Thursday, December 1, 2011

Indigenous mayoralties part 2

At our initial meeting with the alcaldia indigena in Chichicastenango, the principal general closed the discussion by saying that he wanted us to come back for a ceremony at a future date, to bring good energies to the project. He also invited us to come on the Tuesday of that week, the dia de todos los santos, November 1, to share lunch with the alcaldia on what was a very festive and important day. I decided that I would try to go, as Chichicastenango is only an hour drive away from my home, and half an hour from the radio station, so it would be possible for me to attend without completely overturning my activities for the day. I wasn't sure if I should go by myself, or whether I should find out if my friends from Xela, who were the ones who really had the connection with the alcaldia and the radio project were going. A series of phone calls produced no definitive answers (it later turned out that one of my friends had misplaced or lost his phone). I finally decided that I would go, because it seemed to me that the invitation that had been extended to us -- we would like you to be our guests at lunch on November 1 -- was an invitation not to be turned down, unless there were some severe circumstances that impeded one's presence. And we had, as far as I remembered, all said yes, we would come, or at least that we would try to come. Well, we did say yes when we were with the alcaldia, and then afterwards, when we were in the street having a bite before going our separate ways, the three guys back to Xela and I back to Chinique, they seemed less definite about the commitment they had just made but we said we'd talk.
Detail on patron saint
So, I decided that even though I was possibly the least likely of the four of us -- not Maya (my name notwithstanding), not Guatemalan, not someone who resides in Guatemala permanently, not one of the originators of the idea -- I was going to go, because it seemed to be a mark of good faith that "we" were at least minimally represented. A good part of anthropological fieldwork consists of doing things like this. Someone in the community or group that you are studying or with which you are working invites you to a family, community, personal or social event that may not be directly related to the topic of your research but you go for a couple of reasons. A good part of fieldwork is developing "rapport" and maintaining relationships with people. So you go to such events because they have importance to people who are important or useful to you. You go because it is important to people in the community that you show your face, that you participate, that you be present. You go because reciprocity is an important value in many communities, because social codes require or suggest that certain invitations be accepted. You go because you know (in some cases) that the invitation itself is meaningful.  You also go out of curiosity: because you have never been to an X or Y before, and it might be interesting, or even fun (although the latter is usually not the case: a lot of events, ceremonies, activities that I have witnessed have been interesting or intriguing in some ways, but up around here, stuff usually goes on for a long time and there are often stretches that are quite boring, or where nothing whatsoever is happening, or stuff is happening but because you don't understand the language, it kinda floats over your head).
Baile de los Toritos, Nov 1

Once I had decided to go, I still had to figure out what to wear and what to bring. I sometimes wear a güipil over a dress or skirt when I go to important events (I've blogged about this previously). However, I know that when non-Maya women wear traje típico, it sometimes raises hackles about appropriation. The alcaldía indígena of Chichicastenango was one of the groups that spoke out publicly when Miss Guatemala appeared at the Miss Universe pageant wearing an outfit based on the male traje típico from Chichicastenango, and a special kind of traje reserved for elders, members of the cofradías, and so forth. So I was a bit wary about wearing a güipil and possibly offending the alcaldes. I decided to just wear neat clothing (I actually do not have anything very fancy here with me, which I now sort of regret, but it is way too late to do anything about that other than, I guess, start combing the PACAs). It also seemed that I should bring some kind of gift or offering, so I decided upon a bottle of 8-year old rum.  Thus armed and outfitted, I set off.  I hadn't asked where the lunch was going to be held, and so I went to the house of the principal general (I was pleased that I was able to find it myself on foot in the day; Chichicastenango is not that big but it had been nighttime and very crowded when I had come two days earlier).  I knocked at the door and a woman let me in. There were several women and I explained that I had been there two days earlier and that we had been invited to have lunch with the alcaldía. It took a few tries before I made myself understood, and then the women conversed among themselves and finally someone told me that they were not at the house, but somewhere else. I asked where specifically it was, but instead of giving me an explanataion, they asked the two  young girls to accompany me, and giggling a bit, they did.

For some reason they took me the long way around the square, so that we had to walk through crowds of people, and then I realized that they were taking me to the offices of the alcaldia, and so I told them I knew how to get there and I headed into the market, which occupies the center of the plaza, walking as quickly as I could through the passageways to emerge on other side.  I arrived in the doorway of their office/headquarters, and saw that several of the alcades were seated or standing at a dais on one side of the room, resplendent in their ceremonial attire. I quietly approached and they greeted me warmly and beckoned me to join them on the dais -- that is, in a seat of honor, on the same level, and at the same table, as the alcaldes.

At lunch with the principal general (2nd from left)
and two other members of the alcaldía indígena
I was somewhat taken aback -- I wasn't sure what I'd expected but not to be seated with them -- but I obviously wasn't going to debate propriety or protocol, this was their place, their lunch, if they wanted me up on the dais, then that's where I was going to go. I made my way around (the table is quite long) and gave my greetings again, and made my offering of the bottle of rum, and then one of them ushered me into a seat. He explained that they had already eaten (there were a few people still working on bowls of food). I apologized for my lateness and explained that I had gone to the principal general's house first. They called for a bowl of food, and a young woman brought a steaming bowl of recado (a flavorful stew, this one with chicken) and a plate of tortillas, and then I asked for some hot sauce and I was all set.

