Chocolá Is a False Cognate

Chocolá can be reached by traveling from Guatemala City along a labyrinthine network of mountain roads leading to a region neither exactly in the highlands nor exactly in the lowlands known to archaeologists as the “Southern Maya Zone.” It is a real place. I have been there twice. And there are several facts that I can report.

I know that Chocolá was likely a center of cacao production in antiquity, though many valuable chocolate-making skills have been lost over time. I know that sometime in the nineteenth-century, a British-educated Spaniard named José Guardiola acquired the land, which he named Finca Chocolá, for the purposes of growing and processing coffee, and that it is the production of coffee—not chocolate—that has defined Chocolá in the modern era. I know that Chocolá was the indigenous name for the area when Guardiola arrived, though the ancient citadel buried beneath the ground on the same spot again had a different name. I know that Guardiola invented a machine that could dry 120 sacks of coffee in a day, which he patented and on which he made a substantial profit. I know that the German-run Compañia de Plantaciones Chocolá acquired the finca from Guardiola for 2.6 million German marks in 1891, and that under German management the property came to encompass 2,500 hectares and produce up to 17,000 sacks of coffee and an equivalent amount of sugar annually. I know that the farm continued to operate successfully until the Second World War, when the national government appropriated 254 companies and farms owned by German individuals and families who had been in Guatemala for generations but had nevertheless neglected to obtain Guatemalan citizenship. I know that the national government ran the finca for a time, though the enterprise was not a profitable one, and that in the 1980s the state turned 800 hectares of Chocolá’s land (including the town center and the coffee processing facilities) over to the local community by entrusting the property to a newly-formed collective organization called the Empresa Campesina Asociativa, or ECA. (I do not know who owns the other 1,700 hectares of the German finca, or what they do with that land.) I know that the original Guardiola machine is still intact, still functioning, and still in Chocolá, though current coffee production is so sporadic and management of the processing facility is so fragmented that the machine is hardly ever in use.

A good deal of this information comes from a book whose English translation is titled The History of Coffee in Guatemala, which is published by the Guatemalan industry association for large coffee growers. I do not entirely trust the author of the book, who characterizes the coffee baron, president during the 1870s and 1880s, and messiah of free-market liberalism Justo Rufino Barrios as “develop[ing] the country’s social and economic resources and establish[ing] a modern state,” while Victor Perera, whom I do trust, in his book Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy, describes Barrios’s regime as “the greatest scourge after Pedro de Alvarado.” However, it is in The History of Coffee in Guatemala that I find the images—of white finqueros on the lawns of their estates who resemble their contemporaries except that the fashions have changed, of indigenous campesinos who resemble their contemporaries exactly except that their sandals are now made out of cheap plastic instead of leather, and of the uncanny volcano-crowded landscape taken in from the wooden terrace atop Chocolá’s coffee beneficio—that remind me that I have been to this place.

Though the conclusions of this story ultimately rest upon my own observations, I began describing Chocolá before I had ever been there. I learned about Chocolá in different pieces and at different times from people who were involved in an archaeological dig sponsored by the ecotourism and conservation organization Earthwatch in 2004 and 2005. The lead archaeologist on the project was Jonathan Kaplan, a former documentary filmmaker who had earned his PhD at Yale during a long collaboration with the prolific “Mayanist” and elder statesman of Mesoamerican excavations Michael Coe. I have never met Kaplan in person and we only spoke on the phone when I was coming to the end of my research. But in the months following one of the first Earthwatch digs, a few of the volunteers visited the second-hand bookshop I ran in the Guatemalan tourist town of Antigua to peruse my collection of books about the history of chocolate displayed on shelves fashioned out of the wings of an old, bright-yellow crop-duster plane. One was a graduate student who had come to conduct research in cultural and community anthropology in Guatemala. The others were Earl and Suzanne de Berge, vacationers who went on to found a nonprofit organization based in Chocolá called Semillas para el futuro.

