“Underground, in that dark world, he saw a man sitting at a feast among faceless guests.”
– Miguel Ángel Asturias, Hombres de Maíz
I’ve always had a problem with saints. This worsened while visiting Antigua, Guatemala’s old capital, now a colonial tourist magnet two hours outside the country’s current capital. Go into any old church here, feels like, and you’ll see Christ’s empty, ingratiating eyes; San Sebastián and his livid exit wounds; and my favorite, Santa Lucía, the one who proffers you her own martyred eyes on a metal plate. Porcelain fever-gleams from the candle-lit alcoves: faces on the point of death, pleading, insincere virtue offered up in return for mercy. The economics of faith laid bare.
At the altar a nun kneels, whispering prayers into the flickering dark, catching echo from the speech of saints and the whispering ghosts of the people who thronged the pews in 1773 to pray away the quakes wracking Antigua. This was a new strategy against an old problem. A quake had struck on the feast of Michaelmas (29th September), 1717, killing hundreds, caving in church domes, rending apart the fronts of buildings like paper screens. The same thing happened on St. Casimir’s Day (4th March), 1751. So, when the ground opened like a pair of jaws on St. Martha’s Day (29th July), 1773, the people of Antigua put on a pageant to appease that day’s saint. The parade included costumed choirs and a re-enactment of Martha’s life and wove through a catastrophe of toppling masonry and shoals of falling tiles. God didn’t fancy the deal: 1,200 people died.
It’s tempting to think of these destructions as a form of divine retribution on the Spanish colonial project. After all, a volcanic lake had blown its top in 1541, dumping a hot mud load over the capital and rendering it uninhabitable. The attempts to rescue some fragment of what had been, by building the old wrecked church into the walls of the new one, were washed away by floods soon after, along with the body of that first chronicler of the conquest, Bernal Díaz.
Walk through the ruined arcades and tumbled porticos, the lunar peace of broken cupolas. The sky is the Kodachrome blue of 1970s encyclopedias. Mayan women in traditional dress sell deep-pink blankets whose zigzags represent the shapes of crop fields grown on the surrounding hillside. From broken pillars saints with eaten faces look down. It’s easy to imagine them envying the water-sound of the vendors’ sales pitches spoken in indigenous Tz’utujil. All that quickness, that life. It’s not theirs anymore.
From the church steps choking incense clouds billow. Chanting men swing censers beside a black ash zero ringed with thin red candles. The wax drips blood-slow over the steps. Flames sputter low and set the red wax on fire. Petals tack to the melted pools: the feathers of shot birds. More vendors haul bales of corn and dried chilis up the sand-coloured stone steps. Haggling, sales yells cut through the smoke and pooling red. Worship as a war zone. The Devil walks the streets once a year here, a paper model hoisted up and pressed into service as Judas in the Holy Week Passion Plays.
Inside the church, there’s more smoke. Through that murk, the altar has the dark, cured look of an undersea wreck. The Jesus in here has looked better. In fact, they’ve just got his head on display in one chapel, a wood mask striped vertically in red, his expression the same mask of truth and disgust you see in the faces of sudden, fatal violence. On the walls, 12 bleeding Christs sprawl, tumble, dangle, droop. More jowled skin on the big crucifix before the altar: meat on a hook, just like down in the market.
Chichicastenango is a market town deep in the Guatemalan highlands. It’s also the scene of some of the worst massacres of the Guatemalan Civil War, a 36-year conflict that left around 200,000 dead by the time the country’s guerrilla bands and army called a truce in 1996.
The scars are still visible 20 years later. Murals outside a local building depict massacres and house-burnings beside clusters of playing schoolchildren. For rural Mayans – who accounted for over 80% of the war’s death toll – violence happened this way, suddenly and out of nowhere. In 40,000 cases, the victim’s body was never found. If the martyred bodies in the church seem gruesome to outsiders, to the relatives of the disappeared they represent the unmournable body of the person taken from them. More than this, with Salvadoran and Honduran gangs such as the notorious MS-13 and Barrio 18 group diversifying across borders, forcing some 7,500 Guatemalans to live abroad under refugee status, the damaged bodies of Jesus in his churches is martyrdom repurposed for the present moment, an image of the end that could be yours any one of these days.
