by Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez
Edited by Fernando Penalosa and Janet Sawyer
A MAYAN LIFE is the first novel ever by a Mayan writer, and thus the first in which the Maya themselves tell their own story. Through the eyes of Lwin, living in the hamlet of Jolomk'u, in the municipio of San Pedro Soloma, high up in the isolated Cuchumat n Mountains of Guatemala (about six hours by dirt road from the nearest town), we live the drama of an oppressed people struggling to survive and maintain their dignity five centuries after the Spanish invasion. Rich in personal and ethnological detail, the reader comes away knowing better just what it means to be a contemporary Maya. San Pedro Soloma is also an important source of immigration to the United States. Many Solomeros live in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas and elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Gaspar Pedro Gonz�lez is a graduate of Universidad Mariano Galvez and an official of the Ministry of Culture of Guatemala.
It all began when the gods inscribed their great signs on the stelae of time. It was on the day Thirteen Ajaw.
Jolomk'u, according to the stories of the grandparents, was the name of a village situated on a tall ridge among a multitude of hills and mountains. It was a colorful village, woven with the work of men and women, with their lives, illusions and failures. Cold air rode freely among the savage hills, coming face to face with the people of Jolomk'u.
In the shadow of the wings of Ajaw, the manifestation of the great God, night fell. Soon the dark contours of the high mountains appeared like giants in the night. It was a night of a thousand centuries of history. It didn't seem to be the same wind, the same night, the same contours. It seemed that Ajaw was aging among the pines and that his hands had lost the ability to sculpt life on indecipherable stelae. The moon, like a great eye in the night, came sailing over dark waves of sleepy clouds. It shone its great gaze at Jolomk'u. It tried to pull aside the storm clouds to cast its light on the sleeping landscape. The silhouetted mountain slopes were sprinkled with gamboling lambs. The night closed the sheepfold and then opened the door to stars flying toward the great heights like thousands of fireflies.
In the shifting lights of the evening, the men of Jolomk'u found themselves alone. One by one they lit pitch pine slivers in the huts, until the village was full of the spattering of smoking firebrands that made the crickets cry. A chorus of dogs barked, intoning their protests against the unannounced strange rustling noises of the nawales, the local evil spirits, terrifying the living, coming out to prowl over their realm. Along the roads some girls out late with their clay water pots ran furtively toward the spring for a fleeting encounter with their boyfriends hiding in the thickets. A brook ran down quietly through the village, spraying watercress, nightshade and water, mint and water into the open mouths of the amorous girls' water pots. There, right by the bend of the brook, before it hastened over the precipice and ran through a small plain on the highest part of Jolomk'u, Mekel had built his little wattle-and-daub house with a straw roof and oak posts, from which hung armadillo shells. In the stillness of that night, Mekel's wife, Lotaxh, struggled with birth pangs. She was alone in the house, in a cold sweat, the drops of pain like an approaching rainstorm. When Mekel arrived and put down his load of firewood, he found his wife gripping one of the posts. He didn't know if he felt happiness, pity or sorrow coursing through his veins. What he was sure of was that his son would arrive this night, clinging to the fingers of Ajaw.
"Go call Ewul. It's time," said Lotaxh. Mekel put on his light sandals with their soles made of tire treads, took his machete and set off with his capixay jacket on his shoulder toward the nearby village where Ewul lived. He ran like a deer, jumping over the underbrush, taking shortcuts, racing over the paths, climbing the slopes until he arrived at the waterfall, beyond the great rocks, almost to the edge of the pine groves where the virgin forest began.
"Hello there," cried out Mekel in front of the little straw- covered house. A dog barked lazily, accustomed to the midwife's numerous daily visitors. "Yes" answered a woman's voice from inside the hut.
"It's me, doña Ewul. I came to get you because my wife's labor pains started around midday," he said.
"All right, just a moment. You should have told me sooner. Malku," called the woman, "Get me artemisia and peric¢n herbs, chicken fat and the bottle of liquor. Hurry, because we may get there too late."
Mekel wiped his sweaty forehead and neck with the sleeve of his capixay. Meanwhile in Jolomk'u, Lotaxh, a young woman accustomed to pain and work, with strong arms like a grinding stone, grasped one of the pine stakes attached to one corner of the pole bed. Her survival instincts had led her to prepare an adequate place for her child to be born in case she did not have the midwife's help. She had stretched a straw mat over the earth and some old clothes on the mat, forming a nest. On one side the fire was like an eye slowly shutting an ashen lid. Some chickens complained under the pole bed because Lotaxh's moans kept them awake. In the lulls between waves of pain, she pondered, "My God, I hope that the fox's howl I heard this morning isn't a bad omen." Unraveling like a skein of thread in her mind were the advice and instructions of the women she had spoken with regarding childbirth.
