Images of Guatemala

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
In 1989 I traveled to Guatemala. I was deeply impressed with the hard life so many endured, seemingly stoically, sustained by Faith. I was there to witness Faith being challenged by daily struggle, coitidian challenges that would otherwise pull one down towards despair. My passage through various cities and villages happened to be during the week of Semana Santa, Easter, and Christianity loomed large everywhere. So did the ominous, ubiquitous Military. I even ended up being swept into a crowd descending the frighteningly steep steps of the Chichicastenango Church, and into the street in a Christian procession behind an enormous 2-ton float bearing Christ, Mary, born on the shoulders of 50 men struggling, bearing their Cross through the town. I was surely only Jew in the crowd. I was also the tallest person in the crowd, a first for my 5'4" frame.

Submitted: September 19, 2018

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Submitted: September 19, 2018



The Woman and the Girl: Russ Learns a New Dance

I awoke to the sound of female giggling and splashing water and stepped out of my hostel room into the crystalline dawn of Panajachel, a small market town next to Lake Atitlan. Lago Atitlan is beautiful, Tahoe-like, and bordered to the northwestby three spectacular volcanoes which form part of the mountains to the west ofGuatemala City. The morning had the kind of deep clarity that seems to prefer tolive in mountain air, especially air that is near water. With such air as a mediumthe early light gave everything a sharp quality, as if I had just found my glasses, asif I could suddenly hear better, smell better.

The Woman and the Girl were dipping water from the large earthen cistern in thehostel courtyard to wash themselves and some of their clothing. Near them on theground were two large bundles, wrapped in the colors of their pueblo. When mygaze fell on the bundles, I unwittingly initiated my first serious businesstransaction in Guatemala.

I had no interest in buying anything, especially at dawn and before coffee. And besides, I hadn't the slightest idea what "good" or "bad" prices were yet. But all my body language was wrong. My polite inquiries "Oh, what's this? or "very nice. how much is it?" which, in this country would have clearly communicated serious disinterest, only served to get me seriously deeper into the bargaining dance. I very quickly found myself feeling terribly obligated to buy something. I was not so much resenting it as I was curious and somewhat astonished at the power and stickiness of the social web I had Gringoed into.

The girl, especially, was adept, and relentless. Each time I made an effort to extricate myself, gently at first and then forcefully later, but all in the end equally ineffectual, she would pull out another item, more colorful or more intricately crafted than the last; or she would significantly lower the price on an item over which I had hesitated a few extra milliseconds. (By now, overcome by obligation, I had actually begun to try to choose a small item in the hope that a purchase would succeed in freeing me). If I took half a step back toward the sanctuary of my room, the girl would spring towards me and hold the item-of-the-moment right up to me almost place it in my hands, and either demand my ultimate limit "dame su precio!  dame su ultimo precio!" or coax me further by reassuring me "es un buen precio!  compralo! es antigua!". "this is a good price! buy it! it's an antique!" Every gesture, every word of mine seemed to amplify the dance rather than attenuate it.


I returned to my room with four or five of the most expensive gifts that I would purchase anywhere in Guatemala, Belize or Costa Rica.


Three days later I was in a small town, quite a distance north of Panajachel, near  the famous market town of Chichicastenango, when I was startled to see the two again. They ran up to me, greeting me excitedly, smiling like we were old friends I saw that in a way, it was true. Here business is very tightly tied to life. And each transaction is made very personal by the bargaining dance, so that our kind of tussle did, in fact, constitute a special human mini-bond. Just before we parted, I realized that I had not taken any photos of them and asked if I could please do so. This photo (see above) cost me 2 Quetzales ($1 US).


Street Mural for Semana Santa in Antigua

Throughout the Holy Week before Easter (Semana Santa), but especially on the Holy Friday preceding Easter Sunday, the people in each town construct elaborate murals with colored sawdust and flower petals. It is a social event, a religious event, a communal esthetic offering to the Power that has made sentient Dust. Dozens of men and women work day and night to complete this mural. Minutes after it is done, it will be destroyed, trampled by 100 feet of the fifty men carrying a huge solid wooden float. The float weighs well over a ton. On the float is an immense sarcophagus with glass walls and brass fittings. A disturbingly realistic Cadaver, wearing a crown of thorns, sleeps in the sarcophagus. He is borne on His platform by the straining backs and aching shoulders of these poor people who will bear their symbolic Cross, bear their very real pain for miles through their own streets, before the eyes of their friends and neighbors.

