Title: My last week of Spanish immersion classes Location: Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
And so began my last week of Spanish immersion classes, remembering the country's 36 years of Civil war and reflecting on its lasting and still very present impacts and repercussions....
On Tuesday, it was on to another adventure with an interesting fieldtrip to Zunil, which is about 20 minutes from here on bus and is located in a very scenic little valley. First, we visited yet another church dating from colonial times, whose alter is still the original, built about 450 years ago. It was the village's patron saint's 'fiesta' (Santa Catarina) and so lively music was playing in the village square in from of the church, whose inside was decorated with colorful clothes and draperies surrounding images of various Catholic saints. After visiting this more conventional place of worship, we made our way through the village to try to find San Simon, a Mayan deity highly revered in most of the Highlands. Many legends and stories attempt to explain the origins of San Simon, Maximon or Ry Laj Man (who are actually all the same deity). The one I find most attractive is the story of an old man who organized a resistance to the conquering Spaniards' establishment of slave work in the fincas (plantations). The legend has it that he was captured by Spanish authorities and brought to the village square to be burned for his opposition. Women from all over the region came, crying, weeping for his life, and molded the effigy of San Simon by combining their tears with his ashes. Another legend explains that the deity's 'western' style of dress was adopted in an attempt to fool the Spanish into thinking that conversion efforts were succeeding and that they had abandoned the Mayan god.
Locals eventually led us to the house where San Simon is presently kept (he changes houses within a fraternity every year on October 28th). Since he has only been occupying his present residence for a few days, the first few people we asked didn't seem to know (or didn't want to tell us, a bunch of 'gringos') where he was being kept. After finding the house and paying each 5 quetzals in order to be allowed to enter, we found seats along the walls of a concrete room where Vegas-style lights and plastic banners surrounded an effigy sitting on a mirror decorated throne. I had once before visited a cult to San Simon, in Santiago Atitlan, but this was something else! In Zunil, San Simon's effigy is a wooden doll of human size and proportion who is dressed more or less like a cowboy: bandana around the neck, cowboy hat, sunglasses and all! People come from all over to make offerings of liquor and cigarettes in exchange for the granting of various favors. The various candles on the floor in front of San Simon are an ever-present reminder of the favors asked of the deity, from helping a business to prosper, bringing more children into a family, or helping a loved one on his dangerous and illegal journey 'al Norte'. Every color has a different meaning: white for health, red for love, green for money and many more.
When we entered the place of worship, a Mayan woman was making incantations in form of the doll as another was kneeling beside her, eyes closed. San Simon's was holding a picture of someone in his hand. After placing a lit cigarette in the effigy's mouth, spraying some scented aerosol over the kneeling woman, the picture and San Simon, they gave him a drink of alcohol, kissed him and proceeded to light various colors of candles at his feet. The only words the woman uttered in Spanish were 'San Francisco, California', so we assumed that the person in the picture was making the journey 'al Norte', to the USA and thus needed all the help he could get.
Apparently, when liquor is poured into the effigy's mouth, it passes through a system of tubes and eventually ends up in a basin in which it is collected. All of the alcohol that is poured into the effigy's mouth during a year is stored and kept until the saint's fiesta when it is distributed to all that participate in the three day party that accompanies the effigy's changing of residence.
After witnessing the start of another offering to San Simon, we proceeded to the upstairs terrace of the house where offerings of eggs, incense, chocolate, chewing gum and candles were being burned, accompanied by still other incantations and the spraying of liquor and aerosol on the fire. When we came back down to exit, a man had started reading Tarot cards to another visitor to the cult... It is no longer a mystery to me why the Catholic Church didn't approve of the cult to San Simon!
I am now in the process of looking for an apartment, or for 'longer term' living arrangements and also looking forward to the arrival of another friend from Moncton, who should be arriving tomorrow. We are going to take Spanish immersion classes together at this Spanish school nearby. Can't wait.