Guatemala / Ecuador 2017
Tuesday 7/25/2017 - Santiago Atitlan: Feria de Santiago (Festival of St. James), Folk Saint MaximonWe were excited to go on an excursion with the Tolers today. We would be going to Santiago Atitlan for their annual feria (festival) in honor of the town's patron saint, James. I woke up early and worked for several hours, again taking advantage of the two hour time difference between here and home.
We gathered for a breakfast of fresh hearty bread along with an assortment of jellies. Aracely and Eddy had expressed that they wanted to join us, but they were still sleeping. We knew that Humberto would be guiding us, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that Paulina and Ian would be joining us as well. Paulina tried in vain to wake Aracely and Eddy up, but they were sleeping soundly even as we left the house at 9:30 a.m. local time.
We walked down Rancho Grande to the lake. We ran into Luis and said good morning. As we approached the docks to board a lancha (motorized boat), we noticed a video shoot on the beach. A woman in traditional clothing was singing along to an Evangelical Christian song. She was being lit by photographic reflectors and filmed from several different angles. The lake, blue sky, and volcanoes made a lovely backdrop, so the finished product will probably be quite beautiful.
We waited until the song finished before cutting across the beach and onto the dock. We met our captain, Arturo, and boarded the lancha. We sat under the roof for protection from the intense sun as we left Panajachel for Santiago Atitlan. We all applied sunscreen liberally. Soon Julia and Meghan moved forward to the bow to enjoy the gorgeous views and the pleasant breeze.
It took around half an hour to cross the lake to Santiago. The lake as it exists today formed 85,000 years ago, following three major volcanic eruptions. This resulted in the formation of three stratovolcanoes (volcanoes built up from alternate layers of ash and lava from the three previous eruptions). Volcanoes Toliman, Atitlan, and San Pedro were on brilliant display today. Their summits were visible, and they cast bluish-green silhuoettes against the whispy white clouds and blue sky. It was the perfect day for a boat ride.
The lake is extremely deep at around 1000 feet in some places. Humberto explained that pre-classic period (300 BC - 300 AD) Mayan ruins have been found 50 feet below the current water level. We passed the Hotel Bambu, where we stayed when we first came to the area in 2004.
We passed coves where tul reeds were growing. These help to filter out toxins from the polluted water, and they protect the shoreline from erosion. Similarly to tortora reeds in South America, these reeds are used by artisans to weave mats, baskets, hats, etc. We saw a fisherman in a traditional boxy wooden canoe known as a cayuco. There are fewer amd fewer of these canoes on the lake with the increased popularity of motorized boats.
When we arrived in Santiago, we walked up the steep streets which led from the lake toward the center of town. Our first stop was the market. We saw vegetables and fish for sale, as well as fabric, beads, and food. A man with a small video camera and a television microphone was filming himself walking through the market, apparently doing a TV segment on paches (a regional dish which is similar to a tamale, but made from potatoes rather than corn).
Many local people returned our smiles and greetings of "buenos dias." The Tzutzujil Mayan dress of the village is characterized by stripes and bird motifs. Married women coil long (10 to 12 yards) woven strips of fabric around their heads, creating a halo-shaped hat known as a tocoyal. Although regional differences in clothing style existed in pre-Columbian times, they were not absolute. It is thought that strict adherence to a dress code for each individual village was enforced by the Spanish colonizers in order to be able to monitor the various communities.
A mestizo tourist greeted Craig and asked his friend to take a photo of the two of them together. They approached the photo session the way one would with wildlife photography: take a photo, get a little closer, take another photo...as if the subject of the photo might be particularly skittish. He put one arm around Craig, they took a photo. Then he put his other arm around Craig's neck, with a big smile on his face. It was really cute. I was surprised he didn't plant a kiss on Craig's cheek. I of course got the whole thing on camera as well. After the photo, the guy noticed Craig being extra careful walking down a small staircase with his cane, and took his arm and helped him down. It was really sweet.
As we exited the market, we passed a stall where a man was selling colorful blankets. He was currently taking a siesta, slumped forward on his stool, with his hat covering his eyes.
