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Santo Domingo

The village of Santo Domingo, part of the municipio of San Antonio La Paz, is situated in the midst of steep hills and offers few flat areas for cultivation. Soils are shallow, rocky, and very susceptible to erosion. No irrigation system has ever been installed: the cultivated plots are too poor and dispersed to make it a good investment. The community is built on the site of the former estate of Santo Domingo los Ocotes, nationalized in 1955 and allotted a year later by the government to the former tenant farmers of the estate as a "communal property." That is, a single property title was issued to the village as a whole, leaving to its inhabitants the responsibility of deciding who has rights to which parcel. Although this should guarantee that everyone who wants land can have some, figures from the two R10 surveys conducted by the INCAP team show a steep decline in general access between 1974 and 1987, which was due partly to population pressure and partly, as is argued below, to the falling importance of agriculture as a source of income. Furthermore, signs of a struggle for land are surfacing, creating bitter rivalries between villagers and pointing to an increasing concentration of land ownership [10].

Santo Domingo's agricultural production systems have historically revolved around subsistence cropping. Maize was the most important crop in acreage in both 1974 and 1987; however, harvests are generally low. Similarly, the harvests of black beans are among the lowest of the four communities and are declining rapidly. A few farmers also cultivate tomatoes on a commercial basis, but their production remains insignificant because of the lack of irrigation facilities.

Overall, agriculture in Santo Domingo must be characterized as marginal. Moreover, its economic importance keeps declining as time goes by. A number of factors may explain this. Poor soil conditions and the lack of infrastructure have prevented investment and productivity improvements. In addition, the expanding availability of alternative employment in nearby Guatemala City has led to increases in the opportunity cost of being a peasant. This combination of factors has affected all agriculturally based activities: whereas family farming (commercial and subsistence) contributed 24% of annual household income on the average in 1974, the figure was down to less than 8% by 1987. Similarly, the number of families that depended primarily on agriculture dropped from 38% in 1974 to 13% in 1987.

The proletarianization of Santo Domingo's villagers constitutes the logical counterpart of this agricultural decline. Already in 1974, non-agricultural employment was the most important contributor to family income. Santo Domingo benefits from its proximity to Guatemala City in this regard, villagers being able to commute daily to the city only one hour away. They have increasingly used this advantage in the last two decades, as reflected by changes in the pattern of migration and the occupational profile of the population: whereas 39% of household income derived from wage jobs in 1974, the proportion was up to more than 60% in 1987, with most new jobs in the manufacturing sector. Better urban wages also explain the improvement of families' economic status, overall income levels in real terms being 79% higher in 1987 than in 1974. Daily commuting to the city is costly, however, and may explain why this community saw the most permanent migration between 1974 and 1987 (almost all to Guatemala City).

A fair number of women (generally young and unmarried) have participated in this migratory process, most of them occupying low-paid jobs in the service sector as domestic workers, street vendors, and counter clerks. When it comes to agriculture, how ever, the sex division of labour remains traditional, women's participation being confined to domestic processing of crops, bringing food to field workers at midday, and the like.

A type of household industry widely practised by women of all ages in the community is the production of guaype, a material consisting of threads scratched out of fabric scraps with a bottle cap, which is used as a cleaning material in industries and car washes in the city. Earnings from this activity are extremely low: although women spend as much as six hours a day processing guaype, none of those interviewed made more than seven quetzales per week at it (currently Q 1 = approximately US$0.20). In this regard, guaype production is a good example of the ways in which the modern, urban sector is reaching out in the countryside, drawing women into the economy as an available, cheap, but non-mobile labour force.

Population and demographics

Santo Domingo is the second largest of the four study communities, after Conacaste. Its population was 811 in 1969 and 1,629 in 1987 [11]. It has the highest rate of out-migration, a fact related to the greater involvement of villagers in urban employment.

