Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tz'utujil Girl With Golden Egg

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala

By: Vincent Stanzione

Photography by: Tom Waters and Vicki Loewen

Boat landing, Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala

Cayucos at public beach, Santiago, Atitlan

There was a young girl, now a young woman. When still young she had a breakthrough idea about doing business at the docks where tourist boats arrive in Santiago. Her cleverness was in carrying a tame chicken in her arms. (Parents don’t make their children do things like that in the Maya areas of Guatemala.) This child’s idea was totally original, and it was to pay off. She conceived the idea after a tourist took endless pictures of her at her house while she struggled to retrieve a chicken from tragedy on the street. The tourist gave her five quetzals (about one US dollar at the time), for the photographing experience; with that her destiny was made.

She carried the lucky chicken, no longer destined for the cook pot, with her daily to the shore where she could immediately be seen by disembarking tourists and, naturally, the focus of tourist cameras.

At the time I was beginning to notice tourism change the face of the pueblo and little incidences like this became a fascination. It seemed amazing to me that by pure accident or coincidence, at the crossroads of culture change, one could fall into a chance destiny that seemed unlikely if not unimaginable.

The girl with the white hen was a person I saw often and liked a lot. She could have been a model for women's magazines because she knew innately how to hold herself and look right into the camera creating the sentimental image tourists were hoping to find among the poor of Guatemala. An image that could proudly be taken home, one that would confirm one’s compassion and photographic skill. In a relatively short time she was getting all the attention and more than her fair share of the tourists pocket change. She knew exactly what she was doing.

One day, sometime later, I was escorting a group of visitors through the pueblo on a tour. I had given a lecture to this group the night before in order to promote a bit of understanding about what they were going to see. And what they might expect from the locals, those whose livelihood was often hustling money from people like themselves. Anyway, I tried to orient these good folks but it was water on the proverbial duck’s back by the time we arrived at the shores of Santiago Atitlan. I told them, of course, to be careful photographing children because people don’t much like that. If they did take a picture, be ready to provide some recompense. On the shore waiting for them, as if rehearsed, was the little princess with a domestic fowl tantalizingly tucked in little hands and arms.

The philanthropists went unglued, their shudders snapped as their minds went to their pockets. One could almost hear the sub-vocal unraveling of sacred American stories about how the charity of the wealthy, combined with the inventiveness and hard drive of the poor, would raise humanity to higher heights in a world that could change for the better, with progress at all levels.

Once the tour was over and some time had gone by we (several were involved with the tour experience) received a letter asking if we wouldn’t mind seeing to it that the divine young girl with the chicken would get a proper education and further increase her possibilities. These benefactors, I was to learn, from a wealthy family would pay all of her expenses at any school her parents might chose, and they were willing to take care of the child for as long as she stayed in school. It was about as generous as one could imagine a foreigner being with somebody they absolutely did not know. We told them that we would see what we could do.

The girl came from a very poor family. A family with no history of education. So, when we told her mother what the visitors had offered she looked at us as if we simply didn’t understand anything about her world. Her daughter was making a lot of money at what she did and in time she would figure out something else even better. We stressed that the people were willing to support her child until she attained, if she wanted, a university diploma enabling her to become a professional. We suggested that further opportunities would surely open up for her, for the entire family. She looked at us as if we were out to steal her golden egg. She said she would let her child go to school if we also found a way for the people to pay the money that the family would lose while the girl was in school.

I thought ,wow, now that is the way to cut a deal, ask for more than you can ever imagine. I was getting an idea where the little girl had developed her eye for opportunity. It made a lot of sense in an indigenous economy where the children in the family are often as important as any one else in their ability to generate much needed cash.

We told the women we would see what we could do. We told her we understood. We also told her she should think a little about the future, sacrifice a bit today to reap a larger harvest in the future. The minute I said it I knew I was talking in terms that were probably incomprehensible, that the Maya have a hard time with, because I was talking about letting a sure thing go for a mere possibility in a very uncertain future. When we told the kind philanthropists what the mother had said they almost succumbed from shock. Wealthy people, it seems, don’t like to be told what to do with their cash, much less be asked for more than they have already generously offered. I tried my best to get them to understand and they did their best to get me to get the mother to understand. I was sadly and frustratingly stuck in the middle at a very complex crossroad where cultures meet and comprehension fails. In the end nothing happened.

