Lake Atitlan (Javier Losa)
Article Words : Hilary Bradt | 01 July

A design for life

A journey through extreme culture differences in Guatemala

Whatever it was the man wanted, he wanted it badly. Hoarse and sweating, he looked as though he’d been kneeling in front of Maximón for hours pleading his case. His offerings of cigarettes were placed temptingly on the floor amid a host of flickering candles. Smoke curled up from the cigarette burning in Maximón’s mouth, bouncing past the brims of two hats. The man’s voice rose to a rasping crescendo, while Maximón remained impassive. But then, if you’re made of wood, and your only feature is a nose above a hole which serves as a mouth for offerings of cigarettes or rum, it’s difficult even for a god to conjure up much liveliness of expression.

They treat their god well in Santiago Atitlán. Maximón has his own room and one or two minders who cater to his every whim. As I watched, the cigarette was removed so that a shot of rum could be poured into the mouth hole; his chin was then wiped with a napkin. Maximón’s wooden head projected like a cauliflower from a circlet of colourful scarves.
The room was decorated with winking fairy lights, nicotine-stained plastic flowers and clusters of wrinkled balloons. A row of dangling sausages completed the incongruous picture. But, as so often happens when we observe the faiths of other cultures, I came away not laughing but with a feeling of awe: belief can run so deep in the veins of these people that even the Spanish conquest seems a mere blip in time.

The conversion of the highland Maya around Lake Atitlán began in earnest 16 years after the conquest, with the arrival of the Franciscans in 1540. Their job was to transform a hostile population – who honoured and appeased an assortment of gods with sacrifices, festivals and dancing – into a sober, church-going congregation believing in the authority of one God. It was a formidable challenge. They began by gradually replacing the Mayan idols with effigies of Christian saints to be worshipped on special days chosen, when possible, from the existing Mayan calendar. Important Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter were added.

It took decades to gradually persuade the indigenous people to transfer their worship from a special place of spiritual significance, such as a sacred rock in the mountains, to a church. At first the Franciscans simply marked out the corner of a field with the cardinal points (central to the Mayan religion), which also represented the Christian cross; then they built walls, but left the structure open to the skies; finally the building was roofed and became a church. Santiago Atitlán was one of the first villages by the lake to have a Christian church.

Such energy was put into the building of churches, however, that religious instruction lagged behind – so the Indians developed their own version of Christianity, as seen today in Santiago Atitlán. The Tz’utuhil living around the lake developed a cult centring around an imaginary brother of Jesus, Maximón. The Catholic church has never been able to suppress the veneration of this idol, and these days accepts the need of the indigenous people of Lake Atitlán to follow their own belief system.

Maximón worked for me. Watching the absolute faith of the villager kneeling in front of his god changed my mood from sour irritability over the effects of tourism in a small village – the beggars, the vendors, the poor-quality souvenirs – to a feeling of acceptance and contentment.

Cultural changes

I was making my third visit to Lake Atitlán over a period that spanned nearly 35 years, and was nurturing my memories of 1969, when I’d taken a crowded local ferry to this remote village across the lake. I’d been warned then that the Santiago villagers were suspicious of tourists and, indeed, I had felt an undercurrent of hostility which shortened my visit, although I had marvelled at the richly embroidered purple-and-white striped clothing worn by both the women and men. Next time I visited, in 1979, the village was celebrating Holy Week, and I made my first acquaintance with Maximón as he had his big day out, being paraded with effigies of Christian saints over the flower-covered streets. I was told then that he represented Judas Iscariot. And here he was again. Nothing much had changed in Santiago after all.

There were changes in Santa Catarina Palopó, though. Not just that I was able to drive there by car rather than walking along the shore, nor that the village pump had been replaced by running water in the houses. I recalled watching the women hold hollowed-out bamboo under the pump so that water trickled down into their clay pots. I remember the chatting and the laughter, and how they spun out the job for as long as possible so they could catch up on village gossip.

The biggest difference was that I remembered Santa Catarina as being red – and now it was turquoise blue. I turned to Felix, my guide: “Surely the women used to wear red huipiles [embroidered blouses]? I know they did – I still have the photos. Mainly red, but I remember a zig-zag pattern in black as well.” He smiled. “That’s right. But tourists decided that they preferred blue and the people found they could sell more blue weavings than red, so they changed. But only the colour has changed. You can see the pattern’s the same; it’s the village signature. Do you know the meaning of huipil? It means ‘open book’ in the Nahuatl language. In the weaving and embroidery you can ‘read’ whether a women is married, the number of children she has and her social standing.”

I thought back to a passage I’d read in a 1958 edition of the South American Handbook: “Indian dress, not easily described, is unique and attractive: the colourful headdresses, huipiles and skirts of the women, the often richly-patterned sashes and kerchiefs, the hatbands and tassels of the men. It varies greatly, often from village to nearby village. Unfortunately a new outfit is costly, the Indians are poor and dungarees are cheap. It looks as though the traditional dress of the Indians is doomed.” Adapting to change while maintaining traditions is the hallmark of a successful society. Guatemala has succeeded better than most.

