributed through a well-established market system. Whether the specialty is the manufacture of pottery, textiles, lime, salt, grinding stones, reed mats, gourd utensils, jewelry, baskets or hats, or the cultivation of vegetables or flowers, its anthropological importance lies in each product’s position in the culture of the people who create it. From the ethnographic research carried out in this century we have learned that both the way the society is organized and its world view support the specialization of each community and encourage its con­tinuity. The interrelationship of these cultural elements brings about a strong tradition within a definite boundary. To speak of “community” here is to speak of a fundamental principle of social organiza­tion. In addition, these differences in specialization are vital to the existence of the region. Through the market system each community has access to a wide range of expertly made products that as an isolated entity it could not enjoy. While homogene­ity of product and technique plays a vital role in the makeup of each individual community, differences between com­munities are essential for the functioning of the regions as a whole. In other words, community specialization can be credited for the level of complexity achieved in this part of the world. Most children born in a community with a specialization will not only practice the craft when they become men and women but will associate these activities with specific values. To protest or question what one should be or do would only invite ridicule and contempt. To obey (respetar) such a deep tradition is to live according to a concept of vital importance among tradi­tional Maya people. Such pressure for cultural homogeneity therefore limits the choices open to an individual. This situa­tion has a positive side. To follow the prescribed in life is also to enjoy the prestige of craftsmanship considered muy antiguo, very old. In this way it is fulfilling, and children socialized into such a pattern become in time the overseers and trans­mitters of the same skills and values their parents had. This particular activity and knowledge are not perceived solely as means of obtaining practical advantages. They are integral to the history of each group of specialists: a symbol of their existence. Therefore, anyone who takes it upon him­self to bring about changes in his com­munity’s specialization can face serious problems. Their ancestors left them with an identity and an assignment which serve to distinguish them from other groups. The individual who takes up a craft that is the property of another community also rejects his identity, becoming as someone from another place. Within the traditional culture such individual action is seldom considered, migration from one Maya com­munity to another is socially very painful, and one can never become a full-fledged member. Even marriage between com­munities is rare, and seems to be a last resort for the parties concerned. Crafts­manship, one’s place in the society, and traditional values, summarized by the won costumbre, cannot be separated.

Saltmaking in Sacapulas

The Maya people of Sacapulas operate one of the three ancient salt production centers in northwestern Guatemala. For us salt is taken for granted as an inexpensive commodity that is always close at hand. It is hard to believe that in many areas of the world it is difficult to procure, often at a high price. Some scholars feel this was true for the Maya of antiquity. Noting the lack of suitable salt sources in the Petén, they have even blamed “the Classic Maya Collapse” on the cutoff of this substance. Whatever the merits of this argument for the ancient Maya, it is apparent that salt has always been an important commodity for the Sacapultecos and in the past it served as a medium of exchange. Father Bartolomé de Las Casas reported this in the 1560s and it continued to be true in

Guatemala at least until the 1890s. Today, no meal is considered complete without salt with the corn tortillas and chiles. Such demand made Sacapulas a wealthy com­munity in the past, and continues to make salt production a very profitable enterprise.

For scholars interested in the continuity of Maya culture, Sacapulas affords an excellent example. A report from the colonial period describes in detail the production of salt in the early 1600s, and a native document, the Titulo of Sacapulas, gives us insights into the Maya view of the process. Observations made by the authors in recent years both confirm and elaborate on these early documents. Widespread political and economic changes have not altered the basic structure of values, nor the technology that surrounds saltmaking in Sacapulas. To illustrate this, we will begin by discussing some of the early accounts, and follow these with observa­tions and photographs made in the course of our work in the community.

