My first love in Guatemala was onions. As a tourist to Xela in my first days in the country, I walked up above Zunil to the hot springs Fuentes Georginas. En route, I passed the most beautiful and intensively-worked farm fields I had ever seen. A world of activity unfolded before my eyes. Men cultivated corn, potatoes, and tomatoes with large hoes (azadones). Women and children cleared weeds from the vegetables with long sticks. Entire families moved in unison. Some gathered young onion shoots into bundles. Meanwhile, others planted the newborn shoots. Some prepared the fertile volcanic soil for planting. Still others harvested, washed, and arranged the opulent produce for presentation in the public market. I recalled Bernal Díaz`s words as he looked down on the Valley of Mexico for the first time in 1519 and spoke of “things never before seen nor seldom ever dreamed of.”
As the roadway spiraled higher and higher, I continued to meet more spectacular views at every turn. Small terraced garden plots over-spilled with vegetables. Shaped to the contours of the terrain, these plots climbed the mountain slopes through the fog and clouds to the hot springs.The landscape was a patchwork of green in every imaginable shade, while the strangely-sweet scent of onions permeated the air.
Coffee groves (cafetales) and the highly-profitable Hass variety of avocado dominate around much of Lake Atitlán. Corn, potatoes, and pole beans abound at the higher altitudes. Where there is ample sunshine and year-round water, however, the crop of choice is onions. Onions are a cash crop requiring intensive labor. Their production is continuous, almost without season. Stacked in piles, braided and bunched, onions and their stems are a glorious sight. Added to that, they are often harvested and washed within landscapes and by people of incomparable beauty.
Below Barrio San Bartolo in Sololá is a breath-taking series of onion terraces that tumble to the Jaibal River. Driving from Sololá through Aldea Sacsiguan along what was once the Camino Real (Royal Road) one passes hundreds of onion fields. Rounding the bend above Tierra Linda one looks out across the canyon carved out over the millenia by the San Francisco River at a fantastic view: Lake Atitlán, the Volcanoes Tolimán and Atitlán, the valley, mountainsides, several towns, and countless corn and onion fields.
Dropping from above the canyon wall winding down into Concepción (Quechelá) is like entering Brigadoon. Quechelá, in many ways, is a land frozen in time, where social relations and religious beliefs at times predate the Conquest. In many towns, the ceremonial kiss of the hand is limited to religious processions and certain activities of the cofradía. There are other towns where this custom no longer exists at all. However, in Concepción, farmers assembling in the morning for work in the fields kiss each others` hands as a sign of respect. The owner of a store and her customer kiss hands over the purchase of a Coca-Cola.
Also, in Concepción, Maya priests (chamanes) consult Maximón, to determine the optimum time to plant. Farmers still utter small prayers as they drop their seeds into the soil. In February, they perform ceremonies to bless the seeds. Likewise, in November, farmers thank the Ajaw, the Creator and Former of the Universe, for the harvest..
Concepción was once an important town on the road to Mexico. Its church was built in 1621 and is one of the lake`s oldest and by far its prettiest.The church is a real jewel, jam-packed with paintings, furniture, religious relics and adornments, silver chalices and custodias (ceremonial staffs), and images of the saints, all from the early 17th through 18th centuries; this, despite major thefts by gringo tourists. Quechelá means “between the mountains”. To the north, Concepción is bordered by limestone cliffs rising above slopes laden with corn. Opposite, huge bluffs brimming with onions roll gently to the canyon, and then fall. Sometimes standing in the onion fields is like being on the edge of the earth or floating in air.
Now a busy tourist center, Panajachel is somewhat of a modern mess, with too many moto-taxis, motor scooters, shops, vendors, restaurants, and churches. Once, though, it was a quiet town of fishermen and simple onion farmers. Onion beds still border the river and ascend in terraces up the mountain slopes to Tierra Linda on one canyon wall and San Andrés Semetabaj on the other. Today, though, little of the work is done by townspeople. For the most part, those who plant and harvest onions in Panajachel wear the traje of Sololá, and come from Peña Blanca, Buena Vista, and, most often, Tierra Linda.
On October 4th and 5th 2005, flooding, tumbling boulders, and mud-slides in the wake of Hurricane Stan all but obliterated the onion fields of Panajachel and the pathways down from Tierra Linda and San Andrés. Working with ant-like tenacity, the people of Tierra Linda fixed the trails and restored the onion fields to something beyond their former glory.
Once again the destruction and rebuilding process revisited the onion fields with tropical storm Agatha (May 29th, 2010) and its aftermath.
The onion harvest contains two inter-twined elements of my own childhood hay-baling experience and that of my father threshing wheat: competition and cooperation. As we did, the onion harvesters try to outdo one another but without selfish motivation. Rather, they try to outdo one another to help one another, to accomplish the task at hand without undue strain on their fellow workers. So if one man carries 150 pounds of onions on his back, the next carries 200. This cord struck with my rural past makes the onion harvest dear to my heart.