Several years later, it was the de Berges’ enthusiastic invitation to visit the Semillas project, along with the time-sensitive requirement that I write a book-length nonfiction story in order to receive my graduate degree in creative writing, that propelled me to return to Guatemala in search of Chocolá. Proudly and unambiguously, with a title suggested by a lecture Jonathan Kaplan had once given, I wrote a proposal explaining that

This book will come out of exclusive research conducted in and around the village of Chocolá between 2007 and 2009, following a cacao crop from the early stages through harvest, processing, and negotiation with and expected sale to a foreign company. Chocolá: The Kingdom of Cacao is about the rebirth of chocolate in the birthplace of chocolate. The isolated village of Chocolá, whose 10,000 residents are largely K’iche’ Maya, is nestled between dormant and active volcanoes in Guatemala’s Pacific Coast Foothills. Chocolá is also an archeological site where scholars are making crucial breakthroughs about the millennia-old Pre-classic Maya. And Chocolá is balmy Central American farm country, where a coffee plantation once thrived, and where for the first time in over two thousand years indigenous Guatemalans are profiting from the crop that gives the town its name—cacao, the seeds of chocolate.

But as I pursued the project, I came to see every fact conveyed with so much confidence in my thesis proposal as an uncertainty. Chocolá was not a village but a former finca, that is to say plantation, whose current municipal status was convoluted at best. I did not wish to claim that the residents of Chocolá were predominantly K’iche’ as opposed to one of about twenty other ethnic Maya groups without a knowledge of Guatemalan cultural geography that in nearly ten years of traveling back and forth to the country I had not managed to acquire. Many residents of Chocolá are not, in fact, indigenous to the region (which does not appear on most maps and is frequently, though inconsistently, referred to as either the Pacific Coast Foothills or the Boca Costa) because they were imported in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the finca owners (who referred to themselves as “German,” which primarily meant “white,” who may well have been native to Guatemala, as “Guatemalan” as I am “American”) from some other higher or lower region of Guatemala’s phantasmagoric terrain (higher, I think). And whether the residents of Chocolá were or were not referred to (or did or did not wish to be referred to) as “Maya” or “Indigenous” had far more to do with power and politics than it did with genetics. Additionally, the archeological value of Chocolá seemed inexplicably more a liability than a virtue. And Chocolá was balmy farm country and the German coffee plantation did once thrive, though I wasn’t certain that anyone there was now profiting from anything.

* * *

The first time I visited Chocolá, in the spring of 2008, I drove up for the day with Earl in the hulking four-wheel drive he’d picked up cheap a few months earlier when international adoption policy changed and a host of nongovernmental organizations in Guatemala and all of their workers had to shift their missions and/or decamp for other parts of the world. He met me in Antigua at dawn with an adventurous sense of urgency and I purposefully slid into the front passenger seat, dressed much as he was in heavy boots and the kind of washable safari clothes that gringos tend to wear when they meet rural Guatemalans. We were accompanied by a young guy from Chocolá named Victor Díaz, whom Earl and Suzanne had met when they were working on the archaeological dig for Earthwatch and since hired to be a liaison between their organization and the larger Chocolá community, and who rode in the backseat dressed in Dockers and a polo shirt.

On the chocolate trail in Chocolá, I saw some young cacao trees on land that Earl had recently purchased from the farmer’s cooperative with Victor’s help and some legal maneuvering. He intended to use that plot as a “demonstration farm” that would show locals how to plant the historically-relevant cacao trees, boosting long-term profits by interspersing them with other edible crops, valuable hardwoods, and alternative forms of timber for everyday use (including peculiarly adaptable bamboo stalks, which can grow several inches in a single day once planted in Guatemala’s fertile soil). But Earl’s cacao trees had just been planted and they weren’t yet flowering or producing the pods from which cacao beans are harvested. And other than Earl’s own enterprise, not much in Chocolá was relevant to the story I was pursuing. Local farmers who produced anything commercially—which meant selling the day’s yield to a coyote whose unfair price was a better deal than waiting around weeks or months on end for a short-term job with wages—still grew coffee.

When we stumbled past what must have been a three-foot-square solid block of stone carved with Maya glyphs cast off on the side of the road, no one seemed to notice and we simply kept walking. I took that to mean that Mesoamerican artifacts were so integrated into everyday life in Chocolá that their forms and shapes and codified messages required no special attention. But Earl lowered his voice and said that Dr. Kaplan’s dig had recently become a sticking point with the local community. Better, he said, not to mention it.