The girl child continued posing with her white hen. It had been this girl's fate to call the eyes of fortune onto herself yet that accident of destiny did not give fruit. It did not give fruit simply because others were unwilling to take into account what was best for her, one who had done her best to improve her lot in life. I will always wonder where she came from and most of all where she will end up in life because it seems to me that she was clearly a being between and betwixt two worlds: one of the uncompromisingly wealthy and the other of the helplessly poor.

(Note: She is now a young adult and can sometimes be seen attempting to sell trinkets to tourists outside the Hotel Posada Santiago. She seems a little embarrassed when the chicken-years are mentioned to her. ~~~~~~ tw )

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Man-Child of Many Nations?

By: Vincent Stanzione

Photograph by: Tom Waters

This is a short blog about a single photograph of a boy who was often encountered on the pathways around the lake-side near Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. The photograph was take about five years ago. It, the blog, is another result of collaborative work of myself, Tom, and my long-time friend, Vincent Stanzione. Vincent and I walked many miles around Lake Atitlan and throughout the Highlands. His writing is in response to an agreement we made that he would look at photographs and, then, respond spontaneously with his thoughts. Vincent speaks at least one Mayan language proficiently, Tz'utujil, and understands adequately others. The result being that he can speak, when need be, with the flavor and cadence of local Maya which always makes for interesting perspective and feeling.~~~~~~~~~ tw

A Man-Child of Many Nations?

We live in the America (Central America, where this is being written) where people from all over the world lived together for over five hundred years. There is much history that goes untold yet appears in the faces of children. One meets such children often, on roads and paths and in this instance on the lake-side near Santiago Atitlan. I love this Man-Child’s look, the keenness in his inner sense of self. He knows who he is, a man in a child’s body, There appears to be insight, and perhaps intrinsic knowledge of himself, based on some ancestral memory. This is a Maya-Tz’utujil boy who could easily be from the countryside of Louisiana, Southeast Texas, Alabama, or somewhere similar.

It is amazing how much his physical features remind me of children I went to school with as a kid years ago in New Orleans. It is the way his eyes, forehead, eyebrows and lips appear to question the on-looker, “What do you want with my photograph?” “ Who are you lookin’ at mister?” I am surprised that a young child can look at an adult like this. It opens one to wonder while wandering through the faces of this America’s past. This child knows who he is. At least that is what his body language seems to say with its confidence.

I walk a lot in Guatemala. I have walked through the desolate wind-blown waste of the highlands, down into the lowland jungles, wandered the piedmont, and back to my home again. Often I come into contact with people who speak one of two dozen Maya languages but who could be, based on physical appearance, from any of several places in this world. Some look Asian, either Chinese or Japanese, others could be from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Thailand. Sometimes I encounter, though not often, people whose ancestry is clearly West African. or West Indian (this is not unexpected as Guatemala has its own Garifuna population on the east coast around Livingston). It is amazing how different looking people are in a place that is supposedly completely Maya. The amount of miscegenation that has historically happened in this Maya world could hardly be better represented than by this boy’s visage.

The child here looks a lot be a young Louis Armstrong. He has strength of character in his build, a knowingness in his look and that famous Armstrong smile about to appear on his lips. I know, too, that this boy is a rascal and a joker; he is a spirited and playful child who knows that he is exactly where he should be. He has four sisters none of whom look a bit like him.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dona Juana: A Remembrance

By: Vincent Stanzione

Photos by: Tom Waters

Vincent and I walked many hundreds of miles in the hills and valleys around his home in the Guatemala Highlands. He talked with friends, introducing me, and obtained permissions to photograph some special people. It has been years since we did these walks, but Vincent recalls well, as do I, the experiences. He has agreed to look at many of my photographs, taking time off from his more academic writing, and respond spontaneously to the photos, recollecting people, places and some unusual events. This is one of several collaboration that we have done, and there are more to follow. ------ tw

Doña Juana had never looked a photographer in the eye. She was extremely sensitive in the sense of the eye being the window of the soul. To open up that window was to risk losing an aspect of her soul. In one photo, below, she sits next to her altar place and looks away while being photographed. The photograph is her way of doing me a favor. In a second photograph she reluctantly looked for a moment at my friend, Tom, then quickly looked away. I wanted to photograph her in her place before she left this world of rain and wind, of maize and beans, flower and song.

