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Guatemala Dateline: Life in Guatemala provides a study in stark contrasts
by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register
(From the Dec. 5, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
Have you noticed how often common or venerable sayings mutually contradict?
For example, Shakespeare’s “through tattered rags small vices do appear; robes and furred gowns hide all” from Lear suggests that truth is not surface.
“Common sense” says that it is.
“Carpe diem” rejects economy as a virtue; “A penny saved is a penny earned” exalts it.
To the extent that aphorisms represent local wisdom, these examples argue that the few steps that separate people’s mental points of reference can change their respective world views as much as a single letter can change a word’s implications.
The following is what Laurence Durrell, had he visited Seattle, would have said: “you stand here and see mitered Rainier, presiding like a white-robed pontiff, assuring us of his presence. You step a few feet over there. A building intervenes, the mountain disappears, and, handy dandy, the landscape is profane again.”
The following is what the parents of my dearest language-school companion might have said: You adhere to political position X. Your daughter visits country Y, and is murdered by the implementers of X. A building intervenes, Dan Rather disappears, and the world changes as this experience moves you over there a few steps.
You honor your country’s typical view concerning the horror of Sept. 11. You meet someone from Chile. She tells you how 9/11 has a different but nearly identical meaning for her – from an earlier era. Her narrative: on Sept. 11, 1972, her president was murdered (and thousands of students and sympathizers in the national stadium) in a coup whose real protagonists were not present, but who were hunched over radio sets 8,000 miles distant, a few blocks from the Twin Towers, following the action ... the same investors who, four years before, poured more money per capita into her country’s electoral contest than Johnson and Goldwater spent combined in the previous U.S. elections.
Because you love her, you listen, and handy-dandy, a building intervenes in your mental landscape as you take those few steps.
In the case of nations, as the previous paragraphs hint, the pith of aphorisms varies still more markedly than within. If a favorite Guatemalan saying is “Mejor un viejo conocido que un nuevo por conocer” – “Better something old that is known than something new and untested” – a maxim more contrary to U.S. culture can scarcely be imagined.
Nor can I think of a Maya who would approve “still waters run deep,” or “friends, like books, should be few and well chosen.” In the former case, talking constantly is literally the local synonym for “friendliness” – and, as for the latter, intimate relations are discouraged here. Like Henry II, despised for his friendship with the doomed Piers Gaveston, Caterinecos are expected to give their soul to the group-and not to an individual who could come into conflict with it.
Those particular K’iche’ words – affect verbs – that surfaced in the Oct. 24 “Guatemala Dateline,” include an example, kiniinlab’ik, which refers to the “good’”person who speaks with equivalent enthusiasm with everyone. These verbs, although very different from aphorisms, are like aphorisms in that they highlight cultural values like an infrared camera.
They are of such interest to me because the cultural values here are of such a subliminal, je ne sais quoi quality: in his dealings with us, the Ixtahuacaner is like the foreigner with the perfect accent who seems to be like us, but who nevertheless, every once in a half moon, says something that betrays his chameleon-like different-ness. The rub is this: If he is a chameleon, he is a chameleon with a default color that is his, that is independent of any environment, and that is capable of tinting and dying the psyches of the people who live with him, so that – and here is the nub – if in the short run the chameleon may adapt to the missioner, in the long run, it is the missioner who, without even knowing what is happening, without having even seen the default color for what it is, adapts to him.
This is rather startling when you think about it. He sets out to evangelize, to change the culture, even, and is himself changed in the process - changed by a society so materially inferior to his own, and so far removed from that of his kith and kin as to make one think that it would have less imitative effect on him than a dog’s running after a car would have on a cat.
I think, for example, of the affect verb -qololab’ik, which refers to the old
punishment of requiring a child to kneel on gravel or corn kernels until the whole of a large
candle gutters out, or -qolnajik, which deprecates people who walk just to be walking
(without work instruments in hand) or women thieves who walk while their family sleeps (those
who remain near turn themselves into dogs, cats or goats for the purpose; those who go far,
into turkeys or buzzards).
How could such seemingly bizarre convictions possibly edify someone of Western
The traditional K’iche’ use the verb -qananexik for the sinister nnn sound a
sliding log effects. How can a Westerner take seriously their belief that the sound is animate,
corresponds to a growl, and signifies menacing anger?