The majority of our time in Chocolá that day was spent hiking back and forth between the beneficio where coffee is processed and a deep concrete pit at the other end of town, since Earl was interested in financing a project to build an enormous open pipeline that would carry the coffee waste to this offsite facility where, with the help of a dense population of earthworms, it could be turned into fertilizer. Earl’s partners in this project were three men on the elected board of the Chocolá farmers’ collective, the ECA, which served as the closest approximation of a government in town since the haphazard rural zoning in the Guatemalan department of Suchitepequez stipulated that Chocolá was not its own municipality but an outlying district of another significantly smaller village several kilometers down the road. “Partnership” is a word that Earl chose and he liked to say that “people here understand me because I’m just a working class guy.” Nonetheless, it was precisely because Earl stood so firmly across Guatemala’s tempestuous gulf of power that he was in a position to make decisions about what happened in Chocolá even though he did not know Spanish or any indigenous language beyond basic salutations, was not trained as an anthropologist or archaeologist or agronomist or economist, and had no specific qualifications beyond being generally more wealthy and more educated than those with whom he was working.

The representatives from the ECA traced out the logic and the geography of their elaborate plan, all of us wearing dusty baseball caps to soften the midday sun, as Earl calculated the costs (which would have amounted to a few hundred dollars) and I participated in this uncertain communication by translating uncertainly between Spanish and English. Each of us on that afternoon, though our reasons were as diverse as if they had been refracted through a prism, wanted to see Chocolá benefit from its rich cultural heritage. But since the farmers’ collective currently had zero capital with which to invest in improved coffee cultivation and distribution—let alone the start-up funds (or, perhaps, the ideological inclination) for an internationally-marketed “Maya chocolate” project—the interim plan was to turn the byproducts of their sporadic coffee production into a commodity. Of course laying down a serpentine pipeline full of muck that would stink to high heaven during the dry season and overflow into god knows what during the wet season might not have been the best first step toward reaching the long-term goal of positioning Chocolá as a capital of Mesoamerican sustainable tourism.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy a pickup truck and drive the stuff down?” I asked as we walked awkwardly along a rocky ridge.

“No, no, no!” Earl shot back. “That’s not sustainable!”

The following summer, I repeated this story, about the pipeline and the truck, to a coffee industry expert whom I met when I was visiting a private farm. “People from the developed world have to be very careful about what they call sustainability,” she said, laughing. “You can’t take away everything that’s efficient.”

That conversation the following year took place in the next town over from Chocolá, on a finca that was a remarkable model of efficiency. It turned a profit on coffee and chocolate, generated enough power for all farm operations with its own hydraulic system, and provided education to the children and grandchildren of its farm workers along with other local children from the area. The farm wasn’t a utopia—the innovations and reforms of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries hadn’t changed the fact that all monetary profits, along with the leisure hours and other privileges of class they afforded, still went exclusively to the owners and not the laborers—but it might be called a pragmatic success. I called Earl when I was on this farm and invited him to meet me there. We could learn more about the place together, I suggested, and then I could travel with him to Chocolá.

“Why would I want to go there?” he asked.

And so he didn’t. And neither did I go to Chocolá during that trip.

Earl and I had a funny working relationship. We’d invited ourselves into each other’s stories, and we didn’t quite know how to behave once we got there. The most significant revelations in our interviews were not the facts but bizarre bits of repartee (or failure to achieve it).

“Tell me how you came to be involved in the town of Chocolá.”

“You need to learn how to ask better questions.”

“No, I’m not going to be intimidated by you.”

“Good. That’s good.”

It may be true that foreigners like Earl de Berge cannot be part of the solution in Chocolá without inherently making themselves part of the problem. Something else that could and should be said about the de Berges and many other people mentioned in this story is that they are offering much needed help in a much neglected place.

