Herstory: 10 Guatemalan Women Who Changed the Course of History

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
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Guatemala’s Indigenous peoples make up 60% of the country’s population, yet somehow Indigenous people—and especially Indigenous women—rarely made it into history books. Overall, there seems to be a historical knowledge gap between Ancient Mayan Civilization time and the Guatemalan internal armed conflict that lasted from 1960 until 1996.

To talk about significant women in the history of what is today known as Guatemala is to talk about ancestral and modern forms of sexism, western colonization, systemic racism, brutal genocides in a counterinsurgency war backed by the United States, gendered violence, and an ongoing land grab on Indigenous territory.

Today, Indigenous and Black women in Guatemala have been more visible while gaining more ground. They are redefining feminism, questioning racist structures, transforming justice systems and making great art.

This introductory list focuses on women who—unlike Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, Claudia Paz y Paz, or Thelma Aldana and others you may be familiar with—may not necessarily have a Wikipedia page yet despite their achievements. From queens, poetesses and lawyers to unionizers and politicians to singers, here are 10 Guatemalan women who changed history:

Kalomt’e K’abel

Kalomt’e K’abel was a Mayan warlord and queen of the Classic Maya civilization. She reigned during the seventh century and is believed to have been more powerful than her husband, Wak K’inich Bahlam II. K’abel’s remains were found in 2012 in her royal tomb, after nearly 10 years of excavation in the archeological site of Peru-Waka—which is in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén, near the border with Belize. She was also known as Ix Kan Ajaw or “Lady Snake Lord.” That name was inscribed on a small alabaster pot near her tomb. Ceramic containers, a considerable amount of jade jewelry and thousands of obsidian stones and knives were also found. Discovering her remains was one of the most important discoveries for Guatemala’s ancient Maya civilization. Historians believe she was the most powerful person in the kingdom of Calakmul, a Mayan community opposed to the influential King ‘El Zotz’ ruling the Tikal kingdom. Guatemala’s ancient Mayan civilization reached its splendor between the years 250 and 900.

Luisa Moreno

Luisa Moreno, born Blanca Rosa Lopez Rodrigues in 1907 into a wealthy family in Guatemala City. She later rejected her elite status and became a labor and civil rights activist in the United States. As a teenager, she lobbied for the inclusion of women in universities in Guatemala and then moved to the United States with her husband and daughter after a stint of working as a journalist in Mexico. In Spanish Harlem, during the Great Depression, she became a seamstress in a garment factory and then organized her colleagues into a union. She joined the Communist Party for a while and changed her name to Luisa Moreno. She then left her abusive husband and went to Florida with her daughter where she worked as a professional labor organizer from 1935 to 1947. In the Southwest, she secured a solid contract for 13,000 black and Latinx tobacco workers and then became the vice-president of a major union, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In 1939, she focused her attention on civil rights for Mexicans and Mexican Americans—Moreno spearheaded El Congreso, a broad coalition of Latinx labor and civil rights activists, representing 70,000 U.S. citizens and immigrants. During the Second World War, she fought against police brutality against Latinx peoples. In 1950, after receiving threats against her work, she received a deportation order from U.S. authorities due to her past involvement with the Communist Party. She escaped first to Mexico, then back to Guatemala.

Alaíde Foppa

Alaíde Foppa was a poetess, human rights advocate and feminist, presumably killed by death squads during Guatemala’s civil war.

Foppa was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1914 to a Guatemalan mother and an Italian father. She was raised in Europe before obtaining Guatemalan citizenship. She then married a Guatemalan leftist and moved to her mother’s homeland. She worked at the University of San Carlos but she and her family had to flee to Mexico when the CIA carried out a coup d’état to overthrow the democratically-elected president Jacobo Árbenz and implemented a military dictatorship instead. In Mexico, she taught the first course of the sociology of women in Latin America at the Autonomous University of Mexico, wrote and published poetry and became an active member of Amnesty International and the International Association of Women Against Repression in Guatemala. She also co-founded and financed the first Latin American feminist magazine, Fem, and in 1972, created the radio program “foro de la mujer” to discuss ways to counteract gender violence and promote women’s rights. Her increasing denunciations of state-enforced violence put her on the blacklist of “subversives.” When her husband died, she went to see her mother in Guatemala and is believed to have wanted to support guerilla groups. In December 1980, she and her driver went missing in Guatemala City, without a trace. She was presumably tortured and killed by undercover police agents linked to the military government of General Romeo Lucas Garcia.

