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: An era died with Manuel T’uy

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 27, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

"... the folksy Edgar ('Pop') Buell was the classic grandfatherly American missionary. Buell trained Hmong tribesmen in demolition and organized the dynamiting of bridges and passes through the Laotian mountains...the CIA’s weapons, clothes, and rice encouraged clan rivalries to express themselves through violence against clans allied with the Pathet Lao .AID provided cover for CIA ...agents who directed at its peak an army of 40,000.... Buell joined ... AID’s ranks.Rice was cut off ... to villages that did not want to keep sending their men to war, or did not want to move on CIA’s orders; forced migration often caused villages a 20 percent casualty rate, mostly children and elderly. Buell defended the use of humanitarian relief to support the CIA’s war. By 1970, the (fundamentalist) Indiana farmer would be cajoling the polygamist general of the CIA’s secret army, Vang Pao, to “hold on,” despite 30,000 Hmong dead, the drafting of 12-year-old boys, and Vang Pao’s plea that “the good ones are all dead, my father. Dead.”

Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett, Thy Will be Done


The man who told me about the way the patz’ka’rib’ seduced a saint is dead.

Manuel T’uy recorded many such events during his terms as my companionable cook in the town that once belonged to the “seduced” patroness.

The patzka’r were the local clowns of eons back who entertained in fiestas. By “eons” I refer to the epoch when Peruvian Indians were still swimming Amazon tributaries – before oil contaminated their waters, and they began collecting cents swimming petroleum pits instead; to that epoch when I first came to Ixtahuacán, when big oil was not yet ruing the 65 percent of the world’s rapidly dwindling reserves controlled by Arabs, when that multinational of all multinationals, PETROAMERICA, under its most illustrious member, the current American president and vice-president, was not yet consolidating all Latin corporations (Petrobras, PEMEX...) into its hands, when the first oil (and CIA) man was yet to become president; when Guatemala’s own reserves were still sub-terrenean, and the CIA war that killed 200,000 yet to be implemented; I refer to that epoch, before the long-term results of that war were apparent, when 60 carjackings, and 60 bus assaults, were not reported daily in a Guatemala city with hardly more late-models than Spokane, when gewgaws worth 65 cents were not yet the occasion for the regular bludgeoning of working women by boys whose parents fled in hordes into unemployment 20 years ago to escape the Fort Benning-trained officers who were killing them.

It was another era then – not only for us, but for all the world’s indigenous.

When Manuel told me of the patzka’rib 27 years ago there were still Amazon Indians who could be featured in a Geographic magazine that avoided the genocide being inflicted against them, still children in the 50 Native American linguistic groups in California who could speak the language of their parents, still significant teak reserves in Southeast Asia, and as for the Hmong in that area – they had not yet been airlifted (what was left of them) to the United States.

Moreover, homicide had yet to become an annual Ixtahuacán event.


The patzka’r accompanied the forefathers to Rome a score of generations back, according to Manuel’s Ixtahuacán tradition, to persuade Catalina, who had yet to become the town’s patroness, and who had already refused suitors from a multitude of other townships, to come back with them.

The local dignitaries had exhausted all of their formidable rhetorical talents, danced vainly their august dances with the glittering costumry that impoverished the participants, and were about to be refused along with the others when the patzka’rs intervened, and made Catarina laugh.

Sorry to say, I was not yet sufficiently discerning during my early years here when the patz’ka’rs were very much in evidence to look closely enough as to speculate as to what exactly engaged the heart of the saint from Rome who was to become our patroness. I only laughed as Manuel, moving back and forth in obvious delight, described what they did – the way that they bumped into each other, and mixed their clothes like a laundromat, the way that the Ladino in black bussed another man, dressed as an Indian woman, and then haplessly flailed away at the advances to the same “woman” made by another laundromat-basket-appareled Ixtahuacán man.


There were countless such stories that Manuel, smiling always under his crew cut, would tell as I savored the potatoes he fixed. He told me, with particular earnestness, of the acha’n, the ladino ex-convicts who lived in surrounding forests. Those who survived their encounters with the head removers always told the same story: the acha’n, after a certain preparatory period, invited them to a contest and those who crossed themselves or otherwise invoked a spiritual power won the match, while those who did not lost their heads. He told me that one site is so called because one local disposed of seven acha’n there – warned beforehand in a dream to invoke Peter and Paul for protection.


Catarina, however, seems to have been the acha’ns’ greatest frustration. One man, long ago, according to Manuel, who sought work near the ocean, talked to a ladino who introduced himself as a reformed acha’n. He related how whenever he attempted to accost a Catarineco, he saw a longhaired woman carrying a sword preceding him.


