5 Guatemalan women you should know about

Guatemalan women - Jürg Widmer Probst

Guatemala is home to more than 16.6 million people. Of these, almost two-thirds are indigenous people, whose achievements are often left out of historical canon.

For Guatemalan women, this is even more the case. Think about how many women from Guatemala you’ve read about or heard about. The chances are, it’s not many. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu is well-known, but there are many more who have been overlooked. Here are five women from Guatemala who deserve to be more well-known. Each of them changed history and made an impact in some way.

Guatemalan women who have changed the course of history

Kalomt’e k’abel, 7th century AD

Kalomt’e k’abel was warlord and queen during the Classic Maya era (in the 7th century). Historical scholars believe that she was most likely more powerful than Wak k’inich Bahlam II, her warlord husband. In 2012, after 10 years of excavation at Peru Waka near the border with Belize, her remains were discovered.

Archaeologists discovered her tomb. Here they found various artefacts inscribed with her other name Ix Kam Ajaw. This translates as ‘Lady Snake Lord’. Jade jewellery, weapons and other treasures were also dug up form her tomb. Historians now think that she was the most powerful and important person in the kingdom of Calakmul.

Alaide Foppa, 20th century

Alaide Foppa was a poet, feminist and human rights advocate. Historians think that she was most likely killed during the Guatemalan civil war. She was born in Spain in 1914 with a Guatemalan mother and an Italian father.

After growing up for part of her life in Europe, Foppa obtained full citizenship in Guatemala and moved there. When the United States ousted Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, she was forced to flee to Mexico. Here she joined Amnesty International and taught courses on the sociology of Latin American women. In 1980, she was denounced as subversive and went missing in Guatemala City. It’s thought that she was murdered under General Romeo Lucas Garcia’s military Government.

Myrna Mack Chang, 20th century

Chang fought for the indigenous people during the Guatemalan civil war. She was of Mayan/Chinese descent and was an anthropologist before the war. On 11 September 1990 she was murdered by the military Government’s death squads. Two days earlier she published important research showing the tyranny that the indigenous people were being subjected to under the Guatemalan military dictatorship.

Chang’s sister went on to lead the total transformation of Guatemala’s justice system. In 2003, she succeeded in getting the International Court of Human Rights to order Guatemala’s responsibility for her sister’s murder. This case was instrumental in changing the way that human rights cases were tried and judged in Guatemala.

Thelma Cabrera, 20th century

Politician and human rights campaigner Thelma Cabrera ran for the Guatemalan presidentship in 2019. An indigenous Maya Mam Guatemalan, Cabrera was born on the west coast of the country in El Astinal. After growing up in poverty and married off at 15, she soon became a member of a grassroots organisation fighting for the indigenous Guatemalans forced to live in poverty.

The organisation is called CODECA (Comite del Desarrollo Campesino). She was elected by CODECA to run for President heading up their new political party called the Movement for the Liberation of Peoples (MLP). She won a historic 10.3% of the vote and is only the second indigenous Guatemalan in history to run for President.

Lucia Xiloj Cui, 20th century

Another fighter for justice, Cui is a Maya q’echi lawyer. She is particularly active in fighting for victims of sexual abuse during the Guatemalan civil war. In 2010, she began collecting together testimonies about the genocide of the Achi people during the same civil war.

She discovered that more than 5,000 Achi people were murdered, equalling a quarter of the population. Cui also uncovered 36 cases of rape and sexual abuse of Achi women by military men in 1981. The case is still in court, as it keeps suffering setbacks but Cui is determined to fight on and find justice for these ignored victims.