This afternoon I attended the 4th birthday party of a young girl whose father, uncle and aunt are all in New Bedford. I met the family - the Guatemalan part of the family -- last January when I was here. My trip last year also coincided with the fiesta patronal (patron saint feast) of Chinique -- the feast of Nuestro Señor de Esquipúlas, also known as the Cristo Moreno (Black Christ), and that was how I first met the family.
Last January, one Saturday afternoon when I was in Chinique, I received a phone call from my collaborator, Adrian, in New Bedford, telling me that I should go find a woman named Doña V., whose daughter M.J. was in New Bedford. He directed me to go to the headquarters of the cofradia Vicente Carrillo, and ask for Doña V. My host accompanied me since I wasn't sure where to go, and we went down the street that goes past an athletic field until I saw people congregating on the street outside a large building, the exterior wall made of white stucco, with a large wooden double door that was propped open. I walked in, somewhat hesitantly, as I didn't know anyone, and I felt highly visible (as I have on many occasions) as the only gringa and the only woman not wearing traje típico. I asked around for Doña V. and eventually I found her -- this after talking to a few young women who were cousins or friends of M.J., Doña V's daughter who lived in New Bedford (excuse the awkwardness of using initials, but I have not fully resolved for myself whether and when to use real names; I know most people who blog about trips outside of the country just write about the people they meet and ostensibly use the real names but I do have some ethical considerations).
Doña V. welcomed me warmly, although I had to explain (and repeat several times) that I did not actually know her daughter but I promised I would make a point of meeting her once I got back to New Bedford (and I did). She plied me with food and introduced me to her parents and other relatives and friends.
During the next several days I saw Doña V frequently. She is an active participant in the cofradia and is a force of nature. Both her parents and most of her extended household are also active participants, and at her insistence I attended (and photographed) the procession last year. I made copies of some of the photographs for her (and refused payment -- I frequently make copies of photos for people and they invariably ask me how much they owe me for the photos), and then took back a video of the procession that she had obtained from someone else. I visited her home several times -- a large, rambling house, or rather compound, near the entrance to the town on the Zacualpa side, in a community or neighborhood called La Cruz. During one of those visits I met her son A., along with his wife and children. Her other son, R., was also in New Bedford, she told me. I took some photos of A and his family sprawled in bed watching TV (not the most gorgeous photos I've taken, but what they wanted).
In August, when I was getting ready to return to Guatemala, and folks in the community were having a barbecue a few days before my departure, I learned that A. had migrated to the U.S. a few months before, joining his two siblings in the migrant community. The siblings sent me a package of things to take to their family, and when I showed Doña V. and A's wife and daughter the photos I had taken of them at the barbecue, Stephanie grabbed the photos with her father in them and kissed them vigorously.
So now that I was back for a longer stay, I am considered part of the extended family and when I stopped to see Doña V. a few days ago, bringing her a packet of photos that her children had sent, she asked me to come to Stephanie's birthday party on Saturday. She told me the party would start at 1 but asked if I could come around 11 to help out.
So a little after 11 I set off on foot. It was sunny and relatively warm and the streets of the town were pretty empty and quiet. Sunday is market day in Chinique and perhaps this week Saturday was especially slow-paced as people were recovering from the exertions of the fiesta patronal which ended officially on Thursday. I only passed a few people as I walked along, taking the back road that reaches La Cruz from the town side.
The evangelical church across the street from Doña V's house was just getting warmed up for the Saturday service when I arrived; there were several teenaged boys and girls gathered outside. Dona V and most of her friends and family are Catholic. Evangelic Christianity has been on the rise since the 1970s or so, although probably the majority of the town's population is at least nominally Catholic.
I walked up the steps from the dirt road to find the household in a flurry of preparations. It was clear that this was a big deal and that it was not a party for 4-year olds but a party that would involve everyone from babies to great-grandmothers. A few tall stacks of white plastic chairs stood at the entrance to the patio, and some white plastic table tops with the legs neatly packed inside were at the other end. At a table outside the kitchen, three women worked making chuchitos. One skillfully scooped masa and then a dollop of sauce into a corn husk, tucked in a piece of chicken, and then handed it to two other women. The older of the two held the corn husk firmly wrapped and the younger woman tied both ends with strips of corn husk and then placed the finished chuchito in a large sturdy plastic bowl, the kind that is found in abundance in every Guatemalan household I have visited. In the kitchen, several women were busy with preparations. Large plastic bowls and trays filled with plates jostled for space with food preparation. On the wood burning stove was an uncovered shallow pan heaped with partially cooked rice and there was a scurry of activity looking for the top to that pan which could not be found. Doña V. was worried, and rightly so, that the rice wouldn't cook properly (and I thought privately that if it did cook properly it would easily overflow the pan). Eventually the rice was moved into a larger, deeper pot with a lid and cooked fine. A few women were swiftly preparing plain tamales, grabbing hunks of masa and pressing them into shape and then speedily wrapping then in large green leaves (maybe banana? Will get back to you on that). The birthday girl scampered around excitedly, taking the gift bag from me and peering into it until her mother removed it and told her she had to wait until all the guests had arrived (that moment never came as people drifted in throughout the afternoon; every time we cleared the tables another few people showed up; Doña V's younger brother, his wife and two kids arrived a little before 7 p.m. when everyone except the immediate household had left).
