In comparison with other villages along the shores of Lake Atitlan, San Lucas Toliman is unique. Serving as a commercial, educational and medical center for thousands of people, San Lucas consist of mainly Kakchiquel Maya (85-90%), living in surrounding villages and fincas (coffee plantations).
Encompassing a town of approximately 20,000 people, with another 20,000 in twenty-two surrounding villages, San Lucas is located in south-central Guatemala on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
Pre-Columbian history of San Lucas dates to the 15th century, following the southward emigration from areas in the Yucatan after the collapse of the Maya lowland civilization (circa AD. 900). In the 12th Century, according to Robert Carmack, the K’iche’ people had entered into the western highlands of Guatemala, with Maya kingdoms arising in today’s central highland/Lake Atitlan area.
The Kaqchikels, descendants of the K’iche’an people, emigrated further south in to what is now the San Lucas Toliman area, where they became renowned for their military prowess and, many say, were the ascendant power in the region as the Spanish arrived.
Perhaps one of the best sources on the pre-Columbian history of the Kaqchikel is the manuscript known as the Annals of the Kaqchikels, housed in the library of the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado, one of Cortes’ lieutenants in the conquest of Mexico, set forth to conquer the Maya peoples to the south. In May 1540, following several attempts at rebellion against Spanish dominion, and in an attempt to stem further rebellion, Alvarado ordered the last Kaqchikel king hanged.
Over the course of next 500 years, the descendants and followers of the original Spanish conquistadors acquired more and more of the lands occupied by the descendants of the great Kaqchikel kingdom. In the late nineteenth century, in efforts to develop a national agricultural export, state policies of indigenous communal land expropriation and forced labor laws created a landowning economic elite and provided them with a supply of cheap indigenous labor for the coffee harvest.
While forced labor was abolished by the mid-twentieth century, the legacy is enormous disparities in rural land ownership, below-subsistence wages for most plantation workers, and extreme income inequality.
The Kaqchikel of San Lucas Tolimán endured their losses with resolve, and in the last half of the 20th century there existed a tenuous equilibrium in which potential for growth in the community was stifled, bound by coffee fincas to the south and west, Lago Atitlán to the north and a steep 2000 ft. ridge to the east.
Taking advantage of the land distribution efforts of the San Lucas Mission, and the tremendous agricultural skills and terracing techniques of the Kaqchikel Maya, land which previously had been unusable became available.
Throughout the past 50 years, land ownership and wealth in the area has been dramatically altered, with many, many families receiving land from the San Lucas Mission.
The San Lucas Mission was originally founded as by the Franciscan order in the late 16th Century, with the building of the Mission Church around 1584.
In 1958, as the Catholic Church in Rome called for greater involvement of clergy and lay people in world missions, the Diocese of New Ulm responded by launching a diocesan partnership with the Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala. Fr. Greg Schaffer, a diocesan priest from New Ulm, began serving as pastor of the San Lucas Mission in 1962.
Perhaps one of the most well-known missions in Guatemala, its long-term devotion has been the enhancement and enrichment of the whole person – spiritually, intellectually, and physically – by addressing both the immediate effects of poverty and its underlying causes.
Efforts at the San Lucas Mission attempt to respond to the expressed felt need of the people, working to build the infrastructure necessary so that the people might grow out of the process of poverty. Socio-economic programming at the mission is based in Christian Social Doctrine and is designed to develop five basic human rights: food security, shelter, healthcare, education and work.
Fischer, Edward F., and Carol Hendrickson; Tecpan, Guatemala. Boulder, Colorado. Westview Press, 2003