Part III: Latin America

Chapter 11: Q’eqchi’-Maya Women: Memory, Markets, and Multilevel Marketing in Guatemala

S. Ashley Kistler

In this chapter, the author explores the intersections between globalization, marketing, kinship, and gender in San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala. The author discusses how Indigenous Q’eqchi’Maya women use subsistence and multilevel marketing to challenge local gendered norms, reproduce longstanding Q’eqchi’ notions of family, and honor the legacies of their female ancestors who were also involved in market sales. The author concludes that Chamelco’s Q’eqchi’ market women moderate two distinct cultural realities and systems of value: that of their community’s Indigenous past and that of their town’s everincreasing incorporation into global capitalism.

Learning Objectives

  • Assess how Indigenous women in Guatemala engage with capitalism to reinforce long-standing Indigenous cultural values.
  • Identify the social factors that lead Maya women to get involved with multiple forms of marketing.
  • Compare and contrast the motivations for and outcomes of Q’eqchi’ women’s work in traditional subsistence markets and new forms of capitalist exchange, specifically multilevel marketing.
  • Explain how participation in economic exchange can play a role in defining one’s social status and gendered identity.

During the summer of 2014, an interesting theme emerged on the social media accounts of several of my Q’eqchi’-Maya friends in San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala. They began to post with increasing frequency about Herbalife, a multilevel marketing corporation new to the region. I watched as friends posted photos of themselves drinking Herbalife shakes, shared statements of admiration for Herbalife, and documented their weight-loss journeys. Many of these newly minted Herbalife distributors were the children or relatives of subsistence vendors in Chamelco’s municipal marketplace, taking their family histories of marketing in new directions. I set out to learn more about their connection to Herbalife and how their work related to the role of Q’eqchi’ women in Chamelco’s market.

In this chapter, I explore the intersections between globalization, marketing, and gender in San Juan Chamelco, a Q’eqchi’-Maya community in Guatemala. Q’eqchi’ is one of twenty-two Indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala and speakers of Q’eqchi’ use their language as an identifying ethnic designation. I examine how Q’eqchi’ women engage with global capitalism, as defined in the introduction to this text, to challenge local gendered norms and reproduce Indigenous values. Participation in local and global markets empowers Indigenous women by giving them a level of prestige and recognition available to few Indigenous women in Chamelco. Through work in the local subsistence marketplace, Q’eqchi’ women in Chamelco become embodiments of local value, recognized as compassionate, hardworking, and intelligent. Community members identify marketing as an ancient and valued occupation, further enhancing market women’s status.

In addition, some women elevate their visibility through new forms of market exchange, including selling nutritional supplements produced by Herbalife. While involvement with Herbalife represents a new form of marketing outside the bounds of “traditional” market work, women sell Herbalife for many of the same reasons that others engage in subsistence marketing: to challenge local gendered norms and connect the community to long-standing Indigenous values, centered on honoring and remembering Q’eqchi’ ancestors. Here, I explore how Q’eqchi’-Maya women use local market sales and multilevel marketing, a hierarchical business model in which salespeople earn not only what they sell but also a percentage of the sales made by those at lower levels, to reinforce Q’eqchi’ notions of value.

Gender, Status, and Capitalist Exchange

Around the world, women accrue capital and develop power through exchange (Buechler 1978, 1985, 1997; Kistler 2014; Seligmann 1989, 1993; Sikkink 2001; Weiner 1976). Although capitalism can widen inequities in gendered status (Amadiume 1987; Chaney and Schmink 1976; Chinchilla 1975; Nash 1993; Stephen 1993), women have long used capitalist exchange to define their social identities (Chiñas 1973, 2002; Clark 1994; Elmendorf 1976; Hendrickson 1995; Marti 2001; Nash 1994; Seligmann 1989, 1993, 2001, 2004; Weismantel 2001). Women who work in market sales earn prestige by accruing capital wealth, forming social networks, and achieving leadership positions (Babb 1985, 1986, 1989, 2001; Little 2004; Mintz 1971; Tax 1953).

Women change their status not only through market sales but through other forms of exchange. Multilevel marketing companies (MLMs) like Avon, Amway, Tupperware, Omnilife, and Herbalife have served as a vehicle for garnering status and elevating the sellers’ socioeconomic class (Clarke 1999; Cahn 2008; Moutsatsous 2001). MLMs are “networks of member-distributors whose earnings come both from selling products and recruiting new members” (Sparks and Schenk 2001). Most MLMs engage in direct sales methods, meaning that clients purchase goods only in face-to-face interactions with distributors outside of a set storefront (Peterson and Wotruba 1996). While MLMs gained popularity in the United States decades ago, they have recently entered new markets around the world (Biggart 1989; Cahn 2006, 2008; Dolan and Scott 2009; Fadzillah 2005; Gu 2004; Hall-Clifford 2015; Hedwig 2012; Lan 200; Preston-Werner 2007). Cahn (2008) suggests that MLMs expanded in Latin America in the late 1980s as markets were deregulated.

