It is fitting, in a way, that my week in northern Huehuetenango was bracketed by visits to ceremonial sites. The day I arrived in Santa Eulalia, last Monday, August 4, I was invited to accompany leaders of the "movimiento social" (social movement) in a ceremony at a ceremonial center in the middle of the town. And then on the morning that I left for San Pedro la Laguna, the brother in law of my friend Lorenzo took me to another ceremonial site, a Maya cross up on one of the hillsides overlooking the town.
I set out for Santa Eulalia last Monday morning, leaving from Chinique de la Flores in El Quiché. There is a relatively new, well paved highway that goes from Quiché to the outskirts of the city of Huehuetenango, where it connects with another highway that takes you into the town of Chiantla, where you find the "Ruta de Barillas", (route to Barillas), which climbs (quite literally) up into the Cuchumatanes, taking you around breathtaking (again literally) hairpin curves, before flattening out for a stretch. On that more or less level and straight part of the road, shortly before the turn off to Todos Santos, is a restaurant where I often stop and eat, the Comedor Cuchumatanes. Although I rarely eat meat when I am in the U.S., the area around Todos Santos is known for its mutton stew and that is invariably what I have at the Comedor. There were a few other patrons there. One man, who gave off the vibe of a long-distance truck driver, ordered a small bottle of aguardiente (it was about 12:30 p.m.). As I was sopping up chile sauce with my tortillas, the phone rang: my friend Lorenzo, froth community radio station in Santa Eulalia. He asked where I was and I told him. "Ah, we are just about 20 minutes away." He explained that he was going to the city of Huehuetenango with his wife, and they would stay overnight as she had a doctor's appointment the next day, but they were planning to stop at the Comedor for lunch. So I waited, meanwhile arranging to stay with another friend in Santa Eulalia, and we got a chance to visit a little and then I took off in one direction, leaving them with their lunch and then presumably heading off in the opposite direction.
After settled my bags and my pickup at the home of my friend Alfredo, one of the leaders of the local "movimiento social" and the regional Gobierno Plurinacional (we met when he came to New York for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples in 2013), we chatted briefly in his office, and he suggested that I might want to attend a ceremony that was being held that afternoon at 5, at the Centro Ceremonial in the town. He explained that every week, the members of the "movimiento social" (social movement) in Santa Eulalia (the civil society organization that advocates for the community, and is one of the leading actors in the regional resistance movement) held a ceremony to restore their energies, renew their commitment and "clear the air" of negative forces. By "ceremony", they mean a Maya ceremony, led by a "Maya priest" or "spiritual guide" or "abuelo" -- there isn't really a term in Spanish, much less in English, that is really adequate to describe the role of the people who lead ceremonies. The term used most often in Santa Eulalia is "abuelo" -- literally, grandfather or grandparent. This is another one of those polyvalent terms. It can mean a person's biological grandparents; it can mean "the elders" in a community, it can mean "the ancestors" -- specifically, the Maya ancestors whose legacy modern-day Maya activists see themselves as upholding. One of the lines of political/cultural discourse that I have heard in public events and meetings is that "our Maya ancestors, the abuelos and abuelas, gave us the legacy of their cosmovision and their wisdom, and we need to reclaim it and preserve it and practice it and pass it along to future generations." If I were a better ethnographer I would pay closer attention to the nuances of the discourse. While I was with Alfredo, a young man who was in the office came up to me and greeted me with a warm smile, reminding me that we had met previously. His name was Kaxho ("kasho"), and he was one of the leaders of the youth movement in the area.
Alfredo also suggested that I might want to talk with Rigoberto Juárez, one of the leaders both locally and regionally. Rigoberto is someone I met a few years ago, and at the time he was living in Salcajá, outside Xela, which is where we had our first conversation. In the intervening years, as the situation in northern Huehuetenango has heated up, Rigoberto has been spending most of his time in his native Santa Eulalia. In January 2013, I was mildly surprised to encounter Rigoberto when a friend in Santa Eulalia invited me to be part of a "comisión" (task force) that was going to look into the disappearance of an elderly woman in a rural community. In the intervening months he has become one of the key figures in the resistance movement (or maybe he always was and I am just catching on). Rigoberto presents one of the sad examples of the criminalization of dissent in Guatemala. He is facing criminal charges for supposedly inciting the burning of machinery in San Mateo Ixtatán. He was in Guatemala City the day that the machinery was burned, but plausibility doesn't seem to be a strong point in what we might call "frivolous lawsuits".