Outside the hut the cold was intense, but Lotaxh was still sweating, sinking her fingernails into the trunk and tearing off the bark. Three hours had passed and the laboring woman's strength was waning, just like the dying flames. A candle hanging from the sooty walls flickered, begging for more fuel, before it was swallowed up by the invading darkness.
It seemed that everything was coming to an end. Her pale face was like a tender avocado leaf, her breath sometimes quickening and sometimes imperceptible. Her eyes saw everything spinning around: the candle dying, the hearth spinning, the barks always more distant. She was about to lose consciousness, curled up on her straw mat on the hard soil of black clay, when Mekel came in all out of breath and sweaty. The steam rose from his body through the holes in his shirt like the vapors of the sweat bath. A little while later, Ewul arrived accompanied by a boy about ten years old, her helper in the preparation of medicines and incense.
"Leave me alone with her," she said to Mekel.
The boy began to make a fire in a smaller hut outside. He made some beverages from the herbs that he carried in his bag, first using the chicken fat along with the bottle of liquor.
Mekel put on his capixay to calm his nerves, which he found difficult to control. He blew on the fire with all his might to get some light. He didn't want to think in the dark, because specters with unpleasant faces appeared out of the darkness. He spoke to the boy in order to feel less alone, but he did not answer. He hunkered down to listen to the night tiptoeing like the brook that ran beside his house.
A long time went by. The moon had changed position. The morning frost had fallen. A cry shattered the great silence, crashing against Mekel's pricked-up ears. It shattered the chicken's sleep under the pole beds, reverberated in the alert ears of the nodding dogs, shook the thousand-year-old mountains, and ran through the nerve centers of all of Jolomk'u.
Ewul was a woman about fifty years old, hair still black, few signs of the passage of time on her face, large flat feet with calluses caused by so much squatting on the straw mats, firm hands used to holding the naked first-fruit of the women of that region. She took the infant in her hands, cut the umbilical cord, cleaned it as a matter of professional routine and wrapped the child in diapers made of Mekel's old pants and Lotaxh's guipiles. Then she wrapped the child in an old wool capixay whose stiff hairs made the child cry when he felt them against his delicate skin. He was a Maya, so he needed to become accustomed to discomfort right from the start. The midwife continued her work. She formed the head, giving it a round shape like a lump of clay. She went over the curve of the nose, the fingers, the arms, the legs and the placement of the fontanel. Then she put a round red cap on him and drawing him close to her, she blew mouth to mouth, three breaths that came from the roots of Ewul's lungs, of all of the Mayas of all ages, drawn from the root of time like a symbol of the life and the inheritance of the ancestors. The child cried apprehensively, his body shaking in the cold-filled night. The cry reverberated across the valleys, and through the canyon gorges. It went snaking among the huts, and withdrew into distant time, searching out its origins in his first ancestor's initial cry of pain.
Ewul went out to spread the word that everything had gone well. She asked for censing: coals and incense to send smoke throughout the house. She smoked a corn-husk cigarette to soothe her throat after work well done. She spoke hardly at all. That same night on the headboard of the mother and her son were hung the tools appropriate for a successful adult life: machete, ax, hoe, carrying strap, rope. Everything that a man needed in Jolomk'u.
Lotaxh fell into a deep sleep. It was dawn and the others had settled down to sleep where they could, warming the stretch of cold earth under their ribs with the weight of their tiredness, like a daily rehearsal for death and intimate union with the earth. The bubbling of a clay pot on the hearthstones was the only thing that could be heard when dawn came to the house. Almost everyone slept. Mekel was the only one still working. The gnarled feet of a dark- fleshed rooster poked out of the pot, which kept boiling on the hearthstones.
Next to the fire he warmed his thoughts like swaddling clothes to wrap his firstborn. With the first rays of dawn some women arrived with small gifts of food. Those that came empty-handed, because they found nothing to bring from their empty bowls, washed clothes, went to the spring for water, swept the house, washed dishes, cooked food. The men brought firewood. Some brought a few pounds of corn or beans as a gesture of support.
A large firecracker had announced the birth, spread by word of mouth way beyond the edges of the village. Family members and neighbors arrived in haste, shaking the sleep off their feet. The grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles, godparents and friends all arrived. There was a party at Mekel's.
As the symbolic source of life and breath of many children of that region, the midwife drew on her authority to announce in official tones before all those present the news that hung like a question mark over the people.
"We give thanks to God Our Father because he has blessed this family with the birth of a male son without complications," she said.
Smiles blossomed on those faces, teeth showing like white corn, breaking out in the laughter of the collective joy.
