Monday, October 15, 2012

University Students Doing Fieldwork in Santiago, Atitlan: In Search of Truth They Find More Questions

        Sociology students from the University in Guatemala City sat in front of me in a bus headed for Panajachel. I asked them about the name of a tree with rich, bright orange blossoms and from that point forward our conversations turned to school, research and fieldwork. Before long, our shared confidence in each other led to an exploratory adventure to Santiago, Atitlán, accessible mainly by boat from the shores of Panajachel on Lake Atitlán. In all, there were three: Alejandra, Karla, and Natalia. Young, intelligent and studious, the students' assignments were to learn about the governing entity in the town of Santiago and to seek an inquiry on the infamous Maximón, a spiritual icon made of wood and dressed up to look like a man. After a few hours of searching, the students located a contact person to interview in the municipal office, and to my surprise they finally located Maximón. But the Maximón visit was too much for one of the students who became fearful and offended by the spokesman's intimidation and fear-mongering tactics.
       When we arrived in Santiago, a gentleman, a self-proclaimed city tourist guide met us, and when he learned that the students wanted to re-visit Maximón whom they had located the day before, he offered to take them (I was unable to make the trip then). The students showed him a photo that they had taken of him and the guide quickly dismissed the authenticity of the photographed Maximón. He claimed that he is one of several imitations in town and that he knew the real Maximón, "el verdadero." He pointed to the telltale signs: the modern tile work on the floor, and the relics were not right. But, the students turned down the offer, especially since they couldn't afford his fee.
       We walked up the hillside to the town's market and made our way through the crowded aisles, with extra precaution not to fall or step on the venders that insisted on setting their baskets and containers in almost direct path of the customers. There is chaos but there's also order when you consider the politeness and patience of those walking behind you. The students asked about the real Maximón, especially in vender booths with medicinal herbs and specialized candles. Finally, someone gave them directions: out the main street in front of the market, up the hill and a left at a radio tower.
       But first, the students were to meet their professors at the main plaza. They introduced me to their sociology professors, Lic. Francisco Ernesto Rodas and Lic. Efraín Pérez. They recognized the need to interview municipal officials about the city' s government. Inquiry as to who was available led us to Mr. Rafael Estrada Arteaga, Coordinador de la oficina de seguridad (Coordinator for the Office of Security).
       The briefing by Mr. Estrada Arteaga started on a note of despair with the following information: the 1996 Peace Agreement that ended the 36-year war did not last; a 12-year conflict ensued, from 1996 to 2008;  the massacre of 13 protesters by the military, including a ten year-old in 1990 (read about Pedro Rafael González Chavajay's painting of the massacre at; and the flooding disaster of 2005. He explained that the national government provides limited resources, such as the national police, so the city has had to resort to recruiting volunteers, some regarded harmless and charitable, but the "rondas civiles" are made up of civil groups, specifically evangelical church members who patrol the streets as policing guards; and, most disturbing are the conflicts between the Mayan authority, the Catholic Church, and the evangelical groups.
       "El respeto a la autoridad no existe," ("respect toward the authorities doesn't exist"), claims Mr. Estrada. There's no Mayan authority as mayors of the municipality; instead, indigenous leaders lead the communities. The communities, he says, are confused about their roles as citizens of this town, conflating rights versus responsibilities. He cites paternalism as one of the barriers in uniting the efforts of everyone. And, he regards the Catholic Church as irresponsibly disregarding its role in not supporting the authority. "Hay que profundizar el constitución" he quotes in alluding to the need to strengthen or re-establish authoritative order.
     The Mayan response was absent in our interview. But certain facts have to be included in order to make a fair assessment of the issues. There's no doubt that the Maya community has a profound mistrust toward the government. As a colonized country, dictatorships have cause sharp divisions between them and the officials, as well as among themselves. And, in the 36 years of civil unrest many Maya political and spiritual leaders were killed. Their preference for autonomy is rooted in their history; acceptance of any government resource is not allowable, not by any written law, but from the peoples declarations that indisputably correspond with freedom and solidarity. Unless the government works out a viable plan that is inclusive in every aspect of the Mayan culture, the people will remain fiercely autonomous, as they have for hundreds of years.
       The only presence of any infrastructure development occurring in the city is due to the disaster of 2005 when some parts of Santiago communities were affected by mudslides from torrential rains, causing the deaths of many, and destroying homes and property. In his twelve years as Coordinator, Mr. Estrada Arteaga has seen very little change in the city's operations and developments.
       Afterward, the students resumed their search for the town's verdadero Maximón. As we walked uphill toward the radio marker, we met a couple of tourists sporting a camera, sunglasses, and sun hats. They signaled toward the direction of Maximón and gave us specific directions. We arrived at the doorway in the middle of an alley, not quite a street, and followed a precarious path, hardly anything out of the ordinary. Once we stepped on the porch we knew we were in the right place by a message written very legibly on the side of the house. We had arrived at Maximón's shrine and it costs two quetzales to view, and additional for photos and video. We paid the fee, of course, and the students and I went inside while the two professors sat outside on the porch.
