Chocolate Doña Pancha
The People (and Relationships)
Chocolate Doña Pancha is the outcome of the innovative vision and hard work of Mirna Rojas. Chocolate production is, among Maya peoples, a female activity, and Mirna comes from a long line a chocolatiers. Traditionally, the work is organized through kinship networks. Mothers, daughters, aunts, and nieces work together to produce chocolate tablets that are prepared by women as drinks to be served at various social and religious celebrations. Women exchange chocolate gifts with family members or sell it informally as street vendors and in local marketplaces. Mirna realized that chocolate held potential as a product of a formal, registered business that could support her family while employing K’iche’ women. With this in mind, she studied business at the Rafael Landivar University. Along the way, she experimented and developed recipes for chocolate candies and candy bars. When she had the formulas, processes, and capital ready, Mirna opened Chocolate Doña Pancha, named in honor or her grandmother. The shop combines elements of a candy store, a café, a museum, and an art gallery. Students generally find visits to Doña Pancha’s a highlight of our twice-annual trips to Guatemala.
Enactus NCC has been working with Mirna Rojas since 2013. From early in the relationship, Mirna has stressed her desire to sell chocolate in the U.S. market. We are excited to be part of the realization of her aspiration. We are also excited to be the first U.S. seller of chocolate made by an indigenous Maya business from cacao produced by Maya farmers in the region where cacao was cultivated by the most ancient of Mesoamerican peoples. When you purchase Doña Pancha’s chocolate you are directly linked to an economic process that began around 3400 years ago.
The partnership realized in Xela Chocolate by Doña Pancha has provided a wide range of opportunities for North Central College students. An aspiring baker has used Xela Chocolate to create unique treats to sell at Enactus sales events. In the process, she has expressed her culinary creativity, while learning more about running a business. Others have developed and showcased their artistic abilities. A graphic designer and a sneaker artist have featured their art in our label designs.
All Xela by Doña Pancha chocolates are made from three basic ingredients: cacao, cane sugar, and natural flavor essences. Chocolate Doña Pancha acquires high-quality, shade-grown cacao from three farms located in the Pacific piedmont of Guatemala. The beans are harvested, fermented, and dried at the partner farms. Once in the shop, Mirna and company roast the beans. After cooling, the husk is separated from the cacao nib. The husks are sorted and packaged as tea. The nibs are ground and liquified before pure cane sugar and natural flavor essences are added. The chocolate is then cooled and molded into various shapes and forms for drinking or for eating. Chocolate Doña Pancha works hard to ensure that the final products highlight the complex flavors that make Guatemalan cacaos famous among aficionados worldwide.
The Place (or Why do you call it Xela Chocolate?)
Chocolate Doña Pancha is based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Known to Guatemalans as Xela (SHAY-lah), it is the second largest city in the country. Legend holds that the popular name Xela was shortened from Xelajujno’j. This longer name is thought to reference a powerful pre-Columbian K’iche’ Maya ruler of the city, Lajuj No’j. Translated roughly as “Ten Knowledge,” the name references a day on the 260-day ceremonial cycle known to K’iche’ Maya as the Cholq’ij. Xe is a preposition indicating ‘under’ or ‘beneath.’ Much as in English, metaphorically, xe suggests political rule. To the K’iche’ living in the region before the Spanish invasion, Xelajujno’j meant something like ‘Under the rule of Ten Wisdom.’ Think of Xela as “D.C.” the common shorthand name for the U.S. capital. It omits the obvious reference to Washington in favor of an oblique reference to Columbus.
The name Quetzaltenango is a Nahuatl (indigenous, but not Maya) name. Hundreds (if not thousands) of Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcaltec warriors accompanied the Spanish on their invasion of the Maya highlands. As these territories were new to Spaniards, they turned to their native allies to provide place names for maps and letters home. Hence, Quetzaltenango, like many towns in Guatemala, received an official name that has never been used much by its residents.
Whatever its name, the city is well placed near the head of a major river system. This was ideal for commerce between the lowlands and Pacific coast to the south and the band of densely populated highlands stretching east to west to the north. Mirna points out that this is why Xela is a center of chocolate production to this day. Cacao thrives in the moist tropical forests found in the Pacific piedmont. However, to process and cool chocolate requires the temperate climate of the highlands. Cacao has been following the same routes from lowland groves to chocolatiers in the highlands to consumers beyond for centuries. Accordingly, the name Xela Chocolate alludes to a place with a time immemorial tradition of cacao commerce and chocolate making.