Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ceremonia Toj (a ceremony for the nahual Toj)

My sometime teacher of K'iche' (we rarely meet, and I have barely advanced at all) is also an ajq'ij ("sacerdote Maya" or Maya priest, not a very exact translation) and is part of an organization called Chilam B'alam de los K'iche's. Back in late October or November, he invited me to participate in a ceremony that was going to be held at a sacred site outside of Santa Cruz del Quiché. He was very eager to have me meet people from the organization and have me participate in the event, so I arranged to meet him in the morning so we could go together. However, at the last moment, he was not given permission to take the morning off from his job, teaching at the Colegio Bilingüe (the bilingual school), which struck me as unfortunately ironic -- part of the school's mission is the strengthening of Maya culture and language. He teaches K'iche' language and Maya mathematical systems. It would seem to
me that his participating in something like this ceremony would only add to his knowledge... but then I don't run a school in Guatemala, so what do I know?

But he accompanied me nonetheless to the headquarters of Chilam B'alam so I could meet up with the others. Their locale is on a corner about a block and a half from the central plaza of Santa Cruz, and I found a place for the car and we went inside. There were five or six people there, and Leonardo introduced me to everyone as an anthropologist from the U.S. who was living in Guatemala. We all shook hands, and I was invited to make myself some tea while we waited for everyone to assemble.

The organization is one of many groups in Guatemala that are involved in reclaiming, preserving, representing Maya cultural values. I am not 100% clear about how the group was organized and how it functions, but its goals seem to be bringing people together, revalorizing spiritual traditions -- many, but not all, of the members are ajq'ij'ab or "Maya priests" or "day keepers" -- I realize that there are many different types of "priests" and priestesses, and the term ajq'ij is probably an inexact generalization, but I don't have the time to really delve into the distinctions and then try to explain them to readers of this blog. A day keeper, as I understand it, is someone who specializes in interpreting the sacred calendar -- 13 months of 20 days each, and each day distinguished by a specific nahual (energy, spirit) -- and conducting the proper ceremonies that correspond to each. Much like in santeria, some Maya priests/priestesses primarily do ceremonies for themselves and their families, while others do consultations (consultas) for other people.

We were waiting for some young people to show up, and so there were a couple of phone calls back and forth to locate htem and then we piled into the pick-up and set off. It has been over a year since I headed out on the highway that leads toward San Andrés Sajcabajá.

The road is only paved for a short distance as it leaves the highway that goes from Santa Cruz to Joyabaj, cutting off sharply at the gas station. Then it turns to sand, gravel and dirt. This was during the rainy season, and the road was a bit slippery, and some pretty serious puddles and I was a bit anxious about how far up the road we were going and whether my car, which is not a 4X4, would make it.  But we made it and I parked the car and we unloaded the bags containing candles and incense and whatever else we were bringing and walked up a dirt path that was covered with fallen leaves.

We entered into a clearing among the trees. At one side there was a space where the marimba musicians arranged themselves. There were a few dozen people there, mostly gathered under the trees as it was alternating between heavy mist and a very light drizzle.

There were some people already there, gathered around a fire. The fire was built on a circle of candles and incense, around which there were four triangles made of flower petals, forming the entire assemblage into a 4-pointed star.  At first I didn't realize that they were a different group, but when they finished their prayers and offerings, and started to leave it became clear.

The people who were directing the ceremony waited for the other group to leave and then started to arrange things on the altar -- there was a half-circle or horseshoe-shape made of stones that had been piled up, and inside that arc or half-circle people arranged flowers and pine needles, along with some candles.

Then they spoke about the importance of the day, its significance, and also the importance of reclaiming sacred sites such as the one we were using.  Toj is the nahual that corresponds to fire, and also to offerings. All ceremonies involve building a sacred fire and making offerings, but in a ceremony devoted to Toj the fire and the offerings take on an especial weight (this is what I could understand). I was introduced at one point and invited to speak and introduce myself to the people present. I was a little surprised since I hadn't expected to be included in that way; I realized, of course, that I could not exactly be a fly on the wall here -- or anywhere in highland Guatemala, for that matter.

There is no way that I can be invisible or inconspicuous. In many of the social circumstances in which I find myself, I am usually the only non-Maya present and nearly invariably the only extranjera (foreigner -- that is, in most of these settings, there are rarely any Ladinos). No one makes me feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, but I often feel highly visible. When my friend Caterino's two-year old son Brandon, with deep brown skin, decides he wants to go to the local market with me, and toddles along holding me by the hand, prattling to me as I select tomatoes or cooking greens, we attract stares from both Maya and Ladinos in the market square.  But this is a subject for a different blog entry, perhaps.

I hadn't prepared anything to say, and I was self-conscious about my extremely limited vocabulary in K'iche', so I said good morning and introduced myself in K'iche' and then apologized for not speaking the language and switched to Spanish. I explained briefly what I was doing in Guatemala --that I did a lot of work in the U.S. with immigrants, particularly with Maya K'iche' in New Bedford, which was how I came to Guatemala in the first place, and that I was working with a Maya women's organization in Quiché, and that I was grateful for their invitation, and felt privileged to be able to participate in something so important. All of which was true...

