Don Maximino Gómez y Gómez slowly climbs down the stairs along the banks of the Chixoy River in Sacapulas, Quiché. Once on the beach, he motions towards a large excavated area of soil with splotches of white scattered across it. “This is where I harvest the salt,” Gómez y Gómez says.
The 70-year-old salt producer has been at it for a long time; he cannot remember exactly when he started producing, but states he recalls working alongside his father back when he was 6 or 7. “I used to help my father carrying loads of material for the production,” he recalls. “This is what I grew up with.”
He is now the last of the salt producer in Sacapulas.
The Municipality of Sacapulas, located 158.5 km north of La Antigua Guatemala, is one of the three salt producing regions in Guatemala. The dry valley serves as the perfect region to produce the mineral. Salt crystals appear naturally across the river banks, consuming whatever is left on the shore.
The production of salt in this municipality dates back to well before the Spanish conquest in 1524. According to the Titles of Scapulas, an indigenous chronicle of the history of Guatemala, the Sacapultecos were originally provided with the salt by the Ajaw, or the Creator/Former of All, after wandering “from across the seas” with the other seven original peoples.
The town served as a strategic location for the Spanish after the Conquista. The Spanish looked to control the region for its salt, and sought to increase production there as an alternative to bringing salt from the Guatemalan coast or from Mexico.
The black salts of Sacapulas are well-known globally, and serves as a tourist attraction in town. The colouring comes about during the process of production. But according to Gómez y Gómez, not all the salt comes out black. “The salt can be white, black, or grey,” he explains. “It all depends on the minerals that are present in the salt.”
Producing the black salt requires an intensive process. The production of salt first begins with Gómez y Gómez spreading damp soil across the field, which he leaves to bake under the sun. As the salts are absorbed, he keeps the soil damp while the water draws the salts from the ground. After 20 days, he collects the now whitened top soil and takes it to his processing facility.
Afterwards, he places the salt-laden soil in a box above a special chamber. He rinses it with water taken from a hot spring along the river. Gravity takes the salty water into a container underneath the box. Then, Gómez y Gómez places the liquid in special clay pots, which he personally makes, above a fire in his shed. He sits with the salt and fire for about 12 hours in order to guarantee that the it does not go out. Over time, the water evaporates, and he is left with blocks of the famous black salt.
He is able to produce about 100 pounds of salt per month, which usually sells for about Q.500(67.75 USD). At the market, the salt can fetch between Q.5 (0.68USD) and Q.10 (1.36 USD) per pound.
A Dying Art
The number of salt producers in Sacapulas has steadily declined in the 20th century. “In between the years of 1955 and 1960, there were about 130 to 140 salt producers,” remembers Gómez y Gómez. “There were many of us. But then many of them left.”
He speculates that many of the producers left as a result of the intensive process, and in order to search for steadier lines of work. “The city [of Sacapulas] has grown a lot,” he says. “People have left in order to earn an income for their families.”
The decline in salt producers has also been influenced by natural disasters. “There were only 12 or 18 of us 15 years ago,” recalls Gómez y Gómez. “But then came tropical storm Agatha, and most were forced to close.”
In 2010, Tropical Storm Agatha hit Sacapulas hard. The storm flooded the river basin, submerging his salt fields in nearly 3 meters of water. After a week the waters subsided, and he was forced to re-excavate the site.
“Now, I am the only one,” says Gómez y Gómez. “When I die, there will be no one else.”