A little over a week ago, I received a message on Facebook from Sandra, one of the women I'd befriended six years ago when I was in Guatemala and working with the women's organization Ixmukané. Sandra was on staff of Ixmukané back then, and although she has long since left the organization, we stayed in touch intermittently. She is married to the son of Doña Matilde, one of the women whose political campaign I had helped with back in 2011, and Doña Mati's daughter Yanet also became a good friend, so on the occasions that I've visited Quiché since then, I've nearly always stopped to visit Doña Mati and her family.
But I hadn't heard from Sandra for a long time and nothing prepared me for the message she was sending. I was standing on the sidewalk outside a Sri Lankan restaurant in Staten Island, and a message popped up on my phone. "Liza murió Kan." (Lisa, Kan died). I started at the screen in disbelief, and then typed back, "Qué pasó? No lo creo," I replied (What happened? I don't believe it).
Kan was one of several young people who worked for the organization during the year I spent in Guatemala. He was bright, funny, and we became good friends. He was technically adept, and so he was often helping out at the radio station that the organization had set up, making sure that equipment was connected properly, helping soundproof the studio, and so forth. We spent a lot of time together, since I volunteered at the station, and often wound up talking about music. We exchanged a lot of MP3s; he turned me on to Guatemalan reggae groups like Barrio Candela and Mexican rock groups like Molotov, and I gave him American music. Rancheras -- a kind of traditional Mexican ballad, often with very sentimental lyrics about love, betrayal and despair -- are popular in Guatemala and most community radio stations have at least one show devoted to rancheras. Kan and I used to improvise our own lyrics, and imitate the "grito mexicano" (a kind of howl that is done during the breaks in the song). We joked and teased and laughed and were often very, very silly, but also had some serious conversations about Guatemala and Mayan culture, among other things.
But like many young Maya I met in Guatemala, Kan was both conversant with and a fan of global popular culture, and at the same time deeply committed to traditional Maya culture. He was a member of a men's dance group that performed the "Baile de los Toritos" (the dance of the little bulls), a traditional dance that is performed at the patron-saint feast in Chichicastenango, his home town. He invited me to attend a rehearsal for the dance. But it was hardly what most of us would consider a "rehearsal." It was actually a performance, although the dancers were not costumed. It was a huge event, held in a large house with an open patio, which was used as a dance floor. There were over a hundred guests, seated around the performance space, and the Guatemalan version of valet parking (a few guys helping people maneuver their cars into very limited space).
The event was broadcast on one of the local radio stations, and there were many visiting dignitaries, such as elders from some of the cofradías (cofraternities -- nominally Christian brotherhoods but in the Mayan highlands they have been a way of keeping Mayan spirituality and traditions alive). Most of the dancers appeared to be in their 30s, 40s or even older, so Kan was one of the younger participants. During breaks he introduced me to his parents, and an aunt and uncle who were sponsoring him in the dance group, and made sure that I got moved inside into the room with the dignitaries so I could eat lunch at a table (and not balancing a bowl and plate on my lap). At one point he pulled me out onto the floor to dance with him, handing me a rattle and instructing me in the steps. I asked him if he was sure it was okay, since it is a men's dance and no other women were out on the dance floor; he assured me it was.
On another occasion, I invited Kan and a slew of the other young people from Ixmukané to Antigua, where I was renting a room in a lovely, large house. They actually invited themselves, and I consented (I later paid the price as my housemates were not thrilled at having 8 or 9 young Guatemalans sprawled on the living room floor, and at least one was intoxicated to the point of silliness). The next day we wandered the streets and came upon a marimba group playing on Fifth Avenue, which is closed off to vehicular traffic on the weekends. Kan started to dance and again pulled me out to dance with him. Those are some of my fondest memories of him.
Later, he ended up leaving Ixmukané -- the director of the organization (who happened to be his aunt) was somewhat exigent, and there was a fair amount of turnover. I don't actually know whether his departure was his idea or hers, but he told me he was going to work in his family's business, which was dyeing threads for weaving.
After I returned to the U.S., although I have returned to Guatemala at least twice a year since I haven't been to Quiché that often, and I'd only kept in touch with Kan very sporadically. He had become quite interested in photography and so I would see some of his work, but we didn't have much direct contact.
But Kan had always seemed -- at least in my memories -- lively and full of life, so I was shocked to learn that he had died. According to Sandra, he had been drinking for several days, and then authorities found his body in a car parked on the street somewhere in Chichicastenango.. She sent me a link to a news article from a local source, confirming that Kan's body had been found. Within an hour, at least two other people whom I had befriended during that year in Guatemala wrote to me to tell me about Kan's death. When I got home, I went through my photographs and found a few of Kan -- one at the inauguration of the radio station, and another at the dance rehearsal that I described above, and posted them on his Facebook page, which had by then become a memorial page. I wrote short notes to his sister Ixchel, and his cousin Lucero, both of whom were friends of mine.
When I got to Guatemala, I determined that I wanted to go to Chichi to see Kan's parents and express my condolences in person. Since I was spending several days in Antigua, I decided that the best thing would be to take one of the many tourist shuttles that leave Antigua and make the round trip to Chichicastenango on market days, since I didn't have other plans to be in Quiché and I didn't want to schlep my suitcase around or have to find a place to stay, and the tourist shuttles are usually more comfortable than inter-city Guatemalan buses, which are most often converted school buses. So I checked with Ixchel to see if her parents would be able to see me on Thursday (which is one of the market days) and then I booked a ride through my guesthouse and set off for Chichi.
Unfortunately the transport workers in Quiché had blocked the highways for a couple of hours and so we were held up for about 45 minutes, which cut my time short, but I was able to find Kan's parents and spend just a few minutes with them; they were busy with errands, so we stood in the lobby of a small shopping center and talked for a little while. For the first time since I'd learned of Kan's death I was able to cry for him, looking at the faces of his parents. He was the oldest of five. "Se nos adelantó" was how they expressed it. "He went on before us" or "He went ahead of us." The grief was clearly inscribed on their faces. They told me that they had learned how much he had been loved and how many lives he had touched through his photography -- since there weren't many professional photographs in Chichicastenango, he had been able to earn some money by going to weddings, parties, birthdays, and taking photographs for people.
I only had a few hours before getting on the bus back to Antigua, but I was able to spend a little time with another of my friends from 2011, a woman named Sebastiana, who was leading a workshop on community organizing. And I had tea with Kan's sister Ixchel, who still seemed deeply shaken by what had happened. They had a close relationship - he was the oldest, and she was the second child.
Although it's been some years since I've seen him, it's still hard to believe that he's gone. As I walked through the crowded market of Chichi, or as I walk through Antigua, I see a young man who for a moment reminds me of Kan.