The growing body of literature on MLMs reveals that for many distributors have trouble turning a profit through direct sales. In fact, many distributors lose money but find other benefits, including maintaining or enhancing class identity (Cahn 2008), gaining independence and autonomy (Preston-Werner 2007), expanding social networks (Oliveira 2017), and generating status and prestige (Dolan and Scott 2009; Fadzillah 2005; Hall-Clifford 2015; Moutsatsos 2001). These perceived benefits of MLMs are particularly appealing to women, as direct sales work is open to anyone—regardless of age, gender, or education—and offers flexible hours. MLMs are controversial, as distributors are often encouraged to invest large amounts of cash up front to buy in bulk materials that they may not be able to resell and use high-pressure sales tactics to recruit new clients (Partnoy 2014; Peterson and Albaum 2007, Vander Nat and Keep 2002). Most MLM distributors make little, if any, profit and rarely find the economic or social incentives they seek.

Indigenous women challenge gendered norms and elevate their social positions by embodying and reproducing local values through their involvement in markets and MLM sales. I draw on Gregory’s (1997, 13) definition of values as “invisible chains that link relations between things to relations between people.” Value is what underpins social action and motivates people to engage in exchange and other social realms (Graeber 2001; Gregory 1997; Piot 1991). In some societies, more than one system of value shapes local life, as communities move seamlessly between long-standing local values and more recently introduced capitalist ones, such as the pursuit of wealth and resources (Cahn 2006; Fischer 2002; Fischer and Benson 2006; Gregory 1997; Goldín 2009; Kistler 2014; Little 2004; Sahlins 1988; Uzendoski 2005).

Life in Cobán and San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala

My research is based on fifteen years of ethnographic fieldwork in the community of San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala. Nestled in the mountains of highland Alta Verapaz, San Juan Chamelco has a current population of approximately sixty thousand inhabitants (INE 2014) and consists of an urban municipal center and dozens of affiliated rural villages in the surrounding mountains. The majority of the town’s population identifies as Q’eqchi’, and Spanish and Q’eqchi’ are spoken in government businesses, public celebrations, and educational institutions. While most residents of the municipality live in rural communities and make a living through subsistence farming, others pursue nontraditional forms of employment, including office work, sales, and tourism. There is a marked socioeconomic stratification in Chamelco between those living in the urban center who have more access to capital resources, including land and steady income, and those living in rural communities, most of whom make a living through subsistence agriculture. Indigenous Chamelqueños experience discrimination from Ladinos, or non-Indigenous Guatemalans, in many realms of life, including employment, relationships, education, and pursuit of justice, due to government oppression and persecution of the Maya and resulting historical tensions between the two groups (Carmack 1988; Konefal 2010; Little and Smith 2009; Lovell 2010; Way 2012). I have changed the names of interviewees cited here to protect their identities.

In Chamelco, Q’eqchi’ strive to honor their Indigenous ancestors by preserving, engaging with, and perpetuating the practices that they attribute to them, including wearing Indigenous dress, speaking the Q’eqchi’ language, eating ancestral foods, and participating in ritual ceremonies (Kistler 2010, 2014). Many Q’eqchi’ recall that their ancestors were tough, hardworking, and compassionate individuals who persevered through difficult circumstances. They honor this legacy by embodying these valued characteristics and preserving the practices that they believe that their ancestors left behind.

Reflecting on the value of ancestral practice, one activist in Chamelco told me that these practices “remain in our subconscious. People, despite external pressures or internal pressures, cannot forget their identity” (Rafael, interview by author, 2005). Another local activist similarly stated, “As a community, we have to have a relationship with our history. The past helps us to feel more certain” (Mauricio, interview by author, 2004). Chamelco’s mayor in 2006, a young Q’eqchi’ man, further elaborated on the value of maintaining perceived ancestral practice. He said, “We [our Q’eqchi’ community] have always been very important in the history of Guatemala . . . for this reason, we have really valued what our ancestors left behind, in this case, the shrines, the churches, the customs and traditions of the town, and we have to conserve them” (Pablo Rax, interview by author, 2006). Another Chamelqueño similarly shared, “We participate in folkloric [activities] to remember the customs and traditions that our Maya ancestors left us. The town, the municipality, the state that doesn’t have its folklore, is a dead community, because having these activities is remembering and living” (Francisco, interview by author, 2005).

