Just south of the colonial Cathedral of Santiago Atitlán, up a hill, there’s a house that’s usually looked over by tourists. The place is not very far from the house that holds the grand Rilaj Mam. That’s the house where the association of María Batz’bal, where María Castelyan, the wife of the grand Rilaj Mam, resides.
“María Batz’bal is the string that ties together life,” explains Diego Petzey, a young weaver from Santiago Atitlán. “She is the protector of the women of our community, and the protector of the weavers.”
The ancestral couple does not reside together due to tradition. But at times, the main member of the brotherhood of the Rilaj Mam brings the two together.
“According to the tradition that we are taught, María Batz’bal was the great wife of the Rilaj Mam,” continues Petzey. “Only the carrier of the Rilaj Mam can join the two. But the carrier of the Rilaj Mam also plays the part of the messenger between the two.”
According to the spiritual guides of Santiago Atitlan, there are 12 balbales that are all involved in the protection of the women of the community.
Each of the abuelas, as they’re commonly referred to, plays a critical part in the process of weaving. Some of them are María Batz’bal, who was the great weaver of the clothing of the Rilaj Mam from the time of creation, and is the protector of the weavers of Santiago Atitlan; María Kame, the carrier of the ancestor that gives instructions on how to prepare the weave; and María Sqaj’, who represents the points that connect the weavings to the weaver.
The Tz’utujil name Batz’bal is intended to represent the relationship with weavings. Batz means thread, and Bal is the process of making the string in the way of the ancestors. She is also the protector of the women of the community.
The existence of the protectors of women exposes the critical position of women within indigenous societies. Furthermore, the participation of women is an important piece of invoking of the knowledge of the ancestors.
“Women share an important part in advancing the knowledge of the ancestors,” said Juan Manuel, a spiritual guide, or Aj Q’ij, and member of one of the cofradías in Santiago Atitlán. “Today there are women who are curers, bonesetters, that know traditional medicines, and there are women that are Aj Q’ij. It is not just men that have participated in the process.”
This advancement of knowledge is reflected in the council of authorities of the community, which carry the responsibility of maintaining justice in the community. Women play an important role in this process.
“Our ancestors taught us that all members of the council of the authorities have a voice,” comments Manuel. “They included women in the council, and so today we continue this. Women have a voice, and they participate and share their ideas. Together we weave together our knowledge.”