The Titulo of Sacapulas

While the text of this document remained unwritten until the colonial period, the Titulo represents an oral tradi­tion that existed long before the arrival of the Spaniards. The document, produced in the context of a land dispute, was for the protection of the rights of the Sacapultecos to their lands and resources. For this rea­son, the Titulo of Sacapulas is very much concerned with the sources of salt in the area. However, the document is more than a land deed. It is also an origin myth, which shows the intimate connection these resources have with the lives of these people. The writers of the Titulo begin by explaining how their people arrived in the land they now occupy. They came, as one of the original seven peoples, “from the other side of the sea, from between the seven caves and six canyons.” They were led by the Ahau Canil, who, through his nagual, or spiritual coessence, brought the Sacapultecos to their land. During their wanderings they fought wars and suffered slavery and illnesses. Despite all this they arrived at Monte Blanco, the White Mound or Sac-pulas. There the nagual sat down, and began to urinate. His urine formed the salt from which the Sacapultecos were to make their livelihood. He then taught the Sacapultecos how to recover the salt and assigned this task to them and to all their future generations.

The Colonial Documents

One of the first Spanish reports of salt production in Sacapulas came, in 1574, from three Franciscans who worked in an adjacent region. They tell us that lack of salt is a grave problem in their area, and salt must come from Sacapulas, a four day journey. Many Indians from their jurisdic­tion make this trip, hiring themselves out as laborers in the salt works (salinas). As payment they receive a quantity of salt, which they then take back to their own communities to sell for a profit.

In the year 1629 salt production in Sacapulas once again appears in colonial documents, in an account written by Martin Alfonso Tovilla, the Alcalde Mayor of the province of Vera Paz, Golf Dulce, Sacapulas and Manchen. Tovilla toured the area of his jurisdiction, and set down his impressions in a book entitled Relaciones Historicas Dyscriptivas. Before going to Sacapulas, Tovilla visited in the Quiche region a group of Indians related to the Sacapultecos. He was accompanied there by the grandson of the last Maya ruler, the Ah Pop. Together they visited the site of Utatlan, the former capital of the powerful Quiche. He was told that in the days before the Spanish conquest by Alvarado, there were in the region twenty-four leaders, whose wealth and power depended on the tributes from their vassals. The old inhabi­tants of Utatlan had been engaged in wars, expanding their influence through military domination. Among those conquered were the Sacapultecos. Tovilla was also told that the Quiche, after capturing members of a rival, Cakchiquel-speaking group, sent them to Sacapulas to work at producing salt. These captives were kept in a cave at night, and at dawn were taken to the salinas for a hard day’s work. A great deal of salt was produced, an additional source of power and wealth for the Maya rulers.

Tovilla was extremely curious about the way in which salt was made. Back home in Spain, he had been inspector of the royal salt works in Murcia before coming to the New World. He found the Sacapultec method different from anything he had ever seen and “quite extraordinary.” He set down a careful description of the opera­tion, and left us some information on the social makeup of the village of Sacapulas. According to Tovilla, the area was made up of six parcialidades, or land-holding groups whom the Dominicans had gathered together to form the village of Sacapulas. Each group retained its name and identity, as well as its respective portion of land. Even though some groups were geo­graphically uprooted, changes in their economic specializations were minor. For the most part they continued to be farmers, preparing their maize fields as they had for centuries. Yet, one parcialidad, San Sebastian, from which writers of the Titulo of Sacapulas had come, was differ­ent from the rest. These were the people who had been led into the region by the Ahau Canil, and who owned the salt works. Around them the other groups were clustered, and they became, as they con­tinue to be today, the most important group in the pueblo (village).

Tovilla took great care in describing “for those who are curious and wish to enter­tain themselves,” how the Sacapultecos manufactured salt. He tells us that the works were set next to the river and were made up of playas or tracts of land well-scraped and clean, Spread about these playas were twelve water holes containing hot mineral water. Each morning, salineros spread a layer of fine soil over the playas, wetting it down from time to time as the day passed. In the late afternoon they care­fully gathered the soil into piles, knowing that, aided by the sun’s heat, it had absorbed the salt from the earth. The mounds were then covered, in case of rain, and the process was repeated using the same soils the following day. When the soil was saturated with salt, it was packed into stout baskets and a large tinaja, or clay water vessel, was placed underneath. The salineros then poured water from the hot springs into the baskets, leaching out the salt contained in the soil. This leaching process ended when the soil was judged to have lost its “strength.” The author goes on to say that the legia, salt water, was finally portioned into cajetes, small clay con­tainers which were then set over a fire. As the water boiled, the salineros occasionally dropped corn dough into the cajetes to thicken the water and form the white salt. Tovilla felt that the work was difficult and the price of one real for fifteen cakes of salt extremely low, considering the amount of wood needed for the firing process. He seems to have found this method of mak­ing salt ingenious, and realized its impor­tance in the local economy.

