Friday, January 6, 2017

Anniversary of a death unforeseen

A year ago today, I left the house of my dear friends in Santa Eulalia, the family of Lorenzo Francisco Mateo, to visit some other friends in the next municipality, San Mateo Ixtatán. Lico, the oldest son in the family, helped me maneuver my pick-up out of the rocky and uneven parking spot next to the house -- trying to avoid one of the many rocks, I had landed the front wheels in a sort of ditch, and needed help to get the car (in Guatemala, anything that is used for personal transport is a "carro") on the road. By the time I arrived at the home of my friend's family in one of the aldeas outside of the town center of San Mateo, Lico was dead, run over by one of the many trucks that careen recklessly along the narrow 2-lane highway that runs through Santa Eulalia, en route to San Mateo, Santa Cruz Barillas, and other points north. I disembarked from the van that had taken me from the center of town to the aldea, to find my friends anxiously checking their Facebook feeds with long faces.

So much has happened in this past year. Lico was committed to the community radio station of which his father, Lorenzo, has been the coordinator for several years. He loved nothing better than to be in front of the microphone, selecting music to play, fielding phone calls and Facebook messages from listeners with messages and requests, or helping to set up remote transmissions of events that the station would broadcast live. At the time of his death, the radio station had been shut down by the outgoing mayor of Santa Eulalia, and had been operating under the radar, but not able to really maintain a full program. The radio station had been a strong advocate for the community opposition to hydroelectric installations and other projects, and many of those associated with the radio station had been criminalized by the government, which had issued arrest warrants, charging them with incitement to riot, kidnapping and other trumped-up charges.

Last January, Santa Eulalia had just installed a new municipal government and the fate of the radio station was uncertain, although the radio station board and staff were hopeful that the new administration would allow the radio station to resume functioning fully, occupying its former locale in the municipal building.

Lico had also been very concerned with the fate of the political prisoners from Santa Eulalia and Barillas --  7 men who had been arrested on many of the same charges that had been lodged against radio station volunteers and other community advocates (there were originally 9 prisoners but two of them had been released in the fall of 2015). And last summer, they were finally released from jail and the charges dropped because there was no proof. Lico would have been overjoyed to see the caravan that made its way from Guatemala City up to Santa Eulalia, to have greeted Rigoberto and Domingo and the others, to have interviewed them on the air.

When I planned this trip I was very aware that I would be here on the anniversary of Lico's death, and I very much wanted to be with the family. On January 1st, we went to the cemetery to visit his grave. I had been out in the morning at the installation of the new community-level leadership, the "auxiliary mayors".  Then I came home and was in the house more or less by myself when the youngest son, Xhapin, dashed in. He told me that the rest of the family were going to the cemetery to visit Lico's grave, and so I dropped what I was doing and went to meet them. He told me that they were already at the cemetery, but said that they would come down and find me. Guatemalan cemeteries -- at least the ones I've visited in highland towns -- are not organized in neat rows or sections like those in the U.S. Graves are just wherever there is room, and there is no standard size for a plot -- or at least not that I can discern. There aren't marked or paved paths; you just have to pick your way between and around and sometimes over the graves to get to your destination. I remembered that Lico's grave was somewhere up in the back, near the fence that marks the boundary of the cemetery (the cemetery is on a hill -- most of Santa Eulalia is on hills), but I wasn't sure I'd be able to find it on my own.

So we set off, Xhapin on his bike and me on foot. However, by the time I reached the center of town and took the left fork, which is the road that passes the cemetery and heads out of town, I saw Xhapin and his brother Milo on the sidewalk outside Milo's store. They put the bicycle inside and then we walked together to where the rest of the family (well, those that were making the trek with us) were waiting. 

We weren't the only people making such a visit; there seemed to be several families visiting graves. The cemetery was still festooned with the adornments from the Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints' Day), and as we walked up to the very back, where Lico is buried alongside his grandparents, I saw a few candles burning at graves, evidence of recent visits. We made our way up the sloping footpaths and around and over graves, and finally came to where Lico was buried alongside his grandparents. Mila (Emilia), Lico's mother, directed the others. We put our bags on top of the graves, and I could smell the scent of fried chicken coming emanating from one of the bags. Candles were placed on the ground at the foot of both graves -- slim white and yellow tapers -- and then lit.  Then Emilia explained that it was traditional to share some food with the person who had died (I already knew this but it was fine to have it explained again). So, we opened up the packages of fried chicken and tortillas, and then everyone realized that there were no plates. However, they had brought styrofoam cups for the soda, but there were a lot more cups than people, so I suggested that we serve the chicken in cups, which seemed to work. A plate was put on the grave for Lico, and a cup of orange soda. When we were done (we didn't tarry all that long), Mila took the cup and spilled the soda somewhat purposefully over the grave, and removed the food plate (I had thought she might leave it there, but apparently not), and then we packed up and walked down and went back home.

Today, on the actual anniversary, the family was not going to have a large commemoration. They had done that on the 9-month anniversary, but Lorenzo told me that they had invited a lot of people and it was very costly, and they were not going to be able to repeat that because of limited resources. In addition, Lorenzo's aunt died this past week while visiting family in the U.S., and so the family's resources would have to go towards helping prepare the funeral for her. Lorenzo told me that there would be just a few people and that they would do a prayer sometime in the afternoon. I asked when, and he said around 4 (it turned out to be much later, sometime after six, but I've learned that times are usually approximate in Guatemala). I made sure I got back here, and found only Emilia with one of her granddaughters tied to her back, arranging flowers. I tried to be useful by cleaning up some of the stems and leaves that she had removed, but then repaired to the other room to do some work.

A lay religious leader from their church came -- they called him Padre but he is not an ordained priest -- and we gathered in a half circle around the altar, where Emilia had placed four large arrangements of flowers. The altar has always been in a corner of the large room where the youngest daughter Paty sleeps, that doubles as a living room when necessary, and where I sleep when I am here, on the sofa. But since Lico's death the altar has become his memorial. There is a large vinyl banner with Lico's picture on it, as well as some smaller photos on the altar itself. There is always at least one candle burning on the altar, and tonight Lorenzo had brought in a brazier filled with incense, the smoke from which filled all the corners of the room. 

The "service", if one can call it that, was very simple. It was mostly in Q'anjob'al so I didn't understand much. Lorenzo explained (in Spanish) my role in the story of Lico's death -- it's become part of the family folklore, that the last of many good deeds that Lico performed in his life was to get my car out of the ditch so I could go visit my friends. Then the Padre started some prayers, and then everyone kneeled and each person prayed aloud in his or her own way, simultaneously. This seems to be a characteristic of charismatic Catholicism -- that instead of a service that follows a specific and set pattern, with a priest leading and the congregation only responding when requested, everyone prays aloud in his or her own way, often with their voices rising at an emotional pitch, imploring and beseeching God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit (the prayers often mix some Spanish and Mayan languages - the various terms used to address "God" and "Jesus" and "the Holy Spirit" are usually spoken in Spanish and pretty much everything else in Q'anjob'al, at least here. 

After a while, this died down and then the Padre led everyone in the Lord's prayer, and Hail Mary, and then it was over. We got up off our knees, someone opened the doors to air out the room, and we repaired to the kitchen to eat.