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I am not sure how I learned about the Rabin Ajaw ("daughter of the king" is one translation) pageant. I might have just been doing an internet search on indigenous queens, prompted by some reading I had done over the last several months, and come across a listing for the festival.It is described on the official website as a "national folkloric festival" that has been held for the last 40-odd years in the city of Cobán in Alta Verapaz, the department that is immediately to the east of Quiché -- it is in the northeastern part of the country. I decided that I wanted to attend, and tried to figure out what were the key events and how to manage the trip there and back, sandwiched between other responsibilities at the radio station.
So, with not much in the way of preparation beyond having read a few articles or book chapters about indigenous queen/princess pageants, and some newspaper articles about the Rabin Ajaw selection, I set off for Cobán on the 31st of July. I had little idea of what the travel conditions would be like and only the vaguest advice from friends; most of the people I know do not drive or own cars, and while some travel fairly regularly, they mostly do so on public transportation.
I had traveled along the highway as far as Cunén, a town to the northeast of Santa Cruz del Quiché, but that was the limit of my exploration. I felt a bit like Bilbo Baggins setting off with a vaguely drawn map of Middle Earth with a lot of unknown spaces.
Writing about the Guatemalan countryside leaves me feeling as though I repeat myself -- breathtakingly, painfully, beautiful. The journey to Cobán goes along a river valley, and the landscape is striking. Every time I travel I fall in love with a new part of the country, and yet I find it hard to define the physical qualities that distinguish one area from another.
I passed through Cunén, then Uspantán and Chicamán... and then the pavement stopped and the road turned to gravel and dirt. And stayed that way for a good 20 or more kilometers to the east of Chicaman, the last town in Quiché. The road wound through small villages where the passage of my truck seemed to be the most novel thing that had happened in the last week. There was one stretch where the road was closed, and I had to detour through a private community. The narrow winding gravel and dirt road wound down partway into a deep canyon. One stretch, more level, at the top, was sheer rocks, with a stream running through. Kind of eerie. The only people I saw were the ones tending the two gates at the entrance and exit (they charged a small fee for both entering and leaving).
I finally arrived in Cobán and immediately liked the city. It was hard to tell why, other than it seemed to have a kind of energy about it. I'm not sure of the population, but it just felt good to be there. Santa Cruz is somewhat dusty and narrow; it feels very hemmed in, as does Chichicastenango. Coban, on the other hand, feels more expansive and relaxed. It took me a little while to find the hotel, mostly because the people there couldn't give me easy directions although it turned out I was only a few blocks away; they sent someone on a bicycle to come find me and guide me there. I parked my car, dropped my bags, and then set off to find where the Rabin Ajaw selection was taking place.
Following the directions I had been given, I made my way to the municipal stadium and saw that on one side, up past the bleachers, there was a building where it looked like there was something going on. I climbed up and found the hall thronged with people. Most, it seemed, were contestants and their families or attendants. At the front was a low platform and on one side, a table where the judges (or selection committee) sat; about half a dozen women, mostly hunched over laptop computers. On the other side (my right hand side as I faced the front) was the sound system, the announcers, and some cameras. Outside on the balcony, was a marimba, and behind it, two musicians, playing a large drum and a wooden flute, both traditional instruments.
There were numerous rows of white plastic chairs, with an aisle down the center. In the first several rows were the contestants: young women from 90 different municipalities, all dressed in the appropriate traje tipico for their respective areas. I later learned that they ranged in age from 15 to 24 or 25. I positioned myself up near the front along the right hand side, with some other photographers. In front of the stage, a fairly sizeable amount of floor space had been left before the first row of chairs.
The announcers were calling out the candidates by number - I think we were somewhere in the 60s. The announcer said the name, age, the parents' names and the place of origin; also what language the woman spoke. There was a young woman who stood at the front, wearing the traje of Coban -- a loose white huipil over a gathered skirt of blue and white fabric, her hair tied back with a long, thin piece of red fabric fashioned into an elaborate, drooping bow that reached down past her knees in the back -- bearing a brazier full of incense, who greeted each contestant as she came forward.
Some of the women carried objects that represented their municipality, or that represented Maya culture more generally. One contestant carried a miniature marimba. Some carried baskets. Others carried huge lit candles that were nearly half their height, along with large bunches of flowers.Each contestant made a bow of greeting to the judges, and then whatever kind of salute she wanted to do; some bowed to the four cardinal points. A few knelt and lifted their arms skyward. Then the contestant ascended the stage and had a few minutes to introduce herself and present her "message" -- a prepared statement in both her native language and Spanish.
The young women were, with very few exceptions, forceful, articulate and thoughtful. I did not take notes on the exact content of each contestant's comments, but they spoke eloquently and passionately about the Maya cosmovision, about environmental issues, taking care of mother earth, about the ravages of mining, education, women's rights, cultural preservation, and the importance of maintaining Maya languages. Only one girl (she was 15, so I think I can safely call her a girl) lost her composure, froze, and lost her place in her statement. Although she received warm and encouraging applause from everyone, was unable to regain her place in her memorized remarks.
After leaving the stage, the contestants went off to have their photographs taken by a few different professional photographers, including one man who had an impressive-looking vintage camera. I later discovered, through an article in the Huffington Post that a friend posted on Facebook, that he had acquired the camera in Afghanistan; there is a website where he published many of the photographs he took. I was trying to be respectful and stay out of his and the other photographers' way, so I didn't speak to him. Unfortunate, in retrospect.
After each of the contestants had been called forward, spoken and been photographed, the announcers said that the event was over for the evening (it might have been around 7:00, possibly a little later), and that they would reconvene the following day at another location nearby. I made my way around the hall, looking for the entrants from El Quiché -- they were grouped together by department, so once I had located one of the very distinctive trajes from the department, I found the entire group. I did not know any of them, but I went over to greet them nonetheless. I introduced myself as an anthropologist who was living in El Quiché, said that I was glad to have found the women from my part of the country, and wished them all luck.