XEJUYUP, Guatemala — It is a relief to take a detour and head toward a plateau, with its tropical vegetation, after driving through a steamy landscape of sugar cane fields in southern Guatemala. An hour later you arrive in Xejuyup, a town of about 4,000 people that is “under the mountains” or “at the feet of the hill” — which is what Xejuyup (pronounced shay-who-YOOP) means in the language of the K’iche’ Maya who live here.
The first thing I saw when I got out of the car was a huge banner with the official picture of the local soccer team, called C.S.D. Xejuyup. The first thing I saw in the banner were the team’s uniforms.
Mayan culture retains a strong presence in Guatemala. Colorful traditional clothing, usually worn by women, is among the first things tourists may notice upon their arrival. It is less common to see men wearing traditional clothing, and in Xejuyup only a few elderly men do so.
This worried Antonio Perechú. A former goalkeeper, Perechú played for several regional teams but gave up the pursuit of his dream of becoming a professional soccer player because his family could not afford it. He founded C.S.D. Xejuyup in 1982 as something of a community organization — the Spanish acronym C.S.D. translates as Sports Social Club — and today his son, Miguel, is the team’s captain.
Antonio Perechú’s ambition to have his team reflect, and respect, its community has been echoed in the team’s decision — since its first days — to incorporate Mayan clothing into its uniforms.
The players explained to me that the coxtar (the skirt), the kutin (the shirt) and the pas (the sash) have meanings associated with the ancestral Mayan worldview. Their colors, their embroidery and the weaving line patterns suggest the relation between humans and nature and its elements.
Xejuyup was occupied by the army during that time. In 1982, the year Perechú started the soccer club, the civil defense patrols, or local militias, were formed nationwide. All male adults were forced to join; the conscripts included Perechú and other members of the current Xejuyup team.
For years, Guatemala’s indigenous population kept a low profile. Parents refrained from teaching the Mayan languages to their children, and from wearing their traditional clothing. When a peace deal was signed, opening the country to a globalization boom, Guatemala was flooded with used clothes from the United States. The items cost less than one quetzal (about 14 cents) each, and even more people stopped wearing traditional clothing.
When I visited Xejuyup recently, the team was training for a Saturday game. Miguel Perechú, who works as the gymnastics teacher at a school and has attended several soccer courses, led the session.
His pride in his Mayan identity matches his father’s. In our conversation he mentioned Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the twin gods.
In pre-Columbian oral history, the twins save the Mayan people by defeating the Lords of Xibalba (the underworld) in an ancient ballgame. It is part of the reason Miguel Perechú feels a strong connection between the past and the present.
“The costume is a symbol, and we, the team, carry it with great responsibility,” he said. “It stands for all the indigenous peoples of the country, and for Guatemala as a whole.”
The women in Xejuyup weave the shirts for the men in their families, a task that usually takes two months. The skirt is made of wool and bought in the region. A full uniform is worth about 2,000 quetzales (about $270), far more than the replica jerseys of the “new heroes” — players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — that are cheap and ubiquitous.
But to the men of C.S.D. Xejuyup, it is also why the mission undertaken by Antonio Perechú is so ambitious, and so important.
And in small ways, it might be succeeding. Beyond being an example for youngsters in their small town, the team’s influence and message is evident each time it leaves Xejuyup. The club is not registered in any official league, but it frequently plays against amateur teams around the country. Most times, Miguel Perechú said, the players are supported, applauded and encouraged by their rivals’ fans. NYT