Tovilla’s seventeenth century account gives us an accurate description of the technology involved in the production of San Sebastian, who enjoy the rights to the salt sources. Only the people from this barrio own kitchens and sections of the playa along the river. These men and women were born in the barrio of San Sebastian and are of Sacapultec Maya ancestry.

Flooding from the nearby river has always been a problem for the salineros. Playas cannot be used during the rainy season because they are filled with water. Some years this flooding can be quite serious, as the remains of a protecting wall constructed over sixty years ago by order of one of Guatemala’s presidents readily illustrate.

In the past, salt making was totally a male enterprise. “In the old days,” as one salinero told us “no woman would come to the playas. Women were permitted by tradition to bring us our noon meals, but they remained on the hill above the playas where they were met by the men. It was costumbre.” A seventy year old salinero explained why these changes were necessary:

Our ancestors changed some ways to meet their needs. It happened after a great flood when our playas along the river were ruined, and a large amount of stones and mud were deposited over salt in Sacapulas. It is unfortunate that he did not set down more of the social and cultural factors related to salt production. One has the feeling that he may have known more. However, he did show sur­prise and admiration for the achievement of these people, and recognized the tech­nology as wholly native.

Sacapulas Today

Today, the pueblo of Sacapulas has a population of about two thousand people, organized into several barrios or neighbor­hoods. Dispersed among these people are a handful of ladino, non-Indian families who are largely bilingual. Some of these ladino families have been residents in the village for over two centuries, interacting and intermarrying with the Maya. However, it is the Maya who carry on and preserve the Sacapultec identity, and it is they who are the saltmakers. In fact, it is the descendants of the Ahau Canil, still living in the barrio illustrate. This situation explains an apparent paradox. The 1932 local census listed fifty full-time salineros. Why, con­sidering that salt making continues to be profitable, are a smaller number of salineros active today? The answer lies in a dis­astrous series of floods in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All the playas were buried under tons of silt and rock. Slowly, people began uncovering their playas, until today there are eleven kitchens worked by approximately thirty-five full-time salineros. The recovery was not complete however. From descriptions given by older salineros it is apparent that only about one-fifth as many playas are operating now as were before the floods. Enlarging a plot by excavating more of the sediment entails a tremendous amount of work; few have the time or means to do so. Still, those families who hold rights to the playas can point out where their plots are, although they remain buried under five meters of earth and rock.

them. Before this, our playas were guarded by two naguales, a man and a woman. With the flood, the female nagual left us, going downriver to another place. Who knows why she left? It is said that the salt still flows over the stones where she sits, but the people who live there do not know how to use it. They were not given the knowledge for salt making so they are ignorant on this matter. Because of her departure we have less salt now for after all we only have one guardian, the male nagual (Rahau Salinan, Ri Diosil Salinan). Since the woman nagual left, our wives may join us in working the salt. There are many women who own kitchens and playas.

