Melodies of resistance in Guatemala: the Kaqchikel artist speaking out through song
Indigenous singer-songwriter Sara Curruchich may be the first Kaqchikel woman to make it big in the music industry, but she vows to make sure she’s not the last.
When Sara Curruchich sings, she sings not only for herself but also for the generations of Indigenous women who came before her and the generations that will come after her. Sara is Kaqchikel, a Mayan peoples native to the midwestern highlands of Guatemala. Through her music, she celebrates her Indigenous heritage and highlights her female ancestors’ resilience in the face of oppression.
“I didn’t want to repeat everything that I heard on the radio,” says the 25-year-old artist of her music. Sara hopes her songs will challenge what Guatemalan society expects of Indigenous women and reaffirm their value. “We have a triple discrimination: for being women, for being Indigenous women, and for being Indigenous women who are poor,” she shares.
In Guatemala, 79% of Indigenous peoples live in poverty. Lack of educational opportunities, systemic poverty and longstanding machismo culture often limit opportunities for Indigenous women living in rural areas like Sara. In her Kaqchikel community, Sara says that most women become wives, mothers and muchachas [live-in domestic workers or housekeepers]. Parents encourage their daughters to stay home from school to raise younger siblings or to start earning an income by selling trinkets on the street or cleaning homes in Guatemala City.
But Sara's parents wanted more for their daughter and encouraged her to imagine a different future for herself. Using the little money her mom saved from being a housekeeper, Sara was able to attend a public school in Guatemala City to study music. She started writing songs in her native language of Kaqchikel about Mother Earth and animals, about her ancestors and her village, about Indigenous women and their strength.
Sara’s big break came in 2012 when popular Mayan rock group Sobrevivencia invited her to sing at one of their concerts. From there, she gained momentum in Guatemala and eventually, around the world. Sara has now performed across Europe, at the U.N. and with notable ensembles like the Dresdner Philharmonie — yet, her favourite stages are found back home in Guatemala, where she sings for free in villages like her own.
Ahead of the release of her first studio album, “Somos” [“We Are”], in June, I spoke to Sara about celebrating her heritage, the creative process of songwriting and how she supports other Indigenous voices.
Emma Yee Yick (EYY): Where does your love of music come from? How did your dream of being a music teacher turn into a dream of being a singer?
Sara Curruchich (SC): Since I have memory — which is well, a long time — I really enjoyed singing. I would accompany my mamá when she went to wash other people’s clothes at their homes. So I would listen to my mamá start to whistle or sing something. I liked seeing how happy she was when she sang or whistled or hummed.
In the case of my papá, he had a guitar and knew how to play. When he realized how much I liked music, he would call me into the living room at night and say, “Let’s sing!” In the living room, I remember that he would put out a candle and we would sit there, my dad playing the guitar and me singing. And it was like that for many, many nights.
At that time, I also went to our village’s small primary school. We had only 15 minutes of music class once a week — but I loved it and it was the class I looked forward to most. From then I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a music teacher.
When I was nine, my papá died, which was a huge blow for my entire family. I no longer had someone to sing with so there was a big rupture. I became mute and didn’t want to have anything to do with singing. It reminded me too much of papá.
The years passed and in 2009, I began my studies in music, with the objective of being a music teacher. I didn’t want to sing. But in 2011, I began to feel that through music and through song I was able to speak to my loved ones who had passed away, above all my papá. I felt like I connected with him. From there, I started singing and I began to write a few things.
EYY: What type of artist do you consider yourself to be? What genre of music do you produce?
SC: Last year I recorded my first album. I have yet to share it, but I hope that we will in June. They have categorized us underneath the genre “world music” or “ethno-music,” because I have tried to make that fusion between traditional Guatemalan music and contemporary instruments and sounds.
I sing in my language, Kaqchikel. At the start, I wrote my first song in Kaqchikel with a certain amount of fear, because for structural reasons, there is that racism that is rooted in our country. I began to sing in my language and write and compose because I saw a necessity and an importance to rescue our languages, my language specifically, through music. Music induces reflection maybe more than when you speak to a child about its importance. If they listen and see someone else doing it [singing in Kaqchikel], they think that they can do it too and that they have a right to do it. They understand that it’s not bad and can begin to see the value again. So I started writing in Spanish, in Kaqchikel, making some songs only in Spanish, others only in Kaqchikel and some fusing both languages because I do think this is a channel to reaffirm our identity and the ancestral knowledge of our communities.
