buried mirror: latest reflections

mesoamerica and the maya world

Month: August 2007

Bloody build-up to Guatemala elections continues

Clara Luz López, a candidate for the Casillas City Council in the Encounter for Guatemala party of Rigoberta Menchú, was shot and killed Monday on her way home from a day of campaigning. “This is a clear message for our candidates and for us,” Menchu said. This election has been the bloodiest since the end of the civil war, with at least forty people killed.

According to Reuters, “Some of the killings are attributed to wealthy drug gangs seeking to control political parties to help transport Colombian cocaine through Guatemala to Mexico and the United States. U.S. officials estimate the majority of cocaine that reaches American cities passes through Central America.”

Why is this getting so little press coverage outside Guatemala?

Palo volador, Chichicastenango

flying poles at the fiesta de santo tomas in chichicastenango, guatemala

During the fiesta of Santo Tomas (Dec. 21), in Chichicastenango in the Guatemalan highlands, extremely tall pine poles are consecrated and erected in the plaza for the ceremony of the palo volador — the flying pole. Pole dancers climb in pairs to the top via platforms and ropes, and then they spin at the end of the ropes dizzyingly (and dangerously) down in great swooping circles. The ceremony’s origins must lie in the Maya tradition of yaxche, the tree of life.

Santo Tomas is Chichi’s patron saint, and with Christmas approaching this festival is one of the years biggest events, perhaps equaled only by the semana santa festivites in La Antigua. The festival attracts a very large crowd from all over the highlands. The rowdy, noisy, alcohol-fueled ceremony extends for several days around the saint’s official days. That day is marked by colorful processions, which include the baile de la conquista, the dance of the conquest, in which masked dancers portray the Spanish conquistados. It is the best market day of the year in Chichi, which is the prime highlands market town.

This picture was taken many years ago.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto

balcony at felipe carrillo puetro

This charmingly saggy balcony sits across from the Balam Na in Filipe Carrillo Puerto. This is quite near the spring that gave birth to the Talking Cross and was the fount of one of the longest-lasting revolutions ever.

The eye of Hurricane Dean passed about 60 miles south of here, but the bulk of the news reporting has focused on the sparing of the tourist hotels at Cancun.

UPDATE: Hurricane Robs Maya of Vital Fruit Trees

Hot waterfall

a hot waterfall in the rio dulce / lake izabal region of guatemala

Sometime I would like to visit this hot waterfall at Agua Caliente, Finca El Paraíso, in Guatemala’s Lake Izabal/Rio Dulce area. The water falling from the hot springs above is said to be extremely hot. The river water is cool. Behind the spray there is supposed to be a pleasant saunalike pool.

Nearly all the photos on this site are mine, but this, obviously, is not one of them. It’s from justin.slammer’s flickr photostream.

There is a brief account of visiting the falls at AdventureTravelLogue.

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Manioc

native women preparing manioc

For some time archaeologists have disputed whether manioc was a significant foodstuff of ancient Mesoamerica. While it seemed a logical possibility, there was scant hard evidence to support the thesis. Now a University of Colorado – Boulder team has uncovered an ancient field of manioc at a Maya site in present El Salvador, providing the first substantive evidence of the ancient use of manioc as a food crop in Mesoamerica.

Manioc, also known as cassava or yuca, is a member of the spurge family. Its potato-like root is often said to taste like a mixture of potato and coconut. It is extremely starchy and therefore is a good source of calories.

The image, Native Women Preparing Manioc for a Feast, by Theodor De Bry, is from Colonial Latin America. De Bry (1528–1598) was a Flemish engraver and publisher who specialized in depictions of explorations of the Americas (which he never visited).

This item is via La Casa Azteca. (More information there.)

Tulum and Dean

tulum

The Maya ruins of Tulum are located on the Yucatan coast, in the southern Riviera Maya. Tulum is not exactly a major Maya site. It’s a late one, and the construction is a little crude compared to the finest Maya stonework.

During the period the city was at its height the Yucatan was racked with warfare, and consequently Tulum is one of the few walled Maya cities. Today Tulum is appallingly overrun with tourists, which makes it a bit difficult to fully enjoy. Nonetheless, it boasts a spectacular location. Few significant Maya cities are built directly on the coast (no doubt its seaside location was a defensive factor for the city’s founders). It is likely that the Spanish conquistadors’ first intimations of the Maya civilization were the siting of Tulum on its lofty perch.

I will have more to say about Tulum later. Today I mention it because Hurricane Dean is about to make landfall, and reports say it will hit just south of the historic city. I hope that the ruins will not be badly damaged and that the good people of the Yucatan will suffer as little as possible as the storm cuts its furious swath through to the Gulf.

Vanilla or Chocolate?

Both flavors have their origins in Mesoamerica.

This article on The Journey of the Vanilla Bean was published in the Evanston Review. It was pointed out by La Casa Azteca.
SEMI-RELATED: There’s a great series on Guatemalan food and drink at Antigua Daily Photo.

