The Cosmic Tamale

Update: I wrote and published this post on 3/15 but it seems to have been some sort of hallucination because it doesn’t exist anymore. I’m rewriting it, because I liked it a lot. It might not be the same.

On Thursday 3/9, one week ago, my work group moved from the house site in Santa Lucia Utatlan to a little homestead in the aldea of La Cuchilla. The other group had been there earlier in the week, building stoves in the homes just above our site on the hill. They told us about a large shrine that they’d noticed in the room where they’d eaten lunch on Tuesday, and that it was different than many of the shrines we’d become accustomed to seeing in these rural Mayan houses. Usually, there’s small stylized prints of Jesus or the Virgin of Guadalupe, pictures of ancestors or family members that are off working elsewhere in the world or that have passed away. Coins and candles on the table, nothing too out of the ordinary. While Manuel’s shrine had many of these components, it also held a great many surprises.

Kevin, a member of the other work group, had noticed a pile of arrow heads on one corner of this particularly large shrine; the table that held it stretched across the entire wall of this rectangular room. Manuel was there and explained the meanings of nearly everything on his shrine to the group when they expressed interest. Manuel is seventy two years old but looks ninety, speaks no Spanish at all, and still wears the traditional traje jacket and pants that are quite rare on modern Mayan men. His daughter translated his words from Kaqchikel into Spanish for the group. As we picked up and set down the objects that Manuel and his family held sacred, his granddaughter followed behind us and gently moved them back into their proper places.

On the far right corner of his shrine was the pile of arrowheads. He and his fore-bearers had found all of them in their fields, some of which were an hour’s walking distance from the home. They believed that they were from the ancient Maya who had hunted in these hills when they were still covered in trees instead of cornfields.

On the far left were ceramic figurines, obviously quite ancient. Manuel’s daughter encouraged us to pick them up and look more closely at them, which I did quite enthusiastically and nervously. Holding something of this level of of religious importance to this family, not to mention of this age and historical value… It was extremely humbling. Manuel told us that grandfather had found them in his own cornfield in his time.

Several of our group members wondered, why aren’t these in a museum?  This family has been on this land for generations. The statues are potentially of ancient Kaqchikel origin, and this family is Kaqchikel. Instead of behind a protective sheet of glass in some foreign museum that a Kaqchikel Mayan person might never see, having the literal artifacts of your ancestors in your home just feels much more powerful. I am thinking about sending the pictures that I have of them to an actual trained archaeologist just so I’ll be able to know what they were for my own edification and to satisfy my curiosity.

wp-image-1529794163jpg.jpgSurprisingly, the coolest thing about this alter was the corn. There were four different colors of corn laid out very carefully in the center of the alter underneath the pictures of Jesus and the Virgin. Corn is extremely important to the Mayans, so I was not surprised to see it here, but I was fascinated by Manuel and his daughter’s explanation.

In the K’iche Mayan creation myth, as written in the Popol Vuh, humans were made out of masa, or tamale dough made from corn. To Manuel, the different colors of corn grown in his fields represent the different colors of humans that inhabit the Earth. Though we look different, we are all made from the same dough.

“Our Creation Story teaches us that the first Grandparents of our people were made from corn. Maize is sacred to us because it connects us with our ancestors. It feeds our spirit as well as our bodies.” Juana Batz Puac, K’iche’ Maya, Day Keeper

Though we look different, we are all made from the same dough. 

Now that’s a creation myth I can get behind.

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Habitat Guatemala 2017: First Work Day

At 8 this morning, we gathered in the hotel lobby for our first work day. Our hotel from last year, Cacique Inn, had a fire in the office so we got upgraded to Hotel Porta Lago. This hotel is so luxurious, it probably has room service. It has an elevator, the wifi reaches the rooms so we’re not forced to mingle at a common “wifi watering hole”, and there’s reliable hot water. I’ve been calling it Gringotopia. It’s embarrassing how nice it is, honestly. 

All of this, of course, is in extreme contrast to our work sites. For the most part, the aldeas or small outlying villages are the picture of abject poverty. Our work site today had electricity, but no running water. It’s surrounded by dusty cornfields. The homes are adobe or cinder block, the paths to the homes are well-trod, and the families are extremely kind and hospitable. 

We’ve split into Stoves and Homes, and I’m on the Home team for today and tomorrow. We’re working on putting the foundation this week. Today I clipped the wire ties for the rebar for quite a while with the help of Don Antonio, who taught me a little K’iche and chatted with me about his family. I also tied the wires into the rebar, made links out of some metal, and removed excess cement from the cement blocks. Best of all, I got to coordinate the coloring book and crayon disbursement to the little kids from the village as they got back from school. There’s a lot of pictures (and therefore proof!) of me doing these activities but for the moment I only have the photos I took myself. 

The future homeowners, Dulia and Nelson, are both teachers at the local school. Nelson teaches fifth and sixth grades, and Dulia teaches “los niños más pequeños” or the smallest kids. I’m excited to talk to them tomorrow about how they teach the Mayan numerical system. Professional interest, of course. 

I’m also really excited to see the kids again. They’re whip-smart and so cute. They filled up almost two whole coloring books after they got home from school. 

I think I’ve managed to make friends with all of the child vendors on the street today. There was Sara, who sells bracelets in the Artisans Market to pay for her middle school tuition (I gladly paid full price for a bracelet), and Christian who makes and sells shirts to pay for high school. I bought a shirt from him last year. Both speak excellent English from their time talking to gringos and from their educations. The souvenir market is quite intense here, as it’s all very beautiful and well-made and the vendors are extremely convincing. I made the wise decision to come down with a specific list of what to get while I’m here, and I feel I’ve done a good job of sticking to it. It’s very tempting to be overly helpful in invigorating the local economy. 

My group members keep asking what I’m going to do when I’m done with my doctorate. Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve been joking with them though that I’ll be coming back here to get some land on the side of the volcano to start a secret lair. I’m getting increasingly serious about it each time I say it though. Guatemala and Lake Atitlán grow on me every single day I’m here. 

Brick Therapy

Spring Break is here! There’s still a few inches of snow on the ground here in Logan, but apparently it’s spring enough to get away from schoolwork and stress for a week. It’s been a busy semester for me so far. I really kicked things up a notch from Fall by taking on data collection in a few different research projects, joining a language acquisition and brain imaging lab, and really starting to prepare my own research for implementation. I’m also taking more classes than I think I technically should, as well as being in the core group of a new grassroots social justice initiative. Oh, and I’ve been snowboarding and sledding like nobodies business because snow is super fun and I’m not letting it melt without getting my money’s worth out of it. But it’s time to take a break from all of this and engage in some “brick therapy”. 

I’m absolutely thrilled to say that I’m returning to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity for my Spring Break. I’ll be exploring the aldeas of Sololá, building houses, stoves, and latrines out of adobe bricks. I’ll be practicing my K’iche and Kaqchikel Mayan, making a fool of myself with unfamiliar vowels and glottal stops. I’ll be soaking up sun on Lake Atitlán and practicing my “cultural diplomacy”. I’ll be missing my kiddo something fierce. But in the midst of it all, I’ve still got about 20 articles I need to read over the break, for classes and for “fun” (aka my own edification). I still need to write a paper about dual language immersion classrooms, and I still need to write a rocking thesis statement for a diversity and inclusion grant. And best of all, I need to suss out how much of the Mayan numeral system the Mayan kids know so I can start planning my dissertation. 

This is going to be AWESOME.