From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala Dateline: Freedom from cultural bridles can mean loss of moral boundaries as well

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the July 4, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

The rains of this time of year lend a certain heaviness to Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. Even as I write, with the sun shining over a morning that is resurrection clear (as if last night’s showers have washed away every material molecule from the air) coastal clouds are emerging through the breaks in the topography made by the Sohoma River. To the right of these clouds, and following the contour of the background mountain’s swing to the north, the half-moon, corn-covered hillocks (their lower sides cut away by erosions) rise steeply from their contact with Ixtahuacán proper, one hill piled atop another, up to (a thousand feet higher) the base of a long, basalt wall on that mountain that these hillocks once covered at the crest of which (2,000 feet more) the automobiles of the great highway appear, and (unaware of our existence) the inhabitants of those cars: the owners of the other earth.

The fog has advanced another 10 kilometers: at our town’s northwest flank, the first fingers of mist are scumbling the figures in the great basalt scarps that have served as a slate for hundreds of years. Spirit messages are written here. The old town sits astraddle the saddle-shaped talus below them — like an old, solitary rider, afraid to fall off his horse.


The historic town lies in disrepair. Half the houses are walls, nothing more — occupantless ruins carrying a medieval kind of curse. As Dante’s God condemned sinners to live forever the mundane vices they preferred, the bygone residents retain the power to condemn those who stayed to the ruins of their ancestors.

It has been two-and-a-half years since the great relocation occurred — since the young teachers, dissatisfied with their place in the universe, promulgated , in the wake of a hurricane, the exodus from a town that (they said) was slipping off its site of thousands of years.

The storm event that provoked the move did less damage than the relocaters. Frustrated with the obscurantists who resisted them, they destroyed what they left behind, and carried off the town’s infrastructure — including the antique fountain in the civic square, and the 66 colonial statues of the church.

Moreover (the Dantesque part) they control still their abandoned relicts — in effect, condemning those who remain to rebuild their town around the stones of a graveyard.


The irony is that the “traditionalists” who stayed behind are hardly more traditional than the relocating teachers.

In both sites, the young men and women have discontinued many of the ways of their ancestors. To cite one case, a young woman will no longer blow on her hands and make the sign of the cross before putting them into the sup prior to distributing these “tamales” at dinner. She no longer believes her mother that such a practice protects against hunger, any more than her mother believed her mother that burning chili in the house at night wards off poltergeists, or that banging on pots and pans during a lunar eclipse wakes up the “dead” moon mother.

Much of what was done when I arrived 27 years ago is simply unknown to today’s young students and discothequers. If, for example one mentions the custom of adults putting their hands together in prayer at the third Mass bell, or the angelus at 12 and six, and saying to each other “Ma k’aanik tat, mak’aanik, nan” — “May God take care of you, sir; may God take care of you, ma’m” – or the custom of the smaller children kneeling to kiss the hands of their fathers at the same time that their elders greeted one another, adolescents will look perplexed, as if one were talking about the Mixtec, Cuicateq or Trique in the isthmus of Mexico.

Similarly, many of the awas “prohibition” (IR, Jan., 1978) are becoming increasingly distant — for example, the taboos against opening a baby’s fist because such were said to be grasping a spiritual treasure (k’un), or the removal of lint from children’s hair, because this would cause them not to know what to do when they matured, or the prohibitions (for children) against playing close to a newly married couple (such “hot blood” being capable of producing facial eruptions on those whose soul is pure).

Mention the above to even the 30-year-olds and you might as well be talking about some far-away Zoqean people — for example, the Sierra Popoluca or the Texistepec Popoluca of Vera Cruz.

Equally exotic for the young would be the extent of their elders’ belief in shape shifters. If the youngsters believe in the existence of sorcerers who become dogs and birds, their elders went further. They talked excitedly about knee-assaulting water jugs, or the carpenter who approached a beautiful women who turned her other cheek to him — that was all skeletal and macabre


The bells of the dead have tolled. It is night. The rain has been falling for some time now — the rain that fell when I first came here – the rain that closes off the present opens up the graveyard.

As I think about these things, it seems to me that the particulars of the beliefs that separate Ixtahuacán generations — significant though they are — are not nearly so significant as the change in the texture of something deeper.

I recall the stories my cook used to regale me with at dinner.

Once, he said, he was with his companions in a house. The door opened, and a goat stuck its head under the lintel. Immediately (the goat was one that all had seen in days previous in a suspicious manner) the men screamed and, with centrifugal force, dispersed. Only Manuel stayed behind, trembling, in a blanket, in a corner. It was certainly an ajq’u — a shape shifter.

