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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Guatemala Dateline: A society’s respect markers are still sacramental

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the Jan. 16, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

I once knew a 32-year-old monsignor, so full of future as Eugenio Pacelli at 25, so energetic that he had built a missionary congregation and seminary by the time he was 35, so captivating that the professors who conferred his summa cum laude continued to fly from Rome to visit him when he was 45.

But he was Ladino, and I made the mistake one day of suggesting that Maya culture has lessons to teach the hegemonic Guatemalan society.

“How,” he demanded, stalking me momentarily with his large, brown, pendulous eyes.

I read once of a Texas heavyweight who, after a few mincing steps forward, dropped like a 300-foot redwood backwards after Sonny Liston, taking momentary cognizance of his existence, flicked out his first left of the fight.

My example signaling Maya respect for their elders was even so (“What you call respect is fear-induced tyranny”) so effortlessly dismissed as to have produced hardly a wave in any electroencephalograph of his brain that night.


I was stunned. Even though this was an era when I still denied, naively, that corporal discipline for Maya children exists, and that the sandstone skinned adorables learn respect via some hallowed prelapsarian formula lost to cosmos-polluting societies, in retrospect, my example was vulnerable not so much because he was correct (in today’s Ixtahuacán there exists no such elder tyranny) as for my failure to recognize, as a native Guatemalan more easily recognizes, the ambiguous nature of the respect markers that so impressed me, circa 1980.

Why should the hand kissing of an elder, practiced then, be any more meaningful, one could ask, than the hand-kissing of a priest if (in the latter case) the obsequious osculator can become a 666 fundamentalist before the saliva dries? Why should stepping off a path for an elder or declining an older person in marriage be thought heaven worthy, if the youth, inculcated with Ixtahuacan’s rawasil beliefs, is simply protecting himself from premature aging?

Let the system break down, so that he no longer believes in the rawasils, and you have the older people, who acknowledge anyone they see walking, near or far, now complaining that their sons ignore their greetings, even though they meet eye-to-eye, or that they (the sons), their stars-and-stripes kerchiefs tied rakishly about their foreheads, knots behind, do not only not cede the road to them, but often push them roughly aside.

I don’t know how many times Roy Harris revisited his match with Liston mentally, how many times he slipped that jab, and countered with a devastating right. I do admit, however, that I have revisited mine. In these “re-encounters,” I hold forth that a society’s respect markers are still sacramental, and culture constituting, for however divergent the external gestures are from the thoughts inside.

I also point out a well-known anthropological dogma — namely, that no society has a monopoly on civilization and that cultural diversity — beautiful in itself — is even more fundamentally a phenomenon (like a variegated gene pool) that helps insure that a species survives.

More often, however, I simply provide him with more pertinent examples of Ixtahuacán society.

Accordingly, I share the results of these “encounters,” the following five domains of Ixtahuacán ethnology that offer an alternative to an increasingly ecologically vulnerable and McDonalized mankind.

Prayers for the dead

Can one of the reasons that death is so final and frightening in the States be that people are indeed forgotten? Even as our faith says yes yes, our actions say no no, the long deceased are no longer a part of our community.

It took decades for me to appreciate the mile-long procession of names from the grave that I read here each Nov. 2. Now that the slips of paper are disappearing (US influence) I feel like a remorseful husband watching his Desdemona die.

It is only now that I understand that that Mass is the visible manifestation of a more beautiful hidden reality. One of my sacristans prays for ancestors back to his great grandfather by name every morning.

Preferential love for the poor and the suffering

The Catholic Church may proclaim this, but the traditional K’iche’ give this teaching life.

Such was their sense of social concern when I arrived that no homeless wayfarer could be refused room and board by any family.

Such was their patience that no wandering dipsomaniac, no matter how obstreperous, would be dislodged from his bully pulpit in front of the altar—unless my patience waned.

I have mentioned in this forum an exotic part of speech that illustrates this gospel characteristic. Whereas other cultures use “honorifics” to signal people of importance (sort of like we do with our “excellencies” and “sirs”) the K’iche’ use them in reverse — that is, to insure that respect is given to the lowly and the hurt. Thus, a sick person is a sin sick person, a widow a sin widow, a prisoner a sin prisoner ... with the sin functioning sort of like a sir.

This is a far cry from the lesson from the U.S., which society — more perhaps than any other — diminishes the poor (can you imagine a contemporary politician prefacing his reference to a welfare recipient with any such word?).