Q’eqchi’ also seek to generate good public images so that they will be “taken into consideration” [inpatz’ b’alaq(Q’eqchi’)/tomada en cuenta (Spanish)] by others for participation in prestigious social domains, including leadership positions in political, religious, and ritual organizations; godparenthood; and receiving invitations to important social and cultural events. To do so, one must show herself to be compassionate, hardworking, caring, dedicated, and moral, all qualities that Q’eqchi’ attribute to their Indigenous ancestors (Kistler 2010, 2014). As one market woman explained, “You earn prestige when people say good things about you. There, you leave a good image, good memories behind” (Sara, interview by author, 2005). Another Chamelqueño explained how the Q’eqchi’ define prestige and leadership:

One earns prestige through social relations . . . to be a leader, people look at it like they do a plant. And this plant is well developed because it was well fertilized. It has to grow, according to how it was prepared. But, if you plant something, and it grows crooked, even if you want it to straighten out, you can’t . . . this same thing happens with leaders, with people. You give them a lot of respect, because they are going to lead us, because you know how they are. Because they are not going to name you as a [leader], because how are you going to lead if you are a bad person? You have to be an example for the next generation (Francisco, interview by author, 2005).

Being taken into consideration, recognized, and remembered are key values in contemporary Q’eqchi’ life, and these are values that Chamelqueños identify as long-standing ones.

The accumulation of capital and economic wealth plays an increasingly important role in how Q’eqchi’ residents of Alta Verapaz define value. The region’s Indigenous residents have engaged with global economic forces for centuries. By the late 1800s, German coffee growers arrived in the region seeking land on which to cultivate sugar, cardamom, and coffee (Díaz 1996; Henn 1996; King 1974). These European exporters seized lands from Q’eqchi’ and enslaved them to work their fields. This dark era marked the introduction of the Q’eqchi’ community to capitalist production. While Q’eqchi’ residents of Alta Verapaz have been forced to confront global capitalism since this time, they have seen a rapid increase in national and international corporations in their communities over the last several decades. By 2019 international food distributors, chain restaurants, banks, and supermarkets were prevalent in Q’eqchi’ communities. Local residents’ incorporation into global capitalist networks in nearly all aspects of life has led some Q’eqchi’ to expand definitions of value to include the accumulation of capital.

Q’eqchi’ Women and Gendered Status

The body of scholarship on Q’eqchi’ life, and my interviews with members of the Q’eqchi’ community, suggest that that according to an idealized perspective, Q’eqchi’ society aspires to gender complementarity, with men and women occupying equal status but with different social functions (Hatse and DeCeuster 2001; Estrada 1990; Adams 1999). Nevertheless, this ideal is not representative of gender dynamics in Chamelco, where most Q’eqchi’ women are subjugated by the norms of machismo, as defined previously in this volume. For example, Q’eqchi’ women are excluded from participation in many ritual events, as they are considered muxuq, or “profane,” and of lower status and importance than men (Adams and Brady 2005). Wilk (1991, 201) argues that historically, the Q’eqchi’ community has excluded women from agricultural production or wage labor as well, meaning that they “have no currency, no ability to motivate production, no power over the ultimate source of all food and wealth.” In other words, a marked division of labor relegates women to perform domestic work in the home, while men have the freedom to work, participate in ritual, and socialize outside of the home (Adams 1999; Ghidinelli 1975, 252).

This gendered stratification begins at an early age, as Q’eqchi’ parents assign their children simple gendered tasks, in which young boys help their fathers tend to fields, while young girls help their mothers with household work (Estrada 1990, 263–264). This division means that, traditionally, most Q’eqchi’ women have not pursued higher education or employment outside of the home, though this norm has changed as more women continue their education beyond elementary school. In addition, Q’eqchi’ women, as all Maya women in Guatemala, are underrepresented in politics and face sexual harassment and elevated risks of gendered-based violence. Many women in Chamelco reported unhappy marriages, and in some cases, even shared that they must ask their spouse’s permission even to go out of the house. Those women who are vendors in Chamelco’s subsistence market or who serve as distributors for Herbalife, however, rebuke these patriarchal norms by striving to elevate their gendered status and change their social positions through sales.

Q’eqchi’ Women in Chamelco’s Municipal Market

Recognized by Chamelqueños as an ancient institution, Chamelco’s market stands just off the town’s central park. It is a bustling, vibrant center of social and economic life in Chamelco, marked by a richness of sounds, sights, and smells. The market is alive with constant movement: clients, wholesale distributors, municipal officials, and friends and family members of market vendors flow through the space throughout the day. The market itself is a large, two-story concrete block building with shops around its exterior perimeter and an outward facing balcony on the second floor. The interior market is an open space made up of brightly painted wooden stalls. In 2005 the market housed approximately 130 stalls in its interior space, with another two dozen stalls located along its exterior perimeter. Most stores in the interior market sell daily consumption goods, including rice, dried beans, sugar; juices, dried soups, kakaw (cocoa beans), spices, and produce. The market also has nearly a dozen butcher shops. Other vendors sell Indigenous women’s clothing, men’s dress clothes, children’s clothing, and household goods. Since vendors buy their products from the same sources, the prices of the goods they sell are the same. Clients choose where they buy their goods not according to prices but rather according to their relationships to specific vendors (Kistler 2010, 2014). Residents visit the market on a daily basis, where they purchase household items, catch up on local news, and visit with friends. The markets are one of the few places where women can go and socialize without their husbands’ oversight.