The eldest man of the family, relieved of the numbness of the cramps in his joints, wearing a red kerchief on his head, and holding a cane made from a twisted root, got up to approach the hearth. He dug a hole under the ashes and without saying a word, wrapped up something in kanac leaves, tied it up with a bit of corn husk and then covered it by tossing the ashes over it. It was the newborn's umbilical cord. Thirteen Ajaw had left his realm. Now it was One Imox, the sacred day for improving family life, neighborly relations and work. It is also a good day to pray to God for health, life and work. That day there was a family council to plan the celebration of the first festival in honor of the newborn: ox q'in, which should take place the third day after birth. It involved the selection of the child's godparents and the selection of the logically predetermined name, that of the paternal grandfather, as the parents well knew. Another matter that would have to be taken care of was registering the birth at the town hall.
The scribe, or ajtz'ib', was the most trusted person in the community, not only because of his ability to read and write but also because of his friendships with Ladinos. For these reasons, Mekel asked him to go to town with him to obtain a birth certificate for the child.
They left Jolomk'u long before the sun showed its face at the gateway to the horizon. Before the offices opened they were waiting their turn in the hallway. The morning air combed the tops of the bushes that grew in the town square. Every once in a while a man entrusted with telling time would strike a bell hanging in front of the town hall eight times.
The offices are about to open, commented the scribe, talking to himself.
Forty-five more minutes went by and people began arriving at the town hall for various reasons: disputes, land division, domestic quarrels, permits for cutting trees, or complaints of Ladino cheating. Then the town secretary was seen coming down one of the cobblestone streets, a mournful figure in black capixay and pants, his tight belt making him look like a gourd divided in two and tied in the middle with a cord. He was a man getting moldy among the books of that old town hall. He had been the secretary since time immemorial and knew his way through all the maze of those books and of his calling, especially the daily chores.
Good morning, Mr. Secretary, greeted Mekel, hat in hand.
The man went into his office without acknowledging Mekel, leaving behind him the stench of tobacco, although he did not carry any lighted cigarette at that moment. It was like the odor of those shelves of old books.
Mekel wanted to go in, but a confrontational policeman with a scar on his face from a machete wound, stopped him by pushing him out.
Come back another day. Today the secretary isn't going to see anybody, he said. Didn't you know that today is Columbus Day? It's a holiday, he concluded.
But, it's that ... began the scribe.
You stupid Indian, didn't I tell you today is a holiday?
Actually, that day was just one among many that the local authorities had declared to be a holiday.
Returning to their village, the scribe and Mekel were commenting that they would undoubtedly be fined for not having applied for the birth certificate within the stipulated time. Mekel, who was not well informed about such matters, asked his companion:
What holiday is this Columbus Day, sir?
Friend Mekel, to us Mayas many things have not been revealed. Our world is not the world of the Ladinos; our holidays are not their holidays; our lives develop along different lines. We don't have the same vision of life: theirs is one way and ours another. Race, nationality or so-called national identity, means belonging to something or to a group, to be part of it, do you understand?
Yes, I understand.
After a holiday it was customary for the town officials to replace their lost energy and cure their headaches with another day off.
Days later, they went to the mayor's office to try again. They weren't allowed to go into the town secretary's smoky office until after midday, when the sun had changed its angle and the roosters announced the time with a song to the wind. There were a lot of people in the corridors waiting their turn, swallowing their boredom with yawns. Mekel, hat in hand, nervously approached the secretary.
Good afternoon, he said. At his side stood the scribe.
What do you want? asked the secretary churlishly.
Sir, said the scribe, A few days ago this man's wife gave birth to a son. Exactly five days ago, he said.
And why did you wait until now to register the birth?
Sir, you yourself told us it was a holiday, said Mekel.
That's not my fault. To get the kid's birth certificate you have to bring three sheets of legal paper, the midwife's identity card; the father's identity card and his signature or two witnesses, if he's unable to sign his name. Oh yes! I forgot to tell you that since more than three days have elapsed, there'll be a charge of five quetzales per day, you know.
But sir, we're very poor, Mekel began.
That's your problem, the law is the law.
The ajtz'ib' intervened, saying that they had run out of legal paper in town, but that they were willing to pay the value of the paper and as far as the identity card of the midwife was concerned, she was a Mayan woman, and so she didn't have such a document.
Why didn't you look for someone in town, like from the health center? asked the secretary.
Sir, our long-standing custom is that it should be someone from our own people, because we have certain ceremonies that others don't know how to perform. Our women don't trust outsiders. Everyone is born like this.
The secretary used his imagination astutely in order to think up a pretext to inflate the final bill. Pretending to be benevolent with the worried villagers, he pulled out an old book, opened it like the leaves of old squeaky doors and began to thumb through it. He pretended to study the legal possibilities of that complicated case like a serious legal eagle.