Occasionally, at night, the male nagual can be seen. He is tall, dressed all in white, and wears a wide-brimmed hat. On May third of every year a celebration is held in his honor. It takes place around the cross set up in the K’animak or heart of the salinas and is directed by one of the oldest ahk ij or shamen, of San Sebastian. The fact that this ceremony takes place in the heart of the salinas is very important. As are all things of great moment in men’s lives, the salinas is seen as being animate; it exhibits many of the properties of a living being. It has an immortal soul—heart and soul being the same thing for the Maya—and also has a coessence, the nagual, a type of spiritual alter ego. The nagual is an integral part of Mesoamerican belief systems, since it is through their naguales that divinities interact with men. Likewise, men have naguales, but there are few men who have naguales that are strong enough to initiate or sustain such interac­tion. The ahk ij is one such person, and it is he who asks both pardon of the nagual of the salinas for any trespasses the salineros may have committed, and that he continue supplying them with salt. The ahk ij burns copal, or incense and candles and pours libations of corn liquor at the base of the cross. The corn liquor, normally called guaro, here is called orientan, which translates as “a prayer” and is a ritual

means of establishing contact between the ahk ij and the nagual of the salinas. After the ahk ij has finished, a marimba is brought out, and fireworks are set off. People then begin to dance for the nagual. The older men begin, joined later by the women and younger men. The costs of the celebrations are borne by the active owners of playas, each contributing an equal amount. In recent years, due to the small number Of operating playas, the celebra­tion has been less elaborate, a drum being substituted for the expensive marimba, and the amount of food and drink offered being reduced.

Although the census supposedly reports all the Maya owners of pIayas, we learned that the list is far from complete. Many of the saints in the church are also owners of salt playas. These saints are the objects of veneration of the oh patan, or civil-religious hierarchies. While these playas are now covered over, many of the older solineros can point out their location. They were either worked by the Cahauschel, the leader of the ah patan, or rented to a third party, the proceeds being used to pay for the candles, incense and fireworks used to celebrate the saint’s day.

Salt Making in 1978

On a typical day in the dry season (from November to June) salineros still execute the steps that Tovilla outlined in 1629 for the production of salt. As already men­tioned, the playas are too wet to work during the rainy season. People employ this time preparing their milpas, cornfields, and replenishing the stocks of wood used for cooking the salt. The salt that is pro­duced during this time comes from the salty soil they have kept in storage.

To illustrate the steps that the Sacapultecos take to make salt, we will follow two of our salinero friends, Dionisio and Rosa Acietuno, as they go about their work at the salinas.

Preparation of the Playa

Both Dionisio and his wife are vigorous for their seventy-odd years and are enthusiastic about their craft. They begin each working day at sunrise. A strong pull at a bottle of guaro “gives one strength to begin the day,” Dionisio explains. Before sitting down to the fresh tortillas prepared by Rosa, he gives thanks to Jesus Christ in the church, to the Holy Earth and to our father, the Sun. After eating, Dionisio departs alone for the playas. His wife will join him later in the morning, after she gives proper attention to her household and leaves instructions about the noon meal with her daughters. Today they are to carry it down to the salt kitchens, where all the members of the family will meet to discuss the day’s events and do justice to the food their salt has purchased.

Dionisio follows the path along the banks of the river to the ployas. Each salinero owns a patch of playa, close to three square meters in size. Actually, it is Rosa who owns their playa and kitchen, having inherited them from her father. Under the strong tropical sun, Dionisio begins by spreading age-cleaned soil over the playa, no more than a centimeter thick. With a finesse that comes from long experience, he takes baskets filled with this special soil and with circular movements of his arm scatters it evenly over his patch, covering every inch. Next, using a half-gourd, he fills a tinoja with water from the hot spring in his playa. Using the gourd, he sprinkles the water from the tinaja over the soil. “One needs just the right amount of water,” explained Dionisio, experience alone guiding him in this task. Wetting the soil is done the first thing in the morning so that the sun will heat the playa and the salt “will rise up through the earth into the soil.”

The soil spread during the morning has already been spread on each of the two preceding days. Just before evening on each of these days it had been gathered into a small mound in a corner of the ploya. “After the first day the soil keeps some salt,” Dionisio explains. “To leave it spread would be to lose it as the salt goes back into the earth.” In the morning of the second day the soil is spread again, this time without any water. By the time this is repeated on the third day, the soil is much heavier than before. Once again, as described, it must be sprinkled with water from the spring. “Now,” said Dionisio, “the soil is saturated and cannot lift any more salt from the earth. It is time to bring it into the kitchen for storage or place it in the cajon (wooden filtering box) for leaching.” This whole process of spreading and gathering the soil is known as sembrar lo sal, to sow the salt. The salt is seen as brotando, or germinating in the soil. The Sacapultecos, being intimately involved with the natural world around them, con­stantly employ organic metaphors to describe their activities at the salt works, in the same way we use mechanical or industrial metaphors to describe our own actions.