All of the vendors in Chamelco’s municipal market identify ethnically as Q’eqchi’, although they have diverse intersectional identities based on age, socioeconomic class, marital status, educational level, and family histories of market participation, among other factors. They range in age from young adults to women in their eighties and nineties. Nearly 80 percent of the interior market vendors have family histories of market participation, tracing their work in the market matrilineally to female ancestors who taught them to market and who bequeathed them their market stalls. These women have a regular presence in fixed stalls in the market or in the shops on the market’s exterior perimeter, where they sell daily subsistence goods or work in butcher shops. Although the majority of the women have only limited formal education, some of the younger generation of market women graduated from middle or high school. Those who sell daily subsistence goods in the market are, for the most part, of lower socioeconomic standing than those who sell meat, as butcher women make much more through market sales than those that sell other foodstuffs. The history of each vendor in the market and their experience of rebuking local gendered norms to elevate their own status varies is based on their own intersectional identities. The women who sell in the interior market have vastly different statuses and experiences than those who sell as ambulant vendors in Chamelco’s ever-growing open-air market in the street outside of Chamelco’s marketplace. These ambulant vendors offer produce, textiles, and other assorted goods on a semiregular basis. In this chapter, my discussion of Chamelco’s marketers is limited to those who sell in the interior marketplace and does not include the ambulant street vendors.

Motivations for Market Work

In February 2004, the first time I visited Chamelco’s municipal market, I was greeted immediately by a young girl, Josefina, who was wearing Indigenous dress and a brightly patterned apron. She was selling coffee, tea, and dried goods in her mother’s stall by one of the market’s main entrances. Josefina had come to the market directly from school, as she did each day, to relieve her mother from sales work during the afternoon hours. Like Josefina, many other young women also worked in the market each afternoon, learning the art of marketing, just as their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts had done before them. While some adult marketers attended school as young children, many did not, instead training from a very young age to serve their families’ market businesses.

This family connection is what motivates many of Chamelco’s marketers to continue their market work. The statement of one vendor, Blanca, echoed sentiments I heard many others during my fieldwork in Chamelco’s market. Blanca said that she works in the market because “that is what they [my ancestors] taught me to do. . . . This is what they taught me, and so I like it more.” She referred to the market stall that she inherited from her mother as “a gift” (Blanca, interview by author, 2005).

During lapses in market sales each afternoon, I observed that many women told tales of their female ancestors to clients and other vendors. As we sat on burlap sacks of flour, beans, or other grains in their wood-framed stalls during the slow afternoon hours in Chamelco’s market, many women told me stories of the women from whom they inherited their market stalls. In between sales, they shared tales of confrontations with municipal authorities, marveled at their ancestors’ endurance as in walking the winding mountain roads from Chamelco to Cobán daily to buy and sell their goods, and recalled assisting their mothers and grandmothers with sales in what was then an open-air market. They fondly remembered working all night over open fires in their families’ small wooden kitchens to make tamales for their mothers to sell. Marketing was not a choice, they said, but rather a necessary and important way to remember and honor these ancestors and ensure that they continue to be remembered as a part of the town’s historical legacy.

Women cited financial need and the desire to build social networks as additional reasons for their work. More than half of the women I interviewed cited financial necessity as a motivating factor for their market work. Many of their husbands did not have steady employment, had abandoned them, or, as some women told me, refused to contribute money toward household expenses or children’s education. Given that most marketers had little formal education, marketing was one of the only ways that they could earn the money needed to support their families. A clothing vendor stated, “What else can I do? I don’t have work, I don’t have an education . . . I have to do this” (Emilia, interview by author, 2005), while another reflected, “Since we don’t know how to read or write, that is why we must defend ourselves with this, with marketing” (Gloria, interview by author, 2005).

Despite the many claims of financial necessity as a primary factor underpinning women’s work, few women made a reliable profit in the market (Kistler 2010, 2014). Most women remained unaware of how much they made, stating that it was difficult to keep track of what they earned given the outflow of cash they experience on an average market day. One vendor explained:

I don’t know any profit. I only know what I invest. So, on a day like today, where I sold 100 quetzales, I give Q10 to my son who goes to study in [a high school], I give 2 quetzales to [my other son]. Sometimes, we buy tortillas, we take money out of that for dinner, and the rest I save. The next day, it is the same thing. Then, what I save during the week . . . I use it to buy more products. I do the same thing the next week and all year long (Gloria, interview by author, 2005).

While women make enough to support their families’ needs most of the time, they reinvest what they can into their businesses and see little profit. Women continue to market, however, because they have few economic alternatives and because money is perhaps only one of the significant factors that motivate their work.