You're the father of the boy? he asked Mekel.
Yes, sir, he answered hastily.
What name are you going to give him? he asked.
Well, we want to give him my dad's name, according to our customs. What do you think?
Oh no! Forget that foolishness. That's why we have an almanac. Having said that, he went up to a calendar hanging on the wall, dirty from being touched so much, and looked for the date of birth and then said: It was the day of St. Serapius. But if you insist on giving him your father's name, then we'll have to make certain legal arrangements, he said.
Please, Mr. secretary, we want to name him Lwin and his father is named Mekel, so that his name would be Pedro Miguel, interposed the scribe.
Well, I'll do everything I can for you, but it's just one more thing, and you know that it's not easy to change the law. Wait outside.
After a boring hour Mekel and his companion were called in. The secretary read in a Spanish that limped into Mekel's ears, the paper with the name of Lwin Mekel, changed to Pedro Miguel for the Ladinos, planted like his umbilical cord. It was one more link in the line of Lwins and Mekels from Jolomk'u. The secretary finished reading and brought Mekel a stamp pad, took his stiffened right thumb, lifted it, and led it like a blind man to stamp his thumb print on the paper that he had just read.
Well, son, he said in an affable tone, It's all set.
Thank you, Mr. secretary. Excuse me, how much is it? asked Mekel.
Well, for you, and considering that the elections are coming up, I'll ask for a little help. Let me have twenty-five bucks.
Mekel, putting his hat on the floor, looked down into his string shoulder bag, pulled out a knotted handkerchief and took out a few bills. Before counting them one by one, he spit on his fingers so that not a single one would escape his count. He managed to scrape together the twenty-five with the change that lay piled on top of the bills.
Next! said the secretary.
The second day after Lwin's birth, Two Iq', had been the day to look for godparents for the child. Mekel, the father, along with the paternal grandparents made a journey that evening to the village where lived Maltin Nolaxh and his wife Lolen Tumaxh, who had been selected as the godparents.
The sun was falling like a great comet over the crests of the mountains that surrounded Jolomk'u, when the small retinue set out, carrying small bundles of pitch pine to light their return, and each carrying a machete like an extra limb. Over the narrow road, actually nothing more than a path, they went one after another, one woman stumbling barefoot behind the men. They had to hurry, because the night was quickly swallowing up the day. They took shortcuts to reach the mountain and arrive quickly at their destination. There they found some workers returning to their huts for the night, who greeted them as they passed by. On their backs they were carrying firewood with their tools on top, all supported by carrying straps across their foreheads. Nearby, a lover whistled a melancholy tune like an evening serenade for some girl from the neighborhood, putting all his emotion into the sad whistle. The group devoured the paths with their callused feet, accustomed to conquering long distances. They passed groups of adobe houses that kept them company along the way. Some dogs came out to bark at them there, jealously guarding their territory, the owners quieting them by throwing at them whatever was within reach. After responding to the travelers' greetings, the people returned hurriedly to the hearth that gave them warmth and smoke under the straw roofs. Their comfort was to sit on hard three-legged benches, stir up the fire, clean the chiles in the depths of a clay bowl and smear them on hot tortillas to make them tasty. Their eyes watered on account of the chile, which stimulated their hunger and made them devour the corn tortillas. But above all their tears were over the lack of opportunity to change the disagreeable situation in which they spent their lives.
Inside the hut, the travellers heard the slap, slap of women's hands making tortillas to fill the stomachs of their crying children, struggling to keep their eyes open in the smoke.
The grandmother lagged behind the group, as her feet were losing the habit and the ability to conquer the road. The years weighed on her steps. They sat down to wait for her on the edge of the road, which was now only dimly seen in the night. It was the highest part of the mountain and they pulled out their cigarettes of corn husks to fill their dry mouths with smoke and saliva, and allow the grandmother time to get back her strength. They sat on some rocks like fireflies as they lit and then snuffed out their cigarettes. At their feet the village appeared like stars fallen from the sky. Each little hut was a light that came on, each home smoky with crying children.
Let's go on, said the grandmother.
Shall I light the pitch pine? asked Mekel.
No, not for me, she said. This old lady sees better at night than in the day, she said.
Upon entering the hamlet, they were welcomed by dogs that came out to bark, setting off all the dogs of the neighborhood.
Mekel banged his machete against a stick or a rock to scare away the animals that would not leave the strangers alone. Arriving at their destination they called:
Who is it?
Good evening, it's us.
A maimed dog, which had its tail and ears mutilated so that it wouldn't get rabies, threatened them so loudly that it was impossible to hear. He rushed forth impetuously until the owner threw a rock to drive him off amidst growling and barking.