“The soil,” Dionisio tells us, “is some­thing we have received from our fore­fathers. It is hard to replace because we don’t know where it came from. We lose some throughout the years, but perhaps some is replaced as we scrape the hard bottom of the playa.” Through generations the supply of soil appears to remain con­stant in the kitchens. Nowadays, no one could begin saltmaking without a supply of soil secured by inheritance or purchase. The more of this soil one possesses, the larger the amount of salted soil one is able to keep in storage during the rainy season. “The kitchen is a bank with money for us,” Rosa joked, “so when we need money at any time during the year we come to the kitchen and make money, salt.”


The kitchens are small, stone-walled rooms of approximately 6 x 8 meters set deep into the ground, built on the high banks along the river, just above the pIayas and hot springs. The concentration of these buildings surprises strangers. The area is devoid of residences and these kitchens differ much from the traditional Maya home. At first, this cluster of buildings gives the impression of an abandoned sec­tion of the town, overgrown with grass and littered with broken pottery. During the dry season, however, the area bustles with activity.

The stout walls of each kitchen support thick beams upon which a roof of clay tiles is set. Because the kitchens are excavated, like cellars, the roofs are no more than one and a half meters above the ground. Between the roof and the walls is a gap from which smoke and heat escape.

Entrance to the kitchen is by a door fastened loosely to two vertical posts. This leads down to a floor about one meter below ground level, this distance varying with the season, since the floor is made up of a large portion of the salted soil kept in storage. Piled along the walls of the kitchen is also a large quantity of this soil, which is expected to keep its salt content for at least two years. In the center of the kitchen is a platform of packed earth, about 1 x 2 meters, which is used for firing. Evenly distributed across the top of this platform are stone wedges which support the cajetes during the firing process. Around the platform the floor is excavated to its greatest depth, so that the salineros can work in a standing position. One wall is set aside for the storage of wood and the large clay vessels that will hold the salt. Most of the stored soil comes from the playa but scattered about are small mounds of spent charcoal dirt clods, about the size of a hand, which have been taken from the firing platform after the last firing. Some salt-laden water always spills on the plat­form as it is poured into the cajetes or overflows as it boils. When they are to be used, these clods are broken up and added to the other soil in the cajon when it is time for teaching.


All during the day salineros trudge up the hill from the playas with baskets of sail on their backs, supported by the mecapal, or tumpline. At the kitchen area, Dionisio fills the cajón with soil from the reserve. The cajón is a wooden box, about 11/2 by 11/2 meters set on top of a mound of earth a short distance outside the entrance to the kitchen. The mound is about 2 1/2 meters high, high enough so that water poured into the box can drip through a straw mat into a plastered stone basin beneath. It takes several baskets of soil to fill the cajón. This is hard work since the soil is now heavy with salt. Once the cajón is filled, Dionisio climbs into the box and barefooted, carefully walks along the sides, packing the soil as firmly as possible with his own weight. “One must be very careful while doing this,” explains Dionisio, “If the soil is packed down too much no water will filter through. Yet the packing should be firm enough to stop the water from seeping out the sides of the cajón. The soil in the center of the box is not packed and so remains higher than the soil along the sides.”

In the center of the cajón Dionisio places a round basket containing the spent char­coal and pulverized clods of earth. “Every­thing is used in this work,” Dionisio tells us. The wooden cajón is now ready to receive the water. He now goes down to the playa and fills a tinaja at the hot springs, carries it up the hill, then pours it slowly into the cajón. This will be repeated ten times in the next half hour. The con­tents of the colon have now become a dark brown mud. Underneath, from the center of the box, clear water filters into the stone basin. As the basin slowly fills, the salinero shapes a small ball of maize dough and tosses it into the water. The more salt in the water, the faster the ball rises to the surface. As long as it floats, he knows the salt content is satisfactory. His work on the playa has been successful.