The Church as Home

About 15 years ago, a local missionary exercised his canonical prerogatives to dispose of properties. A week later, everybody in Guatemala from the nuncio to the casual reader of banner headlines knew about the ensuing “war.”

These were the same Maya who 40 years before ran a priest out of Ixtahuacán on a rail, and who three years ago invaded the church of which I am pastor to strip her clean as a hardware store nail.

But this is only the shadow side of a characteristic whose other side is Mediterranean sun.

You have the feeling — when you see the Caterinecos setting up their elaborate banana raceme-amaryllidaceae and chamaedorea ornamentations at fiesta times, the Spanish Moss-bromeliacae decorations at Christmas and the orchid-palm leaf decorations for Holy Week—expending far more energies on the church than they would ever expend on their homes, that the church is their true home and family.

If liturgical innovation is related to the vitality of a community, as one liturgist used to say, even as love to poetry, then the Ixtahuacán Maya have it all over the experto-phobic West, for these people have (or at least had, when I arrived) dances all their own, processions all their own, liturgies and liturgical texts all their own, ecclesiastical offices all their own, saints all their own, and even their own apocryphal scriptures.

The women who salute the tabernacle with “good morning,” kneel in front of it, moaning papa, papa, and tenderly kiss it when they finish their prayers show in another manner their sense of being at home when they are in their church.

This is not a situation where a new priest has a fair idea of what to expect from a parish because its (top heavy) infrastructure has been imposed from above by institutions with which he is familiar. No, his is a bottom heavy parish that he had better enter with humility and care — like a groom entering a large and foreign family, rich with custom of which he is unaware.

This local (“bottom heavy”) tradition can be compared to the swatches of color that the Hispanic community is painting on the pastel façade of the American Church — but in the Maya case, the colors are deeper and they are more.

The Home as Church

As difficult as it is to find an American home without a television, even more difficult is it to find a traditional Maya home without its altar — that they incense, daily, on their knees in prayer.

A sense of community

Years ago, in college, I thought preposterous a certain skeptic’s rejection of the possibility of knowledge, preposterous his example that a (hypothetical!) demon could control our minds so that what ‘is’ is not, is illusion, not reality.

No more!

Whereas the Maya live in a community, where they receive their impressions of the world from as many directions as minds, Americans, jailed in the isolation of a nuclear family, possess not this peer interchange that is the wealth of traditional societies. Our impressions rather trickle down to us, according to what certain non-peers decide or decide not to confide—from a system of news dissemination managed by the same “hidden persuaders” who have already pre-arranged what next years teens will be telling each other to buy.

If the use of subliminal psychology in politics was already gestating in the ’40s when Nelson Rockefeller was inspiring Hollywood’s romanticized war movies, and in the ’60s when his men (now controlling a plethora of missile part-producing enterprises) invented a “missile gap” that almost produced, and a gulf of Tonkin incident that did produce, another war, today of course the baby is no longer gestating. In this era of mega-mergers, when business and journalism are no longer simply together in bed, but surgically twined, when you can read the same story in our Prensa Libra as in the Times, and when you can all but make out a Westinghouse logos on Dan Rather’s tie, subliminal persuasion in the media is as pervasive as what in the profession is known as white noise.

Contemporary Wyoming-style individualism will never persuade these “gray eminences” to have some greater good in mind; nor will it necessarily even detect the Star Wars Episode 5 sound track behind an “America Strikes Back” line. Rather, it will insure that Mr. Hume’s demon takes on more and more life.

One of my favorite stories this past year came from a Zunil Maya living in Berkeley who, frustrated by his confinement, went house-to-house organizing a potluck that has become a neighborhood institution.

For some such as I, Martin’s effort to form community was a message of hope that indigenous immigrants can bring to a country whose economic embargo killed at least 500,000 Iraqi children, even as her men-folk (isolated before their television sets that said nothing about it) discussed nothing more substantial than sports.

I think of the Norman Rockwell painting of a man in a suede jacket standing up in a town meeting, and the irony that it would take a Maya, in Berkeley of all places, to bring that vintage American scene back.


That’s it, monsignor. I have other examples (I love, for instance, the meal etiquette that keeps anyone from eating until the rest are served, or from acknowledging his food before acknowledging his neighbors, or from eating before offering first to share), but those are the biggies. I am just sorry it has taken me 20 years.

Sincerely, P.D.

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

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