On another occasion, he described his terror when he espied a huge bird descending into a field.

Finally, he came panting up to me one day at a place called At the dog’s hindquarters because of some “growling” in the earth.

In the context of comparison elder with youngster, an extraordinary aspect about all three episodes was the freedom with which he described his fear. The old culture has few James Bonds beating a swarm of bullets around a corner only to return — momentarily, smiling beguilingly — a few seconds later to pick up the piece of candy that he, in his hurry, had been unable to pick up before. Such sang froid may be admired by the older people — they in fact attribute such qualities to their ancestors — but the pertinent observation is that they themselves do not identify with such men as that; they do not wish that they were such as that; nor do they train their children to be such as that, for to do so would be a cultural sin of the first order. The people who do such as that are (like their forefathers who carried 300 pound loads on their backs) another species of homo sapiens all together.


The linguist Anna Wierzbicka has argued for describing civilizations through their use of key words — untranslatable, culture-specific lexemes so rich in meaning that the personality of a people seems to be contained there.

Relevant in this context is that extraordinary K’iche’ idea of k’ixb’alil.

If its root is k’ix or “shame.” The affixed word presupposes, however, no sin, no reprehensible act.

That is because k’ixb’alil signals a way of being in the world. One who has it carries himself as if he had sin (what the person without it does not do — even though his sin be murder). He is diffident, and always apologizing (thus a person with it will say “forgive me,” even when he is giving you a car). The cultured person in this world almost seems to walk around (and in fact sometimes does!) stoop shouldered.

Because a person with k’ixb’alil lowers himself vis-à-vis others, a corollary meaning is something like “respect.” But it is a profound respect that causes him to kiss the hand of a town leader, to give whatever is asked of him (one who does not do this will lose the object which the other desired) and to prefix any references to the poorest, most vulnerable people (including the inebriated) with the honorary title “sin,” denoting affection and care.


I can’t say for sure, but I think that k’ixb’alil was instilled in children by mean of very harsh disciplinary measures — for example, making children kneel on corn, putting chili pepper in their eyes, or whipping them with bundles of thorns. Juana Con, 60, told me that she was hung from the rafters for stealing 10 cents, and horse-whipped for stealing something equally minor. Her mother seems to have been particularly severe (for example, forcing her to drink a glass of water mixed with the broken pieces of the clay water jug that she accidentally shattered) but not, apparently, out of the limits of the culture. Miguel Tzep, 65, tells of men who held him to the floor while his father ran a bone through his mouth that was caked with cow manure.


Ixtahuacaán today has come full circle. Today literacy matters more than all other cultural values put together. The young live in a world in which the eight-year-old reader commands more respect than his illiterate father. Is it significant that adolescents, as Dave Dodroe observed, frequently address their progenitors as “my son” rather than “father”? I don’t know, but if nothing else that locution is metaphor for the situation of today in which youth suffer for a total lack of the cultural training that bridled and broke their fathers. Not surprisingly, also, the young man of Ixtahuacán will have internalized the concept of k’ixb’alil about as much as a professional wrestler.


The freedom from cultural bridles perhaps accounts for the sense of boundlessness and daring-do that characterizes these young people as much as the opposite characterizes their fathers. Yes, there was in fact something disarmingly Bondish about 16 year-old Lorenzo Tum’s determination to walk home to Chuisibel alone one night, a few years ago — through an area populated by coyote shape-shifters; there was something endearing, too, about the indulgent smile that almost bespoke condescension that answered my queries about the danger. There was something endearing about that, but there is something disturbing as well. The last three supervised outings that the youth of Ixtahuacán have taken have ended in disaster. Five young men spurned warning about the dangers of water. The last one drowned yesterday, June 27, in the waves of Puerto Barrios.

There is a lack of moral boundary as well. If Juana Con typifies the fastidiously honest older generation when she states that she would be hesitant to pick up a piece of gold that she found on a mountain even though it had no owner, the relocation leaders — who intimidated doctors and presidents to acquire their many millions of dollars — are very different. The ex-mayor Bonifacio Suy, the man who’s responsible for the relocation, has been accused of grand larceny. He sits today in the departmento jail.


It is midnight. The rain has stopped. I think nevertheless again about the old people, treated with contempt by the younger.

How these people (to borrow a phrase from Sister Immaculata) get under your skin!

These people who, after suffering so much as children, were denied their turn to be lords.

(Father Baronti is a priest of the Spokane Diocese. He has been a missioner in Guatemala for nearly 30 years.)

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