The cemetery’s above ground tombs look like candies: green, blue, yellow, pink, orange, in candied tones that make your tongue ache. On the headstones, too many of the men’s lives end on dates in the ‘80s: a thousand women were widowed here. Right up to the ‘90s, Chichicastenango was the gateway to the killing fields. About 200 mass graves have been opened in the region since the ceasefire. Deep into the province of El Quiché, due north of the town, bodies turned up on roadsides with the same livid wounds as Jesus in his church. Looking around the cemetery’s bright pastel crosses, their soft-edged coral look against the blinding noon, you can’t help it, you picture God as a greedy savage sucking down our bright lives, making a meal of his own son.
The diesel-powered tuk-tuk rucks and bounces over dry ridges along a dirt road. Lake Atitlán glimmers in the rearview mirror. Pedro Mendoza, 51, points to the unscarred patch of land where a long mud tongue swiped 300 of his neighbors down out of their houses and into the glittering lake below.
“We lost some good people,” he yells over engine roar. “An archaeologist. A lawyer. But at least we have fewer police around the place!” he adds, cackling at the sight of the police station left abandoned in the wake of the 2005 arrival of Hurricane Stan. The survivors live in cheap two-storey houses built on the shores of Lake Atitlán, rebar jutting up where optimistic residents hope to add a floor if means allow someday.
A liquid horizon jagged with sharp volcano peaks. Algae rash the lake surface. “The water’s lower than it’s been in years,” says Pedro. “It gets warmer every year.”
I get a homesick twist. Part of why I’ve stayed on an extra week is because the air is unbreathable back home in Mexico City. I wanted fresh air, a different sky, and to put distance between myself and my sense that my surroundings had warped and gone odd.
Pedro parks by a grocery store and leads me out back to a garage whose doorway is draped in rainbow Christmas lights. Inside, more lights deck an entombed Jesus in his long glass box. A young man in a cowboy hat draped in unknotted silk scarves kneels in front of a pale wooden head and torso also wearing a hat and scarves. His eyes have no pupils, and under his carved mustache fumes a lit cigarette. Beside the young man stands a bandana’d priest, addressing the statue in Tz’utujil. Incense smoulders, lilac in the dimness.
The Tz’utujil language is tonal and particulate, depending heavily on half-vowels uttered at the lid of the throat. Sentences are long and bitty, and come out sounding inherently quizzical. It’s a language that sounds designed for tentative negotiations involving a shrewd, hard-bargaining deity.
That’s because the young man and the priest are doing just that. The wooden torso before them is Maximón, alias San Simón, alias Rilaj Ma’am, an intermediary saint whose look varies across Guatemala from soldier to hacienda owner to a Don Corleone-suited broker to the divine. Placate him with Quetzalteca grain alcohol, rum, vodka, and smokes, and he’ll put in a good word with God himself to see that you get what you want. He’s an intermediary saint in the mould of Saint Jude Thaddaeus, the vastly popular “friend of Christ” and patron saint of lost causes. In a country where political leaders seem as distant as God, and where institutions depend on a hieratic bureaucracy straight out of Kafka, the worship of a divine insider who’s got your back is the heavenly image of a very earthly concern. San Simón’s closeness to Jesus and his believers is acted out literally, in that every year the two effigies are housed in the home of a different member of a local religious group called the Confraternity of the Entombed Christ. But his appearance – and that of the dead Jesus accompanying him in the garage – make him far more Guatemalan than the decidedly güero Saint Jude.
