“Shaking hands with an Indian”

21 Jun

Some but not all of the content of this post is also in the photo-essay, Coffee in Guatemala

I’m once more the intrepid solo traveller. Annie took an overnight bus from Flores to Guat­emala City on Saturday, thence Xela and work. We’d spent the day at the spectacular Maya site of Tikal, whose description I’ll skip. If you’re interested you’ll find much on the web and in two weeks I’ll post pictures on Flickr, including views of the awesome pyramids that could only be had by climbs not for the lazy or vertiginous­ly chall­en­ged. (All the while lugging tripod, filters and other geeky devices which, having crossed so many miles of ocean, were damn well gonna get used, needed or not.) Suff­ice to say that Tikal, though spread over a smaller area, is comparable in more ways than one to the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. Both city states were at their zenith in the first millenn­ium AD, both combine sacred, military and civil; both arrived at great sophistication in their buildings, and in control of water (hence food). And both, according to currently favoured theories, overreached them­selves to see populations spiral out of control (sound familiar?) as irrigation systems collapsed under the weight of their own intricacy. Even a dilettante like me can see how history and pre­history could be read as one long saga of punctured hubris … [1]

Alone again, I’m frantically learning a few choice Spanish phrases: starting with No hablo espanol. Habla usted inglesi? – delivered with gap-tooth grin and self deprecatory shrug. I arrived yesterday (Sunday) in the mountain coffee town of Coban and am proud to say that initial challenges – securing (excellent) hotel and comedor meal, with not a soul who speaks English – were met with fortitude and ultimate success. This morning at the laundry was hilarious but after ten minutes we got there. I’m to collect clean clothes at one pm. Unless I’ve unwittingly donated dirty ones to the poor via the Magdal­en Sisters. We’ll see.

Eight days ago, still pondering that prayer meeting the night before, I took a boat with Annie across the volcano ringed, three hundred metre deep lake to Santiago Atitlan for an audience with San Simon – aka Maximon (“Mashimon”, a Maya term for tobacco) aka Judas Iscariot.[2] Others say he’s a Francis­can friar who chased so many girls his legs had to be removed to prevent further carnal indulgence. Every year he moves home but we tracked him down, puffing away in a darkened room in a nondes­cript house up a side alley you wouldn’t look twice at. Simon’s attendants, shabbily dressed men seated round a table, might have been at an illicit poker session but for their hushed tones. As I took my photo (£1 a shot: you think Judas is made of money?) indigenous women waited in line out­side with requests for health, prosperity and, no doubt, ruination on all who crossed them.

Afterwards we inspected Santiago Atitlan’s colonial style church, handsome and impressive as it looks down on town and lake but more interesting to me for its hidden, ‘syncretised’ aspects. Built by Maya conscripts under the watchful but not always well informed eye of their conquerors, a few features not mention­ed  in the Vatican Manual of Holy Construction were slipped in: coded allusions, like the round steps up to the entrance from the plaza, to true Maya creeds. Also interesting is the presence, amid the apostles, saints and a traditionally gowned but unmistakably coiffeured Elvis, of a banner bearing witness to a man of unusual courage.

Father Stanley Rother, an American, was priest to the parish from 1961 to 1981, when he was gun­ned down by one of the many death squads operating with the blessing of the Guatemalan govern­ment and its CIA backers. An ardent defender of his flock – at a time when, in his own words, “shaking hands with an Indian has become a political act” – he was denounced as a communist by Presid­ent Garcia. The denunciation was Rother’s execution warrant in all but name.

A few days ago a friend wrote in response to my last email. “Who are you calling a pissy liberal?”, she wanted to know. Well, me for starters, though others might say I was more your postur­ing lefty. The distinction, from the perspective I’m speaking of, is in any case laughable. I was saying that from two diametrically opposed view­points – that of the dispossessed, and that of the unabashed defenders of systems which require their disposs­ess­ion – we who decry injustice even as we consume the goodies it brings must seem children at best, po-faced hypocrites at worst. But there’s a further aspect to this. In the UK, liberalism and socialism are easy badges to wear. Indeed, in my own prof­ess­ion, declaring oneself a marxist is seldom a hindrance to professorship and beyond. Not so here. The death squads no longer act with total impunity but no one is kidding anyone they’re gone. In a country whose recent history has been savage even by Central American standards, taking a stand against injustice and corruption remains a lethal activity.