The fountain at La Merced, Antigua, Guatemala

merced fountain, antigua, guatemala, 1975

The church of La Merced is one of the most distinctive in Antigua. Its history is strongly marked by earthquakes. Originally built in the mid-sixteenth century, it was destroyed and rebuilt several times until assuming more or less its present shape in the eighteenth century. Perhaps its most striking feature, its churrigueresque facade, was added in the nineteenth century.

But this post is not about the church — I will save that for another time. This is about the fountain in the adjacent courtyard. Called the Fuente de Pescados, it dates from the eighteenth century; it was restored in 1944. Twenty-seven meters in diameter, it’s said to be the largest classical fountain in Guatemala, or in Central America, or in Latin America — it doesn’t really matter.

The fountain is in the shape of a water lily. Water lilies are more common in the lowlands, in which bodies of water tend to be still or slow-moving, than in the highlands. In Maya symbology, the water lily, perhaps as a result of the way it seems to emerge out of the watery depths, is associated with creation. A Lancandon legend says that the first god created a water lily, from which all the other gods emerged (Miller and Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya).

I took the picture at the top of this post some three decades ago. Compare it to the following one, which I took about five years ago. Here you can see that the surrounding arcades have been completely restored. The stucco-like surface has been replaced with brick. It’s not an unpleasant change, and now one can walk all the way around the courtyard, looking down on the fountain from many angles.

Still, the romantic quality of the ruins in the first photo brings a wave of nostalgia. I feel fortunate to have been among the last to see the fountain in this form. I don’t know when this latest restoration occurred, but I suspect it followed the massive earthquake that struck the highlands just a few months after the first picture was taken. Nothing is permanent in Mesoamerica, where Christian churches are built on the foundations of ancient temples, and the earth itself rearranges the surface of things at frequent intervals.

la merced fountain in antigua, guatemala, 200

Casita in Mixco, Guatemala

Many years ago we lived in this little house in Mixco, on the outskirts of Guatemala City. The house was near the police checkpoint at the edge of town, where the road to Antigua (as I recollect you got there along Avenida Roosevelt) began to leave the broad Guate valley and wind up the bucolic hills toward the old capital. The area was largely rural — we would watch lizards sunning themselves on the fence outside our kitchen window; on the other side of the fence cattle grazed. Down a dirt road was a little cantina.

Today there is a broad freeway to Antigua. It bypasses this area, which has all been swallowed up by the grim urban sprawl that characterizes the city today.
casita in mixco

Kites

Flying giant kites on Nov. 1 is a tradition in Santiago Sacatepequez, Guatemala.

National Geographic’s Maya Feature

national geographic maya

THE STRANGER ARRIVED as the dry season began to harden the jungle paths, allowing armies to pass. Flanked by his warriors, he marched into the Maya city of Waka, past temples and markets and across broad plazas. Its citizens must have gaped, impressed not just by the show of force but also by the men’s extravagant feathered headdresses, javelins, and mirrored shields—the regalia of a distant imperial city.

Ancient inscriptions give the date as January 8, 378, and the stranger’s name as Fire Is Born. He arrived in Waka, in present-day Guatemala, as an envoy from a great power in the highlands of Mexico. In the coming decades, his name would appear on monuments all across the territory of the Maya, the jungle civilization of Mesoamerica. And in his wake, the Maya reached an apogee that lasted five centuries.

I hate this kind of theatrical writing (byline: Guy Gugliotta). But, if it’s your sort of thing, there are six or seven pages of it at the National Geographic website. I think it’s the lead story in their current issue.

Revolution in Guatemala, 1944

Jorge Ubico y Castañeda ruled as dictator of Guatemala from 1931 to 1944, the year documented in this great historical footage (with “Sail to the Moon” by Radiohead as a soundtrack). Ubico was one of the models for the president in Miguel Angel Asturias’s classic novel El Señor Presidente (The President). Asturias’s book stands as one of the greatest novels about the Latin American strongman.

In 1944 Ubico’s regime was overthrown by the “October Revolutionaries” after a general strike forced him to cede power to a cabal of his generals. Two young officers, Jacobo Arbenz and Francisco Javier Arana, executed a final coup, and then allowed a general election. In 1945 Juan José Arévalo was elected president, initiating was is called The Ten Years of Spring. The period ended when the United Fruit Company was nationalized and the CIA orchestrated a coup to undo the progressive reforms.

Deadly elections in Guatemala

This year’s presidential elections are the deadliest since the 1980s. Frontrunner Alvaro Colom has called his chief opponent, Otto Perez Molina, an idiot. Perez Molina has called Colom a thief. Meanwhile, “the electorate is tremendously skeptical.” And people keep dying.

Francisco Goldman is releasing a book that implicates general Perez Molina in the murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerard, a human rights activist.

LINKS
Los Angeles Times
Inner Diablog

Zacatenango

chicken bus in antigua

Thanks to Rudy of La Antigua Guatemala Daily Photo for pointing out “Zacatenango” by Francis Dávila, part of a compilation of electronic music from Guatemala. The compilation can be downloaded here.

The image was taken in Antigua in December 2001.

Here’s “Zacatenango”:

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