Doña Juana lived by herself on a ridge that the sun graced first thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon. I love where she lived and still lives in her spirit-way. It isn’t easy finding a place to make one’s home in this world.

Humans need sun and water to heat and sustain them through days, months, years, and bundles of years. The sun’s rising and falling. Water and light are what one hopes to find in mountains: it is there that the sun is seen as the Old Man and the rain his sons. Warmth and sustenance is what one seeks in the forest where the trees and grasses, flowers and mushrooms, and herbs are children of the Earth. Earth, sky, water and vegetation are what Doña Juana lived for. Many times I saw her sitting outside her crumbling adobe hut, leaning against the white- washed wall, just sitting. Sitting for hours. And so she did, next to her alter-place, in the photograph I am looking at.

Doña Juana lived by herself, contentedly, for many years. Her children lived around her, in their own adobe homes a short distance away. She was surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She raised mountain children, her own, and neighboring children and then grandchildren. Their dwellings are what some would call huts. But they are not merely huts and they are not houses --- they are homes. All of Doña Juana’s children live apart with their families. Some of them don’t talk to one another after a life of living alone in the dark hollows between two lost settlements in the K’iche highlands. Life is like that when we think about it. Siblings don’t always get along.

Doña Juana was a spiritual person, religious in her way yet not associated with orthodox worshipers. She disliked groups. She was such a contented, natural loner and her life made me realize how happy humans can be living apart doing whatever they find sustaining.

Every Thursday and Sunday she would lead her horse to town burdened with a load of firewood to sell. A grandson would help her gather wood and load it onto her horse, a horse she always talked with. Her grandson was a sweet child who, although almost mute, had a perfect musical ear. He spoke rarely but he played music and he played it in the Pentecostal church he was forced to attend. His father was a fanatic Christian without education, a perfect victim of the ‘great lie.’ The grandson of Doña Juana disliked the yelling that went on in the church and grew fearful from stories Christian zealots told from the pulpit.

I would sometimes sit with Doña Juana at the end of the day after a long walk clearing my head. I would put two beers in my backpack and climb up out of the hollow, where the water runs and my adobe house sits, and into the sun of where Juana lived. Inevitably I would be just a step ahead of the encroaching shadows left by the Sun as he walked in the opposite direction. There would still be warmth and light on the ridge; Juana would be getting ready for night as she finished her day. She drank spirits so it was nice to share with her on top of the mountain in a forest looking over the world. I liked to talk to her about religion because she didn’t believe in the Bible, though most of the people around there did. She believed in a more personal kind of a god. Her god was the kind of god I suppose I would believe in, or do believe in, when I believe in god. She didn’t like it that her grandson had to go to the ‘screamers’ on Wednesdays and Saturdays because they put bad ideas, terrifying ideas, in his head. We talked about it and drank beer.

Doña Juana liked to talk but you had to get her talking with questions about life that mattered to her. Maize mattered to her. So did Jesukrist, and for Juana there were beings who were in their own way just the same as he. She believed that Jesus was a lord of the divine grain, maize to her. In her prayers on her altar she placed a wreath of dry maize heads from her own harvest. Next to that she had an image of the good Jesus with his resplendent heart that protected the innocent and the poor. Over Jesus was the sacred cross, la Santa Cruz de Jesus, that was like a tree in the Holy World, the Santo Mundo. The cross-tree and maize, along with Jesus all floated into a Maya styled religion that centered itself in a cosmos where Jesus became the protector of people by protecting, nurturing and blessing their maize plants. Plants that stood like trees and crosses in the sacred corn patches that grew around adobe houses like Doña Juana’s. Her altar says it all.