As the amount of filtered water increases, Dionisio ladles it into a tinaja, which he then carries into the kitchen. There he pours it into a larger tinaja. It is now mid­morning, and his wife arrives to help with the firing. She immediately sets to work, arranging the wedge-shaped stones on the firing platform. There are thirty-two of them that she lines up in four evenly-spaced rows. Next she examines the twenty small clay cajetes in which she will boil the salty water. She has brought these from home, where she made them over a mold then dried them in the sun. They are very fragile since they have not been fired, and must be handled with care.

She places each one on the platform, at a height of about ten centimeters, supported by four of the stones. Both her husband and she test the arrangements, to see that each cajete is in a stable position and will not tip over when the water is added. Follow­ing this they place ocote, sticks of resinous pine, between the stones and under the cajetes. Dionisio starts the fire, and Rosa prays, explaining to God and to the Holy Earth what they are about to do and asking pardon for any trespasses they may have committed. As the fire advances she mixes a handful of tortilla dough with the salt­water brought in by Dionisio. A small quantity of this mixture is poured into each of the cajetes, sealing the walls. At the same time the clay of which they are made hardens with the heat of the fire. At this point, some fifteen minutes after the fire was lit, each cajete is filled with salt water from the basin outside. Maize dough has already been mixed with the water, so that “the salt will be fine grained instead of coarse,” they explained.

By this time, Dionisio has filled all the large clay vessels along the wall with filtered salt water. During this time, Rosa has kept the liquid boiling by adding wood to the fire below the cajetes. The process seems to be going well, and they are able to take a break. Before sitting down, they thank God and the Holy Earth for the success they have been blessed with. While resting in the doorway of the kitchen, they review the progress already made and plan the steps to come. All the while they keep careful watch on the fire, since it is impor­tant to keep the heat constant. Dionisio shifts now from carrying water to helping Rosa tend the fire. However, he will con­tinue to filter water through the cajon until the tortilla dough will no longer float.

During the next several hours, the kitchen heats up and the smoke is heavy at times. As the water boils away, the salt crystallizes on the inside wall of each cajete, turning it snow white. Within two hours after firing began, the cajetes are filled with salt. Husband and wife, using half gourds, scoop this salt into a waiting tinaja. As the salt is removed, the cajetes are filled with salt water, and the boiling continues. This step is carried out with a harmony and efficiency that comes from long cooperation. They direct each other in their native Sacapultec, since they find Spanish inadequate for the keen coordina­tion needed to carry out this task. Each knows exactly what to do as they move around the platform scooping out salt and adding water.

The Acietunos will repeat this firing operation twice more during the day, finishing the second batch at one o’clock and the third at three. However, it is not until the first batch has been made that they are able to predict whether or not they will have sufficient salt water to carry out all three operations.

By the time the third boiling is under way, they must decide whether to turn the salt in the tinajas into atzam, small white cakes, or place it back in the cajetes to produce xuupej, black salt. The decision is based on the amount of salt they have produced during the day. Today they have made enough to make both types of salt.

At five o’clock they begin to stoke the fire to generate the additional heat needed to make black salt. Salt from the tinaja is transferred back into cajetes, and pounded with a crude mallet. More salt is added and compressed, until each cajete is filled with a hard cake. The cajetes are fired for three hours until the salt blackens. As the fire pales, a layer of white salt is sprinkled over the black salt “for decoration,” as Rosa explained. Black salt, according to an analysis carried out in the University of Pennsylvania’s Geology Department, con­tains aphthitalite, a mineral not found in the white salt. We are not sure of its significance, but the Maya favor black over white salt, and it brings a higher price. It is thought to taste better, and is famed for its medicinal properties, especially for the treatment of eye and stomach problems. These are widely held beliefs in Guatemala, and Felix McBryde tells us that along the Pacific coast, unscrupulous merchants try to counterfeit black salt by mixing black volcanic beach sand with white sea salt (see Suggested Readings).