Infant mortality rates have traditionally been lower here than in the other mountain villages [8], which may be explained by greater exposure to modern medicine through more frequent contacts with urban ways of living and health services and a noticeably higher rate of literacy and education among mothers than in the other villages. These factors may have fostered changes in attitudes toward health, favouring children's health status and explaining the better mortality indicators.

Infrastructure and services

There has never been a regular transport service out of the community. People have to walk approximately two kilometres to reach the Atlantic highway, where they can catch one of the numerous buses running this important route. The only street is a poorly maintained track coming down from the highway; in the centre of the village it splits up into footpaths leading to the various parts of the community.

Drinking water has been available since 1964. The system—unchanged to this day—gets its water from a spring called El Hato, six kilometres away. The water is first stored in a reservoir, from which it descends through pipes to a number of public taps scattered through the village. Water flows are abundant and regular throughout the year, but the distance from a house to a tap may be such that the actual availability of water is limited in many households. The system is maintained by nominal subscriptions (Q 1.20 a year) made by the villagers, and a water committee maintains the service in fairly good condition.

The health clinic was built in 1986. Until then, people used the house built in 1969 by INCAP for its supplementation study. It is worth mentioning here that the clinic has traditionally served as a storage and distribution centre for food aid given by CARE in the context of its foster parent programme, which has been active in Santo Domingo since 1982. All families having a "foster child" (i.e., most of the families in the village) are entitled to a monthly distribution of food rations consisting of five pounds each of rice, maize flour, wheat, and oil.

A school has been operating in the village for the last 40 years. The building, which has been in its present site since the early 1960s, was damaged by the 1976 earthquake and was reconstructed and enlarged in various phases after that date. Today it offers the six primary grades, and has six classrooms and the same number of teachers. Enrolment rates and literacy levels, especially for girls, have consistently been among the highest of the four study villages. Here again, the frequency of contacts with Guatemala City may have contributed to changing attitudes toward education.


Santo Domingo's chief characteristic is its growing economic dependence on the capital city. As people have become more proletarianized, agriculture has declined in importance to the point of being a complementary activity. Proletarianization seems to have had some positive effects on Santo Domingo's families, since they showed the second highest rate of income increase between 1974 and 1987, and in 1987 received the highest average income among all the study communities, a relative amelioration if we consider that they were in second place in 1974, below Conacaste. This improvement must be attributed to the fact that urban wages are generally higher than rural incomes (the income figures may be overestimates, as the R10 surveys do not include data on the costs of commuting to the city). Also, the frequency of contacts with urban ways may have contributed in changing people's attitudes with respect to health and education. On the other hand, the physical infrastructure in Santo Domingo has long remained minimal, this village being for instance the only one of the four study communities where not a single home has a private water tap. It was also the last one to receive electricity and its health centre.


San Juan

The village of San Juan sits halfway between the towns of Sanarate and Sansare at the bottom of a large, roughly circular watershed delimited in its lowest part by the Rio Llano Largo. Much of San Juan's lands are forested or located on steep slopes and cannot be used for agriculture. The topography smooths out somewhat towards the river, allowing for some cultivation. The soils are among the driest and least fertile of the department, however, and the crops that do best are drought crops such as sorghum and yuca (manioc).

San Juan las Flores has been part of Sanarate's municipal lands since the liberal reform of 1872. The first dwellings consisted of a few shelters built around 1900 by the workers of a nearby cattle ranch when dispatched on the range. A number of the workers eventually established permanent residence there and were allotted plots to cultivate for their own on the condition that they should continue to fulfil their obligations to the estate. Later, seasonal migration to the south coast also became a usual way to pay the labour tribute. Entire families would leave the village for a few months every year between December and April. This cyclic migration pattern persisted long after the revolution of 1944 and the abolition of the forced labour laws, as agriculture alone could not ensure the subsistence of San Juan's people.

After severe droughts in 1949 the village almost disappeared, most people preferring to stay on the coast rather than to return to their arid, barren community. They came back, however, when conditions improved, attracted in particular by the yuquilla boom that took place between the 1950s and 1970s (see below). Yet it is still fairly common for men from San Juan to leave in December or January for the sugar and cotton plantations of the south in order to raise cash before the planting season.

