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: Florentino again

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 12, 2002 edition of the INland Register)

“In this town where nothing ever happens, the days follow each other monotonously, one the same as the next.”
— From a 1967 Prensa Libre article on Ixtahuacán

*****

Chwa tzokon ri qak’aslemal.

“Our lives are lived on the slippery leaf of a tzokon plant.”

The person who taught me that adage and who described for me the leaf of this banana family plant was like no other in Ixtahuacán: a fragilely built, toothpick-calved, 63-year old with the imperious manner associated not with men who wear Ixtahuacán dress, whose skirts expose their nether legs’ nakedness, but rather with people who are wrapped neck-to-toe against their homo sapien-ness, and who are accustomed to wearing top hats.

On Aug. 13, 2002 he was getting off a bus whose driver did not recognize his type of man.

He did not know the man at the door of the bus with the scrubbed face and carefully coiffed hair abjured pants and T-shirts in favor of exposed calves for the same reason that Lord M abjured commoner’s dress.

He could not have known either that this man, creator of the world’s first monolingual indigenous dictionary, possessor of the pope’s own signature on the K’iche’ missal that he co-authored, advisor to the world’s foremost Maya epi-grapher, and author of a truly beautiful hymn in honor of the patroness of Ixtahuacán, so haunting as to have won top honors in any national competition, had such a competition ever been promulgated, was Ixtahuacán’s sole grandee, lone aristocrat.

Except when he was among people of influence, whom he inevitably courted, he walked to his own rhythm, impervious to servile presence. He certainly would not have acknowledged the body language of any engine-gunning, hairy-chested Caucasian any more than that pedal pumping “Sweeny” – obeying reflexively the prejudice of his class – would have acknowledged any special qualities about him.

Chwa tzokon ri qak’aslemal.

His second foot was still meticulously descending towards the pavement when the impertinent vehicle lurched ahead. A moment later, Florentino Ajpacaja Xum’s proud skull and wide forehead lay on the pavement, surmounted by the wheel of the bus that he had not quite left.

For the people of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, something like unto a king was dead.

*****

Certain contemporary anthropologists warn against anyone imagining his new world in exotica-land to be a world in microcosm. They would also, no doubt, admonish me humbly to accept mine simply for what it is.

The contemplation of Floren-tino encourages me to protest: these thinkers represent only the yang of our philosophic tradition. There is an equally venerable yin that sees an innateness in humans, irrespective of environment. It was present in my literature professor, who connected an ancient Greek heroine with the ’60s anti-war movement; in the 16th century missionary, Sahagun, who observed the similarity of Aztec communion and confession liturgies to Catholicism, and in half the thinkers in a Western philosophy class.

*****

Along those lines, perhaps, I remembered Florentino in my various American visits.

It was inevitable at any rate that I would at least think of him. During the ’80s, when we were putting the missal into K’iche’, when he introduced me to the world of Ixtahuacan ceremonial language, which we knit constantly into our sentences, no one saw more of him.

My mother in her visits, too, became fascinated with his “shininess.” “I think that he grieves,” she said, “that his talents were relegated to backwater rather than to ocean.”

If, under her inspiration, I began to think of him as an academic, it became clear to me (slowly, because it was beneath him to admit it) that he-like virtually everyone else of rank here-was more of a politician.

If he had been born here, I conjectured, would he have been sitting back, inhaling the rich smoke of his own oratory a la William Buckley, or would he have been up to back-room tricks-shutting off the microphones at a national convention, as Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, jockeying for power, reportedly did to their own boss, President Ford, in l976?

Although it is not certain that he would have stooped to such tactics, Florentino’s approach to power would have been of that fashion: opportunely attaching himself to a glamour politician who possessed the charisma that he lacked but who needed the other’s intellectual contacts.

*****

Just that scenario occurred in 1990, when Ixtahuacán’s three great protagonists vied in a single election. Although each was an inveterate antagonist of the other, all (even though one eventually succeeded to more important national positions) wanted to be mayor of the municipal area.

Tabula rasa social scientists notwithstanding, they might be classified according to the following schema:

S (the demagogue)
J (the patriot)
Florentino (the transnational, the aristocrat)

Florentino, in particular, envied the portly S’s energy and mesmerizing popular singing and popular religion that contrasted white-against-black with his own restrained, chandelier-voiced concerts at Mass (where he was organist).