       Upon entering the shrine-house, we found in the center the effigy of Maximón, surrounded by several relics and icons clothed and adorned with a mix- match of colorful arrangements, ranging from plastic toys, paper hangings, to flowers and hand-made objects, representing the local culture and a blend of religions, including Christian and Mayan. On the right, inside a life-size glass encased casket was a Christ-like figure. Several men sat around Maximón, one on each side, three in the back, behind a long rectangular table. The elderly man in the center, wearing sunglasses, was the alcalde of the cofradía, or the committee that serve as caretakers. While only the spokesperson spoke, everyone else sat quietly, eating their lunch.
       Maximón is a wooden figure like a tree trunk, about four-feet tall, wears a mask, and is outfitted to look like a gentleman with several expensive ties and fancy hat. Hand bills in a variety of denominations adorn his costume; indeed, money appears scattered throughout the shrine as if to ascertain its predominance in the presentation. Maximón appears to be smoking a cigarette or a cigar and the presence of liquor beside him adds a shady or villain aspect to his character. Historically, Maximón was known as Judas Iscariot's replacement during the Christian Holy Week, and, is associated with Xibalbá, the Mayan god of the dark Underworld.
       Natalia took the lead in asking the questions, simple, descriptive, using an academic tone of language. The spokesperson, the ex-alcalde of the cofradía, responded accordingly, but it wasn't long before he became agitated and nervous in his voice and body language. He then begin to question the students, intimidating them with an arrogant disposition, and demanding their identification and documents granting them permission to conduct the interview, and even asked them to write down their names, addresses, and school name. He asked the cofradistas to perform a "peritaje," a sort of "blessing" that appeared as if they were praying, making the sign of the cross, not unlike the Christian prayer. It was at this point that one of the students became visibly shaken; later, I learned that it was a frightful reaction from what she perceived as the "evil eye" or something similar. She remained frightened long after the visit and mentioned repeatedly that she needed to visit her church.
        Of course, we left the shrine with many more questions than when we first arrived. Since there are Maximón effigies in other towns in Guatemala, the one in Santiago Atitlán can't be claimed as the one and only authentic, verdadero. For the community members that believe in Maximón, he possesses both saintly and human characteristics. Based on the folk legend, it is the story of a man who sneaks his way into the hearts of the wives of men and sleeps with them while the men toil in the fields. When the men folk find out, they choose to cut off his arms and legs, extremities that have the least to do with the act that he committed. Thus, Maximón is both the effigy and the lesson inside the legend. But since he paid for his crimes, he is somehow forgiven and looked upon as the hope of a second chance. But he appeals to his faithful followers who can relate to him and his imperfect morality and, instead of giving up they ask him for redemption, even if it means making a crooked bargain.
       The students' discussions centered around the similarities between what they observed and their understandings of the teachings of the Catholic Church, the Mayan ceremonial rituals and what they observed at the Maximón shrine. At the surface, the cofrades seem to poke fun at both the church and the ladino's (non-indigenous) economic system. To an outsider, the inexplicable blending of religious overtones and outlandish adornments and designs, serve to point out how they perceive the church in the context of a colonized people. The symbolism becomes clearer when considering how the Christian church imposed upon them a religion that they couldn't understand and certainly they didn't need or want to replace their own religion. Similarly, the overt presence of money signifies an economic structure that as a colonized people were forced to accept, replacing their own economic structure and thus, abolishing their rights for economic gain. The Christian church has charitable bases, but its unknown whether or how the confradía engages in helping the community. Perhaps, their acts of giving are structured differently and are invisible to us.
       Our final discussion focused on the question of how Maximón is associated with the narcotraficante's la santa muerte, the iconic skeletal figure dressed in a medieval robe and whose scythe conjures a grim reaper character. Both Christian and Mayan religions infuse prayer in their daily lives and in ceremonial or ritual events. Various referents are used to express one's faith in prayer: Christians have saints or saintly persons, the Catholic Church venerates the Virgin Mary and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Maximón fills the void for those in need of prayer and specifically in reference to a religious effigy that understands their trials and tribulations. They ask for forgiveness, and to heal their wounds, but Maximón accepts the "eye for an eye" judicial settlements.
       I asked the students what they hope to take with them as lessons from their experiences and investigations. Their response was that this information would help them better understand the people and the communities. Whereas none of our explanations would properly or completely satisfy all our questions we realized that learning is the first step toward understanding.

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