Come on in. We're sorry the animals have bothered you and almost bitten you. We've been giving chile to that poor dog and that's why he's gotten so mean.
After greeting the people in the house, they sat down on the little wooden benches offered them, taking places around the hearth, which projected light and heat. They invited the grandmother to take her place next to the women near the grinding stone, facing the men. She sat on a mat next to the women. There was a woman attached to the grinding stone as though it were all of one piece with her, moving rhythmically, using the stone to crush the grains, which became a soft dough, which able hands then made into round lumps. These would end up on a griddle which cast an eclipse from the fire over the people. The griddle, a real bright red, cooked the round bubbly tortillas like craters on a big full moon. Cigarette smoke was flying, and the conversation was animated, touching on the work, scarcity and poverty which filled their lives. During pauses in the conversation, one could hear the crunch, crunch of the grinding stone .
Maltin Nolaxh stirred the fire, pushing pieces of burning, smoking wood under the clay griddle, which was supported by the hearth stones. Between the hearthstones were the simmering pots of black bean soup and thick corn gruel. Corn, beans and chile linked through time in long chains of generations eating only corn, beans and chile. From time to time, they varied the routine with wild vegetables: colinabos, nightshade, amaranth and watercress.
The basket was filled with tortillas, hot off the griddle. The woman brought a clay pot with warm water for people to wash their hands. The host invited the visitors to make use of the water, which went from hand to hand, followed by a little bit of water to rinse out their mouths, which they spat into the corners of the house. They dried their hands on their coat sleeves or on their mended pants, which had patches over the patches. They held the clay pots with beans at the bottom with one hand and with the other they emptied the basket of hot tortillas, which increased the heat of the chile in their mouths.
Eat, take some of our Mother Corn, please, said the host from time to time. They blew on their hands as though they were gaining strength each time they took the tortillas, as a sign of respect to Mother Corn.
Thank you, they answered, here we are eating our sacred corn, thank you very much, they repeated.
A child who had been nodding as he slept over in a corner awoke. Crying, he timidly went to lie down on his mat, which was stretched out in the corner. Tattered blankets with holes in them were stretched over the slumbering child, blankets where the cold of the night went in and out. That child was not the exception, but rather was representative of the life of Jolomk'u and all the Mayan villages of the region.
Upon finishing supper they gave thanks to one another with their hands together, emphasizing with burps how satisfied and full they were and how appreciative of the family's services.
Thank you, they said. May God bless you.
I hope you've eaten well, that you're not still hungry. It's your own fault if you didn't eat enough, insisted the hosts.
We've eaten. Our Mother Corn knows that we don't disdain her. You are very kind.
Once more they passed around the little bowl of lukewarm water to rinse out their mouths. Again they touched the firebrands to the ends of their corn husk cigarettes, and men and women let out smoke through their mouths and noses. Then the visitors began explaining the purpose of their late night visit. The grandfather of the newborn, a man with a face lined by the years, with two scanty wisps of whiskers that came down like moss over his trembling lips, was the one who passed out the cigarettes. He passed the smoking brand to each one and waited for each one to light his cigarette. Waiting for the appropriate moment, he spit vigorously, making an arc in the air and then spoke:
The great God that holds up the four corners of the world, like pillars of the universe, who is with us in nature and gives life by the air we breathe, light by Father Sun, life by Mother Earth and water, has permitted a male child be born to my son and his wife, under the protection of our father Thirteen Ajaw. Considering our poverty and humble condition, we have decided to ask you to have pity on us and accept the responsibility of being godparents to our little grandson, because of your exemplary life and your friendship with our family, said the old man.
Don Maltin, do“a Lolen, interrupted the grandmother, forgive us if on some occasion we haven't shown you all the respect you deserve. Perhaps our children have not greeted you on the road or have not doffed their hat to you, or our animals have trespassed onto your cornfield or your land. These are situations beyond our control. Forgive us. We've chosen you because you are ordinary folks like us, and your example will serve as a guide to our grandchild.
We're really happy that the child was born without any problems and that the mother has recovered satisfactorily, said Maltin Nolaxh. Really, there's no dearth of problems and complications, especially in such cases. Above all, if it is the first child, the mother has to be very careful not to go uncovered, nor to touch cold water until she has bathed in the sweat bath. As far as being godparents to the child, we appreciate your choosing us very much. Our merits are very limited, but we can't refuse the honor you do us, for our elders' tradition tells us that it's our duty to accept with pleasure. My wife and I thank you.
In view of the fact that you have done us the great favor of agreeing to be the child's godparents, a thousand thanks from us, said Mekel, and according to our customs, we'll expect you tomorrow in our home to celebrate the child's ox q'in in a simple way.