Manuel poured even more chili on his shape-shifters allocutions. If he had his own experiences, he also told of a woman who would slip away nocturnally to meet with companions, leaving a steak as a ruse on her mat. Her husband followed her one night, climbed a roof, and observed how the women became donkeys, and left braying, to commit malefaction. He entered the house, and sprinkled salt on her clothes, to protect her from resuming her humanness.

Another true story involves a man who, prematurely returning from a trip, and finding no place to bed, climbed a tree, under which gathered a few hours later an assembly of shape-shifters working a brew of chickens, lambs, turkeys and, unbeknownst to them, the observing man’s excrement. The man’s wife – unable to offer anything for the cauldron – promised her husband’s flesh for the next event. The latter, consequently, was ready when she besought his company on said occasion. He threw her body outside to her waiting companions.


If such were the histories, the beliefs that Manuel mentioned could fill a paragraph in Heaven: shake a broom at a cow, and you tame it; drink directly from a “water” gourd and you will have a “gourd” (goiter) on your neck, blow forcefully when you are in a steam bath and your eyes will auto-digest. You die if a fox barks near your house, if the edge of a grave keeps eroding as you dig it, or if a pitzui bird precedes you on your path. If it is misting, Catarina is crying; if lightening strikes a tree, there is a susan – a malevolent grasshopper – inside it; if a bull sticks its horns in the earth, it has worms in its head.


The strange thing about these stories is that I grew to love Manuel and all of Ixtahuacán through him. The man that I fired when he showed an inebriated, babblative aspect to this new priest, and –alas! – his bishop, instead of dinner one night in 1976 turned into a kind of saint when he became my cook again two decades later – and all of the old Ixtahuacán through him. If the last Dateline intended to show aspects of Caterinecos that could edify Western man, his stories extend the list: viz., the humility of the people, evident in the story of the patzka’r and Catarina, and in the histories concerning the acha’ns, whom the Caterinecos subdue never with their own powers, but with Heaven’s.

One finds too here frustrating aspects to their character – for example, a gullibility that swallows the account of every new acha’n, or the word of every gospel charlatan who can locate a handful of (sorcerer’s) bones in the home of someone sick, or the latest Harold Hill melodist who offers them a promised passage to the U.S.; for example, a sense of fatalism that allows village potentates to dominate them even as they allow dictators to do it to the nation.

In this regard, I recall the only period when Manuel seemed really sad. The two little boys whom he adopted after their father’s brother killed their father were several years taken from his house by their father’s father who was himself the town’s most notorious sorcerer and master of imprecations.

For all his love for the kids, Manuel never protested.

That Manuel continued his occasional binges, and left me hungry on many an occasion became less important to me, as any sense of condescension disappeared that I once felt for him. Quite the contrary: I marveled at his equanimity, his generosity, even his total self-control in my kitchen.

As I watched him semi-conscious with liver cirrhosis last week, his face turning gentler by the minute, I began to ask: what is the meaning of free-will when body and mind are such a mish-mash, and a man who would pluck his eye to break a single habit, can’t.

I asked Anna Garcia, another one of his adopted children, and a leader in the New Ixtahuacán where Manuel, following his children went to live: “Have you ever seen him angry?"

“Not once,” she, choking back her weeping, said.


The Manuels here are disappearing, replaced by a generation as known for aggression as Manuel was for gentleness. A murder here last week was the sixth in as many years, including the father of Manuel’s adopted children, but excluding battles in which “armies” from the New Ixtahuacán twice engaged neighboring Nahuala in mortal conflict. The latest skirmish, last July, featured shrapnel-scattering bombs launched by the Ixtahuacán contingent.


I heard a compatriot air-traveler once panning “naysayers” who seem to blame his country for “all” the world’s evils. With that straw man disposed of, he went back to his sports section.

Often, when I have to tell yet another at my door that I cannot help him get into the U.S., I think of him.

When I see the sign to the entrance to the old Ixtahuacán, “thieves are burned here,” I think of him, as I did yesterday when a friend described how last week she witnessed yet another vigilante burning in another Maya township. Will that Tampa Bay coach be able to explain how U.S.-sponsored vigilante auto-defense patrols of the early 1980s created the ambient climate that made murderers of tens of thousands of Maya men since?

That 3,667 Afghan civilians killed within a month of the war’s beginning were more than all the Trade Center victims?

Manuel T’uy is dead, and with him, an era in which the United States and all of the world’s Ixtahuacáns were not so intermixed.

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

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