* * *

I did manage to make arrangements to spend a couple of days in Chocolá the following summer. Though Earl did not offer to drive me this time (my friend Fernando, glad for the chance to see the Guardiola machine, gave me a ride from Antigua), he did put me in touch with Victor and his family. Families like Victor’s that have lived in Chocolá since the state turned the farm over to its former employees about thirty years ago are members of the ECA and own plots of land just outside the town center that they can use for income or subsistence. Victor took responsibility for working the land, even though he was also commuting back and forth several days a week to take business classes at the equivalent of a community college in the industrial coastal city of Mazatenango. He was one of only a handful of locals who had even gone to high school. Victor was also a minority among chocolenses in that he was in constant contact with foreigners and currently housed two American medical students who were volunteering at an otherwise unstaffed clinic. (Though the odd foreigner—in the form of a conquistador, a finquero, a missionary, a Peace Corps recruit, or a journalist—has been a part of this landscape for a long time).

I ate my meals at the plastic-covered table in Victor’s mother’s kitchen and stayed in the spare room in a brand-new addition to his brother’s house. Victor’s mother sometimes kept me company while I ate my fried eggs and black beans. Other times, she chatted with other women in the Mayan K’iche’ language, sitting outside in the sun or under the shade of a tarp pulled over the propane tank that fueled two gas burners and the basin-like sink known as a pila that was always full of water in case the supply from the tap ran out during the day. Victor’s brother stayed home during the day rather than working on the family plot, and I would catch glimpses of him in the afternoons sporting tank tops that exposed his puffed-up chest and flashing a gold chain around his neck. The mark of success in Chocolá is having gone to the States illegally to work construction and made it back. If you’ve done that, like Victor’s brother, you display your wealth with a strange set of cultural appropriations. These are the kinds of images invented by postmodern novelists tracing the global consumerist urge to its inevitable endpoint at the edge of the developing world. Bathroom tiles and patio furniture are indications of prestige. But the bathroom tiles are plastered onto the front porch. And the patio furniture is an upholstered bench inherited from a van that saw its best days in the 1980s, or maybe the 1970s.

Victor and his sister and two brothers had all moved from their mother’s original four-room house into their own homes, clustered mostly on a few adjacent small plots of land. Victor’s house was unusual in that he had planted his own kitchen garden out front and furnished the rooms with chairs and tables made from environmentally-regenerative bamboo. He also planned to paint the ashen cinder blocks of the exterior dark green.

Victor was busy with school on the days I was in town, but he asked a friend of his named Juan to take me into the milpa. Milpa is a word that feels onomatopoeic, that carries in its expression so much more than the land and the crops it describes. Of equal ritual and quotidian significance, the milpa is a fabric of corn and bean plants that was designed in antiquity to sustain the Maya household and continues to assert its right to do so in the twenty-first century. Juan and I walked out of town on the highway, and then we took the back route, along a path that had never become a road. There in the middle of the fields surrounded by tall plants and natural silences was a house, a man, an archetype. Everybody in Chocolá called the old man out here in the woods something like “the Cowboy” because he’d lived here, he’d stayed here, straight through the civil war that destroyed so many lives and livelihoods in highland Guatemala and forced entire communities away from their indigenous heritage and into town centers where the promises of security were last seen before they vanished. His house wasn’t made of stacked cinderblocks but rather organic intersections of wood and tin climbing down to a verdant lawn where a hammock slung between avocado trees swayed with the syrupy calm you’re more likely to find further down the mountain slopes toward the coast. In this garden, shady geometric spaces could transform themselves at any moment into workshops turning out small batches of cheese, honey, and other products of the land. A ruminating cow with a steady gait kept watch under the heavy and twisted old cacao tree, ostensibly the reason we’d stopped by that morning. This is what life might have been in the Guatemalan countryside.

I visited Earl’s demonstration farm, too. The land seemed healthy enough, full of the creeping humus of life. The fledgling cacao trees were bigger than when I’d last seen them, though they still weren’t mature enough to bear fruit. And there wasn’t that much else that I could learn standing under the humid canopy since trees can’t answer questions (which, in retrospect, might have been precisely why I was determined to spend so much of the little time I had in Chocolá mixed up among them). In town, I sat in on a seminar given by a member of one of Central America’s major exporting families who’d volunteered to drive up from Guatemala City to help several chocolenses get started planting new cacao trees donated by Semillas para el futuro. Some of the ECA directors arrived, their cell phones clipped to their belts. Many of the women in Chocolá dress according to Maya tradition in the elaborate indigo and crimson woven skirts known as cortes with matching blouses, or huipiles, but men mostly wear second- or third-hand giveaways from the United States: jeans or khaki pants with T-shirts advertising “Tickle Me Elmo,” “Queer Night Out,” and “The Black Dog Tavern: Martha’s Vineyard.” The Cowboy walked into the town square wearing a Relic surf shirt and a Nautica hat, a machete at his hip.