Land distribution is egalitarian: the poor soil, uneven topography, and lack of water always were strong disincentives to investment and speculation. The average area controlled by the families in 1974 was 68.6 cuerdas, down to 40.1 cuerdas by 1987. The most common forms of tenure are ownership and land rental. The latter has declined over time to the benefit of land ownership (fig. 3).

Maize and sorghum are the most important food crops. Yields are mediocre, however, and are entirely absorbed by family consumption needs. A number of households have traditionally dedicated themselves to the production of yuca. The crop performs well in dry climates and poor soils and requires little care from the grower. Being a perennial, it can be left unharvested for long periods without losing its qualities and can serve as a food reserve for bad years. Most important in San Juan is the production of starch (yuquilla) from yuca. The production process is simple, and yuquilla has many industrial applications and has historically found good outlets in Sansare, where two small enterprises have been processing and directing regional peasant production to outer markets since the last century. The best years for yuquilla were the mid-1970s, when Sansare's firms started exporting to the United States. Since the early 1980s, however, after the increased use of maize-based starches, which can be produced industrially at lower costs and with less residues, artisan yuquilla production has declined drastically: in 1974, 81 of the 98 families sampled for the R10 survey (83%) were involved at some level in yuquilla production; in 1987 the proportion was down to 9%.

A number of artisan industries, such as making ropes and nets and growing ornamental trees for export, have also played an important role in the history of San Juan.

All these household-based activities are not sufficient to provide families an adequate income. The sale of labour is thus an important element in the total income. As mentioned above, seasonal migration to the coast is still frequent, principally during December-April, the peak production time in the cotton and sugar plantations of the south. Nonagricultural wage labour is also frequent. San Juan is too remote to allow daily commuting either to Guatemala City or to the cement factory, however. Thus, the people generally depend on employment in Sanarate or its vicinity, where wages are much lower than those offered in the city. Notwithstanding these lower earnings, the contribution of nonagricultural wage labour to total family income increased from 24% to 44% between 1974 and 1987. The lower wage levels of available jobs combined with the very limited agricultural capacity of the region explain why the mean household income in 1987 was the lowest of the four villages, having slipped from third to fourth place between 1974 and 1987.

As in the two other mountain communities, the sex division of labour in agricultural production is rigidly maintained. Women have always participated in yuquilla production, as an important part of the process occurs within the household compound, but they are rarely seen in the fields. A few women also maintain commercial relations with neighbouring communities. Although itself small and remote, San Juan serves as a relay for other villages located farther up on the mountain, and a number of women engage in some petty trading between the mountain villages and Sanarate.

Population and demographics

In many aspects, San Juan is the most traditional of the four villages: unlike Conacaste, there has been no drive toward commercial agriculture; unlike Santo Domingo, few of its inhabitants have gone to the city to seek employment. This inward, conservative orientation may explain some of San Juan's demographic features: initially the smallest of the study communities, it has shown the highest rate of population increase throughout the study period, going from 469 inhabitants in 1969 to 1,159 in 1987 [11]. It also has more persons per family and a greater number of formal marriages than the other communities. In addition, in 1972 San Juan had the highest child mortality rate of the four villages (22.3 per 1,000), being the only one surpassing the national average (17.2 per 1,000)[6]. This particular indicator has improved markedly since that time, particularly in the period covered by the INCAP supplementation [8].

