The Public Laundromats

By: Diana Pastor

In Guatemala there are a number of traditions that have not changed in this modern and globalized era.  One such tradition has been the way that folks wash clothes. If you go into most any home—even one that has a washing machine—you will still see a pila. (Sink/tub for washing)

Pilas, as an invention, have been very useful.  Not only do they save on water and energy, but they also make it much easier to wash clothes at home.  In the past, our grandfathers’ generation had to go down to the river and wash their clothes on rocks in order to get them clean. Today, almost all Guatemalans (as well as other Central Americans and Mexicans) will use the pila in order to wash clothes and dishes.  To this day, it is unthinkable to build a house without a pila.

It shouldn’t come to much of a surprise to anyone here in Guatemala, but there are a lot of people who suffer from water shortages and other shortages.  In order to protect against problems associated with being unable to afford things like water there were a number of public pilas that were built.  In Xela, there are some public pilas that survive to this day such as El tanque del Calvario, El tanque la muneca and El tanque de la Ciénaga.

These tanques are large pilas or water deposits that are surrounded by a number of basins which form a circle, rectangle, or square.  Each person who would like to use one simply finds their own station and draws water from the shared central resevoir which is in the middle of the tanque.

Back in the day, women would try to get to the tanques as soon as possible in the morning in order to be able to get the best spot.  Now, the peak times that folks are at the tanques is between seven and ten in the morning, though there are also a good number that arrive in the afternoons in order to wash.

In 2010, the Icaro Documentary festival awarded a prize to a group of quetzalteco filmmakers for their film El Tanque.  The film was about the different relationships that were developed between women who washed their clothes at El tanque del Calvario.  The theme of the film was to show that the tanques are not just a place to wash clothes, but also a place where women form friendships, talk about what is going on with their families and life in general.

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