The healthy young cacao plants subsidized by Earl and Suzanne de Berge’s Semillas para el futuro, however, carried little of the Maya patrimony that nascent marketing campaigns for Chocolá’s future harvests envisioned. These trees were not in fact “lost” strains of cacao (and likely neither was the one I saw way out in the woods) but clones of a commercially-engineered twentieth-century hybrid that, as these details slithered into the slip knots that make up the story of Guatemala, had been introduced to the country by the United Fruit company in the twentieth century, recently propagated by an entrepreneurial local farmer, and then purchased by Earl and Suzanne for the nonprofit venture.

* * *

I never saw the archaeological site linking those freshly planted cacaotal saplings to their divine history in the Guatemalan Boca Costa either. “The philosophy of the project,” Jonathan Kaplan had once written inspiringly on the website for his archaeological dig,

is that, ethically, epistemologically, and practically, the archaeological research cannot be separated from the life and continuance of the modern Maya community. Archaeology no longer can function to extract objects and knowledge from Third World ground for export, as “conquest knowledge,” or documentation of the booty of conquest, to the First World.

Yet most people who had occasion to be in the area during the period between 2005 and 2010 would probably agree with the statement that the plans to excavate evidence of Chocolá’s Maya heritage were not universally well received by the local population. Residents had over generations come to be suspicious of foreign intervention, and the project was particularly troublesome to certain individuals who had a vested interest in the property located directly above the dig site and/or a vested interest in a new-wave evangelical Christian movement that held Maya belief systems to be blasphemous and demonic.

By the time I arrived, the archaeological dig led by Jonathan Kaplan was a source of frustration, unrest, and even violence and had been indefinitely stalled. Earl de Berge offered the swaggering opinion that Kaplan “had made himself a persona non grata with the community” and that development in Chocolá could best be attained without him. Anne Kraemer, an anthropologist who has worked at different times for both Jonathan Kaplan and Earl de Berge, explains the situation in her master’s thesis on collaborative archaeology in Guatemala with somewhat more nuance, noting that “the archaeology project was forced to leave Chocolá … due to a lack of communication, a breakdown in multivocality between the archaeologists, government inspectors and community residents… [T]he suspicion of outsiders is high, which led [local residents] to quickly jump to conclusions and finally instead of contacting the archaeologists, they listened to rumors.” (Among the rumors, which may or may not have been metaphorical, was that the researchers were digging for gold, which they planned to steal from its rightful owners.) Kaplan told me in 2009, in a comment applicable to any number of unexpected outcomes in Chocolá, “I still feel absolutely flabbergasted at what happened.”

“I even said, ‘this is a hostile takeover, Earl,” Kaplan—who had initially recruited de Berge to manage the fundraising efforts for an organization he had created called Proyecto Arqueológico Chocolá—told me. “I mean, it’s like he just walked in and took over someone else’s business. And it’s not a business—it’s a nonprofit enterprise!”

* * *

The Maya believe that time is not a linear narrative but a circular process, and their gods must have deliberately designed Guatemala’s intimate landscape so that its small number of inhabitants would always run into one another and be reminded of history repeating itself. When the anthropologist Anne Kraemer came into the eccentric little bookstore that I ran in Antigua one afternoon in 2004 or 2005, I told her I was interested in the history of chocolate and she wrote down a single word on one of the flimsy sheets of paper on which I kept track of accounts:


I don’t remember what else we talked about. That was one of only two times that I have met Anne, who would later marry Victor Díaz and share his painted house and thriving vegetable garden in Chocolá. But I tucked the piece of paper into the straw basket I used as a filing system. I have lost so many books and papers moving back and forth between Guatemala and the rest of the world, yet all this time I have managed to hold onto that receipt.