Infrastructure and services

San Juan is the least accessible of the four communities. Barely reachable during the dry season, it can be approached only by all-terrain vehicles during the rainy season. Generally speaking, it is the village with the lowest level of infrastructure development; however, this has not always been so. In the past, largely as a consequence of the yuquilla boom, San Juan had better infrastructures than the other three villages. In 1973, it was among the first in the region to receive electricity, which was needed to operate the small motor mills that crush yuca into the paste from which yuquilla is extracted. Water services were installed in the late 1960s, and all of the community had good and abundant drinking water. Later the pipe system was extended to private houses, and most of the families living close to the village centre had a water tap installed in their house. These early advances however collapsed with the yuca economy. To take one example, by 1980 the water source had dried up, the pipes had rusted, and the system was left more or less in disrepair. As of 1987 the water supply was erratic.

As in the other study villages, a school has been operating in San Juan since the 1940s. It was transferred to its present location in 1969, when two classrooms were built with the help of the municipio. By 1972 two teachers offered the four first grades in these two classrooms. In 1977 a new section was added with the help of a foreign aid agency, and the school now has six classrooms. Adult literacy rates, however, are the lowest among the four villages.

Notwithstanding the fact that San Juan was the first village to receive its health clinic (in 1972, during the yuquilla years), it has the worst health conditions: many people have come back from the coast with malaria and other diseases not known to the mountain region, and child mortality was, as we saw, extremely high. This poor health may be related to the low average income.


In many respects San Juan epitomizes the marginal peasant community: subsistence agriculture coupled with seasonal migration and home-based industries have kept the village alive throughout its history. The yuquilla boom of the 1960s and 1970s did bring economic benefits to individual families as well as to the community as a whole, when some basic services such as water, electricity, and a health clinic were brought to the community, generally earlier than in the other villages. With the decline of yuca production and of other home-based activities, however, the villagers have been forced to turn to alternative occupations, most of them in Sanarate and paying poorly. By 1987 the community had the lowest average family income of the four villages, and one of the lowest rates of income increase. It also was poorest in infrastructural equipment and maintenance.


Espíritu Santo

Of the four study communities, Espíritu Santo is the only one in the lower Motagua area. To understand the socio-economic structure of the area, it will be useful to distinguish three subregions in the municipio of El Jícaro: the river bank, the piedmont, and the hills.

The river bank is a narrow strip of flat land, approximately one kilometre wide, running along the Motagua. Its soils are alluvial deposits and are excellent for cultivation: the government classifies such soils as having "unlimited agricultural capacity" [12]. An impressive irrigation scheme, the Rancho-El Jícaro mini-irrigation system, was built in 1972 to serve the agricultural enterprises in this part of the valley.

The second subregion is the piedmont, with a width of approximately two kilometres at the level of Espíritu Santo. Its soils are adequate for extensive cultivation and make good pasture land but are undulating and hardly amenable to mechanization and are therefore categorized as having "limited agricultural capacity." The irrigation canal does not reach this area, but many farmers have individual wells.

The hills subregion is composed mainly of steep slopes, and soils are very poor. The government classifies such terrain as "very fragile" and "not adequate for agriculture." No irrigation facilities are available in the hills, the only water coming from rainfall and seasonal brooks.

Land tenure and land use patterns in the area largely follow these subregional delimitations. Large landholders from El Jícaro or elsewhere have traditionally owned and operated most of the fertile parcels on the river banks, dedicating them almost entirely to tobacco production. Land in the piedmont is owned partly by local peasant families who cultivate it themselves and partly by absentee landowners, who generally rent it out to local farmers. The crops most frequently grown there are chiles for commercial purposes and maize for subsistence. The hills are municipal lands: a local farmer can cultivate a portion provided he or she pays a nominal annual fee to the municipio. Although cultivation conditions are precarious, many farmers maintain a subsistence plot in the hills because of the relative scarcity of land in the lower areas.

This particular distribution of land results from the history and pattern of settlement of the region. Espíritu Santo was built on the site of a former cattle post, which had been the property of the Jesuit order of San Cristobal Acasaguastlan since the colonial period. With the liberal reform, the estate was nationalized, partitioned into lots, and sold by the new government. The fertile and valuable river banks were quickly hoarded by a few wealthy families from Guastatoya, whereas the ladinos de ranchería of the former estate were left with the less productive lands of the Piedmont. Later, many of these peasant families voluntarily relinquished their rights to the land, turning them over to the larger estates, preferring to enter into a type of sharecropping arrangement called medianía rather than to continue working the land on their own. According to this system, the estate owners would grow a commercial crop half of the year, and the workers would be allowed to use the same parcels the other half of the year for their own subsistence crops.