I wandered around farther back. In an outdoor kitchen out near where the cows were grazing, there were three large cauldrons cooking over an open fire. One held the tamales that were steaming under a large plastic bag spread across the top. The other held the soup -- a swirl of chicken pieces and vegetables. The smoke was thick and acrid and both I and the women tending the pots were tearing up. Doña V. moved back and forth between the kitchen, the table outside, the fire, instructing people to get things, giving directions, asking the women their opinions on various aspects of the preparations. She was concerned about the soup; not all the chicken was fully cooked, and she was concerned about the seasoning. One of the women suggested that she add some achiote and other seasonings, and she also decided to chop up some tomatoes and onions and add that. I asked if I could help, and said I could cut up the tomatoes and onions for her. I followed her to the massive outdoor sink, where she swiftly washed the vegetables and then found a heart-shaped plank of wood and a knife and I cut. But then she assigned me to blow up the balloons to decorate the party area -- a blue tarp that had been strung across the patio by some of the boys (I had heard her sending someone off earlier to get the balloons from one of the nearby stores).
So I dutifully blew about 20 balloons, later being joined by one of the women who had been cooking. Doña V's daughter-in-law, the mother of the birthday girl, helped tie the balloons with pieces of thread and then tie those to pieces of twine that one of the boys had strung along the edges of the tarp.
I took photographs intermittently and did what I could to help out -- assembling tables, for example. The caldo was quite a production. First the soup is cooked with the chicken and all the vegetables in a large pot, and then the cooked chicken and vegetables are scooped out and separated. Pots of chicken and vegetables were transported to the kitchen. Then soup was further seasoned, and then taken off the fire and the broth was carefully carried to the kitchen as well. Everything arrayed around the stove and the kitchen table, along with the now-cooked rice.
The birthday girl, who usually favors jeans and sweatshirts, was bundled into a tiny corte and huipil by her mother. She sat patiently as the skirt was wrapped and tied, and as her mother parted her hair with a moistened comb and made little plaits. Later in the afternoon she changed into jeans and a miniature pair of purple leather boots.
One of the older women swept the entire patio, and then strew fragrant pine needles over most of the exposed area. Pine needles are used in Maya ceremonies -- and in much Catholic worship in heavily indigenous areas. I'm not sure of the significance or meaning but will check it out.
In the meantime one of the older women, who barely spoke Spanish, had roasted some small hot chilies, which were then scooped into a blender along with some other ingredients (I just helped work the blender and didn't get to see what was put in the container) and pulsed into hot sauce in several batches. The air in the kitchen was so pungent with roasted chilies that we all started coughing.
We assembled the tables, put chairs around them, and I wiped everything off with a wet rag and arranged the remaining chairs in two rows facing each other at the entrance to the patio. First there were no tablecloths, then somehow table cloths miraculously appeared on the tables while I was doing something else.
Doña V and a few of the younger women washed their hair in the outdoor sink, using bar soap. Doña V. was still washing her hair when the first guests arrived, and she seemed nonplussed. As people arrived slowly, Doña V and the other women finished washing, changed into fresh clothing and almost immediately started to serve the food. An assembly line formed in the kitchen: each bowl got a few ladles full of broth, a piece or two of chicken, a scoop of rice, and some vegetables. The plain tamales were loaded onto plates and placed around the tables, along with dishes of chili sauce and plates of salt. Gradually the tables filled up, and the women and some of the older boys stayed busy carrying bowls of soup out to everyone.
Parents came with babies in arms or young children in tow. People came as entire families, or just mothers and children, or a few older women and men who came on their own. Soda was offered to everyone and a few bottles of Gallo beer, the local brew, positioned strategically on the tables, No bottle openers; those wanting beer had to pry the tops off with spoons or using the edge of a table. A few women drank beer as well, although they mostly seemed to take sips from bottles that men had opened rather than opening bottles for themselves.
Finally most had been fed, and we took the dishes away to wash; the bones and uneaten meat and vegetables were given to the dogs. All the while the congregation at the evangelical church across the road was heating up in their adoration and devotion; throbbing music, full-throated singing carried on throughout the afternoon.