For the Acietunos it has been a day of hard work, and they make ready to return home. Nothing is locked up, as their goods and tools are under the protection of God. Before heading home they stop to bathe in the hot springs along the river, to wash off the grime from work in the hot and smoky kitchen.

Early the next morning they are back at the salinas, to add the finishing touches to the salt. Inside the kitchen, Dionisio begins by turning over each of the cajetes that are filled with black salt and breaking their clay walls. The cajetes have served not only to cook the salt, but to mold it as well. While Dionisio has been doing this, Rosa busies herself with the white salt that remained in the tinaja. Cool, it has the consistency of porridge, all the water not having evaporated as it had from the black salt. First she removes all the stones from the firing platform, and sweeps it free of ash and charcoal. Next, she spreads a one centimeter thick layer of sand over its clean surface. A small oval, bottomless, wooden mold is set in the sand. The pliable mold is held in shape with a string, which Rosa can release or tighten as she moves the mold from place to place as her hus­band fills it with the white salt. The water runs out through the sand, and after a few hours these panitos, as they are called, are dry and hard.


In the two days the Acietunos produced approximately two hundred and fifty pounds of salt. They can sell it at an average of fifteen cents a pound, since the price does fluctuate with the season. Sub­tracting the cost of the firewood, near one-third of the gross, they stand to gain twenty-five dollars, In a society where the daily wage for agricultural workers is two dollars, this represents a substantial profit.

It is Rosa’s job to market the salt. Every Thursday and Sunday, she sets up a stand under one of the large ceiba trees in the plaza. Sacapultec salt is well known in the area; most people, including the ladinos, prefer it over commercial salt. Unlike many communities with a specialization, Sacapultecos do not have to travel far to market their product, Much is consumed within the boundaries of the municipality; most of what remains goes to the communi­ties of Uspantán and Cunén to the east, and the Ixil people to the north. While their salt does get occasional wide distribution when Sacapultecos travel to visit distant communities during fiestas, the Ixil have been their steadiest customers for cen­turies. The Ixil like the salt not only for its taste, but because they feel it makes their animals grow faster. Older Sacapultecos remember well their trips over the hill, by foot and on horseback, to sell salt in the Ixil communities of Chajul and Nebaj. There was no formal market in Nebaj at the time, so they would conduct their business in front of the church. The Sacapultecos traded for money and for maize, something in which they have never been self-sufficient. The trip took about two days, by foot, but a road constructed in 1937 has made the journey much easier by bus. From the other Ixil municipality, Chajul, groups of ten to fifteen men used to make the trip to Sacapulas, carrying with them maize, which they exchanged for salt. This is still true during the big fiestas in Sacapulas when many outsiders visit.


From documentary sources, we know that salt was prepared in the past in exactly the same manner as today. In 1639, Tovilla wrote an overall account of the process. Three hundred and forty years later, we find that salt making is still a community specialization, and remains in the hands of the Maya people from the barrio of San Sebastián. We are accus­tomed to accept the notion of culture change. Here we see the other side of the coin: culture continuity that spans cen­turies. This craft has survived social, political and economic changes in Guate­mala. We must look for an answer to this not in the isolation of Sacapulas, but in the ways that saltmaking meshes with many of the vital principles that give meaning to and guide Sacapultec life. The craft is closely tied with one’s place in the society, community identity, and economic well­being. It is not only a job, but costumbre. It is a mission that has been entrusted to them by the nagual of their leader, the Ahau Canil, and links them with their past. While submitting to Spanish political domination, these Maya people have con­served their cultural values and their system has not yet perished in the face of our industrial age.

Cite This Article

Reina, Ruben E. and Monaghan, John. "The Ways of The Maya." Expedition Magazine 23, no. 3 (March, 1981): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

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