My Ride with the Rooster

By Sara Schonhardt | September 07, 2017 | Guatemala

Santa Cruz del Quiche, Guatemala—The search for the bird began in the morning market, where live fowl huddled in baskets under colorful netting. The woman translating for me needed a companion for her hen, she said.

We had been visiting villages across Guatemala’s Western Highlands — a largely indigenous area known for high rates of poverty, malnutrition, maternal mortality and migration — to talk to women about the impact of climate change on their lives.

The market was in Santa Cruz del Quiche, the capital city of a department that bore the brunt of a 36-year civil war in which more than 200,000 people were killed, the majority of them Mayan. The hunt would end more than an hour’s drive away in Santa Maria, a tidy, hillside village of clay homes painted with limestone and dotted with whispering corn fields.

These towns mark the tail of a serpentine "dry corridor" that snakes from Guatemala through El Salvador and up to Honduras. A severe drought starting in 2013 left villages like Santa Maria with little food and put a dent in livelihoods that deepened with each year it continued. Work here was never plentiful to start, so when the crops started failing, many looked for work elsewhere.

Those who leave — mostly men — face plenty of hardships. But the women who stay fight battles of their own.

It was their stories I was out to collect. I had not expected to add a baby rooster to the mix. But there he was, our gallito, claws tied together and stuffed into a sack by the family we'd just interviewed, its owners.

They agreed to sell the rooster for 150 quetzals (roughly $20), more than many families spend in a week. And he rode in the back seat of our white Toyota pickup as it bounced over rutted roads toward Guatemala City. I sat for a bit in the back, holding back our bags to make sure he didn’t suffocate.

For much of the journey the rooster was quiet, until several hours into the ride along a major highway, he wriggled out of the sack, adding a new touch of adventure to an already eventful trip. I balked at recapturing him, fearful that he would attack.

At my translator's instruction, I gripped the rooster on the sides, gingerly placing my hands over his wings. Any one of the people we’d interviewed over the past week would have found my fear amusing at the least. Roosters, hens and turkeys populate the yards of many farm homes in rural Guatemala. An important source of eggs and meat and offspring, they are an asset these families depend on. (Gallo, Spanish for “rooster,” is also the name of the country’s most popular beer brand.)
I laughed at my ineptitude as I thought of the women we’d seen scooping their birds up with ease. I laughed too at what the Toyota had become: a scaled-down version of the country’s prolific chicken buses, repurposed American school buses known for having live poultry on board.

Even once he was back in his sack, the rooster didn’t give up. A fighter, like many of the women we’d met, he managed to get his head through the bag’s top in a bid to escape again. Still, we kept going, speeding toward the city carrying stories of women and a bird in a sack who continued fighting for his freedom.


View All Posts By Sara Schonhardt

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