Doña Juana was already dying here in this photo. She had stomach cancer that she let go unattended until she finally had to leave this world. On her deathbed she would say jokingly over and over…me voy al tigre, me voy al tigre…..I’m going to the tiger, I’m going to the tiger. Jaguar is bajlam and she would say that as well. She said it with such yearning and sincerity. Not to mention a sense of humor that I found remarkable.

Perhaps not so long ago the old people who wished to die may have just gone out into the wild, taken some herbs, which they knew well, then waited to feed the Sun by feeding the jaguar, seen as the embodiment of the Sun. Me voy al tigre is the way I will always look at my life and death. When the ‘Sun’ sets, when the ‘Old Man’ falls into the underworld he leaves behind the jaguar as his replacement. That jaguar is left to roam the world searching for hearts to feed itself and thereby the Sun as he passes through the land of the dead, place of the ancestors. What better way to be assured of a place in the house of the Sun than to give yourself to Sun as the elder Mayas must have done. To go to the Jaguar is the humblest way of saying: I’m going to heaven: House of the Sun.

Doña Juana entered the road with the jaguar sun one night when I wasn’t around. And in one of those strange occurrences in life on earth I came bumping down the road in my pickup as Doña Juana was being carried by her children in a funeral procession that was moving quietly to the cemetery. As the procession came up to me I asked if it was Doña Juana who was being carried inside the pine box. I knew it was. In her words, she had been around long enough. I got out and said good bye. Then slipped her favorite daughter some money to help with expenses as is custom. She said we would talk later. And then the little flowery assemblage of humanity went on its way. I went on my walks but Doña Juana wasn’t there anymore.

A few months after she left this world she came back to take her beloved grandson with her. In the old ways when strong people die under imperfect circumstances they return to rectify certain wrongs here on earth. Sometimes older folks who have an extremely close relationship with a grandchild will take the child to keep them company. The people where I live believe that Juana didn’t want to leave the her grandson in a world that had changed (from the worship of flowering tassels of maize to one fearing apocalypse and damnation). So she came back to get him to play in the band in the house of the Sun.

Dona Juana had seen her world dramatically altered by fanatic Christians and she thought it was her duty to show them that there was a paradise where water flows from the mountain, where flowers bloom year long, where sweet breezes blow through the pines, where edible herbs prosper along mountain paths, and where fruits and grains grow big through the nurturing power of human hands. Maybe she just wanted to show the Christian believers who had doubted her world that they should be a little bit more thankful for what ‘god’ has given them instead of creating the nightmare that is to usher in a second coming.

Juana used to say, Jesus isn’t coming back he is already here, he is right here in the light in the forest, in the golden maize, in the iridescent purple flower of the Morning-glories, in everything and in all that surrounds one. Dona Juana might have wanted to teach her people who had converted that life is not a sin and that living is a blessed thing. She took her grandchild to the promised land after he suffered three grueling months with some virulent form of leukemia. It really was sad yet liberating.

I go walking through Juana’s place all the time. Nobody lives there anymore and I don’t drink beer much either but I always stop in the afternoons to take in the precious feeling of that place. It is just how the sun rises and sun sets there that open one up to the glories of life and death and rebirth. The earth we live on is paradise and that is life’s truest altar, but Dona Juana had one inside and it was important to her. I believe like Dona Juana that there is something sacred in life that could be called spiritual but, also like Dona Juana, I don’t really believe in god as much as I believe in life, again like Dona Juana.

What a perfect world it would be if we just kept ourselves a little home altar where we could pray to our divine selves asking the mysterious hand of the divine to watch over our lives and the paths we take through it. If I were to promote a religion in this world it would be Dona Juana’s kind where there is no hatred or need of violence, nor vengeance, or fear of the end or the wrath of a creator. If I were to lead a religious life I would follow the way of Dona Juana and her life as a hermit in the mountains who kept to herself and left others to their lives. I liked Dona Juana as much as I’ve liked anyone in life but I don’t miss her because she is always up around her house in the sun, in her own divine kind of a way.