It was sheer luck that I was able to talk with Rigoberto, as he was headed for a visit to the Q'anjob'al community in the U.S. the following day. As I have mentioned in previous posts, nearly every family in Santa Eulalia has a relative who has been in the U.S. or who is currently there. As he dropped me off at Rigoberto's house, Alfredo reminded both of us that the ceremony would begin at 5, and so we only had a brief while to chat, over mugs of atol (basically some kind of grain mixed with water). We were able to spend some time together later in my trip, but not under circumstances that lent themselves to conversation -- hours and hours in uncomfortable buses traveling to the Ixcán, but that and the content of my conversation with Rigoberto are subjects for future blog posts.
Shortly after five, we readied ourselves and walked to the Centro Ceremonial. The center is basically a modest building with an altar in the front courtyard, and then a structure that looks like a small concrete replica of an ancient Maya temple in the back. We entered the building and the first thing I saw was an array of candles in glass holders -- what we would call seven day candles -- on the floor. Dozens of candles. The room was otherwise dark except for the light that entered through the open back and front doors. On the right side of the candles, chairs in a circle and one elderly woman seated. On the other side, a table and a woman standing or sitting nearby. She seemed to be unwrapping or arranging things -- my assumption was that these were things that would be used in the ceremony. Rigoberto greeted the woman, and told me I could sit down, so I sat on a bench; it wasn't clear where the ceremony was taking place, and so I thought maybe it was going to be inside. Other people came in and greeted and talked with the woman who was on the left hand side. I was just waiting to find out what to do. After a while people went outside and so I followed, and the man who was leading the ceremony was sweeping out the area in front of the altar. Gradually other people arrived; there were about 12 or 13 in all. Kaxho was there, together with a young woman, Adaluz, and a few other young people, and several middle-aged men. Doña Reyna, the widow of Daniel Pedro Mateo, arrived and we embraced, and Alfredo; Alfredo's wife Juana arrived when the ceremony was well underway.
The leader built the sacred fire, using incense and candles, and started the ceremony. We stood in a semi circle with the altar at the base, forming a bell shape. Since it was entirely in Q'anjob'al, I only gathered the barest sense of what was happening, but I have been to enough ceremonies to understand some of the basic dynamics. It started with prayers to the four cardinal points, and then we faced the altar. It was shorter than a lot of other ceremonies I have attended, and didn't involve the detailed naming and counting of the 20 nahuales. The fire was intense, and although I am not trained at all in reading the fire, I noticed that the flames seemed to move in spirals for most of the time, a spiral starting up and swirling, and then another one. They looked like small orange sandstorms or tornadoes. Someone with more background would have to interpret; I didn't ask for an interpretation, nor did I ask any other questions, but decided to just be part of the experience and not try to analyze or intellectualize too much.
The last full day of my stay in Huehuetango (in between I made a 2-1/2 day visit to Barillas), I took a walk up one of the hills behind where Lorenzo lives. A young man whom I had met at the radio station (and whose name then escaped me), told me how to find the path, and explained that there were two ways. One would take me to the "cruz Maya" (Maya cross) on the hillside and then to the summit, and the other would just take me to the summit. I had the impression that the Maya cross was somewhat farther down, and I made several false turns (there were a lot of paths splitting off, and of course I didn't know which was which) but didn't find the Maya cross, and so continued up to the top (or as far as there was a path). When I returned, I said that I hadn't been able to find the Maya cross because I didn't know which path was which, and hadn't seen many people on the path. Lorenzo's brother in law, Pedro, was visiting the house when I was there, and he said that he would take me there. As I was leaving the next morning, we agreed that we would meet around 5:45 (his wife said that the site was not unlocked until 6 so we couldn't go earlier). With some hesitation, I called him at 5:50 to find out when he was coming and he arrived about 20 minutes later and we set off. It turned out that the cross was very close to the top, right behind a house where I had seen some children the day before and had asked about the path to the summit (it hadn't occurred to me to ask the children about the cross, but in retrospect I realize that they were part of the family that have the keys to the gate that surrounds the cross). There was no one else there when we arrived, and Pedro explained that the gate was erected a few years ago because there were people who were using the cross for other purposes (young people coming up to drink and who knows what else), and that to preserve the sanctity of the site, they had to put up a gate. He stood quietly in front of the cross and murmured what must have been some prayers or blessings. A few minutes after we arrived, an older woman and young man came, bearing some bundles that were probably the candles, flowers and incense that they were going to offer. Pedro greeted them and explained that I was visiting from the U.S., that I was an anthropologist and that I had wanted to see the site. I asked if I could take a few photographs, and Pedro said it was alright, so I did. The site was heavily shaded, and so not a lot to photograph; I mostly did it to record it for myself.
And then I realized, after we had walked back down, that this made a fitting close to the week I had spent in Santa.