When we emerged from the market, we encountered a man with an ice cream cart. Humberto bought cones for everyone. The seller scooped a fruity (mango?) ice cream into a cone, and topped it with strawberry sauce and peanut crumbs. It was a rfereshing treat that we scarfed down, as it was rapidly melting.
As we made our way toward the festival, a man was approaching us wheeling a makeshift cart. It was a wheelbarrow onto which he had fastened a tray filled with twelve varieties of nuts. They looked delicious, and Paulina, Jenn, and I all made purchases. We bought some which were seasoned with chilies, and others with a sweet sugary shell. Jenn bought some which the seller seasoned with a fresh lime. Everything was delicious and fresh, and made a great snack.
We came across a large tent with many people gathered around. Under the tent were a live band and a troupe of convites dancers. These are dancers that are all dressed in elaborate trajes (costumes), including Mayan kings, Spanish conquistadors, mariachis, soccer stars Messi and Ronaldo, Russian soldiers, farmers, and construction workers. It was surreal, as if a bunch of Village People mannequins came alive and decided to have a street party conga line. This was a lot of fun and we (as well as the locals) really enjoyed it.
After enjoying the live entertainment, we approached St. James the Apostle Church. In the square in front of the church, there was a midway. There were many carnival rides including a Ferris wheel, swinging Viking ship, trampolines, and a tuk-tuk merry-go-round. There were around two dozen foosball tables, as well as games of chance. Vendors sold ice cream, cotton candy, pizza, inflatables, and pinwheels.
We walked through the midway and entered St. James the Apostle Church, which dates back to 1568. This church has a tragic history, as it is where a beloved Catholic priest was martyred during the civil war / genocide of the 1980's. Father Stanley Francisco Rother, a priest from Oklahoma, had been the pastor here since 1968. He was devoted to his parishioners. He learned the Tzutzujil language, and translated the Bible into Tzutzujil so that those who did not know Spanish could understand its teachings.
As indigenous people were being slaughtered, Father Rother provided sanctuary for them within this church. He did everything that he could to protect them. Even when he received death threats, he did not back down. He would not abandon his flock in their time of need. As a result, he was brutally murdered in 1981, and is considered a martyr. A sign on the front of the church announced that it is only 61 days until he is beatified by Pope Francis.
We climbed the semicircular staircase and entered the church. To the right is a shrine to Father Rother, which bears the following inscription in Spanish: "There is no greater love than this, to give your life for your friends." The shrine was beautifully decorated with flowers for the feria.
Today the church was decorated with yellow and red, the colors of the Spanish flag, associated with Saint James. There was a special colorful shrine to Saint James the Evangelist in front of the altar. Catholic lay brotherhoods known as cofradias were preparing for the procession. They are in charge of all of the proceedings of the feria.
Cofradias are groups of laymen who are devoted to the church. They are involved in caretaking activities, as well as participating in events like today's feria. They lit candles in front of the various effigies of St. James and other saints and said prayers aloud. Mayans believe that prayers must be said aloud in order to be actionable, so you often hear a variety of quiet chanting in Mayan Catholic churches.
The wives of the cofradia members also play an important role in church life. One of their duties is to make the costumes in which the various statues and effigies are dressed. The saints dress in local traditional clothing, and the colors change according to the occasion.
We sat in a pew, observing the preparations and awaiting the procession. I went out to the courtyard to get some photos of the church with the volcano in the background. Soon Craig emerged from the church and called me to come quickly because the procession was about to begin.
People took their places under the yoke of the effigies and gathered at the front door of the church for the procession. Kevin and I headed outside to photograph the proceedings. I stayed on the steps to get a side view, and Kevin went down the steps and stood facing the church.
The men of the cofradia gathered on the steps of the church. They sang prayers in Tzutzujil and downed shots of aguardiente liquor. Many of them were dressed in traditional Santiago Atitlan attire: long sleeved shirts and long baggy shorts called calzones. Some wore western style hats and others wore colorful woven cloths wrapped around their heads.