Correction, April 1 at 10:15 a.m. ET: Foppa’s name has been corrected from Adelaide to Alaíde.

Myrna Mack Chang

Myrna Mack Chang was an anthropologist of Chinese and Mayan descent who worked for the rights of Indigenous peoples during Guatemala’s civil war. 

She was murdered by death squads on September 11, 1990—two days after her pioneering research was published in English. The research shed light on how indigenous populations were displaced or killed due to the Guatemalan government and U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency practices.

Her sister, Helen Mack Chang, tirelessly sought justice for her sister’s government-led killing and spearheaded the transformation of Guatemala’s justice system. In 1993, a low-ranking officer was convicted. In 2003, in a groundbreaking decision, the International Court of Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan state to recognize its responsibility in the crime. The Guatemalan state apologized and recognized that government agents were responsible for her murder. They implemented reparations, including renaming the street where Myrna Mack was murdered. This case set a precedent for other similar human rights cases.

Lorena Cabnal

Lorena Cabnal is a Maya Q’eqchi’-xinka feminist and healer.

Cabnal’s paternal family was forcibly displaced during the internal conflict, so she grew up in a marginal urban settlement on the outskirts of Guatemala City. At 15, Cabnal ran away from home after she was victim to sexual abuse. After studying medicine and psychology, she rekindled her maternal Xinka roots in 2002. In the Xalapán mountain, she started to question Indigenous forms of machismo and worked with other women in the community to raise awareness against gender violence and political inequality in the community. After she got several death threats due to her feminist and land rights work, the community—overwhelmingly led by men—forced her to leave. By then, she had increasingly asserted that Indigenous lands cannot be defended without including the fight for the respect for Indigenous women’s bodies. In 2015, inspired by the teachings of her late friend Elizeth Us, she co-founded Tzk’at, in Quiche, which means in “network,” derived by Mayan cosmogony of the reciprocal “Network of Life.” In Spanish, the “Red de Sanadoras Ancestrales” includes healers, midwives, herbalists, sobadoras, spiritual guides, native doctors as well as women with knowledge of Western medicine, psychology, law, accounting or environmental justice. Their goal to heal indigenous women’s bodies and emotions from violence passed down through generations – going back further than colonization – to violence lived during the internal armed conflict and different current-day forms of systemic racism, perverse effects of the neoliberal economy, indigenous patriarchy and western colonization. Through her work, Cabnal also redefines the conversation around feminism to include a pluralistic vision of genders and bodies.

Thelma Cabrera

Thelma Cabrera is a Maya Mam politician who ran for president in Guatemala’s 2019 elections. 

Born and raised in a peasant family on Guatemala’s West Coast, in El Asintal, she worked on coffee plantations as a child and was married by the age of 15. She became an active member of the Comité del Desarrollo Campesino (CODECA), which is the largest grassroots organization to represent Guatemala’s impoverished Campesinos. In 2019, CODECA selected her to run with their newly formed party—the Movement for the Liberation of Peoples (MLP). She ran a campaign funded by her supporters’ contributions and toured the countryside without bodyguards. She was the second Indigenous person to run for president (after Rigoberta Menchu) and finished the race with 10.3% of the vote—a historic achievement. Her agenda was revolutionary for Guatemala: she wanted to change the constitution to make Guatemala a plurinational country in order to ensure better representation of Guatemala’s Indigenous and Black people. She also wanted to nationalize electricity, put an end to land grabs and immunity for politicians, implement more scrutiny for mining extractions and reinforce prior consultation of Indigenous peoples for dam and agricultural projects.

Lucía Xiloj Cui

Lucia Xiloj Cui is a Maya Q’echi’ lawyer fighting for justice, specifically in sexual abuse cases committed during Guatemala’s civil war.