I realize, reading this, that it sounds kind of pre-packaged, like what one is supposed to say on such an occasion. And that it is, to a degree -- I am aware of what is expected of me in certain settings, what is appropriate, and I have become a little bit familiar with rhetorical styles here. But that makes it no less heartfelt or authentic. I am privileged and honored. Anthropologists, tourists, white folks in general, gringos and gringas in particular, have an unfortunate history here. Fear about cultural appropriation, misrepresentation, ripping off, foreigners trying to profit from Maya culture is not a paranoid fantasy but well-founded. And so I am grateful that people are willing to look beyond the  nationality and skin color and social class and allow me in; that they are willing to take a chance that event though I am a gringa anthropologist, I might be different from the other güeras (white folks), gringas and anthropologists they have come across.

I asked permission very carefully about taking photographs -- to be perfectly respectful. Leonardo, my teacher, had told me beforehand that I could take photographs, but since he was not there, I made sure that I asked very specifically again before taking out my camera, although there were many people usig their cell phones, and at least one other person from the organization using a camera.

I was allowed to take photographs and shoot videos up to a certain point, during the preparations, and and then once the ceremony formally defined started, they asked me to stop -- this was fine with me. Ironically, afterwards, they asked me for photographs, and the person who came to copy my photographs from my hard drive onto his flash drive said he regretted that I had not taken photographs during the ceremony, because the ones
he had taken had not come out that well,  and now they didn't have all the photographs they wanted to document the activity.

There is a wide variety of views about the appropriateness of photographing ceremonies. Some people believe that it interferes with the energy (which was why Doña Fermina and Doña Matilde asked me not to take photographs when we went to do a ceremony the week before the election (or at least not after they had set up the altar and started to make the offerings).

 On the other hand, the ajq'ij'ab (plural of ajq'ij, or Maya priest) who work with Ixmukané and who have done the ceremonies at the center do not mind (I know because I have asked them; even when someone has told me once that he does not mind if I photograph a ceremony, I will always ask again the next time because it is possible that different kinds of ceremonies have different kinds of energies, and different sets of restrictions might apply).

The ceremony was run by Juan Ixcop, but there were several others, mostly men but also at least one woman, who were actively involved. The participants were mostly people from the area surrounding the sacred site -- that is, from some rural communities along this highway.

It was not that dissimilar from other ceremonies I have attended, except that there was a live marimba, and then also a musical ensemble of about 4 young people who played one song at the site, and then more later when we had repaired to the headquarters of Chilam B'alam for lunch. The fire was built and lit and stirred, petitions and prayers offered.

The weather was cool and misty, and the ceremony went on for a few hours. Toward the end, the marimba played a son (a musical style or rhythm, not related to the Cuban son), which is a kind of music that is relatively danceable, Juan directed everyone to dance around in a circle that then spiraled inward and then again outward. The ground was uneven, and it was hard to keep balance and also keep the rhythm. There are several different ways that people dance son, or rather, different relationships to the somewhat stately beat, and I am undoubtedly committing the sin of pride to say that I think I do a pretty good job of staying on rhythm.
After we had spiraled in and around and back out again, the ceremony was officially over. However, individuals made personal petitions, either at the horseshoe shaped altar or at the fire.  They also pulled out cell phones and other cameras to snap photos of the altar and the offerings and perhaps themselves, as this man in the photo on the left is doing.

At the very end, before the fire was put out, people cleansed themselves in a set of gestures that I easily recognized, and again, the similarities to Afrocuban religious ceremonies were striking. They removed a piece of outer clothing -- a scarf, shawl, or jacket, and swirled it around in the smoke above the fire, and then put the clothing back on.
Although I was pretty sure I could "read" these actions, I asked someone why she was doing this and she said to cleanse herself of any possible negative energies released in the ceremony. In santería ceremonies, a participant will usually take a piece of fruit from the altar, and then go outside, and swipe the fruit over his or her body in rapid strokes (down one's arms, torso, legs, and even the soles of the feet) and then discard the fruit at the corner.

Most of the people were from the immediate area and so they walked off. We returned back to Santa Cruz and to the headquarters of Chilam B'alam, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch (chicken pepián) and music performed by the same young people who had been at the ceremony. There was one young woman who played the flute, primarily, but also guitar and percussion; she was quite talented and also had a lovely singing voice. I now no longer remember what they sang -- a few nuevo canto songs, and a few traditional Guatemalan sones, transposing marimba music into guitar, flute and drum.
Over lunch I chatted with a few people; one man who sat at the table with me had spent some time in the U.S. and so we talked about the difficulties immigrants face.

Writing this entry is a lesson to me: I have to write stuff down more immediately after it happens otherwise I forget too much and the entries just ramble on without a lot of interest. Of course, not the most useful revelation to have three weeks before my departure .. or rather, three weeks before my departure is perhaps not the most useful moment to have this revelation....

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