One effigy at a time was carried down the stairs by groups of men or young boys. A small marching band followed: the Banda Nazareno de Comalapa. Firecrackers were lit off as the procession left the fairgrounds in front of the church and continued into town. The majority of locals followed the procession as it departed.
We went back into the church to rest for a while and admire the architecture now that the excitement was over. Two elderly women in traditional dress walked by us with big smiles. One of them offered us blessing for another year of life. The people here really are so sweet!
We looked at the beautiful wood carvings and the effigies of various saints. Prayer candles and flowers had been left as offerings. We walked through the temporary altar of St. James to pay our respects and leave an offering.
The main altar, installed during Father Rother's tenure in 1976, is made of beautifully carved wood. It is a textbook example of the syncretism which occurred between colonial Spanish Catholicism and pre-Columbian religions.
In the early days of colonialism and Catholic missionaries, it was understood that the Mayans considered the mountains to be sacred. So the Catholics put crosses on the mountain peaks so that, by worshipping mountains, they were inadvertently worshipping the cross as well. This started a synthesis between Mayan traditional beliefs and Catholicism.
The altar itself is shaped like a volcano. A priest ascends from one side, and a Mayan farmer ascends from the other. Mayan trees of life grow on the slopes and the peak of the volcano. Effigies of saints dressed in local clothes are displayed in niches, with a carving of God at the volcano's peak. Humberto pointed out that local folk saint Maximon was depicted in a series of carvings depicting Mayan traditions. The altar is a delicately beautiful work of art, and could easily be mistaken for being an antique hundreds of years old.
After seeing Maximon on the altar, we would actually visit Maximon. There are different accounts of the origins of Maximon, a folk saint who embodies the melding of Catholic saints and pre-Colombian gods. I found two books to be very helpful with untangling the various versions of the story: Guatemala's Folk Saints by Jim Pieper and The Lake Atitlan Reference Guide by Richard Morgan Szybist.
One origin story dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest. Mayan rulers at the time were imprisoned and eventually killed after giving up their riches to the colonizers. The rulers told their people to create effigies of them and to initiate ancestor worship so as not to forget their traditional ways. These effigies was made of reeds and tied into a bundle. They were dubbed "Axmon K'in", or "tied up reeds" in the local dialect. The word "Maxmon" translates to "Noble man made by tying", so the name "Maximon" is probably a corruption of that. (Guatemala's Folk Saints, page 55)
Another origin story is that Maximon was created by the Nawales (divine spirits who served as role models for all of humanity) as a personification of the spirit god Mam, the Ancient One. The Nawal men were afraid that their women would be unfaithful, so they carved Maximon from a tree to watch over them. The women wrapped their hair ribbons around Maximon's body and dressed him in the finest clothing. But Maximon himself was not trustworthy, and seduced the Nawal women while the men were away. Upon returning home to find their women newly pregnant, the enraged men punished Maximon by emasculating and dismembering him. Without the distraction of a sex drive, Maximon gained other powers, including the ability to heal the sick. (The Lake Atitlan Reference Guide, page 122).
Over time, effigies of Maximon have evolved from bundles of reeds to wooden carvings, often wearing masks. Maximon is viewed as a communicator and facilitator, willing to petition God with all requests. People leave him offerings which appeal to his vices, including cigarettes, cigars, aguardiente liquor, and cash. He has a certain worldly appeal to those who suffer from vices themselves, and he can intercede on their behalf with God.
As time went on, Maximon became intertwined with San Simon. San Simon looks more like a traditional Spanish Catholic saint, with light skin and European features. Effigies of San Simon are usually made of wood. They are usually seated in a chair and holding a staff, which symbolize authority.
It is unclear whether San Simon evolved as a folk saint when the Spanish Catholics forbade the worship of Maximon. Transferring their allegiance to him could have been a covert way of worshipping their ancestors in a way which was inoffensive to colonial Catholicism.
Effigies of both Maximon and San Simon usually have carved mouths which often are filled with a lit cigarette. As Maximon / San Simon smokes the tobacco, it is believed that the smoke carries worshipper's prayers heavenward.