The night was gnawing away at time like rats gnawing on ears of corn stored in an attic. They spoke of the care of the child and of the mother: eye diseases, avoiding hot-blooded people, who should not see the baby, what herbs to prepare for the sweat bath, the incense in the corners to scare away the nawales so they couldn't take over the child's soul, the clothing that shouldn't be left out in the night air to avoid frightening the newborn, the warming of the head, the tying of the feet and hands of the little one so he would be a calm man in the future, avoiding, if possible, getting near pregnant women, drunks, or overheated people. At night they should leave crosses made of pitch pine behind the doors, tie a bag of seven herbs wrapped in red cloth around the neck of the child, and tie the navel so that it won't pop out when he cries, and thus in his adult life he will be able to carry heavy loads in his daily work. They should give the mother enough artemisia, alucema, peric€n, and chicken soup with lots of mint. Furthermore, she shouldn't lack chile at each meal for warmth and cups of boiled yellow corn meal, so that she would have plenty of milk for the child day and night, until he reached the age of two. To keep the little one from vomiting, it was recommended that the mother should drink a cup of liquor from time to time, which would also avoid indigestion.
Before going to bed they lit pitch pine torches dripping with turpentine. Then they said good-bye and opened a path through the dense night. The dogs that were beginning to fall asleep, coiled up on their flanks, suddenly stretched out, and started to bark in a contagious chorus of protest.
There were three celebrations in honor of each person in Jolomk'u. Ox q'in was the first, and it was held the third day after birth to give thanks for life to the great God.
Relatives, neighbors, and friends began to get together at Mekel's house. Happiness shone across their faces, a respite from the daily work and pain. They momentarily left their sorrow, their struggle, and their exhaustion hanging in their houses. The men brought firewood, corn and beans. The women offered their empty hands to do housework. They slaughtered chickens, washed the new mother's clothes, blew like bellows on the sleepy fires under the griddles, ground corn on the stone, or made tortillas near the fire like a perpetually applauding audience.
All wore tattered but clean clothes instead of the tattered work clothes left on their beds. They welcomed each man as he noisily dropped off his load of firewood in the patio and wiped off his sweat, and gave him a small cup of coffee made of toasted corn with brown sugar. Real coffee was drunk only when one went to work at the fincas. On one side were the men, on the other the women. Conversations developed regarding their daily work, sick relatives, the harvest, and trucks full of people falling into ravines.
The women blew like bellows on the fire. The children cried endlessly, fussy from so much smoke. The older ones ran around happily outdoors, knowing that they would eat well that day. Finally, after so long there would be meat, something whose taste they had forgotten. They ran from one side to the other, their hunger awakened by the smell of the boiling pots. They entered to look furtively at the pots on the hearthstones, went running out again, dreaming of chewing on a bone or eating a bowl of soup.
Inside the house they set up rustic planks to serve as seats for the guests. People kept arriving and those that didn't fit inside stayed outside. In one corner, the mother, with her head tied in a white kerchief, was lying down with the child. She had changed her clothes too. She had put on the white g∏ipil that she used on Sundays to go to town, along with her marbled wraparound skirt, and a checkered cloth as protection against the cold. For the first time, her son was wearing diapers, made from Mekel's old pants. His colorful hand-woven cap with a design dominated by red, and so good for protecting newborns from the evil eye, was closed at the crown like the peaks of the straw roofs.
Ox q'in was the public presentation of the newborn. No one else had met him yet except his mother and the midwife.
At the crossroads near the entrance to the house they had built an arch with pacaya leaves and green pine boughs adorned with wild flowers hung according to Mayan aesthetics. The children were delighted with their job as watchmen, playing around as they waited under the large arch full of patas de gallo and other flowers. One of the children ran to announce the news: The godparents are here. Actually, the couple was just then coming down the path that went across the river.
Tie up the dogs, someone suggested. The dogs had actually been tied up since dawn.
Mekel went out to receive the godparents under the arch, without letting go of his machete. The women milled around doing housework, the children ran from one side to another, the grandparents raised themselves lazily on their arthritic legs, relying on the strength of their canes. After the exchange of greetings between the godparents and the family, they came into the house. On a rustic table were some candles with restless flames in front of wooden crosses. There was a pot without ears stuffed with flowers of all colors.