Marketing allows these women to be independent and expand their social networks. They manage their own businesses, control their own resources, and make their own schedules. Many women remarked that serving as their own bosses in the market gave them “freedom” and “independence” that they would not otherwise have. Simply put, as one vendor told me, “It is a satisfaction to have a small business” (Sara, interview by author, 2005).

Market women develop close friendships with other vendors and clients alike. The husband of one vendor told me that market women “maintain strong interpersonal relations with other women. Their clients get to know them, and if they are very amicable people, then, of course, they are sought after and appreciated in the market. And this gives them a social position, right?” (Rafael, interview by author, 2005). Vendors build these relationships by talking with clients and providing them access to the goods that they need to maintain their own families. In discussing her friendships with clients, one vendor said, “We make an effort to find products, to be hardworking, [to have] a variety of products so that customers come to us. We worry about others, you see” (Melinda, interview by author, 2005). Another vendor reiterated that through sales, “You put yourself out there to be known by other people” (Teresa, interview by author, 2005). Vendors’ social networks grow as clients recognize them as hardworking and compassionate individuals who work for the good of their community. In 2005, one of Chamelco’s municipal officials explained, “In our town, we all know each other, and give importance to them [market women]. If the market didn’t exist, where would we buy our products, where would we spend our days? Visiting the women in the market, we make friendships with them, and that is why they have an important place in our society” (José, interview by the author, 2005).

Chamelco’s Q’eqchi’ market women value large social networks because it means they have more people on whom they can count in times of need and with whom they share personal successes and failures, joys, and sorrows. For example, Valeria is one of Chamelco’s most prominent and well-connected marketers, as she runs a butcher shop in the interior market, a store on the market’s outer perimeter, and delivers meat to local restaurants. When her son David died suddenly in 2014, she received an outpouring of support from friends and associates from throughout the region. Reportedly, thousands of people attended his wake and funeral and visited Valeria regularly to express their condolences and offer support. The social networks she developed in the market supported her during one of the most difficult times in her life.

Marketing and Gendered Status

In addition to developing relationships through marketing, market vendors “enter into the social circle of other vendors,” and clients, as one vendor told me. By entering new social circles in this way, they garner status by connecting to valued social domains, like godparenthood, participation in ritual organizations, and community leadership roles, positions for which not everyone is considered. One marketer explained, “[Participation] is prestigious, it is an honor, really. Because not everyone is sought out to participate. It’s a recognition of how you treat others” (Sara, interview by author, 2005). Women receive invitations to attend social events hosted by clients and other vendors, including family celebrations like baptisms, weddings, funerals, and birthday parties. That they are invited guests at these events highlights the status that they earn through market interactions. In this sense, as Piot (1999) suggests happens through exchange, Chamelco’s marketers do not just “form” relationships through marketing: they become these relationships.

By perpetuating the occupation of their ancestors, showing moral character in interactions with clients, and building extensive social networks, Chamelco’s vendors serve as embodiments of Q’eqchi’ value. This recognition elevates their gendered status, moving them from lower status social positions to higher status ones, defined by their work to honor ancestral tradition and Q’eqchi’ value in the market. They challenge local gendered norms to stand among their community’s most powerful and recognized residents.

From the Market to Herbalife

Beginning in 2014, some Q’eqchi’ women, many of whom are family members of (or who were recruited by) Chamelco’s marketers, have become involved in a new form of marketing: selling Herbalife. Herbalife is an MLM that offers nutritional and weight loss supplements, including shakes, vitamins, and teas. Distributors advertise that products help consumers overcome digestive disorders, combat obesity, regulate blood sugar, and improve their overall health. In addition to selling products through direct sales, some distributors run “nutrition clubs,” offering prepared protein shakes to customers with daily, weekly, or monthly memberships. Though Herbalife is controversial due to its questionable business practices, it promises distributors the ability to earn money through sales and by recruiting new distributors.

As Herbalife gained notoriety in the United States for its pyramid-like compensation structure and its potential health risks (Anderson 2018; Braun 2016; FTC 2016; Hiltzik 2016; De Noon 2002; Geller 2008; Partnoy 2014), it expanded its hold in Latin America. By 2014, Herbalife had a prominent presence in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, an extension of the capitalist forces that have shaped the region for centuries. Although a few community members sold Herbalife before two high-level distributors developed an expansion plan for the region, the number of distributors has grown significantly since 2014. Herbalife has a regional headquarters and nutrition clubs in Chamelco and the departmental capital of Cobán.

Q’eqchi’ women’s involvement with Herbalife began with controversial former governor of Alta Verapaz, Dominga Tecún Canil. Tecún began taking Herbalife after she was in a car accident in the spring of 2014 and immediately signed on as a distributor. While she died a few short months later due to a preexisting illness, she used her influence as a prominent figure within the Q’eqchi’ community to recruit others, including her family members and close friends, to sell Herbalife.

