A Mayan Life: A Birth in the Village

By Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez

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Translated and edited by Fernando Peñalosa and Janet Sawyer

A MAYAN LIFE is the first novel ever by a Mayan writer, and thus the first in which the Maya themselves tell their own story. Through the eyes of Lwin, living in the hamlet of Jolomk'u, in the municipio of San Pedro Soloma, high up in the isolated Cuchumat'n Mountains of Guatemala (about six hours by dirt road from the nearest town), we live the drama of an oppressed people struggling to survive and maintain their dignity five centuries after the Spanish invasion. Rich in personal and ethnological detail, the reader comes away knowing better just what it means to be a contemporary Maya. San Pedro Soloma is also an important source of immigration to the United States. Many Solomeros live in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas and elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Author Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez is a graduate of Universidad Mariano Galvez and an official of the Ministry of Culture of Guatemala.

It all began when the gods inscribed their great signs on the stelae of time. It was on the day Thirteen Ajaw.

Jolomk'u, according to the stories of the grandparents, was the name of a village situated on a tall ridge among a multitude of hills and mountains. It was a colorful village, woven with the work of men and women, with their lives, illusions and failures. Cold air rode freely among the savage hills, coming face to face with the people of Jolomk'u.

In the shadow of the wings of Ajaw, the manifestation of the great God, night fell. Soon the dark contours of the high mountains appeared like giants in the night. It was a night of a thousand centuries of history. It didn't seem to be the same wind, the same night, the same contours. It seemed that Ajaw was aging among the pines and that his hands had lost the ability to sculpt life on indecipherable stelae. The moon, like a great eye in the night, came sailing over dark waves of sleepy clouds. It shone its great gaze at Jolomk'u. It tried to pull aside the storm clouds to cast its light on the sleeping landscape. The silhouetted mountain slopes were sprinkled with gamboling lambs. The night closed the sheepfold and then opened the door to stars flying toward the great heights like thousands of fireflies.

In the shifting lights of the evening, the men of Jolomk'u found themselves alone. One by one they lit pitch pine slivers in the huts, until the village was full of the spattering of smoking firebrands that made the crickets cry. A chorus of dogs barked, intoning their protests against the unannounced strange rustling noises of the nawales, the local evil spirits, terrifying the living, coming out to prowl over their realm.

Along the roads some girls out late with their clay water pots ran furtively toward the spring for a fleeting encounter with their boyfriends hiding in the thickets. A brook ran down quietly through the village, spraying watercress, nightshade and water, mint and water into the open mouths of the amorous girls' water pots. There, right by the bend of the brook, before it hastened over the precipice and ran through a small plain on the highest part of Jolomk'u,

Mekel had built his little wattle-and-daub house with a straw roof and oak posts, from which hung armadillo shells. In the stillness of that night, Mekel's wife, Lotaxh, struggled with birth pangs. She was alone in the house, in a cold sweat, the drops of pain like an approaching rainstorm. When Mekel arrived and put down his load of firewood, he found his wife gripping one of the posts. He didn't know if he felt happiness, pity or sorrow coursing through his veins. What he was sure of was that his son would arrive this night, clinging to the fingers of Ajaw.

"Go call Ewul. It's time," said Lotaxh. Mekel put on his light sandals with their soles made of tire treads, took his machete and set off with his capixay jacket on his shoulder toward the nearby village where Ewul lived. He ran like a deer, jumping over the underbrush, taking shortcuts, racing over the paths, climbing the slopes until he arrived at the waterfall, beyond the great rocks, almost to the edge of the pine groves where the virgin forest began.

"Hello there," cried out Mekel in front of the little straw- covered house. A dog barked lazily, accustomed to the midwife's numerous daily visitors. "Yes" answered a woman's voice from inside the hut.

"It's me, doña Ewul. I came to get you because my wife's labor pains started around midday," he said.

"All right, just a moment. You should have told me sooner. Malku," called the woman, "Get me artemisia and pericèn herbs, chicken fat and the bottle of liquor. Hurry, because we may get there too late."