The new arrivals went discretely to the crosses, which had a picture of the Sacred Heart on one side and a Virgin with Child on the other side. The images could barely be made out under the layer of smoke and time. They kneeled down and, after kissing the earth, brought two large candles out of a bag, passed them in front of the crosses and the saints, muttering prayers through their teeth. After a short while they got up and went to the corner where the mother and child were, surrounded by the torn blankets that warmed their cold nights. They greeted Lotaxh and exchanged a few routine remarks and then went to their place on the planks that served as chairs. The ajtz'ib', the midwife, the diviner, and the paternal and maternal grandparents were seated there along with some neighbors and friends. It was a good opportunity to demonstrate the esteem and unity of the community. While they waited for the food, they passed the time discussing events of interest to the group. The diviner commented that this year there wouldn't be enough rain and that the cornfields wouldn't produce the needed harvests, and consequently, the price of a measure of corn would probably double.
The midwife found it alarming that the nurses of the public health centers were requiring pregnant women to attend classes on birth control. In order to get rations of corn, oil, milk, as well as medical attention for their children, they had to participate in these programs and use various methods contrary to their usual customs. And they suspected that the products they were given contained something to sterilize them so they would have no more children.
They are always inventing new techniques for doing away with us, said the ajtz'ib'. Over time, and one way or another they try to negate our existence, either physically or culturally. If you consider all the health, education, agriculture, and development programs, they are nothing more than instruments of alienation and a pretext for getting big loans from other countries. A friend who knows a lot about this told me not long ago that our great-great-grandchildren will already be in debt before they are born. They never take into account what we really need, nor do they ask us what we want and how we want them to do things.
No one else felt like expressing an opinion after hearing the ajtz'ib', and, to change the subject, the paternal grandfather stood up with his hands clasped together and said:
We thank God, who is the sole owner of our lives, who has kept us alive this morning and I'd like to thank you who are with us. Please have a tortilla.
Thank you, everyone said.
Have some food, Lotaxh, said the godmother. Put lots of chile on your food so your milk won't get cold.
The adults ate inside the house, the children on the porch, climbing up on the stacks of firewood or on the ground, whatever way they could get comfortable enough to enjoy that chicken soup with its wings or necks that they sucked clean. One woman began to serve seconds on soup. Most bowls were filled and there was a pile of tortillas for each group of people. The mothers masticated for the smallest ones, who opened their mouths like baby birds getting their lumps of food.
It was a motley group of people dispelling their hunger. The women who hadn't found straw mats sat on their feet talking to one another.
Please eat, the hosts repeated again and again.
A boy had been born.
The people held their clay dishes on their knees with both hands, raising them to their mouths. The hot chile made their tongues curl.
How did you get the chickens for this party? the midwife asked the group of women eating in a corner. Where we live, nobody has even one chicken.
You poor things, said another woman. That's because of the disease that came through here about two years ago, and if it starts up again, it's almost sure to wipe out our animals one more time.
Well, if it's a disease, one can accept it, said the godmother.
So it wasn't coyotes or foxes? asked the others with interest.
No, it wasn't sickness or animals, it was people.
But a thief couldn't steal the chickens of a whole village, they said.
It wasn't a thief. It was one of those men that work for some institution, supposedly to improve the production and quality of our animals and harvests. One day they arrived and assembled the whole community, and we even fed them for two days, and as you know they don't just eat vegetables. We had to make donations for meat, coffee and bread. They said they had come to vaccinate our animals to avoid this disease you're talking about. We gladly took our chickens, ducks, and turkeys the day of the vaccination to the front of the town hall annex. You should have heard the animals cry, it was just like a market day. To begin with, the expert arrived around eleven in the morning. Someone had brought him on a horse, since he wouldn't dream of walking. First they vaccinated the cattle, then the dogs and pigs and finally the poultry. They put some drops in each eye of the birds and after lunch we all went home happily with our animals. What a shock the next day when we saw our birds walking around blind, running into things. They lurched from side to side as if they had been hit on the head. What had happened was that they had gone blind from the drops they put in their eyes. We didn't know whether to kill them or wait for the medicine to wear off. We were all crying at seeing our animals unable to eat. Some hand fed them and made them drink medicine, but the animals stayed blind. We went to talk to the development man of our village who understands our language, but he said the men had already gone back to the city and that they were a group of students that were studying I don't know what. The development man said they probably gave the wrong medicine or gave too much.
The women paused quietly, their thoughts traveling the stretch between heart and mind, between feelings and ideas in those simple people.
After a long while someone spoke: At home we've talked about this he said. Probably the things that are done to us are intentionally planned, or else nobody cares whether we get ahead, since the meaningless little things they come to give us just don't measure up to our needs. Or it could be that they send for things from other countries for us, and since we're so far away from any urban center, they send us people without knowledge and experience to come and do their internships or in some cases they send them as punishment to these places. The truth is that in general, whatever experts come here have come without much of a desire to work. For example: The interns come to do experiments here, and then they go to the cities to exploit people.