Motivations for Selling Herbalife

Herlinda is a cheerful young mother of two sons and is married to the son of a well-known Q’eqchi’ activist. Born in a rural area of San Pedro Carchá, Herlinda completed only a middle school education. After her marriage and the birth of her children, she tended to her mother-in-law’s stall in Chamelco’s subsistence market before launching her own business as an Herbalife distributor. In the time that Herlinda worked in Chamelco’s market, she was quiet, reserved, and I rarely saw her smile. When I met with her in Herbalife nutrition club in Cobán in the summers of 2017 and 2018, however, she seemed like a different person. She was upbeat, talkative, engaging, and outgoing. She talked and joked with the clients that came to her small, brightly decorated storefront near one of Cobán’s established marketplaces each morning for tea and protein shakes. She shared that she began to consume Herbalife for its health benefits—she was overweight after the birth of her children and felt generally unhealthy. She quickly became involved with Herbalife for the lifestyle it offered her, as she began to run in local races, attend training sessions, and make connections and friendships with other vendors and clients. After she took over her nutrition club, she began to generate her own money and became her own boss, gaining independence and the chance to help others. Herbalife gave her “opportunities for success” that she would not otherwise have, as a young Indigenous woman who faced discrimination in nearly all other aspects of life.

Like Herlinda, a growing number of Q’eqchi’ women sell Herbalife, either through direct sales or in nutrition clubs. Consuming Herbalife helped them to deal with various health problems, including digestive issues and obesity, and they became “enamored” with the products and became distributors because of the financial possibilities Herbalife offers. The reasons they cite for their continued work as distributors generally fall into three categories: helping others, fostering personal development, and achieving independence.

Herlinda told me that selling Herbalife offered a way to help others improve their health. Another stated that she viewed it as her “moral and ethical duty” to help others by introducing them to Herbalife’s products. Having discovered how to improve her own health and financial situation, she said it was her responsibility to help others. This duty to “help others” is a core value for Q’eqchi’, and one that also underlies women’s participation in subsistence marketing, as the husband of one market woman told me. He identified the market as a place where “people sell, buy things, not to take advantage of one another, but rather according to the concept of mutual help” (Rafael, interview by author, 2005). As women do through subsistence marketing, Herbalife distributors use Herbalife to help others not only to become healthier but also because they get personal satisfaction and enjoy the work. One distributor told me that because Herbalife distributors work together as a team for everyone’s mutual benefit, the idea of working together, of helping others, both physically, emotionally, and financially, is what motivates their work.

Personal development emerged as another reason women cited for their work as Herbalife distributors. Each month, Herbalife offers training seminars, lectures, film viewings, and book clubs for distributors in Cobán. Every few months, Herbalife sponsors national events in Guatemala City and hosts annual “extravaganzas” abroad. During these events, invited speakers give testimonials, highlight the health benefits of Herbalife projects, and talk about marketing techniques. For some distributors, these events, and the possibility of continued learning, motivates their work. For example, during our conversation in her nutrition club, Herlinda shared that while she never had the chance to go to college, she is studying at what she called the “university of success” by attending Herbalife training sessions. At these events, she makes friends, socializes, and continues her personal enrichment. Another woman shared that involvement with Herbalife helped her through a difficult personal situation after the death of a loved one that left her feeling frustrated and depressed. “I had to put aside my feelings to talk to clients, serve them in my club, and attend training sessions” (Maria, personal communication, 2018). The friendship and support she found in these events helped her to overcome her personal difficulties. Since there are few opportunities for Indigenous women to socialize outside of the home or continue their educations, these personal enrichment opportunities provide an incentive for continued involvement with sales.

By selling Herbalife, Q’eqchi’ women (who were not already market women) achieved independence that they did not experience before becoming distributors. Olga, an Indigenous distributor from one of Chamelco’s urban neighborhoods, reflected on the fact that Herbalife offered her financial freedom not attainable through other means. Olga had only a sixth-grade education, meaning that her work opportunities were limited. Prior to Herbalife, she told me as we sat in a nutrition club across the street from Chamelco’s Catholic church in July 2018, she ran a small food store from her home. She saw limited profit from this venture, as she sold very little and had to support her children’s educational expenses. Herbalife, however, provided her with an opportunity to generate new income, allowing her the freedom to start a nutrition club in the place where her store had been. In my conversations with Herlinda, she, like Olga, reflected on her nutrition club in Cobán and the financial independence it offered her. She proudly stated that since becoming a distributor, she has paid for her children’s medical and educational expenses without having to ask for her husband’s assistance.

Involvement with Herbalife also offers independence to many Indigenous women distributors. Olga shared that she regularly travels to the town’s rural areas to market her product and speak with residents about the benefits of Herbalife. Herlinda stated that she found freedom in being her own boss and setting her own working hours. She finds her work empowering and said she never would have had such confidence before becoming a distributor. Herbalife affords women distributors the ability to overcome established gendered social norms, which limit women’s freedom to work or socialize outside the home.