In addition to the fluidity between the identities of Maximon and San Simon, both also take on the identity of Judas Iscariot during the Easter season. We had seen his participation in a Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession during our first visit in 2004. On the Wednesday before Easter, his clothes are washed in the lake by local women. He then is carried through town in a procession. On Good Friday, they hang Maximon / Judas across from the church for his betrayal of Christ. The effigy is no longer allowed inside the Church of St. James the Apostle, but as we saw, there is a depiction of him on the altar carvings.
Santiago Atitlan is a village which has a very close relationship with Maximon. A special cofradia exists in town to watch over the effigy. The wives of the cofradia members make and clean his clothes. Each year the effigy is displayed in the private house of one of the cofradia brothers. They take care of Maximon and make sure that he is never lacking for tobacco or booze, often spending a great deal of their personal money to ensure his wellbeing. The public is allowed to view him for a small fee.
Visiting Maximon is a unique experience, and we thought that Kevin, Jenn, and the girls would find it quite interesting. We walked a short distance from the church down narrow cobblestone alleyways and dort paths until we reached a small single-room house made of concrete blocks. Colorful papel picado streamers hung above the doorways. We could smell the comforting scent of copal incense. There were many local people gathered in the courtyard. We could see the remains of ritual fires in the dirt. We paid our nominal entrance fee and entered through the door on the right.
The air was thick with smoke, a mixture of incense, cigarette smoke, and candles. Maximon's effigy, about a meter high, stood in the center. In front of him were lit prayer candles, an ashtray, and an offering bowl. Behind him was a dining table with benches. To the right were effigies of various saints wearing local dress. The Virgin Mary was wearing a tocoyal hat like a halo.
A female Ajq'ij (spiritual guide, sometimes translated as shaman) was performing a ceremony. A local woman was kneeling in front of the effigy, where several prayer candles were lit. The Ajq'ij placed her hand on the crown of the woman's head and spoke prayers aloud. We felt humbled to witness this. This was not something being done for the sake of tourists. This was a woman's personal spiritual experience, the process of petitioning Maximon to intercede on her behalf with God. It was quite powerful.
Maximon himself looked very dapper. He was clothed in silk scarves and neckties, and wore a black Stetson hat. There was a lit cigarette in his mouth, and one of his attendants from the cofradia would flick away the ashes and give him a new cigarette when necessary. Another attendant swung a primitive censer burning copal incense.
Cofradia members led us to the table and invited us to sit. They poured two glasses of beer and handed them around for us to share. All of us adults took a sip (even I, who am allergic to beer, took a small taste to honor the tradition). We gave a donation of 20 quetzales before departing, and an attendant tucked it under Maximon's necktie.
After witnessing this interesting cultural experience, we walked to El Buen Appetito for lunch. Ian fell asleep on the walk over there. We ran into a tuk-tuk traffic jam before reaching the restaurant. A queue of at least 20 red tuk-tuks stretched as far as the eye could see down the narrow street. When we arrived at the restaurant, Paulina laid a blanket on the floor for Ian. He slept through the entire meal. The menu was extensive, and we were overwhelmed with choices. When it came time to order, all six adults had unknowingly decided on the same thing: fajitas. We knew we must have made a wise choice if it is what locals Paulina and Humberto chose! And it was delicious! We also had licuados de fresa (strawberry milkshakes), which were quite refreshing.
I was seated next to the window, and had a good view of an older gentleman who was sitting at a cafe table on the sidewalk. He reminded me vaguely of Ernest Hemingway. A group of local boys joined him at his table and they seemed to be having fun together. I tried to take a photo through the window, but the boys noticed me and blocked their faces.
With full bellies, we walked back toward the dock. Along the way, we stopped at a coffee shop where Kevin, Jenn, and Humberto got a cup of coffee. We browsed at some of the artisan's stalls, and then descended the hill down to the docks. Everything was beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight. We saw a boat named Yoselin, and I took a photo in honor of our quinceañera girl!
We boarded the lancha and Arturo took us back across the lake to Panajachel. Ian finished Humberto's coffee. We wondered how much worse the caffeine would make his propensity to stay up very late. The lake was a little rougher at this time of day, but the volcanoes still weren't clouded in.
