mesoamerica and the maya world

Month: October 2007


amoebaIf you travel much in areas where the water is questionable, no matter how careful you are sooner or later you’re likely to pick up a case of amoebas. Doctors will treat this with something like flagyl, which I find a nasty business — and one that’s often distressingly ineffective.

I’m not a doctor so I can’t offer medical advice. In fact, the best advice I can give is to find a medical caregiver you trust and consult with that person. So when I tell you what I do, I’m not suggesting you do the same.

What I do is make infusions of wormwood tea, a few cups a day if necessary. Wormwood — Artemesia absinthium — is known for its use in absinthe. You can grow the plant or buy the dried leaves at health food stores. A strong wormwood tea is a kind of poison. In my experience it’s one that seems to control amoebas, without the side effects of prescription medicines.

One caution: wormwood is said to be the second most bitter substance there is (after vetch, I think). If you drink this stuff, you might want to swallow it fast (and then do the wormwood full-body shudder — perfect for dia de muertos).


amoeba image from wikipedia

The Yucatan as a garden

the forest at coba

It might seem an obvious point, but a 2004 report by Anabel Ford, a UCSB anthropologist wroking at the site of El Pilar, confirmed that Yucatan’s ecosystem “bears the evidence of manipulation.” Plants are spread more uniformly that would be the the case in an unmanipulated ecosystem. Many of the “jungle” plants are cultivated species that have gone feral. Says Christine Hastorf, an archaeology professor at Berkeley: “That isn’t the forest that was there before humans landed in the Americas.”

An excerpt from the report:

Plants are nurtured for medicine, ornaments, food, spices, dyes, poisons, construction, household products, toys, beverages, rituals, fodder and many more household needs. These forest gardens may at first look more like a compost heap and untamed jungle, but as you spend time with the farmers, you come to understand the management strategies and the alliance that actively engages in the verdant environment. While plants introduced over the past 500 years influence these contemporary gardens, more than 90% of the native forest oligarchy is nurtured in the traditional forest garden suggesting that the structure of the forest and the forest garden is much the same.


Shown: Forest at the ancient Maya site of Coba


Via Wired


Unusual Guatemalan embroidery

guatemala embroidery representing constellations

Luis Figueroa, a columnist for Prensa Libre, maintains a blog called by the same name as his column, “Carpe Diem.” His most recent post included this image of an embroidery from Magdalena Milpas Altas (a municipality in the department of Sacatepéquez), Guatemala, ca. 1941. The textile is extremely unusual. Does it represent a particular constellation, and if so what is its significance?

The textile was exhibited at the Museo Ixchel de Traje Indigena, located on the campus of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in zone 10 of the capital.

Inventory of a Dawn

Here’s a poem by the Guatemalan poet Luis de Lión, who was disappeared during the war. (Please tell me if I have mistranslated anything.)

Inventory of a dawn

another dog another rooster
dog dog dog dog
many roosters many dogs
all the dogs all the roosters
fewer dogs no roosters
two drops
three drops
several drops
many drops
all the drops
two hands
two breasts
two hands four hands
two lips four lips
four legs
less rain
even less rain
no rain at all
end of inventory

Inventario de un amanecer

un gallo
un borracho
un perro
otro perro otro gallo
otro otro otro otro perro
el borracho
muchos gallos muchos perros
todos los perros todos los gallos
el borracho
menos perros ni un gallo
dos gotas
tres gotas
varias gotas
muchas gotas
todas las gotas
dos manos
una espalda
unos hombros
un cuello
dos senos
un ombligo
un vientre
un monte
dos manos cuatro manos
dos labios cuatro labios
cuatro piernas
un vientre
un monte
una vagina
menos lluvia
menos menos lluvia
nada de lluvia
fin del inventario

Montezuma Natural Wildlife Refuge

montezuma natural wildlife refuge

Okay, this post has only the most remote possible connection to Mesoamerica. But I just came back from a trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where I visited a marshland nature preserve called the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. (The image shows a typical marsh vista at about the height of fall color.)

The refuge gets its name from Peter Clark, a New York physician who built an estate nearby in the first decade of the 1800s. To express the grandeur and exoticism of his hilltop home, he called it “Montezuma.” Eventually the name became applied to the whole region. Clark’s adaptation of the name of the Aztec ruler shows the hold accounts of the conquest had on the Yankee imagination in the early nineteenth century — Scott named his estate well before William Prescott’s best-selling histories of the conquest were published.

What is this?

I took this photo of this colorful creature at the Maya site of Ek Balam in the northern Yucatan.

ek balam bug

Maya hot chocolate

A site called It’s Crazy Delicious has posted a recipe for what they call “Mayan Hot Chocolate.” Well, why not? I’m not exactly what’s Maya about it — the chile pepper, I guess — but hot chocolate could be good with cool weather approaching.

By the way, I’m still waiting to see a copy of the first UK edition of our translation of Laura Esquivel’s breakthrough book, which the editors there decided to call Like Water for Hot Chocolate, until they saw the light.

