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 )


  1. With your permission, I will use this story (giving credit to you, Tom...and Vicki) in my teaching...regarding seeing the harm even in what we understand to be as good...I am enjoying your photographs and paintings very much