EYY: What is your mission as an artist?
SC: My mission is to share with girls and boys that we as Indigenous peoples exist. And we exist in a big way of resistance too. My mission is to share with people that history does not begin and end with: “The Spanish came and they gave us mirrors. The end.” I think that through music I can share all of this history, this historical memory as an Indigenous woman. I have realized that the level of discrimination, of rejection, of lack of opportunities is much greater towards us as Indigenous women. We have a triple discrimination: for being women, for being Indigenous women, and for being Indigenous women who are poor.
I have been in situations where I will arrive somewhere for a concert of mine in the capital [Guatemala City] and often times I will hear people say, “She’s going to change her clothes, right?” Because they do not expect an Indigenous woman to get on stage in her traditional dress or to have space to grow and flourish. They believe that Indigenous women’s sole mission in life or in this country is to go clean people’s houses or to sell tortas on the street. I want to emphasize here that those are truly dignified jobs. Those women are admirable because they have had to fight. The problem is that society sees this as our only path, our only destiny.
EYY: What obstacles have you had to face being an Indigenous woman in Guatemala? How have you overcome them?
SC: The level of labor exploitation and denigration is so large towards Indigenous women that it turns into slavery. So we need to talk about it. We need to talk about the Indigenous women that migrate to the capital, who see themselves as obligated to work in the homes of others, who see themselves as obligated to work every single day. We need to see that all of us Indigenous women are really actors of change, fundamental actors for the prevalence of our Indigenous knowledge, and a pillar of sustainability for our communities and for the entire country, for the entire world. My mission is to share that.
I am 25 years old, I am Indigenous. I have had access to many things, but I have also suffered greatly. I can remember an infinite number of moments where I was attacked for being Indigenous, especially when I came to the capital. In those moments, I realized that it was so important to keep fighting against the discrimination because I was not the first and unfortunately would not be the last Indigenous woman to face it. That made me reflect a lot on my mamá, how she had fought so bravely, on my sisters, my neighbors, my abuelas, my tías and all the women from 50 years ago, 100 years ago, who had to face a level of discrimination and racism that was much worse than what I was facing. If they could face it and keep resisting and keep fighting, how could I not do it?
EYY: Tell me about your experience as an Indigenous student in Guatemala.
SC: Our education was never one that spoke to us about our [Indigenous] history, it was never an education that spoke about Indigenous people, it was always about an Occidental culture, never our own. So I think from there, we started devaluing our culture, above all else, forgetting it. When we were in primary school, me and my friends knew we were from the villages but we wanted to reject that part of ourselves. In secondary school, we would have certain days where we could come with casual clothes and there were certain groups who would say, “Tomorrow let’s all wear pants.” If you didn’t come in pants you were ostracized, you were discriminated against, the entire school found out. They would remind you were poor and make you feel like being poor was the worst thing that could happen to you. That was tough and our teachers didn’t send a message that it was wrong.
My classmates strongly rejected indigenous women if we came to school with braids, the two braids that are traditional to us. They would make the most hurtful jokes, making us know that we were indigenous. The education system normalizes that.
EYY: How do you hope your music impacts Indigenous girls and women in your community?
SC: I believe and feel that something I want to share through music is that strength that women have had — our abuelas and ancestras — when having to fight against those structural inequities. Against machismo, against racism, against this patriarchal system that subjects us, that denies us our rights as women as Indigenous women. Teaching this to girls is so important.
We have been able to go on a small music tour through our communities and I have been able to see the impact it has on young girls. They begin to understand that they have that right to dream, to hope. To be able to share that is a huge gift. Knowing that between all of us, as women and as Indigenous, that we are not alone. We know that we will not be the first and most probably will not be the last, but that we are together in this fight.
I can’t keep repeating the phrase, “If I can do it, so can you,” without acknowledging the disadvantages that girls from Indigenous villages far from the capital will have. These are questions that we need to begin to change.
EYY: Talk to me about your creative process. How do you begin to write a song? Do you begin with the music or the lyrics?
SC: The creative process is something very beautiful because, at least in my case, I don’t have a pattern to follow. Many times, I will either be walking down the street or be on the bus and something will come to me. If I have a little notebook, I will write it down or on the phone. Sometimes lyrics will come to me. Other times a certain melody will come and I will try to record it quickly before I forget. A few times I have dreamt up songs and I will quickly wake up and record it. The process is always different.