The rum was warmly received, and one of the men took on the task of doling it out to everyone.  It was interesting to sit and watch as people came in and gave their formal greetings to the alcaldes. Several knelt on the floor, in front of the end of the table where the principal's chair was located -- the far left hand side when looking in from the entrance, the right hand side from my position sitting on the dais looking out, and gestured to each alcalde in turn. Most used their right hand, and pronounced a greeting and/or a blessing to each person in turn, starting with either, "Xej'iq" (good afternoon), or "Maltiox" (thank you -- the X is pronounced "sh", so the word is pronounced, "mahl-tyohsh"). Since I was sitting with the alcaldes, I was included in the greetings, thanks and blessings. And so I watched and mimicked their responses, at least in terms of physical gesture: standing each time someone came in and knelt or stood in front of the dais as a token of acknowledgement.  It was a somewhat strange feeling to be sitting there as the one female, the one non-Maya, the one gringa, and see people kneeling down in front of where I was seated (I cannot say, "kneeling in front of me" because I was only incidentally there, but their gesture of respect included me).
In many of the dances, there are figures
like this, dressed up as conquistadores,
masked in white-face (and with
blond hair)
One of the alcaldes who spoke more Spanish sat with me and talked to me, taking some pains to explain something about the work of the alcaldía. He invited me to come to their meetings, saying that they met every Wednesday, and I could come whenever I wanted. Then another man came, a member of the alcaldia but not dressed in traje, and said he would take me for a walk around the town. I have walked around Chichi a bit, but accepting seemed the right thing to do, so we walked around through the square, where the dancers who perform the baile de los toritos (dance of the little bulls) were arrayed in their elaborate costumes, and stopped to watch the dancers for a moment. There were at least 60 dancers in all, along with friends and family members carrying water and other supplies, along with hundreds of bystanders, both locals and tourists, watching and, invariably, recording or photographing. Many people in Guatemala have multi-purposes cell phones, some quite elaborate and expensive (one friend of mine plunked down Q4000, over $500, for a Blackberry or Blackberry-type phone), and it is not at all uncommon to see "locals" positioning themselves at cultural events, speeches, and ceremonies, to be able to record the event.

The members of the Baile de los Toritos

My friend  Kan is a member of one of the two companies that were there, but since the dancers were fully masked, I didn't have time to try and figure out which of the dancers was him. It was very crowded and while I liked being able to see a more complete choreography than what I have seen at the rehearsals I attended (they are public events, complete with food and drink), I didn't want to stand around in crowds. So we walked around the town, and then I returned to the meeting room of the alcaldia.

When I arrived, the alcaldes were all heading outside and so I followed suit. One of the cofradías, the brotherhoods that were established under the aegis of the Catholic Church and are dedicated to the guardianship of a specific saint, but that have served as a means of preserving Maya ritual practice and also creating an alternative social hierarchy, was about to lead a procession through the town, and the cofrades (members of the cofradía) and the alcaldes arranged themselves on the steps of the church, in front of the three statues of the saints that were going to be carried during the procession.

It was an impressive sight, forty or fifty men kneeling on the church steps, clad in black garments, headdresses in bright colors, and most with a white canvas bag slung over one shoulder. After the prayers were completed, they cleared a space on the steps and one of the men (I could not tell whether he was a cofrade or a member of the alcaldía indígena, but I can find out, I am sure) danced. In one hand, he carried a small wooden statue of Santo Tomás, the patron saint of Chichicastenango, on horseback. In the other hand, he carried a metal apparatus, a kind of hollowed-out globe, that had been fitted with fireworks.
Dancing on the church steps
As he danced back and forth on the church steps, he swung it around and the fireworks went off.  This is typical of dances I have seen in Chichicastenango; during the ceremony for the election of the Ixkik  Umial (the "indigenous queen" or princess, although that is a highly unexact and incorrect translation of the K'iche' term), several member of the cofrade de Santo Tomás danced, carrying the statue and wielding explosives. During the election of the Rabin Ajaw, the "daughter of the king" (a national pageant), when the young women representing Chichicastenango and Chiché (a nearby town that was settled by Chichicastecos during the 17th century) made their appearances, they carried statues of the saint on horseback and also carried fireworks which went off during their performances. Most patron saint processions I have observed involve fireworks: as the faithful walk around carrying the statue of the saint, they stop from time to time and someone sets off a bunch of fireworks in the street in front of the statue, and then when the explosions are done, the procession resumes. It just seems a bit more so in Chichi.