The full recipe can be found here. Following is a list of ingredients:

2 cups boiling water
1 chile pepper, cut in half, seeds removed (with gloves)
5 cups light cream or whole or nonfat milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 to 2 cinnamon sticks
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate or
3 tablets Mexican chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons sugar or honey, or to taste
l tablespoon almonds or hazelnuts, ground extra fine
Whipped cream

Sites we like: La Casa Azteca

Casa Azteca is another of my favorite Mesoamerica-related sites. It is quite a thorough and up-to-date source of news and commentary, especially on archeaological subjects. As a bonus, Casa Azteca lists upcoming events in different sites around the country. In general I’m not that fond of Live Journal as a platform; nonetheless, but Casa Azteca is one of the premier sites for information about Mesoamerica and the Maya world. (Click the screenshot to visit the site.)

la casa azteca

Sites we like: La Antigua Daily Photo

You can hardly go wrong with Antigua, but Rudy Girón goes the extra mile. Every day he posts a new photo from the city, along with some pretty interesting commentary. Some of his favorite topics are food, architecture, and signage, but really nothing is out of bounds. Well worth checking out (click iamge below).

la antigua daily photo

Is development out of control on the Mexican Riviera?

Last time I was down there, in February, I got stuck in some heavy-duty traffic jams. Traffic jams in the Yucatan? Development along the coast is going full bore, and some are worried — and rightly so — that locals are being left behind in development that displaces long-time residents and sends most of its benefits elsewhere. The Christian Science Monitor has the story:

yucatan development article

Tikal admission hike

Admission to Tikal for foreigners will rise to about US $20. I don’t think this will trouble many people unduly.

>> POSTING WILL BE LIGHT for a while on this site while I am traveling.

tikal admission rises


maximon altar

According to, this is a fellow named Andy ( a professor of law and economics) sitting in front of his Maximon altar. As the blog succinctly notes, “En todo buen altar para Maximón no deben faltar el güaro, los cigarros, las candelas, perfumes, polvos, amuletos e inciensos” — every good Maximon altar must include guaro (a vodkalike drink), cigars, candels, perfumes, dust, amulets, and incense.

You can find more about Maximon here, together with my own photo of a Maximon altar.


huitlacoche image

Huitlacoche, or cuitlacoche, is a unique ingredient of Mexican cuisine. Its English name is “corn smut,” which helps to explain why it has never quite caught on north of the Rio Bravo. (James Beard tried, to little avail, to overcome this by calling it “the Mexican truffle.”) It’s basically a corn disease caused by a fungus that replaces normal corn kernels with something that looks like mushrooms.

cuitlacoche from mexgrocer.comSmuts are a class of fungi that are parasitic on flowering plants and form black dusty spore masses that resemble soot or smut. A farmer in the U.S. who spots this on his crop will move heaven and earth to get rid of it. But in Mexico the smoky-flavored huitlacoche — said to signify “raven’s excrement” in Nahuatl — is viewed by many as a delicacy. It is used to flavor quesadillas, tamales, soups, and other dishes.

Corn Fungus Tamales, recipe by Aaron Sanchez
Huitlacoche Soup, recipe by Ellen and Tom Duffy
Monteblanco brand

Huitlacoche image by Kai Hirdes via Wikipedia
Monteblanco image via Mexgrocer


San Jose El Viejo, Antigua, Guatemala

church of san jose el viejo, antigua, guatemala

This magnificent ruin is San Jose El Viejo in Antiguaga, Guatemala. In some ways it is the quintessence of the baroque, rather Moorish impulse in Antigua architecture.

Love birds


So colorful! It’s not hard to see why the ancient Maya attached such importance to the macaw.

White-Tailed Deer release in Guatemala

Endangered white tailed deer were recently released in Guatemala. (I haven’t been able to find details about the release — if anyone knows more, please leave a comment.)

Find more videos like this on



Dichos are Spanish popular sayings. Unlike proverbios, which are more extended thoughts, dichos can be either brief phases or longer refranes. When I was running Mercury House I published a book by José Antonio Burciaga, called En Pocas Palabras /In Few Words: A Compendium of Latino Folk Wit and Wisdom. Sadly, Tony succumbed to cancer before the book was finished, so I finished it with my regular collaborator, Carol — mainly a matter of organizing and translating the sayings, which Tony had already collected.