Distributors highlighted the inclusive work environment of Herbalife as something that offered them acceptance as well. All of the Indigenous women distributors with whom I spoke remarked that they felt welcomed by Herbalife clients, distributors, and at events, as Herbalife’s philosophy is that it is for all people, regardless of race, gender, or education. One distributor shared, “With Herbalife, they don’t say, ‘You can’t come here with your uuq (Indigenous skirt)’” (Maria, interview by author, 2018). Instead, Herbalife offers a community that is accepting of Indigenous vendors and their identities. Indigenous women do not often find this acceptance in other workplaces.

One afternoon in 2018, I talked with an older Herbalife distributor, Imelda, who was visiting Chamelco’s municipal marketplace in a busy aisle of Chamelco’s market. Imelda shared that throughout her life she had dedicated herself to Maya resurgence efforts, working as a land activist, traditional healer with local plants and natural medicine, and serving as a Maya spiritual guide for ritual ceremonies. Since getting involved with Herbalife, Imelda offers clients Herbalife in addition to “natural medicine” when performing healing services. She viewed Herbalife as a compliment to her fight to preserve Q’eqchi’ identity and felt that Herbalife supported this view. While Imelda encountered conflicts with Ladinos in other aspects of her life, there had been no tension within Herbalife. She could express her Indigenous identity in Herbalife sales and felt accepted by the community of distributors and clients, without fear of discrimination. The inclusive community Herbalife offers motivates Imelda’s (and many other women’s) work as Herbalife distributors.

Herbalife and Q’eqchi’ Value

I asked Indigenous distributors how Herbalife’s capitalist model of sales relates to their Indigenous values. One afternoon, I talked with Maria, an Herbalife distributor and the daughter of a prominent Maya activist, over lunch at her home in Cobán. Medals from races in which Maria and her husband competed hung on the wall and from every piece of furniture in her home. Herbalife protein shake containers were scattered on the kitchen counters and throughout the home. Maria stated that Herbalife reinforced her connection to her Indigenous identity, though she imagined that it could perhaps weaken one’s connection with one’s sense of her own Indigenousness if she were “undergoing an identity crisis” already. Maria said that if she had been having an identity crisis, she could wind up losing herself due to Herbalife’s emphasis on exercise, beauty, and weight loss. Nevertheless, in 2018, Herbalife’s regional leader, Suchit de Thiessen, told me that Herbalife does not seek to change the communities it enters but rather “become a part” of them. She explained that Ladino distributors in the region study the Q’eqchi’ language, wear Q’eqchi’ dress, and eat traditional foods. The son of a prominent Maya activist in Chamelco, who was Chamelco’s first Herbalife distributor, affirmed these claims, stating, “Herbalife does not invade one’s culture, it becomes a part of it” (Juan, interview author, 2018)

Q’eqchi’ women also emphasized their desire to connect clients with ancestral practice and value through Herbalife. Because Herbalife promotes healthy nutrition and respects Indigenous identities, some distributors saw it as a way to reconnect with ancestral dietary practices, especially in the face of globalization. Maria told me that “Herbalife helps people to recognize that organic foods are ideal.” She stated that Herbalife helps bring people back to their roots and eat like their ancestors once did. The prevalence of fast foods in the region has caused a health and identity crisis for Q’eqchi’, who have strayed from traditional ways of eating in favor of the convenience of these goods. Herbalife training sessions teach that one should make healthy meal choices in addition to consuming Herbalife’s products. In this respect, in Maria’s view, Herbalife helps people find their way back to ancestral dietary customs. Prior to getting involved with Herbalife, Maria consumed a lot of packaged goods, fast food, and pizza. However, Herbalife inspired her to go to the local market to buy squash, beans, corn, and other plants: foods that served as the staples of the ancestral Q’eqchi’ diet. By promoting the consumption of these “foods that come from the earth,” distributors reconnect consumers with Indigenous dietary practices.

Many distributors report that they use the Q’eqchi’ language in sales meetings and conversations with other Herbalife vendors and prospective clients. Though some words, notably “micronutrients” and “shakes,” have no exact equivalent in Q’eqchi’, some women reported that they had heard others create neologisms to represent these terms, using the existing tools of the Q’eqchi’ language. When I asked them to share these terms, however, they laughed, stating that they could not remember them and that people often made them up on the spot when promoting these products in the Q’eqchi’ language. Nevertheless, by using the Q’eqchi’ language in this way, they continued to honor their ancestors and help maintain the Q’eqchi’ language.