How can he take seriously their rawasil fears – for example (to mention one not
mentioned before), their unwillingness to step over a spherically shaped rock because such a
rock carries a spiritual affinity with the spherically shaped clay cooking pot b’oj that
is homonymously related to b’oj ‘goiter’ (according to the rawasil tradition, a
natural object has the power to punish those who violate the protocols governing any human
interaction with it with a disease with which it – the natural object – is associated) or their
fears about drinking directly from the onion shaped jug ‘q’eb’al’ because it, too, can
take protocol revenge?
How can he take seriously the traditional K’iche’ Catholic view that there is a third
order of beings between angels and men – Santo Mundos, “Holy Worlds” – who inhabit the
discrete objects in their universe, and whose job it is to distribute material benefits?
What is he to make of the statement I heard last night: People here do not allow their
solitary perambulations, given that an Erl-Konig-like demon will steal their spirit, and leave
them pulseless (when one is alone one’s spirit is more vulnerable)? Or that the same
sub’unel causes their nightmares? Or the catechist’s statement that the Pan American
highway near his hamlet is a particularly dangerous spot for kids – that he himself was
recently attacked by three preternaturally large cats there that only disappeared when he made
the sign of the cross?
At one point, I may have answered these questions defensively by illustrating how there
are equally popular beliefs that Americans hold about everything from the causes of certain
diseases to the way their heating systems operate.
At another point, I might have tacked apologetically, by observing, for example, with
regard to the Santo Mundos, that they can be absorbed into the “principalities and
powers” of Colossians 1-16.
I do not think now, however, from my point of view that is far more sympathetic to
them, that the Maya need to be defensive or apologetic about any of this. Regardless of whether
or not we accept each of their mystic experiences, it may be that our civilization is being
invited to see such beliefs in a wider sense – as building blocks of the world they inhabit,
props and stays of their cosmic stage in the same way that private revelations, which one is
free to accept or not accept, may act as the buttress for a greater Catholic cosmology which we
– all of us – profess.
Viewed in this manner, with the emphasis on cosmology and not on the discrete
incidents, these beliefs reflect pre-existent attitudes that the American mentality would do
well to consider.
There exists a respect for things, even small things, in this culture that reminds me
of the beautiful, almost causal relation sequence of Stendhal Rast’s between poverty,
awareness, gratitude and prayerfulness that cannot but make one shudder when one considers the
contrast between his vision and that of the West. How can one be grateful for that which the
next advertisement urges us to reject? How can one who collects goods in the same way that the
former Philippine first lady collected shoes be grateful like the poor person who caresses and
shines his single pair as if they were his children – and who is aware at all moments of where
that single pair is?
I believe that it is precisely this awareness that the K’iche’ have of each discrete
item in their universe that they inhabit and the unique function that each item has that
produces this keen sense of propriety among them regarding their relation with each item that
subsequently becomes mythologized by ways of rawasils and other mystic, or quasi-mystic
manifestations. This awareness engenders gratitude as surely as the latter quality engenders
There is a paradox here: one tends to be aware and grateful not in proportion to one’s
surfeit, but rather to the degree that one’s bare needs are meant. Thanksgiving holidays aside,
it is not abundance which inspires gratitude, but abundance’s lack.
The paradox admits extensions. The dying become aware of their lives’ value, even as
does the nonagenarian, counting his last life’s cents. Our one-legged Diego Ajpacaja thanks God
for his gift of leg, even as the Olympic sprinter pounds himself on the chest.
From my point of view these days that is “tinted and dyed” with the psychology of the
K'iche’, I think of the latest yesterday Yuppie deploring the quality of life an aging
relative, even as he eyes the airport clock, skis in hand. I wonder whether he is in a better
position to talk about that than Imelda Marcos is, to evaluate the value of the shoes that the
poor man has ... or the Pharisees the mite the widow cast.
He does not know, as the K’iche’ know, that that shoe, that mite, that pulse of life is
worth more than all of the wealth the rest of us have.
He does not know either that that “throw-away” world he inhabits has metastisized into
his relationships and made even knowing God almost impossible for him. How can he contemplate
Christ crucified – my friends here would ask him – if he can’t even contemplate the face of his
(Father Baronti has been a missioner in Guatemala for nearly three decades.)
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