A five-year study carried on from 1936 to 1940 accounts for every minute of time, every penny of expenditure and income of 123 Indian families living in Panajachel, a semiurban community and tourist attraction on the shore of Guatemala’s beautiful Lake Atitlán. Sol Tax has provided a meticulously detailed study of the socio-economics of the Indian population of the community, valuable for its quantitative analysis in depth and for the base line it provides for future comparative studies. The title, Penny Capitalism, is somewhat misleading. The Panajacheleño described by Tax was and still is not a capitalist in the sense that capital formation has shaped his economy. What is described is a system of private ownership, free enterprise, and economic rationality. At times the reader may wonder whether the economic rationality was as clearly perceived by the subjects as it was conceptualized and presented by the author.
In page after page an incredible compilation of detail is presented. According to the author, “. . . every individual was accounted for and known in spatial, temporal, and biological (social) interrelations.” Five years of systematic house-to-house inquiry, census taking and mapping, counting seeds and weighing harvests gave such information as to the yield of a package of beet seed—two hundred beets transplanted to 1/750 of an acre. We learn that each day the average male spends eight hours and three minutes working in the fields, two minutes fishing, thirty-three minutes marketing, ten minutes with his animals, etc. Only three minutes of his day are unaccounted for. The almost indigestible mass of data is given perspective in the final twenty-three pages of the book.
The book contains twenty-five maps and charts and eighty-five tables. These account for land ownership by type of land, land use and productivity, nonagricultural economic activities, cost and income of each crop and activity, food consumption, personal expenses, materials and time used in building homes, cost of clothing, selling and buying prices of all commodities. They give, as noted above, an accounting of the time spent by men, women, and children in bathing, sickness, courtship, visiting, fighting, errands, fiestas, work, etc. The Panajacheleño specializes in growing vegetables, fruit, and coffee, and he exchanges the produce for what is grown or manufactured in other communities. Money, not barter, is the basis of exchange. Considerable weaving is also reported.
The author points out important cultural differences between Panajachel and the neighboring Indian community of Chichicastenango. Such Indian communities comprise more than one half of the population of Guatemala. The term ladino, applied to the balance of the population, indicates a degree of non-Indian acculturation. Each year Indian communities throughout Guatemala, including Panajachel, acquire more ladino characteristics. Panajachel was and is not, therefore, typical of communities in the eastern or southern part of Guatemala and also differs in some respects from Indian communities in the Guatemalan highlands. The list of household furnishings, supplies, and tools given by the author indicates a wealth and diversity of trades and occupations that are markedly different from subsistence ladino peasant communities in eastern Guatemala. Scissors, needles, looms, carrying frames, tump straps, all found commonly in Panajachel homes, are rarely found in the departments of Jutiapa, Santa Rosa, or Jalapa, for example, and describe a different economy. While thirty-five percent of the Panajachel diet consists of meat or poultry and approximately the same percentage of corn and beans, ninety-five percent of the diet of the eastern ladino is confined to corn and beans.
Valuable information is provided about the arts and costs of weaving, a skill for which the highland Indian population is noted, and a detailed inventory is given of the clothing worn by men, women, and children. The description of clothing should be compared with the meticulous water colors of Indian costumes done by Frederick T. Crocker III twenty-five years ago. Many of the costumes are still worn but are seen less frequently. Time has brought other changes apparent to the casual visitor to Panajachel: the prices of agricultural products have advanced two to three hundred percent; the ladino population has increased; so have the tourists; and there are paved roads in and out of Panajachel. These are crude measurements of change. To repeat Tax’s study for the sake of accurate measurement of change and the effect, if any, of technological improvements will require another several years of devoted work by a very patient man.