Thursday, December 27, 2012

Full moon over Chinique, roses of peace and fiestas

There is only so much that I can fit into a month, and already the time seems to be racing by. Tonight is a full moon, which means, according to traditional Maya, that it is time to plant crops. Of course, it is not possible to plant all of one's crops in a single night and no one can probably afford to wait another month to plant the next batch, but at least in theory, you are supposed to plant , or maybe just start planting, on the full moon. My hosts in Chinique were planting in their fields, which are up in the hills outside of Chinique, in Tapesquillo, today. Since school is out of session until the third week in January, most people are taking this time to plant -- the school calendar here is determined by the agricultural cycle, so school vacations correspond to the time for harvesting or planting (depending upon the part of the country). Many families here still travel to coastal plantations during the school vacations, taking their children to help out with the harvesting.

There was a short notice in the paper today about the anniversary of the peace accords, which is December 29, saying that the President, Otto Pérez Molina, would be exchanging "roses of peace" with representatives of the URNG (the united front that brought together several different guerrilla organizations) and others. It's kind of enough to make you sick, given that the president is a former general and as Lieutenant Tito, was a well-known figure in the counter-insurgency war in the highlands in the 1980s. 

Meanwhile the region moves from fiesta to fiesta; this is the calendar cycle that is important to a lot of my friends here, the cycle of the fiestas patronales. From an outsider's perspective, they are really pretty much all the same. The central plaza of the town is crowded with stands selling sweets, fireworks, food and beverage. The cofradias parade through the streets, carrying the statue of the patron saint, to the accompaniment of live marimba, and preceded by a few gentlemen whose responsibility it is to set off dynamite explosions every so often. Usually there is a Maya priest who also precedes the figure of the saint, wielding a brazier of incense from a metal chain, swinging it back and forth rhythmically so that the air fills with the  thick, sweet, resinous scent of copal - a kind of incense that is widely used in Maya ceremonies. The cofradías were set up under the aegis of the Catholic Church, but they have turned into, in most highland communities, a form of Maya civil society and social organization, and membership carries a certain amount of prestige. So although the patron saint feast nominally belongs to the Catholic Church, Catholicism seems to be a thin veneer over a core of Maya cultural practices.  Usually there is a "midway" with a ferris wheel, some arcade games and other amusements for the young and not-so-young. And, unfortunately, the fiesta is a time for overconsumption -- of food, to some degree, but primarily of alcohol, and the streets are clogged with staggering bodies, and occasionally one has to pick one's way around or over drunkards -- bolos, in popular parlance --  whose excessive indulgence has turned them into inert figures slumped onto the sidewalk, in a doorway, or barely propped up against a building.

Chichicastenango just finished its fiesta, which lasts for several weeks and clogs up the town.  Leaving Chichi on the central day of the feast -- December 21, the day of Santo Tomás, which coincided with the Oxlajuj B'aq'tun this year -- I came across a man walking very unsteadily in the middle of the highway heading south, about 7 or 8 kilometers to the south of Chichi. This is a treacherous stretch of road under the best of circumstances -- deep ravines alongside the narrow, almost shoulderless road, which takes sharp curves and plunges up and down and around the mountains. I could only hope that drivers were conscientious instead of reckless and that he made it home safely.

Residents of each town think, of course, that their feast is the best, and my friends in different communities are all eager to know if I will be attending. No sooner does the feast of Chichicastenango end, then the festivities start in Chiché (full name: Santo Tomás Chiché), which was settled by Chichicasteco refugees from some Spanish incursion a few centuries back, and basically shares the same culture (clothing, dialect of K'iche', food) as Chichicastenango. The husband in a couple who are dear friends of mine is from Chiché, and when I stopped to have lunch with them on Christmas Day, they of course wanted to assure that I would accompany them in the fiesta in Chiché. But there's only so much noise and crowds and fireworks and explosions that I can stand, or that I can make room for when I have come with the primary intention of doing research

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