Mekel wiped his sweaty forehead and neck with the sleeve of his capixay. Meanwhile in Jolomk'u, Lotaxh, a young woman accustomed to pain and work, with strong arms like a grinding stone, grasped one of the pine stakes attached to one corner of the pole bed. Her survival instincts had led her to prepare an adequate place for her child to be born in case she did not have the midwife's help. She had stretched a straw mat over the earth and some old clothes on the mat, forming a nest. On one side the fire was like an eye slowly shutting an ashen lid. Some chickens complained under the pole bed because Lotaxh's moans kept them awake.

In the lulls between waves of pain, she pondered, "My God, I hope that the fox's howl I heard this morning isn't a bad omen." Unraveling like a skein of thread in her mind were the advice and instructions of the women she had spoken with regarding childbirth.

Outside the hut the cold was intense, but Lotaxh was still sweating, sinking her fingernails into the trunk and tearing off the bark. Three hours had passed and the laboring woman's strength was waning, just like the dying flames. A candle hanging from the sooty walls flickered, begging for more fuel, before it was swallowed up by the invading darkness.

It seemed that everything was coming to an end. Her pale face was like a tender avocado leaf, her breath sometimes quickening and sometimes imperceptible. Her eyes saw everything spinning around: the candle dying, the hearth spinning, the barks always more distant. She was about to lose consciousness, curled up on her straw mat on the hard soil of black clay, when Mekel came in all out of breath and sweaty. The steam rose from his body through the holes in his shirt like the vapors of the sweat bath. A little while later, Ewul arrived accompanied by a boy about ten years old, her helper in the preparation of medicines and incense.

"Leave me alone with her," she said to Mekel.

The boy began to make a fire in a smaller hut outside. He made some beverages from the herbs that he carried in his bag, first using the chicken fat along with the bottle of liquor.

Mekel put on his capixay to calm his nerves, which he found difficult to control. He blew on the fire with all his might to get some light. He didn't want to think in the dark, because spectres with unpleasant faces appeared out of the darkness. He spoke to the boy in order to feel less alone, but he did not answer. He hunkered down to listen to the night tiptoeing like the brook that ran beside his house.

A long time went by. The moon had changed position. The morning frost had fallen. A cry shattered the great silence, crashing against Mekel's pricked-up ears. It shattered the chicken's sleep under the pole beds, reverberated in the alert ears of the nodding dogs, shook the thousand-year-old mountains, and ran through the nerve centers of all of Jolomk'u.

A boy had been born.

Ewul was a woman about fifty years old, hair still black, few signs of the passage of time on her face, large flat feet with calluses caused by so much squatting on the straw mats, firm hands used to holding the naked first-fruit of the women of that region. She took the infant in her hands, cut the umbilical cord, cleaned it as a matter of professional routine and wrapped the child in diapers made of Mekel's old pants and Lotaxh's guipiles. Then she wrapped the child in an old wool capixay whose stiff hairs made the child cry when he felt them against his delicate skin. He was a Maya, so he needed to become accustomed to discomfort right from the start.

The midwife continued her work. She formed the head, giving it a round shape like a lump of clay. She went over the curve of the nose, the fingers, the arms, the legs and the placement of the fontanel. Then she put a round red cap on him and drawing him close to her, she blew mouth to mouth, three breaths that came from the roots of Ewul's lungs, of all of the Mayas of all ages, drawn from the root of time like a symbol of the life and the inheritance of the ancestors. The child cried apprehensively, his body shaking in the cold-filled night. The cry reverberated across the valleys, and through the canyon gorges. It went snaking among the huts, and withdrew into distant time, searching out its origins in his first ancestor's initial cry of pain.

Ewul went out to spread the word that everything had gone well. She asked for censing: coals and incense to send smoke throughout the house. She smoked a corn-husk cigarette to soothe her throat after work well done. She spoke hardly at all. That same night on the headboard of the mother and her son were hung the tools appropriate for a successful adult life: machete, ax, hoe, carrying strap, rope. Everything that a man needed in Jolomk'u.