Although at the time this allotment scheme presented advantages for the tenants, enabling them to establish protective patron-client relationships with their landlords, it later contributed to the skewed land distribution pattern now found in the region, as it impeded the tenant farmers from claiming and appropriating the parcels they worked. As a result. 45% of the families among the Espíritu Santo sample no longer controlled land in 1987, and most of those who did held it under rental agreements rather than owning it. In addition, as a result of the concentration of land among a few absentee owners, the average size of the parcels was always smaller in Espíritu Santo than in the other communities, with a mean of 30.1 cuerdas in 1974 and 8.6 cuerdas in 1987.

Ever since the mid-1940s tobacco has dominated the economy of the municipio [13]. Essentially grown by large landholders, it never appears on the list of crops produced by independent smallholders, but it is fundamental to the economy of Espíritu Santo's families through the opportunities it provides for daily wage labour: In 1975, 86.3% of the economically active population of the municipio participated in tobacco production in the peak season [14]. There is in fact a labour supply problem in the region during the tobacco harvest, causing the seasonal immigration of wage labourers. It has been argued that in recent times this has allowed local wage labourers to negotiate better wages [14]. For our sample, it is indeed true that agricultural daily wages in Espíritu Santo are higher on average than in the other three study communities. Tobacco production is strongly seasonal, however, and employment opportunities are concentrated between December and May. The rest of the year, the local population must find other occupations to generate their income.

One crop that partially complements tobacco is chiles. When ripe, the fruit must be harvested at once. A large number of workers are thus required periodically to rush the harvest. Therefore, even though it is produced only by smallholders, its cultivation creates numerous employment opportunities for agricultural wage workers. Moreover, as producers have traditionally received good prices for this crop, they have been able so far to maintain wages at the levels set by the tobacco growers. Thus between tobacco and chiles, Espíritu Santo's people are able to find relatively good employment opportunities locally.

The widespread availability of agricultural jobs and the limited availability of smallholders' land explain why agricultural wage work represents the most important source of household income in the village, providing on average 29% of total household revenues both in 1974 and in 1987. Besides, the constant increase in agricultural wage levels throughout the study period is principally responsible for the substantial improvement in total family income, which almost doubled between the two time periods.

Another important crop grown commercially is lemons. When prices are good enough to cover transport costs, they are sold in Guatemala City. Otherwise they are sold in one of the small perfume factories in El Rancho, 12 kilometres away. The prices paid by the enterprises in El Rancho are very low, but they ensure the utilization of all overproduction and some minimal income for a number of families during the critical period before the rains.

All farmers who control land in Espíritu Santo grow maize as a subsistence crop, either alternating it with their chile harvests or sowing it on the range. Unlike chiles and lemons, however, maize is essentially used for family consumption, and the employment it generates is largely confined to the peasant family. Beans are virtually absent from the community for agro-climatic reasons.

Palm weaving is the only income-generating work in Espíritu Santo outside agriculture. It is a major activity, providing income and keeping all hands busy in the slack seasons. per unit of time are low, but the combined efforts of all household members make it an important source of income. According to the R10 surveys, it represented the second most important source of household revenues in Espíritu Santo, after agricultural wage work, bath in 1974 and in 1987.

The division of labour by sexes is much less acute here than in the other communities. To be sure, there are domains that remain strongly sex-specific: subsistence agriculture is essentially a male undertaking, whereas housework remains a strictly female responsibility. On the other hand, males and females alike report having worked as wage labourers during the past year. Piece-rate wages being the norm, women and men earn equal pay for equal work. Similarly, palm weaving is not entirely genderized: although women do most of the work and usually control the income, husbands lend a hand if and when their agricultural tasks are finished.