Beyond a neighboring street, with its own elaborate mural, is Antigua's cemetery, at the foothill of the perfect cone of a volcano.



Who Then Will Protect Us?

The Church is everywhere in Guatemala. She outscales and offers protection to the frail lives that congregate in her embrace. However, the Church's real power to elevate or protect life here is entirely subject to the steelv whims of the ubiquitous iron hand of the military.

Witness all the thousands of "desparecidos" throughout Central and South America. Witness the murder of Father Romero right in the bosom of Sanctuary in El Salvador. There are teenagers dressed in full camouflage, in banks and grocery stores, armed to the proverbial teeth with automatic weapons, and worse, with automatic hearts willing to unleash the damned metal beasts on their own brothers and sisters upon command. And sometimes even the command is superfluous.


I had just returned to Guatemala City from Panajachel, near Lake Atitlan. Ominous rumors had it that the entire area to the north and west, in the volcanic foothills just outside the perimeter of the lake, was full of Quiche-Indian guerrillas, waiting for opportunities to engage the government forces. In confirmation of such rumors, on disembarking from a launch in the tiny pueblo of Santiago Atitlan, we were greeted by the omnipresent government boys in camouflage who handed us (locals and tourists alike) helpful flyers which reminded us of the "Constitutional Rights of all Guatemalan Citizens". Like the "Right to Obey the Law" and the "Right to Follow the Instructions of the Military in Case of an Emergency", and other Constitutional treasures worded in equally Orwellian double-speak.

There, outscaled by a gate in front of the biggest Church in the city, I saw these two women, cloaked in a kind of sadness and fatigue. They seemed so frail and vulnerable and innocent in light of, in the dangerous light of what I had seen in the eyes of those armed children.


A Smile Just Before Easter, 1989

This little boy walked up to me wanting more than he could ask or I could give. He seemed to live in two times, in one small town next to the great Chichicastenango market. A Mayan boy with a Sears shirt and a handcrafted bolsa, wearing years he did not deserve. I gave him two Quetzales, that's one US dollar, and tried to return his sweet grateful smile. But there was so much struggle in it. I gave him a hug and left him giggling at my Donald Duck quacks and bird chirps.


Waiting for God

Tens of thousands of people had come from all over Guatemala (not to mention San Francisco, CA) to witness the great Semana Santa processions in the streets of Antigua, the old city of Guatemala, and former capital. I had left the Hotel Suiza in Guatemala City at dawn, accompanied by two delightful and incredibly interesting people whom I had met in the hotel; a Swiss-Italian woman name Giovanna who spoke Spanish fairly well, English a little, and Italian, French and German fluently; and a charming, very black man named Leandre from Martinique who was completely fluent in Spanish, French and English. Giovanna was in Guatemala, on vacation from her work in Managua, Nicaragua where she was helping the Sandanista government organize and run medical clinics for the people Leandre was on vacation from his high-school teaching job in New Orleans where he taught "real" French to real Cajuns and other Louisianians

I mention Leandre’s blackness only because he told me, during the course of our very long day in Antigua, that wherever he had gone in Guatemala, people had responded to him as if he were quite strange, an alien creature, as if they had not seen many black people in their lives. This, unfortunately, did not entirely surprise me. I had learned that both anti-black and anti-indian racism thrives in Central America. In Costa Rica, for example, the most educated, literate of the Central American nations, blacks were not even allowed into the capital city, San Jose, until the late 1930s, but were instead sequestered in towns on the Caribbean coast where they had been originally "settled" to build the railway.

As we waited among the huge crowd for the processions to commence, Leandre and I entertained and flirted a bit with Giovanna by singing Chick Corea, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck jazz tunes to her. She was enchanted, as was the woman in this photo who, like us, had been waiting patiently for 4 or 5 hours for the Christ-image and His Disciples, riding high and heavy on the shoulders of these struggling people, to pass over and destroy the elaborate, painstakingly constructed Semana Santa street mural. Most of that time the woman held her little boy on her shoulders, both to keep track of him in the restless crowd, and to help him see the Easter goings-on beyond the sea of adult heads and bodies.

© Copyright 2018 Russ Hamer. All rights reserved.

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