“Here in Atitlán, centuries ago, the people didn’t take a side in the war between the Spanish and the Mayans,” explains Pedro. “So the Spanish priests let the locals worship their old gods under new saints’ names. Rilaj Ma’am is his Mayan name: San Simón is just the name it sounds most like in Spanish, and Maximón is the way people pronounce it around here.”
The Jesus in the garage looks different here. Decked out like a pirate in vivid silks, sporting a hoop earring and a bandana, his face has high cheekbones and heavy eyelids. His skin is dark and his fingers are thin and tapered. He could be any one of his worshipers. That’s why the kid and the priest are addressing Jesus and Maximón with the fluent, confiding tones they might use with a trusted family member. The kid talks about work and his studies, his girlfriend, how to be a good son. Crease by crease his frown seems to disappear. I watch Maximón work his magic. I think of the eighteenth-century citizens of Antigua trying to flatter Santa Marta out of sending another earthquake. I wonder if I haven’t found a way past my problem with saints.
San Andrés Itzapa.
Bryan, 24, drenches the roses with vodka while his wife, Ruby, also 24, lights a candle at the feet of Maximón. In this chapel, located just outside Antigua, in the village of San Andrés Itzapa, Maximón sits on a cane chair in a white suit, black shirt, and red tie. At his feet cluster holy empties, soaked packets of cigarettes. His garb may be that of a drug lord but his facial expression has the same pained placidity of any baroque saint.
Outside, in the chapel’s parking lot, two separate purifying rituals are taking place. A baker stoops over to finish building a pyramid of bread and pastries. Meanwhile, a priest in a bandana spits mouthfuls of rum into the ring of candle flames he’s laid around her baked offering. Her candles are green for money, pink for abundance, blue for blessings at work, black for protection. Across the gravel square three brothers have set fire to a cairn of flowers, cigars, and food, ringed by a dozen eggs nested in petal drifts. Before the fire started, a priest passed the eggs over their bodies to take in impurities. They pray in unison, sweat gathering in the pits of their collarbones. There rises the sulphur odour of exploding eggs. Yolks spurt in quick bright jets. The albumen is cooked to foam. A mariachi band in spangled black uniform strikes up a song of praise to Hermano Monchito.
Back inside, I’m next in line behind Ruby and Bryan. Her dark hair is dyed with red streaks and she wears big glasses. Bryan’s stocky and crew-cut with a thin moustache. The newly wed maquiladora workers – who earn about $10 per 14-hour daily shift on the factory production line – are seeking blessings for their life together. Their factory is located on the outskirts of Guatemala City, and they travel to work on bus-routes that are routinely robbed by members of the local Mara gangs. To be close to Maximón really feels like an encounter with a beloved brother. They clasp each other tight in front of the other and tell their intentions to the impassive statue. At one point, Ruby brushes tears away with her thumb.
“I grew up in the faith,” Bryan tells me. “It’s a beautiful thing, knowing someone is there to look out for you on the other side. Faith moves mountains. I know that, because nothing bad has ever happened to me.” He cracks open a bottle of beer and slings half of it over Maximón, before blessing himself and necking the rest. The bubbles slide down the neck of the bottle like rosary beads.
The chapel walls are decked with messages of thanks. Everything’s covered here, from requests for a new motorcycle to relief that a loved one made it up along the treacherous migratory route north to the United States. There’s even a corner where the owners of a strip club called Kama Sutra have come back year after year with a photo of the establishment, as if renewing their insurance. The offerings range from torn-out schoolbook pages in buckled frames to marble plaques like you’d find in a cathedral.
I watch Ruby and Bryan step away from the altar before lighting candles in the tray. Wicks sputter. Wax drips and fumes. Calm and spent after their ritual, they stare rapt past the small flames to the still face on the altar. For a moment, they could be plaster saints in some dim, smoky cathedral. Then the instant breaks and they’re people again.
Words: Tim MacGabhann
Photos: Sandra Sebastian