Lotaxh fell into a deep sleep. It was dawn and the others had settled down to sleep where they could, warming the stretch of cold earth under their ribs with the weight of their tiredness, like a daily rehearsal for death and intimate union with the earth. The bubbling of a clay pot on the hearthstones was the only thing that could be heard when dawn came to the house. Almost everyone slept. Mekel was the only one still working. The gnarled feet of a dark- fleshed rooster poked out of the pot, which kept boiling on the hearthstones.Next to the fire he warmed his thoughts like swaddling clothes to wrap his firstborn.

With the first rays of dawn some women arrived with small gifts of food. Those that came empty-handed, because they found nothing to bring from their empty bowls, washed clothes, went to the spring for water, swept the house, washed dishes, cooked food. The men brought firewood. Some brought a few pounds of corn or beans as a gesture of support.

A large firecracker had announced the birth, spread by word of mouth way beyond the edges of the village. Family members and neighbors arrived in haste, shaking the sleep off their feet. The grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles, godparents and friends all arrived. There was a party at Mekel's.

As the symbolic source of life and breath of many children of that region, the midwife drew on her authority to announce in official tones before all those present the news that hung like a question mark over the people.

"We give thanks to God Our Father because he has blessed this family with the birth of a male son without complications," she said.

Smiles blossomed on those faces, teeth showing like white corn, breaking out in the laughter of the collective joy.

The eldest man of the family, relieved of the numbness of the cramps in his joints, wearing a red kerchief on his head, and holding a cane made from a twisted root, got up to approach the hearth. He dug a hole under the ashes and without saying a word, wrapped up something in kanac leaves, tied it up with a bit of corn husk and then covered it by tossing the ashes over it. It was the newborn's umbilical cord. Thirteen Ajaw had left his realm. Now it was One Imox, the sacred day for improving family life, neighborly relations and work. It is also a good day to pray to God for health, life and work. That day there was a family council to plan the celebration of the first festival in honor of the newborn: ox q'in, which should take place the third day after birth. It involved the selection of the child's godparents and the selection of the logically predetermined name, that of the paternal grandfather, as the parents well knew. Another matter that would have to be taken care of was registering the birth at the town hall.

From chapter 1, A MAYAN LIFE, First English Edition 1995.

Title of original: La Otra Cara, Translated by Elaine Elliott.

Copyright (c) 1995
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Detail map of southern Guatemala highlands-- 106K, loads very slowly, somewhat larger than the screen; may be downloaded. The Lake Aititlan area where the Mayan artists of T'zutuhil Gallery live (San Pedro de Laguna and Solola) is shown. The fictionalized town in Gonzalez' Mayan Life novel is in this region. The mountainous areas of Guatemala are where the majority of the Mayan village farmers live -- it is this area that has been subjected to the greatest government terrorism and killings since 1980. The northern half that I cut off to reduce filesize has some highlands, but is mostly the Petén jungle, continuous with the Mayan Lacandon jungle in Mexico.

CREDITS: The woman in front of a village hut is from the Canadian Museum of Civilization - Mystery of the Maya exhibit. The men in a night village is "Mercado de Noche", an oil painting by San Juan, Guatemala, Mayan painter Victor Vasquez Temo. The peasants celebrating and gathering gifts is "Campesinos Aititlàn", oil painting by Mariano Gonzalez Chavajay, a Mayan painter from San Pedro de Laguna in the Guatemalan highlands. Large good quality JPEG's of these and, many others, and stories of the self-taught artists' lives are at Arte Maya Tz'utuhil Gallery. The mud-and-thatch Mayan mountain hut in the cornfield is a small section scanned from the double-spread photo taken by Jeffrey Foxx for the fontispiece of The Living Maya, Walter F. Morris, Jr., Henry Abrams Inc., NY : 1987.


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Page prepared by Paula Giese.Explanatory text and graphics copyright 1995. A Mayan Life copyright Yax:Te' Press 1995, used here by permission..

Last Updated: Friday, July 05, 1996 - 2:20:22 PM