Don't you think that after so many years of the same old thing, with the same promises, that the money spent to support the institutions, well used, would have made our communities grow? suggested another. For example, our traditional methods give better corn harvests than the famous `demonstration plots' of the experts who say they have studied for I don't know how many years.
My son, who understands a little Spanish, said another woman, heard on the radio about millions in aid and loans that good people from other countries send. But from this, all we get around here is the news .
General laughter from the men brought them back to reality, and they realized that everyone had finished eating. The hostess told her helpers to wrap up the meat left over on each plate in kanac leaves and to give them to the guests so they could take them home. The godparents' plates were taken to the kitchen, because for them there would be special food. The godparents stood up in their respective places and spoke to all those present: We would like to thank you, all the good friends, the diviner, the scribe, the midwife, all of you. Thank you for the food. May God bless you.
Meanwhile the grandmother hurriedly helped Lotaxh prepare the child to be presented to everyone, since until now no one had seen him, with the exception of his mother and the midwife.
The first thing hung around his neck was the red bag containing seven herbs against the evil eye. On the wrist of his right hand they placed a coral bracelet, then the grandmother made a cross of saliva on his forehead. Without taking off the homemade cap with the red fringe, she wrapped him in a checkered cloth. Lotaxh stood up, and taking the child in her arms, went to show him to the godparents.
The godmother took him in her arms. The firecracker that went off at that moment shook the nerves of the newborn, who trembled in the godmother's arms, turning purple from crying, and looking as if his breath were gone.
The people who were outside came to see the ceremony and meet the child. Momentarily there was a crowd of people inside the house. The godparents came near the place sacred to the hybrid faith of the men of Jolomk'u, where candles were burning and the cross had arms outstretched between saints with foreign faces, to the place where the men of Jolomk'u practiced costumbre. The godmother cradled the child in her arms while the godfather held the incense burner in his hands, swinging the smoke that enveloped the child.
The child was presented to the crosses, to the saints, to the fire, to the beams, to the roof and to each and every part of the house. There was a murmur among the people watching the ceremony. The smell of incense was everywhere in the smoke. The godfather lifted the child to show him to the crowd. He made the sign of the cross in the air, made another sign of the cross over Mother Earth, from west to east and from north the south.
The child's crying brought them back to the reality of the here and now:
I've seen that your little head has two whorls, continued the godfather. The strength of Mother Nature and of the ancestors is with you. You are predestined for service, he concluded.
The godmother picked him up and took out some new clothing from the bag she carried: a red colored cap, a kerchief, a little shirt. She put them on her godchild.
Two porters accompanied the godparents after they said good-bye that afternoon. One of the boys carried a heavy basket containing bread, party tamales, meat and brown sugar. The other carried a pot full of soup and more meat. Their lithe bodies moved along the trail without raising dust, and their minds were agile, thanks to the chicha.
After the godparents left, the women prepared the sweat bath, that began to emit smoke through its little opening, waiting for the new mother to be purified.
No Mayan home, no matter how small, failed to have a sweat bath, attached like a callus to feet, a mound with a little door for people to enter on their knees.
It was the place were men, women, and children bathed themselves in heat. Beneath the center of the sweat bath's low vault there was a pile of a certain kind of stones which would not burst with the heat, or turn to lime in the high temperatures to which they were subjected. At first, clouds of smoke came out of the opening of the bath, but when all the wood was burned up, only the red-hot stones remained with pots of boiling water. Various wild herbs were used in the steam.
Four men carried Lotaxh on a blanket to the door of the sweat bath. She was received by two women who were already inside getting it ready. The heat was unbearable, the stones red-hot, the coals like brilliant sunsets shining in that oven. The men closed the door with a board to prevent the heat from escaping.
Well kumare, said one of the women. Put water on the rocks and I'll fan it with the leaf. Right away the rocks were sprinkled, turning the water to hot steam, filling the small enclosure with a burning mist. The three women sweated until their body juices broke out all over from their pores.
The other woman slapped her back, stroked her stomach, and massaged Lotaxh's hips with the medicinal herbs. The third time they put the water on the still red-hot stones, they burst like erupting volcanoes. Then with warm water and lard soap they bathed Lotaxh between the two of them.
All right, boys, instructed one of the women. Without looking inside, the men quickly handed her a sheet with which to wrap Lotaxh.
Lower her carefully, ordered the midwife.
Lotaxh was almost unconscious. The four men put her down on the blanket again, covered her over and carried her to a corner inside the house. Then they gave her a little water with anise, and she slept on her straw mat the rest of the afternoon.
Source: A Mayan Life, First English Edition 1995.
Title of original: La otra cara, Translated by Elaine Elliott.
Yax Te Books
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Compiled by: Glenn Welker
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