In a footnote to the article titled “Chocolá, an Apparent Regional Capital in the Southern Maya Preclassic,” Jonathan Kaplan and Juan Antonio Valdés write that

considering the plentiful water from various sources at Chocolá, Francis Gall observes: ‘Chocol-já … might originate from the Mayan Chocomol = “heat” and , or = “water,” producing the phrase, ‘hot water’ (Gall 1983, Vol 1). Another plausible hypothesis is that, given that the region—extending into Soconusco, Mexico—is recognized not only as an ancient breadbasket but specifically as part of a very important cacao-producing heartland, and that nahuatlismos are common in the Guatemalan antiplano and Pacific coast, the word might originate from the later Nahuatl, chocóatl; and Coe and Coe cite a Quiché word meaning ‘to drink chocolate together’ (1996: 65).

Almost every book or article about chocolate contains a complex and tangled story that more or less summarizes the one given in The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe: The uncanny cacao trees—whose heavy, wrinkly, deep-hued yellow, red, and green pods sprout directly from the trunk—were the botanical treasure of the Maya nobility. The pods are the fruit of the plant, and it is the seeds within (which we often call “cocoa beans”) that ultimately become chocolate. The Maya were among the earliest people to understand how to process the seeds, a skill they picked up from the Olmecs and passed on to the Aztecs. Inedible raw, cacao seeds must be fermented in their own pulp, then dried, roasted, and ground to a paste. (In some ways, the process has never changed—a cacao paste exactly like what the ancient Maya made is the base of all modern chocolate bars.) The Maya took their chocolate as a drink, and they imbibed everywhere across a swatch of land that spanned what is now Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Mexico. Colonists, long after power in Mesoamerica had shifted from the Maya to the Aztecs to the Spaniards, created a market for cacao in the Spanish court in the sixteenth century, but overplanting led to crop disease in Mexico and Guatemala, and the Iberian entrepreneurs soon had to establish new plantings in new regions like Venezuela and the Caribbean islands. After 1800, other European countries muscled into the cacao trade and transplanted trees to similar climates in other parts of the world, particularly British- and French-controlled West Africa, now the region that serves as the source of most Hershey Bars.

The True History of Chocolate resembles the famed if fading style guide Strunk and White in that it was produced by two authors, one living, the other dead. Michael Coe, whose publications include the eight editions to date of an essential text simply titled The Maya, was at least as generous to his late wife (who died of cancer after writing an outline and the first two chapters) as E. B. White was to William Strunk, Jr., his former teacher. Michael made Sophie the first author on the book. (When I once accompanied a group of British entrepreneurs in the chocolate industry to a meeting with the president of Guatemala’s leading private university—which novelist Francisco Goldman describes without exaggeration as “run like a temple to the worship of Milton Friedman” and a destination where feminism, not to mention the Socratic method, seems to have only recently arrived—I heard the True History repeatedly referred to, both by locals in Italian suits and by the Brits who really thought Guatemala City was the kind of place where you wear a white linen jacket and a Panama hat, as “Michael Coe’s excellent book.” That seemed an inaccurate representation. “It’s Sophie Coe’s excellent book,” I said.)

I followed Kaplan and Valdés from their footnote about Chocolá back to the Coes’ authoritative book, and I eventually found the passage they cite on page 61 of the 2007 edition, in the form of another reference—to a conversation with Dennis Tedlock, the translator of the sacred Popol Vuh (the “book of council” of the K’iche’, or Quiché, Maya), which revealed that “one of the things that people did at … festivities was to chokola’j, ‘drink chocolate together.’” In the course of looking up that information, I found several other interwoven linguistic references which helped to explain the original note in Kaplan and Valdés. For example, I learned that the richest cacao-growing regions in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica were “the Putún-dominated Chontalpa of Tabasco; and the pacific coastal plain of Chiapas and Guatemala, especially the well watered Boca Costa—the piedmont zone at the foot of the volcanic highlands.” As I understand it, the term Boca Costa today refers to the area of that coastal plain which falls on the Guatemalan side of the border with Chiapas in Mexico. The only name I know for the Mexican portion of that land is Soconusco, which, the Coes explain, comes from Xoconochco, “a Nahuatl word corrupted by the Spanish.” Nahuatl, still a living language, was spoken by the Aztecs, whose cacao-trading practices were intertwined with those of the Maya (thus Kaplan and Valdés’s nahuatlismos).