We disembarked in Pana and walked back to the house. Aracely and Eddy were waiting for us, lonely and disappointed to have missed the day's excursion. We explained that their mom had repeatedly tried to wake them up, but they were grouchy and refused to wake up.
Eddy had made good use of his day at home by doing some projects. He filled one of his dad's socks with sand (sorry, Humberto!) and tied it on a railing on the roof deck as a homemade punching bag. Humberto was once a boxer, and over the years has had various maskeshift barbells around the house, so I'm sure that he would approve.
He also created a mobile out of an old CD, some foosball figures, a pencil, a balloon, and some melted candle wax. We are so proud of him; he is such a creative kid. His English is very good and he is becoming more confident in himself day by day. He even read aloud to me in English tonight!
I worked for a couple of hours and then we ate dinner (rice, vegetables, and baked potatoes with dressing). Ian rode his plastic moto around the outdoor dining table while wearing a yellow plastic wastebasket on his head. He is a funny kid! I gave out Altoid mints to everyone, and Ian tasted it and said "Pica" (spicy). He would continually take it out of his mouth but then lick it again, trying to let his mouth cool down yet liking the taste.
We adults shared a toast with some fermented fruit liquor from nearby Xela (Quetzaltenango)
It was a lovely day of local traditions.
61 days until the beatification of Father Stanley Rother
Update: 9/23/2017Yesterday, as I was editing this day to upload to the web, I was reminded of Father Rother's beatification 61 days after our visit. We realized that it's been about 2 months, so it must be happening soon. Come to find out that it was happening the very next day, today, September 23.
Special Masses were held in Father Rother's native Oklahoma City, as well as at the Church of St. James the Apostle in Santiago Atitlan. Humberto said that the church was decorated with many flowers in preparation. He sent us a link to a video with archival footage of Father Rother as a young priest in Oklahoma and during his 13 years in Santiago Atitlan. The footage of him interacting with his parishioners is priceless. He shares joyous smiles with them, and the affection between them is palpable. Footage of him with a young Mayan girl conveys the same love that we have for our godchildren.
There are tales of his heroism following an earthquake in 1976, when he climbed ravines and carried the wounded to safety on his shoulders. By trying to help indigenous people survive the disappearances and violence of the civil war of the 1970's and 1980's, he was seen as subversive, like many other journalists and clergy who were falsely accused of Communism.
Though there have been pros and cons to missionary-ship throughout history, Father Rother's love and commitment to his parishioners is undeniable. He makes the ultimate selfless sacrifice, valuing their safety over his own. The love and respect that the community still has for him now, 36 years after his death, is testament to that.
We are happy to hear of Pope Francis' recognition of Father Rother, the first U.S. born priest to receive this honor.
The beatification of Servant of God Fr. Stanley Rother
Cox Convention Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Beatification celebration for Father Stanley Rother
Church of St. James the Apostle, Santiago Atitlan
September 23, 2017 (photo couresty of Humberto Samalaj)
The parish of St. James the Apostle in Santiago Atitlan
celebrates and watches the beatification
Church of St. James the Apostle, Santiago Atitlan
Meghan, Humberto, Ian, and Julia enjoying the lancha ride
Feria at St. James the Apostle Church
Memorial to the martyred Father Stanley Rother
St. James the Apostle Church decorated in Spanish colors in honor of St. James' feast day
Kids prepare to carry an effigy in the procession
Effigies are carried down the church steps
The procession prepares to leave the church
Elaborately carved wooden altar, combining Mayan and Catholic imagery, commissioned by Father Stanley Rother
Shrine, St. James the Apostle Church
House of a member of the cofradia of Maximon, where Maximon's effigy is kept
A Mayan Ajq'ij (spiritual guide) performs a ritual in front of Maximon
Effigy of Maximon smoking a cigarette
Lunch at El Buen Appetito
Docks, Santiago Atitlan
Meghan and Jenn enjoy the lancha ride back to Panajachel
Ian's flowing locks on the lancha
Arriving in Panajachel