She moves without prejudice through territories that in contemporary and unequal Guatemala seem antagonistic: the university, the rural space,

emancipated motherhood and the central evangelical church.  Of all these areas, what landscape defines this young woman from Saint Lucia?

Texts: Cora Gornitzky (INTA – Argentina)

Photos: Juan Pablo Villalobos (EUROCLIMA PLUS – Costa Rica)

SANTA LUCÍA UTATLÁN is a small town in the Department of Sololá. But there is room for many worlds. These are the worlds inhabited by Jeni Beatriz Vásquez Ajú. A young woman, indigenous, single mother, embroiderer of huipil blouses, university student and aspiring flower grower; Jeni seems to feel comfortable in all these territories. She goes in and out, if identity can work with those swinging doors. She speaks Spanish when she goes to the university and uses her native K'iche' language when she's at home. She wears a huipil and skirts daily, but also tight jeans and tee-shirts when attending pedagogy classes.

In mid-May, when the rainy season begin, Jeni and her family welcome a delegation from the European Union's EUROCLIMA+ Programme, which implements projects to strengthen resilient food production in Latin America as part of the fight against the effects of climate change. They come from the neighbouring countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama and also from the Southern Cone. Visitors have come to see the macro-tunnel where her brother produces, propagates and sells gerbera flowers. The small nursery sits on high parts of the family land, very close to the house. The structure is 10 meters long, 3.80 meters wide and 2.10 meters high. The family enterprise is supported by UNDP through a protected agriculture implementation project that has already installed 50 micro-tunnels in the Department of Sololá. This is a proposal for adaptation to climate change and an alternative that adds income for women and youth in the region. In this way, they use small units of land and diversify production, while taking pressure off the agricultural lands with their traditional corn and bean crops.

It is a cloudy afternoon in the highlands. While the entourage visits the Vásquez macro-tunnel, Jeni stands next to her mother, under the frame of the kitchen door, in the open space that connects the two sections of the family home. Dressed in her blouse and the nearly 9-meter skirt worn by Mesoamerican Mayan women, Jeni looks impeccable. She appears friendly and restless, with her long brown hair, her quick smile, and a curious look.

-Would you like to come in?

And then, on a table in the spacious kitchen, the 28-year-old woman shows the huipiles she is about to finish. She embroiders these colourful Mayan blouses in crosses per customer request to cover her daily expenses.

As she speaks, logs crackle in the wood-burning stove and on the iron stove a pot emits the sweet and irresistible aroma of tropical fruits. It's the non-alcoholic punch of grape and pineapple that Jeni has prepared for the guests. Her three-year-old daughter Madaí enters, and Genesis, the eldest niece. They all live in the same house, where women predominate. “My family consists of my mother, four sisters and one brother. We have grown up working, thanks to the example of my mother, who was left alone because my father left a long time ago.”


Jeni was born there, on the same land as her grandparents, who live in the adjoining house, about 100 meters from her home. In this rural setting, with a good connection on a paved road, she grew up with her siblings in a matriarchal system where her mother became the head of the family.

A producer of tomatoes, maize, peppers and beans, the mother raised her 4 daughters and her only son in the Mayan tradition, under the native K'iche' language, with the evangelical values of the central church and with a focus on primary, secondary and higher education, which all her children managed to access.

The reality of Jeni's family partially explains some statistical data published by the United Nations: 52% of Guatemalan women work in rural areas but only 21% are paid, like Jeni's mother. The remaining 31% work without being paid.

Other data can be traced back in local newspapers from early May, when indigenous peoples and farmer organisations marched to the country's capital to complain about 569 arrest warrants issued for women defenders of the land and to protest the more than 100 femicides committed recently.

“Guatemala is a puzzle that has not yet been solved” they say on Plaza Pública, a communication portal created by young people from the Rafael Landívar University. “Throughout the country, multiple and contradictory ways of life coexist, expressions of labour that lag behind other ultramodern (...) local, transnational transmigrant lives.”

What comes out of inequality, they ask themselves in an innovative digital project that presents a whole geography of faces, stories, images and experiences that seek to understand the complex social structure of Guatemala.

Jeni Beatriz Vasquez Ijú integrates this intercultural mosaic with her hüipil embroidery, her pedagogy classes at San Carlos Public University, her life experience as a single mother, her evangelical faith, and her production practices.

-What is it like to be young in the rural areas of contemporary Guatemala?

-For young people of the rural area, work is scarce. It is very fashionable now to graduate from high school and make the decision to take the risk and look for a temporary job where one can support oneself or help one's family. The other is to migrate to the United States, but that decision is fraught with many difficulties. But the rural area is more immersed in the countryside and by agricultural work. The work here is very difficult. That's why young people (those who aren't taught to work or use hoes to till the land and plant corn or vegetable crops) migrate to work in trouser factories, known here as maquilas.

