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.


  1. I very much enjoyed reading this and appreciate the photos. Good job Tom and Vinnie!

  2. Thank you for this story/picture of the quiet earth/paradise... a place where water flows from mountains, flowers bloom all year and the corn grows tall...

  3. Hi from Dutch Valley New Brunswick. I was checking out my bookmarks and opened your blog page. Great visual story!1