The Coes also make the illuminating comment that “the word ‘cacao,’ borrowed from the Olmec Mixe-Zoquean language, entered the vocabulary of the ancient Maya sometime between 400BC and 100AD.” And they interestingly corroborate Kaplan and Valdés’s statement about the hot water by explaining that haa appeared in early colonial dictionaries of Mayan languages spoken in the Yucatán in Mexico as “a word for chocolate as well as water.”

But Sophie and Michael Coe go on to counter conventional chocolate wisdom, taking a divergent position from Kaplan and his partner who nonetheless use their True History as a source. The Coes insist that “chocolatl appears in no truly early source on the Nahuatl language or on Aztec culture!” They explain that

You can search in vain for it in the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary, that of Alonso de Molina (published as early as 1555); or in Sahagún’s great encyclopedia; or in the Huehuetlatolli, “The Sayings of the Ancients,” preserved in several versions. In those pristine sources, the word for the chocolate drink is cacahuatl, “cacao water,” a reasonable compound since the drink was made of ground cacao beans and water. Cortés himself always uses for the chocolate beverage the word cacao, which the Spaniards almost surely picked up from the Maya of the Yucatán and Tabasco. But some time in the latter half of the 16th century, the Spaniards began using a new [word], chocolatl… It was probably simultaneously that chocolatl was transformed into chocolate by the white population.

So what about the word scribbled on the piece of paper: CHOCOLÁ? A different derivation is probably more plausible. And even Kaplan and Valdes explain that “[t]ownspeople ascribe the origin of the name, Chocolá, to the modern Quiché, chok-la or chok-la-ta, ‘pase adelante,’ / ‘welcome’ or ‘welcome be you, sir.’”

It is harder than you might think to find chocolate in Chocolá, but I would like to thank everyone I met there, the chocolenses and the foreigners, for their gracious hospitality while I searched.


  1. Jill Somer

    Hello Emily!

    James Bliesner told me about you and I wanted to touch base. He said you might be willing to visit Skopelos and I wanted to find out if that really is a possibility. He has told me wonderful things about you.

    Jill Somer
    Associate Director
    The Skopelos Foundation for the Arts

  2. Jonathan Kaplan

    Stone does not have several of her facts straight and this brief account leaves out too much of the story – truly one of lost “gold” in the form of world cultural patrimony (and a lost opportunity for sustainable development to help save the ancient city), and villainy, in the person of the businessman, de Berge, who ran an advertising and polling company in Phoenix until he decided to “be” a Maya “philanthropist” and “adventurer”; his words and actions encouraged the same small group of rumor-mongers in the town who forced out the project I directed. Alas, Anne Kraemer’s master’s thesis also misunderstood and omitted too much to make for an accurate account. Petty egos in the form of these white extranjeros combined to poison still further 500 years of tragic history at Chocola.

  3. Jack Danylchuk

    Interesting historical narrative on Chocola and cacao in Chiapas and Guatemala, but it is out of date.Evidence recently unearthed in the Zamora region of what is now southern Ecuador attributes the earliest know use of cacao to the Maya-Chinchipe culture; it predates the Olmecs by about 1,000 years. That is in line with other evidence that places the ‘birth[place’ of cacao in its region of greatest bio-diversity, namely the upper Amazon. The current hypothesis is that cacao was traded to the Pacific coast and down the Orinoco to the Caribbean. Current research has also upended the notion that there were just three strains of cacao: criollo, forestaro and triniterio. Genetic research has turned up several new types and there are undoubtedly many, many more. The cacao the Spanish invaders found in Mexico can claim the distinction of being the first to be transplanted to new locations across the Pacific. I was in Chocola just yesterday and saw no evidence of a c cacao rebirth – or anything else for that matter. The locals I asked about the archaeological project pointed me in the direction of a few artifacts arranged around the decaying buildings of the former coffee/sugar mill which also appears to be moribund. The community can be reached easily by chicken bus from anywhere. Stop at San Antonio Suchitipequez and catch a smaller bus for the short run to Chocola.


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