It is tempting to speculate on the causes of such undifferentiated patterns of sex relations. First, the demand for labour is great and wage levels are relatively good. The opportunity cost of women staying at home is therefore high. A second, more structural hypothesis could be suggested: the scarcity and uneven distribution of land (the prime instrument of male domination) among families in Espíritu Santo may have contributed to the partial breakdown or transformation of patriarchal economic organization, leading to greater female autonomy in the production sphere.

Population and demographics

With a population of 556 in 1967, Espíritu Santo was the second smallest community of the four, slightly ahead of San Juan. Because of the high population growth rate of the latter, however, Espíritu Santo ended up as the smallest community in 1987, with 1,106 inhabitants. The ratio of female-headed to male-headed households is high, more so than in the mountain villages; divorces and separations are also more common. These facts may be related to the partial dissolution of Ladino patriarchalism and a resulting greater economic autonomy for women.

Although Espíritu Santo had the lowest income of the four villages, its infant mortality rates have traditionally been substantially lower than those of the other communities [8]. This good showing of children's health may be attributed to the proximity of health services in nearby El Jícaro before and throughout the study period, to the greater literacy rate of parents, particularly fathers, and to unmeasured factors related to the local diet, climate, and so forth. (The region of El Jícaro has always been good for ranching, and cattle are abundant in the municipio. As a result, milk or milk products appear to be more widely used in Espíritu Santo than in the other study villages.)

Infrastructure and services

Because of their strategic location on the Atlantic highway, the municipio of El Jícaro and the department of El Progreso in general have in the past benefited from good transportation services relative to the rest of the country. In addition, El Jícaro has an advantage over other municipios of the department in that it receives Q 0.25 for every quintal of tobacco exported [13]. Part of that money is used to finance communal development projects in the communities of the municipio. In Espíritu Santo in particular, the development committee has obtained financing for paving a street and for the construction of a community hall and the school. Other frequent donors are the municipality's large landholders, who have adopted a philanthropic attitude toward their communities and often participate financially in the construction of public services. Finally, national and foreign aid agencies have frequently supplied materials or money for specific projects. These various sources have thus helped to provide Espíritu Santo with what is arguably the most developed communal infrastructure of the four study villages.

Until the 1976 earthquake, the villagers got water from a spring in Ojo de Agua. approximately a kilometre from the village centre. The earthquake disrupted this water source, however, and in 1978 El Jícaro extended its own water services to Espíritu Santo. Taps were installed in most houses, and the villagers have been ensured of a safe and regular water supply ever since. Electricity was freely introduced in most houses in 1973 under the patronage of some wealthy landowners from the municipio.

Until the construction of the health centre in 1979, the villagers used El Jícaro's health clinic, one kilometre away. The school has offered the two first grades since the 1950s. The present building was built in 1973, and since 1980 all six primary grades have been offered in the community. Literacy levels, particularly among males, have consistently remained the highest of the four villages since 1967.


Espíritu Santo could stand as the prototype of the proletarian rural community: Only a minority of families own or control land, and consequently peasant agriculture plays a marginal role. Besides, the sustained demand for wage labour by tobacco plantations and by smallholders involved in Chile production have prompted the emergence of agricultural wage work as the principal income generating activity. The sale of traditional handcrafts has also historically played an important role, being the second most important source of income, after agricultural wage work, and making overall for a strongly monetized economy. Few of the community's productive undertakings are sex specific; women engage quite equally in all wage-earning activities. This shows that they are to a certain extent freed from patriarchal authority. At the same time, they are more susceptible to being divorced or separated or to remaining single heads of households. At the level of infrastructure, Espíritu Santo is arguably now the best equipped of the four. That, coupled with a relative improvement in family income indicates that it has most markedly improved its position between 1974 and 1987, although we must bear in mind that its families still had among the lowest incomes in 1987.

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