On our way back to the capital we stopped to enjoy a final view of the lake. In 1934 Aldous Huxley described his visit to Lake Atitlán in his book Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with the additional embellishment of three immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing.”  If you can find the right spot, at the right time of day (dawn is best), the lake still exceeds the limits of permissible beauty. But this time my eye was drawn to an ugly gash of colour slapped on the mountainside like bathroom tiles. “It’s the cemetery,” said Felix. “The colours tell you something about the person who died. Green or blue is for old people, white or yellow is for young adults, and pink and pale blue is for children – pink for girls, blue for boys.” Given this new poignancy, the tombs no longer looked ugly.

Let's go fly a kite

It was 1 November, All Saints’ Day or El Dia de los Santos (sometimes called ‘The Day of the Dead’), celebrated throughout Latin America, but in Santiago Sacatepéquez they do it with a difference. Here the people have traditionally chosen barriletes (kites) as the means of releasing souls from the graves and transmitting messages to those in the next world. It started with small kites bearing simple prayers or messages up towards heaven, but over the years the kites have evolved, growing larger and more ornate, until the biggest ones can no longer fly – a sort of evolutionary dead-end. And I mean big – these giants can measure 13m in diameter and take a group of workers up to two months to complete. There are hotly contested awards, with categories for the best giant kite, the best flying kite, and the best kites made and displayed by women and children.  

I visited the city hall and watched the finishing touches being put to a giant barrilete laid out on the floor. It was the work of one of the suburbs of Guatemala City, and the young men gluing the final tissue-paper shapes into place looked tense and exhausted. It had taken them two months to reach this stage and one careless movement could wreck it. The final task was to complete the lettering showing the name and slogan of their community before carrying it to the cemetery.

I left them at it and wandered up to the main street which was lined with stalls selling everything from candyfloss to roasted corn, socks and plastic toys. And, of course, kites. Everyone was in the holiday mood, laughing, calling out to friends, enjoying the bright sunshine. The crowd surged towards the cemetery gates. The first three of the nine giant kites were already erected like huge multicoloured cartwheels. Their handlers hung on to the ropes in case a gust of wind tempted the kites into flight. I walked into the main cemetery to be greeted by an explosion of colour.

Every grave was decorated with orange marigolds and purple daisies, and every space between the graves was occupied by spectators or kite flyers. The flower motifs on the women’s huipiles competed for colour with the cut flowers scattered on the ground. The sun shone through the tissue paper of the giant kites, making them glow with light. Small boys raced up and down, tugging at kite-strings and tripping over graves. Flying kites jerked into the air, hung there for an instant, and then plunged to earth amid the groans of owners and onlookers. 

A group of women were trying to lever their giant kite into position. A pole slipped and pierced the tissue paper leaving a great, ragged hole. Everyone cried out in unison. No chance of a prize here – awards were given on how competently the kites were erected as well as for the best design. And how could any judge decide who was the winner? The designs were amazing! Complicated pictures, great chunks of text, geometric patterns where one false measurement would have wrecked the whole concept. “You should have been here last season” said Felix. “There was a kite with a picture of Osama bin Laden!” 

It was hard to imagine any soul venturing out of its grave amid such turmoil. I wanted to go somewhere quieter and more spiritual. We chose San Juan Sacatepéquez high in the hills north of Guatemala City, reaching it at sunset. The small village plaza blazed yellow and orange. The entire community seemed to be buying and selling flowers, and the yellow embroidered huipiles added to the effect. Yellow, orange, scarlet; and the sky beyond was pink.

Dusk was closing in as we made our way to the cemetery and started to pick our way along the muddy aisles between the tombs. Every gravestone was decorated with a floral display: intricate constructions in the shape of hearts or the initials of the deceased, and surrounded by burning candles and bottles of rum or Coca-Cola. Family groups sat by the tombs. Some were talking and laughing, sharing stories about the dead family member; others were praying, and a few were weeping. A woman offered us a roasted ear of corn from the family picnic and chatted quietly to Felix about the significance of this festival. “She says they spend the days before the Day of the Dead in prayer so they can reach a spiritual state between the two worlds of life and death. Only then can they communicate properly with their dead relatives.”

My eyes burned with tears. My own mother had died six weeks earlier and I was full of my own memories. How impoverished we are in our culture when it comes to dealing with death and commemorating the departed. I turned away from the little group and watched a lone kite floating upwards, bearing its message towards the star-spattered sky.

When to go: The dry season is from October to May, but it’s worth braving the occasional shower to watch the All Saints’ Day celebrations in highland Guatemalan villages. The other major festival is Holy Week and Easter, which conveniently falls in the dry season. Accommodation is hard to find during this period.

Further reading: An essential read for anyone interested in the plight of Mayan peoples is I, Rigoberta Menchú (Verso Books), an account of the repression suffered by the author and her family at the hands of the country’s military dictatorship during the 1980s; Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work among Latin America’s indigenous peoples.
Ronald Wright’s Time Among the Maya (Abacus) is both an exploration of Mayan civilisation and a thoughtful description of the author’s travels in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

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