Cofrades of the Cofradía Santo Toma
 For the next hour or two I followed the procession around the streets of Chichicastenango punctuated by a lot of explosions; sometimes I preceded the procession so that I could try and photograph it from the front. Some other Chichicastecos filed in and joined, others crowded onto the sidewalks and the hilly, cobblestoned side streets to watch and photograph. It didn't go all that far. We filed down the street that starts at the church steps, down hill, and then turned left and went up another street for a few blocks, and then made another left and went a block or so, and then turned right into the street where the

cofradia has its headquarters.  There were people there already. A marimba orchestra, outfitted in shiny matching suits, was already in full swing, and the rest of us filed in, crowding the courtyard.  There had been some tourists on the streets as we paraded around, but none of them joined in the procession, and by the time we arrived near the cofradía's headquarters, they were no longer to be seen.  The members of the alcaldía indígena who had accompanied the march were ushered into an inner room in the house, where they seated themselves behind long narrow tables that were set up in an L on two sides of the room.  There were many people crowded into the room and into the doorway. I decided not to try and squeeze in very far but worked my way to the doorway and peered in. It wasn't clear to me exactly what was happening, as people did move in and out of the room throughout the time I was there.
 The room was decorated, the tables covered with cloths, and I think there were some religious icons, but I never got a good look, and I certainly did not take any photographs. I exchanged smiles and waves with some of the alcaldes who had been at lunch with me, and then wandered back outside into the courtyard.

It was bustling with people, and soon the members of the cofrade came outside and a few started to talk with me, asking me who I was, what I was doing in Guatemala, asking what I thought about the procession. There were some young men there eager to try out their few words of English.  Two of them were busy taking photographs with their phones, and we all laughed when they took pictures of me as I was taking pictures of them. We also chatted a bit, and then joked about dancing. They asked for my contact information, and so I gave out my cards -- I had my university make up some cards for me for this year, with my Guatemalan cell phone numbers, and although it feels as though I have given them out to everyone and their families, I still have a few hundred left, and so I have been trying to get rid of them. I am not really worried that they might fall into the wrong hands. Anyone, friend or foe, who really wants to find me can easily do so.

It started to rain and then cleared, and then rained again a bit and cleared.  I never did get to dance, although one of the men in the alcaldía indígena did come outside at one point and said that we should dance together. I agreed, but he wandered off to do something or to talk to someone else.  The only people dancing seemed to be pretty inebriated and unsteady on their feet -- as has been the case at several events I have attended of a similar nature. This is one of the criticisms of the cofradías, of the patron saint feasts in indigenous communities and of public celebrations in general in the altiplano, that they occasion a lot of drunkenness. And this leads to a criticism of the Maya -- from a pragmatic, capitalist, Protestant, Enlightenment point of view -- for spending resources and money on non-productive activities such as patron saint feasts instead of turning them into productive capital.  Here the moral critique (for being weak, drinking too much, being wasteful) is combined with a critique of a way of life, a set of values and its underlying system of production (small-scale subsistence farming).

I have written earlier about a dilemma concerning whether or not to take photographs of people who are inebriated. My current thinking is that in large public celebrations, where I might want to photograph a wide shot that include dozens or even hundreds of people, it would be impossible to frame a shot so that there were no people "under the influence". I am not going around with a Breathalyzer. However, I will avoid photographing anyone who is visibly affected by alcohol (i.e. really unsteady on his or her feet, or passed out). This extends to more intimate settings with friends as well.

The members of the cofradía started to bustle around, and then formed themselves into a long line stretching all the way to the back of the courtyard, where it disappeared into one of the rooms in one of the buildings that surrounded it. The mystery of what they were doing was soon cleared up, as they started to pass along hollowed-out gourds containing a kind of atol -- a generic term for a beverage made of corn meal or another kind of flour made of grain, mixed with water and cooked. They were passed from hand to hand along the line, and then handed to people in the crowd.
The members of the cofradía forming a human chain
to distribute atol to all the celebrants

Some atoles are sweet, others are rather plain.  The man nearest me asked somewhat hesitantly if I would want some. I eagerly said yes, even though the atoles here are a bit bland for my taste. In El Salvador, there is a kind of atol called atol shuco (meaning "dirty atol" --- shuco comes from the Spanish word for dirty, sucio) that has some salt and ground roasted pumpkin seeds (or pepitoria) mixed in.  So I was handed my jícara (gourd) and sipped at the atol.  The cofrades seemed pleased that I liked the atol, and when I had finished and returned my jicara, I was immediately handed another one by a different cofrade. I explained that I had already had one, and I didn't want to deprive anyone. He insisted that there was plenty and that I should have another. I finished that one, as the cofrades watched approvingly, and then when I handed back the empty jicara, a third man tried to hand me a third cup of atol.  At this point, I thanked him and said that there was no way that I had room for another atol right then as I was quite full (and, frankly, I didn't want to have to try and find the bathroom in the cofradía. It's not that I'm super-fastidious. Some places have outhouses, some have indoor toilets, some public bathrooms have paper and others don't. When you have to go you have to go. I have scrambled into bushes or behind trees along highways when the need strikes and I know that there is not a bathroom anywhere nearby. But in a large, crowded celebration with a lot of people consuming beverages, the bathrooms can get pretty funky even if they are relatively clean and modern, and if I can avoid using one in those circumstances, I do.  So I managed to avoid having to drink a third atol without, I think, offending anyone and then made my way back to my car and back to Chinique. I arrived in time to catch the last of the Dia de los Muertos celebration in the local cemetery.. but that's a subject for a different blog.


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