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From January to July 2018, former ECHO intern, Kelly Wilson, spent time in Guatemala working as an agricultural consultant for Maya Health Alliance in conjunction with ECHO Latin America/Caribbean Regional Impact Team to support the planning and design of a pilot homegardens program and research study. This article is the first in a series of three, which share insights learned from her experience.

“[A food culture] arises out of a place, a soil, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging.” This quote from Hopp’s and Kingsolver’s 2007 book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, rings true as I think about Guatemala’s rich food culture that draws from its diverse landscapes and microclimates as well as the living history of the many Mayan people groups who color the country with their weavings, languages, and cooking. During the first half of 2018, I was able to experience Guatemala’s food culture not only by eating there and learning about important plants and dishes, but also by participating in the efforts to revalorize and promote ancestral food and plants.

In spite of the fact that multitudes of leafy greens, cucurbits, flowers, pulses, and grains hold biological and cultural importance in the gastronomy of Guatemala, the country is characterized by high rates of chronic malnutrition, with a 46.5% prevalence of stunting in children under five that reaches as high as 70% to 90% in rural, indigenous Mayan populations (World Food Programme 2018). The problem of malnutrition in Guatemala is a complicated one, influenced by colonialism, poverty, neoliberal trade policy, a capitalist food industry, poor governance, and people’s habits and behavior patterns. These are certainly forces difficult to change, but in seeking a solution, what if we started with the treasures that this nation offers: the multitude of ancestral plants and the people who know how to prepare them?

There is currently a movement among scientists, nutritionists, development workers, and agriculturalists to recognize, revalorize, and promote the treasures of Guatemalan food culture for the health and well-being of the most vulnerable. In March 2018, I had the privilege to attend events held to this end including a conference titled, “Chaya in Guatemala: Participatory Consultation on Needs, Challenges, and Opportunities,” and a Chaya Processing Workshop hosted by Bioversity International and Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG, Del Valle University of Guatemala); and also a meeting titled “Revalorizing Native Plants with High Nutrient Value to Promote Food Security and Commercialization,” hosted by Asociación Gremial Empresarial Rural (AGER, Association of Rural Entrepreneurs) and Red de Alimentos Ancestrales Nutricionalmente Mejorados (Red Wa, Network of Nutritionally Improved Ancestral Foods).

The latter furthered the development of the Centro de Información, Documentación y Divulgación (CIDD, Information, Documentation and Dissemination Center) for ancestral plant products, foods and nutritional practices. Participants shared their experiences in promoting native and ancestral Guatemalan crops as well as strategic initiatives to guide and organize their efforts. During the AGER meeting, Dr. Armando Caceres of Universidad de San Carlos (USAC, San Carlos University) presented the case for using the terminology of ancestral plants rather than native plants. “Native” is a matter of biology and center of origin while “ancestral” is a matter of cultural and historical significance. To illustrate this point Dr. Caceres shared a list of ancestral Mayan plants and foods based on decades of research, and highlighted the importance of ancestral foods, whether or not they are native.

Dr. Caceres noted that native plants biologically originated in Guatemala, but may or may not be of historic or cultural value, while ancestral plants may or may not have originated in Guatemala but have deep social significance. For example, cacao (Theobroma cacao) is biologically native to the Amazon, but chocolate was developed in Mesoamerica by the Maya. Other ancestral plants, such as epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), pacaya palm (Chamaedorea tepejilote), and chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius) are native to the region. Other native plants may have been and still are historically and culturally significant, but after the Spanish colonization have lost their indigenous name in common memory.

These ancestral plants and foods are the ones that hold the history and collective sense of belonging that come from people and place. As a participant stated during the AGER meeting, “traditional food generates identity.” Fortunately, these traditional foods also generate good health and nutrition, as they are filled with vitamins, minerals, proteins, and other essential nutrients for the development and sustenance of the human body. When these foods are prepared in culturally appropriate and celebrated ways, they realize their potential to nourish both the bodies and souls of this nation.

Several patient women who love to cook have explained the unique Guatemalan dishes and their ingredients to me, and I have been privileged to eat many of them. I ate pacaya palm (Chamaedorea tepejilote) fried in egg, served with guacamole and hot sauce made fresh from one of the seven different kinds of chilis available in the market. I savored pito flower (Erythrina berteroana) iwaxte, a sauce made by grinding pepitoria (Cucurbita pepo, pumpkin seeds) served with hierba mora (Solanum americanum, American black nightshade). And what can I say about the soupy, candied chilacayote (Curcubita ficifolia, figleaf gourd), yum! As Kingsolver reminds us, these foods come from “an affinity between people and the land that feeds them” (Kingsolver, Kingsolver, and Hopp 2007).

Chaya WorkshopThere are countless plants, high in nutrients and cultural value, important for food security and food sovereignty of urban and rural populations in Guatemala. Those at the AGER meeting called these ancestral plants “tesoros despreciados” (disregarded treasures). The goal is to pay attention to these plants once again and to regard them as the treasures that they are. Here is an abbreviated list of popular (or once popular) leafy greens:

  • Chipilín (Crotalaria longirostrata)
  • Hierba mora (Solanum americanum, American black nightshade)
  • Makuy (Solanum nigrescens, divine nightshade)
  • Quilete or chomté (Lycianthes synanthera, another species of the nightshade family)
  • Hierba madre (Jaltomata procumbens, creeping false holly)
  • Bledo (Amaranthus hybridus, vegetable amaranth)
  • Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius)
  • Quixtán (Solanum wendlandii, potato vine)
  • Colinabo (Brassica campestris, field mustard)
  • Verdolaga (Portulaca oleracea, purslane)

During the chaya conference, while discussing the challenges and opportunities of promoting and revalorizing these plants, participants suggested that we take a positive rather than negative approach. Instead of condemning the junk food industry and focusing on telling people not to eat Tortrix, a popular chip brand in Guatemala, we should celebrate nutritious ancestral plants and foods. As Kingsolver states, “people hold onto to their food customs because of the positives: comfort, nourishment, heavenly aromas” (Kingsolver, Kingsolver, and Hopp 2007). Guatemala is full of foods and plants that are worthy of holding onto for this very reason. This is clear as you walk down the street smelling fresh tortillas, taste the flavors of pepian (one of Guatemala’s national dishes), and see the vibrant purple of pickled beets. 

At the end of the workshop on chaya processing, which was held in Guatemala’s Department of Chiquimula, a community leader stood up to say that they have what they need to feed their families right there in their communities and around their houses, but what they need is training and knowledge. They have food sources and resources; but it is a matter of seeing, appreciating, and knowing the best way to prepare, use, and eat them. Through the cultivation, preparation, and enjoyment of food, we can celebrate and revalorize Guatemala’s ancestral food culture, affirming and generating identity, while also nourishing bodies for good health.  

More information on this topic:


Kingsolver, Barbara, Camille Kingsolver, and Steven L. Hopp. 2007. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. New York: Harper Perennial.

World Food Programme. 2018. “WFP Guatemala Country Brief Operational Context.” http://www1.wfp.org/countries/guatemala.