Therein lay Florentino’s frustration: although countless such performances did have the effect of establishing him as the town’s most cultured personage, they did not have the desired auxiliary effect of transporting him to political office. Quite the contrary: if in the people’s eyes there was a superiority about him, there was also a kind of foreigness, and even condescension. It was as if Walter Lippman (who called American voters the “bewildered herd”) was running for president.

When he did run for mayor in 1986, he did it in a way reminiscent of William Buckley’s try in New York against Lindsey in ’66: he did not campaign, did not even bring himself to suggest that he wanted the job, and finished last. Again in ’88, he tried, but did not get past his party’s nominating committee that selected the eventual election winner, my cook Sebastian.

For the next two years, he exercised power in his more typical manner: derivatively, via bishops and priests to the detriment of S.

The struggle between them continued, the one gaining his power through authority and the other through populism, until 1990 when the most egregious ever “politics makes strange bedfellows” example happened on this planet: Florentino, the Ixtahucán chair of Guatemala’s most prestigious political party (the Christian Democrats) sponsored S against the CD turncoat Sebastian as the party’s mayoral representative.

The passions behind this brief marriage would occupy a thousand pages of Sherwood Anderson, involving everything from personal slurs against their opponents to death threats. They lost, mainly due to the intervention of J, who was running for Congress on another ticket.

Inimitable J. Observing Flor-entino’s characteristic elitist contacts with Nahuala’s leaders during a land dispute with the rival town, she used the same word against Florentino that Sen. Harry Truman used against the business-first Rockefellers and Dupont’s for their aid to Germany’s industrial giant I.G. Farben in World War II. “Treason.”

*****

The enigma of Florentino was more evident than ever in his memorial Mass: if no one felt farther from the masses, no one was closer in retrospect.

No one else’s death could have provoked the turnout that his did.

Was this because of his years as organist – or because of his years of working one-on-one with people, teaching them the rosary and doctrine ... from the time that he returned from Guatemala City in the late ’40s (he was one of the first two local people educated outside of town) to the present.

The catechists seemed to favor the latter reason: they insisted that no one but “fellow catechists” should carry his casket.

In matters of doctrinal questions, if I were not available, they would go to him – even though he had not participated for years in classes.

*****

If the “innatist” theorists referred to in the second section have any credibility, then there is a missiological lesson that turns around this man.

Missioners often view their people as if they were the uncomplicated people of this column’s epigram. Some no doubt believe the K’iche’-speaking Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu’s bald statement (quoted by Stoll) that her people have no word for “enemy.”

More pertinent perhaps is the observation that the K’iche’ have no word for “king.” The pre-conquest was governed by four distinct families. Was that because the K’iche’ favored a collaborative system of government, as local Mayanists claim? Or was it because of a less romantic reason - that is to say, an inability to overcome factionalism – because, in other words, of those “enemies” that Rigoberta says do not exist?

I don’t know. But I sense an inherent danger in the consistent tendency of non-native priests here to name one person (or group) as intermediaries between him and the rest.

Inevitably, he will pick a Capulet in a town that is populated not only by rival Montagues, but by several other competing factions.

Almost inevitably, too, the quasi-pastoral authority will be given to the “Capulet” after he has convinced the priest that he is “more Catholic” than X. What else can I do, the priest humbly says, after relinquishing his mind to some one whose culture he does not understand. He knows the culture.

My experience has been, however that for however much the priests (customarily) swears that his Y has the combined holiness of a Francis and the wisdom of an Aquinas, that he would be advised to proceed with caution before canonizing his man. The number of Catholics defecting to fundamentalism has risen four-fold during my time here. Guatemala today has 10 fundamentalist ministers for every Catholic priest –waiting to proselytize the Montagues ruled by Capulets.

When I came to Ixtahuacán there was an old “Mr. Catholic” catechist whose hagiography was performed by all his former priests and bishops.

More recently, I decided that one of the reasons a priest was run out of town 40 years ago was because he bared his teeth at a rival group of this man’s (church dancers) at the latter’s request.

This man’s office made him a powerful figure in a community of weak, oppressed men. A disinterested observer might suggest that it paid for him to be a Francis in the priest’s presence.

*****

If anyone could have risen above factionalism, it was Florentino.

He tried – even to the extent of contributing to the charismatic renewal assemblies of one whose views were anathema to him.

Even so, in the multitudes who mourned him were many of his antagonists.

(Father Baronti, a priest of the Diocese of Spokane, has been a missioner in Guatemala for nearly three decades.)


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