I have had collaborations with other artists, but they always give me the opportunity to write what I want. They almost always invite me to write something, either I write a stanza or the chorus in my language. The process is always different and that is very enriching because you don’t follow a routine or something that is very set in stone.
EYY: Who is the first person you show a new song to?
SC: It’s the first time that someone has asked me that! Well, I try to record it myself on the phone and then listen to it back because I also want the person who I’m showing it to leave with a good impression or at least hear something good. I almost always show it to one of my sisters or a friend.
EYY: In just five years you have played on monumental stages from the U.N. to a mini-tour through Europe. How do you feel when you play your songs that are so impactful and so personal in those spaces?
SC: Everything is a challenge because in many of those spaces, you only find bands or groups comprised largely of men. So many times it has come to me having to say, “I am here because I have the right to be here and I can do it.” So every time that I have the opportunity, whether it be on a large stage or a tiny one or a place where there isn’t even a stage, every time it is like the first time.
I know very well that I am not the first Indigenous woman who sings or the first Indigenous woman to write her songs, but I am the first who has had this opportunity. I am thankful because I have not carved this path, my abuelas have with their fight, all Indigenous women have and non-Indigenous people who have fought for us to have this space.
EYY: How have you used your platform to create opportunities for other Indigenous artists?
SC: One of my dreams is to have a studio. A studio where Indigenous men and women can come and record whatever they want for free. A studio that can help them present their work with a label or on the radio. To have that little network to articulate ourselves. It has been complicated because here in Guatemala support for artists doesn’t exist. I don’t lose hope that some moment it will.
One of my dreams is also to build a big cultural space that will be by the pueblo [village], for the pueblo, where anyone can go. We know that from communal art, from ancestral art, that harmony can be made within our communities. That can be done as well: cementing that ancestral knowledge, rescuing it, reaffirming it. That is a dream that I hope will come true.
At the moment, we — and I say we because I have been helped by others who have been fundamental in my life like my family and some friends — we have tried to create a small network of community musicians in one part of the country. This year, we are planning to go to another part. It involves creating small artistic community spaces where the people from the community, teenagers, kids and adults can come and share a song or share a painting, a poem or a dance. Everything is free. Many times, the people don’t know that their neighbor paints or dances or whatever. So I think for the moment what we are doing is making that bond between community artists, generating these spaces so that they can keep replicating this very space in their communities a thousand times over.
EYY: If you had to pick a favourite song of yours, what would it be and why?
SC: There is a song called “Ixoqi’” that means, women. That song means a lot because us Kaqchikel believe strongly in dreams. Many times your abuelos or abuelas can come to you in a dream to talk to you about next steps or something you need to do or to give you advice or something like that. So this song came from my mamá’s dream where she dreamt of my abuelita, her mamá. My abuelita was telling her that she had to know that us women have a very large mission on this Earth, that we have so much value. This song talks about how we, as women, are very similar to the Earth, not only as givers of life but for giving life to ideas, to feelings, for giving life to pathways, for giving life to wisdom.
So this song is very important to me because you see that ancestral knowledge from the knowing of my abuelita. As women we are not on this Earth only to fulfill our “biological mission,” which is to have children, we have many more missions to accomplish. So that is what I try to share.
EYY: What advice do you have for our Assembly readers who may be confronted with obstacles and barriers, like the ones you faced, while pursuing their dreams?
SC: First of all, even though we are in different parts of the world, we are not alone. We are not alone because our strength transcends all borders. Because our strength unites like a braid. Because we are not alone only physically, but we are accompanied by our abuelas, by the women who have been around for thousands of years and who still accompany us with their light, with their spirit, with their strength, their hope, their bravery. So we are not alone and our voices need to come out. We no longer should be quiet because we really have so many things to say and many things to share. And in name of not only ourselves, but the girls to come, and the ones who we no longer see because they have been engulfed in such grave violence.
So many of us, so many women are going through similar things so we need to keep going. We need to keep writing our stories not only on paper but in our history, on hearts, on souls, on ideas and thoughts. May that hope always guide our path. May our bravery, our light, our look and our soul always shine through in every step we take because we are not only for ourselves, but for all of us.
This interview was originally conducted in Spanish and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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about the author
Emma Yee Yick is an editorial intern at Malala Fund. You can find her eating platanos, musing on urban spaces and chasing sunsets.