I’ve always liked that book, and I refer to it often. So here are a few sample dichos:

  • De noche todos los gatos son pardos.
    All cats are gray in the night.
  • El mal ajeno da consejo.
    Other people’s problems give the best advice.
  • No toda gallina que cacarea pone huevo.
    Not every hen that cackles lays an egg.
  • Date buena vida y sentiras más la caída.
    The softer your life the harder your fall.
  • Buena vida, arrugas trae.
    A good life brings out wrinkles.
  • El que se hace miel, se lo comen las abejas.
    Who turns into honey will be eaten by bees.
  • El hambre es lo bueno, no la comida.
    Hunger is what is good, not the meal.
  • El hombre debe ser feo, fuerte, y formal.
    A man should be homely, hardy, and honorable.
  • Cada loco con su tema.
    Each fanatic with his fancy.
  • La cochina más flaca es la que quiebra el chiquero.
    The scrawniest pig is the one that breaks the pigpen.
  • Cada oveja con su pareja.
    Every lamb has her love

Like a lot of backlist titles, the book might be a little hard to find. If you can’t locate it at your locate independent bookstore, you can get it from Amazon (left link below), or from Powell’s (right link below), or elsewhere on the web (I get no royalties, but sales benefit Mercury House, a great literary nonprofit now under the direction of Jeremy Bigalke).

  burciaga, in few words/en pocas palabras

The ruins of Santa Teresa, La Antigua, Guatemala

santa teresa, la antigua, guatemala

In 1677 three nuns arrived in Antigua from Peru. They had been sent to establish a Carmelite convent in the then Guatemalan capital. A few years later, building began on the church of Santa Teresa, where the foreign nuns and their new local sisters would be based; construction was completed in 1687. Unfortunately, thirty years later a major earthquake damaged the church. The nuns were terrified, and thereafter lived in thatched huts in the convent garden.

But that would not be the last earthquake to damage the building. Another hit in 1751. Then, in 1773, a catastrophic earthquake caused the building’s total destruction. These are the ruins that are visible today (which is remarkable, since most damaged buildings in Antigua are quickly rebuilt). Although the facade may appear fairly intact from the street view, the interior is in total ruins, and cluttered with rubble to this day.

The convent itself — which had been abandoned by the nuns in favor of the garden huts — actually faired considerably better than the church. It was used as a men’s prison well into the twentieth century

Mudejar architecture in La Antigua, Guatemala

facade of the church of la merced in antigua, guatemala

Antigua’s distinctive architecture is not all in a single style, yet a certain spirit seems somehow common to each of the examples. Elaborate facades such as that of La Merced (shown) have been called churrigueresque (a term indicating elaborate symmetrical ornamentation). Other writers have called Antigua’s architecture hispano-indigena. But S.D. Markman, in his excellent Colonial Architecture of Antigua Guatemala considers Antigua’s architecture to be in essence mudejar.

The term mudejar is applied to Moors who remained in Spain after the Christian reconquest. It is a corruption of the Arabic word mudajjan, meaning “domesticated.” In book arts, a mudejar binding is one decorated with intricate interlaced designs, and in architecture it refers to a late medieval and early Renaissance Spanish style influenced by Moorish tastes. The mudejar architectural style, in essence, involves the use of simple materials such as brick, tile, plaster, metals, and wood, which are then elaborately worked. For the Spanish workers who developed the style, labor and creativity were more obtainable than were fine, expensive materials.

Cartuja Monastery, Cadiz, Spain

According to Markman, the Spanish examples closest to the Antigua style are found in the provinces of Seville, Huelva, Cadiz, and Malaga (which collectively were called the Reino de Sevilla). “But this comparable stylistic mood is not to be found in the monumental churches of the capital cities of this part of Spain, rather in the small towns of the countryside.” The image at right is the Carduja Monastery in Cadiz, Spain (the image is from somewhere on the web, but I have lost the address).

The mudejar style was exported to the new world as a craft tradition, which underlay all of the iterations and evolutions of the architecture of the often-rebuilt city (most of its architectural landmarks contain elements from a variety of different periods). “The mudejar is the one Iberian style which predominates and underlies all the other recognizable styles from which the Antigua style is derived,” says Markman. It is “the basic core on which the other imported Iberian styles appear as an accretion. In this respect, the architectural tradition of Antigua is but an extension of that of the Reino de Sevilla where the mudejar style is not confined to a single stylistic period, but one which lies submerged in the nonindigenous styles such as the Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque. The same process of assimilation and acculturation of architectural styles seems to have taken place in Antigua.

In future posts we will have an opportunity to look in more detail at some of the elements that characterize the mudejar-influenced Antiguan style in architecture.

Robert Hansen’s Yucatan photography

While we’re on the subject of Yucatan art, let’s check out some black and white photography. Robert Hansen, who has been photographing the Yucatan for the past eight years, has collected his photos in a large-format book called Yucatan Passages, published by Laguna Wilderness Press. The image shown is Loltun cave, “a large cavern showing evidence of human occupation for as long as 10,000 years.” The cave is located south of Oxkutzcab. It is very difficult to photograph is these kinds of lighting conditions, and this image turned out splendidly. For information, visit his website (images are copyrighted; used here by permission).

loltun cave, by robert hansen

Samuel Barrera

barreraYucatan Living has a nice article on the Merida-based painter Samuel Barrera. Trained in law, Barrera developed a passion for painting while designing and creating theater sets. After years of struggle, most recently selling his art in the Parque de la Madre outside of the Jose Peon Contreras Theatre, Barrera seems to be breaking through, with several gallery exhibitions coming up. His canvases are often displayed in iron frames, like the example shown here.

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