Herbalife and Gendered Status

Just as vendors do in subsistence markets, Herbalife distributors garner recognition through involvement with Herbalife. The sustained interactions they have with Herbalife leaders, distributors, and clients lead them to receive invitations to social events, including Herbalife gatherings, parties, and weddings. Herbalife distributors play leadership roles in their communities, running fitness classes and nonprofit organizations, organizing ritual and athletic celebrations, and serving as godparents to local children.

As individuals working for the good of their community, Herbalife distributors construct themselves as hardworking and compassionate individuals concerned with others’ well-being, showing the personal characteristics that ground Q’eqchi’ value They portray themselves as knowledgeable and intelligent by demonstrating knowledge of nutrition in conversations with clients. The recognition they achieve for working to improve the health of their communities—and, in the eyes of some, connect with ancestral practice—elevates them to prominent social positions, just as it does for Chamelco’s market women, who reveal similar characteristics in their interactions in the market.


Market women and Herbalife distributors earn recognition and elevate their status by embodying Q’eqchi’ value. In Q’eqchi’ society, value centers on honoring ancestral practice and demonstrating intelligence, compassion, and a hardworking nature so that one will be invited by others for participation in prestigious social domains in life and remembered in death. Chamelco’s market women work not solely for financial gain but because marketing offers them the chance to highlight these values, build social networks, and honor their ancestors. Herbalife presents new opportunities for Indigenous women to change their social positions through sales. While many women got involved with Herbalife for its alleged health benefits, they stay involved because of the personal development opportunities it offers and the independence they find through their work. It also provides another way for them to reconnect their community with ancestral foods and dietary customs. They, too, embody value through the characteristics they display in interactions with clients and fellow distributors. In these ways, Chamelco’s market women and Q’eqchi’ Herbalife distributors construct themselves as people to be recognized and remembered.

Review Questions
  • How is life different for Q’eqchi’ women involved in market exchange and the sale of Herbalife products than it is for other Q’eqchi’ women? Why is it different?
  • In what ways are the experiences of Indigenous market women and those of Indigenous women distributors of Herbalife the same? In what ways are they different?
  • In what ways do women embody Q’eqchi’ value in their work in the local subsistence marketplace and in selling Herbalife? In what ways do they incorporate new and changing definitions of value?
  • How do women transform their gendered status through their involvement in these two distinct forms of capitalist exchange?
  • Is it surprising that women use global capitalism to reinforce long-standing Indigenous values? Why or why not?

Key Terms

direct sales: a marketing strategy in which sales are made in face-to-face interactions with vendors away from a store or formal retail location

gender complementarity: the ideal that men and women have equal status defined by their participation in separate but equally valued social realms (e.g., men earn status by farming; women earn status by completing housework). Gender complementarity is rarely achieved but is often recognized as a social ideal.

Herbalife: a company that makes and sells nutritional supplements and whose sales model is a multilevel marketing scheme focused on direct sales.

multilevel marketing: a hierarchical business model in which salespeople earn not only what they sell but also a percentage of the sales made by those at levels lower than their own.

Q’eqchi’: one of twenty-two Indigenous groups in Guatemala that trace descent from the ancient Maya civilization and who speak a Mayan language.


My research on Q’eqchi’ market women was generously funded by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant #0613168 and a Florida State University Dissertation Research Grant. My articles “The House in the Market: How Q’eqchi’ Market Women Convert Money and Commodities to Persons and Personhood” (Global South 2010) and “All in the Junkab’al: The House in Q’eqchi’ Society (The Latin Americanist 2013) as well as my book Maya Market Women (2014) offer more extensive analyses of the material on market women I present here. I also thank Rollins College for the Critchfield grant that funded my research on Herbalife in Guatemala. Finally, I am forever indebted to my friends and family in Guatemala who enabled this research and have supported me throughout my fieldwork journey.

Resources for Further Exploration

  • Kistler, S. Ashley. 2010. “The House in the Market: How Q’eqchi’ Market Women Convert Money and Commodities to Persons and Personhood.” Global South 4, no. 1: 48–70.
  • Kistler, S. Ashley. 2014. Maya Market Women: Power and Tradition in San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Little, Walter E. 2004. Mayas in the Marketplace: Tourism, Globalization, and Cultural Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Lovell, W. George. 2010. A Beauty that Hurts: Life and Death in Guatemala. Austin: University of Texas Press.


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About the author

Ashley Kistler is a professor of anthropology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is an ethnographer and linguist who has conducted fieldwork in Maya communities in Mexico and Guatemala. Dr. Kistler’s research focuses on globalization and contemporary Maya culture, collaborative ethnography, ethnohistory, and revitalization movements. Dr. Kistler has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles, published in the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Anthropology and Humanism, and The Latin Americanist, among other journals. She is the author of Maya Market Women: Power and Tradition in San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala (2014) and editor of, Faces of Resistance: Maya Heroes, Power, and Identity (2018). At Rollins, Dr. Kistler teaches courses on the Maya, Latin American studies, ethnographic theory and methods, and linguistic anthropology.



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