Annie and Jamil were in a bar one night when an armed and very large man sat, uninvited, at their table. A farm owner, a prosperous man, he drank heavily but with self control. As he spoke he gave frequent, absent-minded strokes to the automatic at his side. Think alcohol plus firearms plus right wing indignation plus two left leaning liberals (one white, one black) and you get the idea. Annie and Jamil did not feel directly threatened but his anger – at the ‘communist scum’ who had almost ruined his country over four decades of strife – was palpable. Though he conceded atrocities on both sides, the examples he gave were all committed by left wing guerrillas.

Two of the most credible inquiries of the nineties, at which point the worst appeared to be over, into the human rights abuses of the previous three decades credited guerrillas with five to ten percent of atrocities; state terror, direct or outsourced, with the rest. In April 1998, two days after publication of one of those reports, its author, Bishop Juan Geradi, was bludgeoned to death in his garage.

I’m not a believer, as may be deduced from a somewhat critical flavour to my references to religion in these emails. I think the three contributions made by religion – explanation, solace and moral compass – are adequately supplied (in the case of the first, more than adequately) from perspectives based on evidence and reason. That, however, takes away nothing from my deep respect for men like Rother and Geradi, whose faith supplied both moral perspective and the courage to act on it. Hundreds of priests and bishops were murdered for speaking out[3] but their heroism in fact accelerated the spread of evang­el­ism. By the time the Vatican had woken to the heresy of liberation theology the damage was done. In the eyes of regional govern­ments and the CIA, catholicism in Latin America was a hot­bed of subver­sion, a threat to Washing­ton and local elites alike. Cue for, alongside the assassinat­ions, a wave of right wing evangelism from the north, its pockets deep enough to fund projects that made a real differ­ence to people in real poverty. That – as well as the openness of peasant women to the temperance message and guilt-free contraception – is how forty percent of this catholic country came to be protestant.

There are several gripping accounts of Guatemala’s recent, bloody history. I’m reading one now; Daniel Wilkinson’s Silence on the Mountains. But enough is enough. This afternoon I will investigate coffee product­ion in Coban. Now that can’t possibly be political, can it?

[1]    On reflection – and I stress I know little beyond what my eyes told me – the comparison of Tikal with Angkor flatters the Maya. Their buildings rival those of the Khmer in size and aspect but not in detail. Even after centuries of vandalism that had Buddhist kings deface the work of Hindu predecessors, and vice versa – and after successive plunderings that actually worsened after Pol Pot – the bas-reliefs and exquisitely detailed narrative scenes running across ancient walls at Angkor Wat are spellbinding. At Tikal, for all its wonders, I saw nothing that came close to those levels of craftsmanship.
[2]    This is a nice twist. To discredit the Maya’s accommodation of the saint thing into their own narratives, the Spanish spread the word that Maximon was Christ’s betrayer. It had the opposite effect to that intended. Instead of making Maximon a bad guy it made Judas a good guy. Well,  that’s the story and it’s a good one, but the reality may be better still. The Abrahamic faiths, at least in their main­stream versions, are dualistic – good guys this side of the room please, baddies that side. My guess – and here too I’m no expert – is that the Maya had no problem with a saint working both sides of the street. In any case, for the petitioning peasant, the question of whether Maximon is good or bad is likely to be entirely secondary to that of whether he can be coaxed into taking his or her side!
     I was disappointed in Maximon’s dress sense though. His Santiago Atitlan incarnation wears indigenous robes but he looks best, I think, in the black two-piece, necktie and stovepipe I saw him model in an Antigua tourist shop.
[3]    Of course, other clergy kept their lives through silence or active support for the status quo. Communists, liberals and trade unionists were likewise weighed in the balance as we in the postwar west – Northern Ireland and Franco’s Spain excepted – have never been. Some were found wanting. Others, whether inspired by principles divine or humanist, rose to the challenge. No one with an ounce of intelligence is saying these things are simple.

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