Born in Chichicastenango, Xiloj Cui migrated to Guatemala City after obtaining a secretary degree in 1996. In 2006, she graduated as a lawyer with high honors. In 2010, Xiloj Cui and her two colleagues from the Popular Law Firm of Rabinal started collecting testimonies on the genocide of the Achi people during the internal armed conflict—where 5000 people were killed (20% of their population)—and a troubling pattern of stories of sexual abuse began to emerge. The “Achi women case”—in which 36 Maya Achi women allege paramilitary men sexually abused them in 1981—was taken to court. For Xiloj Cui, having a separate judicial case which focused solely on sexual violence served to show how this kind of abuse was used as a weapon of war and that reparational justice can still be made for these survivors. The case has faced roadblocks but was reopened in February 2020. Xiloj Cui has also been helping communities in Indigenous territories across Guatemala and Central America. In 2019, Xiloj Cui applied to become a judge in the Court of Appeals in order to ensure proper representation of Indigenous women from within the system.

Glenda Joanna Wetherborn

Glenda Joanna Wetherborn is a researcher theorizing the experience of Afro-Guatemalans, which has been invisibilized for centuries.

Wetherborn’s grandparents moved from Jamaica to Guatemala to work for the United Fruit Company. Growing up in Amatitlan, she was part of the only Black family in town and endured racist bullying at school. Her world changed when she found Angela Davis’s work and logged on a Yahoo! Chat to meet with a group of Afro-descendant women from Latin America and the Caribbean. Traveling to other countries such as Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic helped her tap into Black activism. She spearheaded research to unveil Guatemala’s Black history and work to develop ideas for better public policy for marginalized communities. Wetherborn advocated for the recognition of Black Guatemalan communities in the Central American country’s census because, until 2018, Black Guatemalans needed to tick either the Indigenous or Latino boxes.

Sandra Xinico Batz

Sandra Xinico Batz is a Kakchiquel columnist and anthropologist defending the collective intellectual rights of Indigenous textiles.

Born in 1986, in Patzún, Chimaltenango, Xinico always wore Kakchiquel clothes as a little girl. Yet, when she moved to the capital to continue her studies at the age of 15, she stopped in order to blend in, feel less discriminated and be less prone to catcalling. Twelve years later, while studying anthropology—which she believes is laden with racism—she decided to wear her Indigenous güipiles, skirts, aprons, sashes and shawls to regain her identity. In 2016, she joined the Weavers’ Councils National Movement (Ruchajixik ri qana’ojb’äl). In 2017, they filed legal action against the State of Guatemala before the Constitutional Court and demanded legal reform to achieve the right to collective intellectual property for the creations. The legal process is ongoing but has created awareness of copyright issues and Indigenous rights. That same year, the weaver’s movement also demanded the Guatemalan tourism institute stop folklorizing Indigenous women as a part of their tourism programs, especially as Indigenous women weavers are not direct beneficiaries of the income the programs generate. Xinico Batz has been vocal about how appropriating the creations of Indigenous women not only impoverishes them and disrespects their work and culture but also serves as a form of dispossession that existed since colonial times. 

Sara Curruchich Cúmez

Sara Curruchich Cúmez is the first performer who sings in Maya Kaqchikel and broke into the international music industry.

Born in San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango, in 1993, Curruchich witnessed how happy her mom was when she whistled and loved to spend time with her dad as he taught her to play the guitar. She wrote her first song in Kaqchikel while being fully aware that singing in an Indigenous language would possibly attract racist remarks. Still, she sought to rescue her language through music. In 2012, she graduated from music school, began playing with a local marimba group, “Teclas en Armonía,” and was invited by popular Mayan rock group Sobreviviencia to sing at one of their concerts. In 2014, the Dresdner Philharmonie Orchestra invited her to sing with them in Mexico City and later offered her to record and film a video for her ballad “Ch’uti’xtän (Niña),” which achieved great airplay on social networks in Guatemala. In 2016, she toured the United States and performed at the United Nations headquarters in New York, during the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues. She also performed across Europe. Her songs blend Kaqchikel and Spanish, celebrate Mother Earth, her ancestors, and Indigenous women, but also offer encouragement to Guatemala’s Mayan struggle for justice.