Guatemala's young population, 15 to 29 years of age, represents 28.6% of the population and totals some 4.6 million people. This age range includes Jeni and her siblings. Fifty percent of the young population still lives in rural areas. Agriculture absorbs 29.6% of economically active young people, according to data from the National Employment and Income Survey (ENEI 1-2016) published by FAO in 2017. In rural areas, 45.9% of the land is used for agriculture, livestock production, hunting and forestry activities. Child and adolescent labour (between 7 and 17 years old) is a painful reality facing Guatemala. Available data indicate that for every 10 children and adolescents working in rural areas, only 1 has minimum living conditions. Some 47.1% live in non-extreme poverty, 41.9% live in extreme poverty and 11% are the poverty line. Jeni knows these figures, which is why she values the effort her family is making to provide them with access to higher education. “My mother supported all of us equally to finish high school, even university, because each one of us is seeing this and paying as required to reach a higher level.”

When Jeni became pregnant almost four years ago, she had to suspend her pedagogical studies to raise her little daughter. But she decided to go back to college. “As a single woman and mother, the situation is difficult. In my family, thank God, as women we are the majority, we work in the office, at home, in the fields, we study and carry out other activities in order to get ahead and not depend on the man’s support if he does not want to collaborate. In rural areas like mine you see more early marriages, but also a lot of chauvinism, violence and disintegrated families. Those of us who live near urban centres can take courses on making preserved meats, nectars, and fruit or tomato jams.”

The rural woman stereotype is engraved in stone and it is very difficult for young women to break that glass ceiling. Although gender equality in Guatemala has gained ground, male hegemony continues to characterise the culture, especially in rural areas. According to a FAO report: “women farmers have very low rates of land tenure (only 7.8% of landowners are women), which makes it more difficult for them to apply for credit and undermines their decision-making power. Women often have low levels of education and rural areas offer them very few formal employment opportunities.”

Guatemala first turned to FAO in 2013 for the Organisation's technical advice on supporting the activities of the Women's Specific Cabinet (Spanish acronym GEM). Between 2016 and 2017, FAO helped MAGA map the mechanisms for implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the gender equality policy which the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food's then implemented.

-How do you spend your days here between rural life and the university?

-The life I lead as a mother and student is not easy. I am a single mother, I have a daughter, an enormous blessing, whom I watch over and care for. I embroider hüipiles with crosses. I earn a little from this, while I see more sources of income to cover household expenses for my daughter, and very apart from the university, because I only study on Saturdays. I have also always enjoyed writing, but I have never let myself be known in that sense; well I said, few are those who support talents such as writing or poetry. And even more so when it is a woman who writes. It is not a writer's life that women have in the countryside.

Jeni offers the warm punch, especially recommended for bad weather days. It's Friday and it starts raining in the highlands. The visit of the EUROCLIMA entourage ends, but social networks exist. The conversation continues via WhatsApp.

-Do the young women living in your village receive training in agro-industrial work?

- I have had some courses on making preserved meats, nectars, and fruit or tomato jams. With my family we have worked for years in different crops, such as tomato, pimento chilis, and now we have flowers, especially the planting of gerberas, giving some help to my brother who is responsible for taking care of them.

-How did your family manage to join the macro-tunnels venture?

- My brother studied to become an agronomist and this has helped him and opened doors for this project that he obtained, together with other young people from the rural area who take turns caring for and growing the gerberas. When they are not available, my siblings and our mother help him.

What Jeni wants is to be able to build a macro-tunnel of gerbera flowers with her mother: “We want to make one for ourselves, because we see that the work is very good, the flowers sell well and do not require much effort. We will look for some financing to buy the seeds so we can work on the flowers early and take care of the house, prepare the food and take care of my daughter. Without neglecting my studies, my goal is to complete the Pedagogy Technician and a Bachelor's Degree in Educational Administration at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala.”


Jeni is studying at the Sololá departmental headquarters of the University of San Carlos. She says that only 10 percent of the rural and indigenous population has access to higher education in her district. When she finishes, she wants to stay with her family. “We have always lived here. I like the climate, the natural environment. If I had to leave, I would choose a place like this again.” Argentine anthropologist Rita Segato likes to talk about landscapes rather than habitat, roots or territory. Landscape is the term that then explains the Sololá altiplano, the university of San Carlos, the land where Jeni was born and grew up, the house she lives in, the plains that will be bathed in sepia next month, when dust from the Sahara arrives in Santa Lucía Utatlán and the environment turns grey. And the green of the woods and the blue of the sky will be lost for a while. "The landscape is an inscription of memory," says Rita Segato. And this metaphor that designates a country, a habitat, a territory and a story also defines Jeni Beatriz Vásquez Ujé.