The Maya Highlands

The Maya Highlands

With windows down and wearing broad smiles, we rolled into Quetzaltenango in our white 240Z sportscar.  A few months before, we had passed through the Guatemalan indigenous town on our way south to Panamá, and again when we returned northbound toward New Orleans.  Once in the Crescent City we had quickly settled our affairs and turned back toward Guatemala. 

Our departure seeking freshness was foretelling of our coming lives – we would be gone almost a decade, ultimately wandering through all of the Americas prior to reaching Asia before returning to the United States as recreated people.  Guatemala is where we began to shed our skins, to morph into liberated persons previously hidden from ourselves and others.

Our initial task in Quetzaltenango was to find a place to live.  The camarista of our hotel suggested we contact the American minister of her church.  That tip led us to our Guatemala house.  Frank and Flo Martin, from Sundown, Texas, were evangelical missionaries in the process of returning to the United States for sabbatical.  Even though we confessed that we had come to seek the mystic, they offered us their “American style” house – fully furnished with refrigerator, stove, hot water – while they were away.  We considered ourselves fortunate, even more so the longer we lived in Guatemala, as we learned how scarce such accomodations were at that time.  Having secured a roof over our heads, we enjoyed a hot springs bath.

Before the Contact of 1492, Quetzaltenango was called Xelajú by the colorful Mam Indians living there.  The name is often shortened to Xela, pronounced “shāyla,” the longer version pronounced “shāyla-WHO.”  Quetzaltenango means “the place of the quetzál bird.”  The meaning of Xelajú remains controversial; “caldera lake under the volcanoes,” or “my sacred mountain homeland,” or “under the rule of the ten mountains,” or “under ten mountains.”

Our primary interest focused on the local culture, especially that of the indigenous Americans.  In the United States, these people are called Indians or Native Americans.  In Guatemala, such a person is called a “natural,” pronounced “nah-tour-ALL.”  Guatemalan people of European ancestry, clearly the ruling class, the clase politica, are called “ladinos,” not latinos.  Mestizos are mixed naturales and ladinos.  From the Guatemalan view point, most locals consider Americans to be members of “white people,”  known as canches, cheles, chelones, or güeros.  The word gringo is seldom used.  Most commonly, a white male foreigner is called señor, or by his name preceded by don, pronounced “dhōn.” Frank Martin was known as Don Frank.

Naturales presented two intriguing curiosities – apparel and spititualism.  Their colorful attire was ubiquitous and available, their spirital rituals isolated and restricted.  Local markets provided access to each of these attractions.  Naturales frequented markets, especially the weekly mercados, where they always dressed in their traditional traje, or costume.  Attending markets exposed us to an abundance of costumed naturales.  Also present at markets were curanderos, healers that utilized traditional, natural remedies.  Curanderos know diviners, thereby offering a way to reach the occultists we sought. 

Diviners are called aj q’ijab in the K’iche’ language, pronounced “Ahh’ key,” and is best translated as daykeeper. This designation arises from the daykeeper’s duty, which is to keep count of the days, according to the sacred Maya calendar, by interpreting red seeds from the palo pito tree.  The day count is vital to performing divination rituals specific to the daykeeper’s client on that day, as well as on future days, because each day is ruled by an exclusive god.

The daily central market in Xela is the gathering place of the community.  In this mercado is where we met many of our Guatemalan friends.  For me, foremost of these was Marco Aurelio, my constant companion and trusted guide into the Maya highlands.  Marco anointed me with the name that followed me the rest of my life.  With Marco I experienced the way of the daykeeper.  My seeking required excursions into the sacred mountains.  Prior to my arrival in the early 1970s, such walks were so dangerous as to be virtually impossible.  To appreciate this, a brief history of Guatemala is appropriate.


Guatemala succinctly represents a “banana republic.”  William Sidney Porter, the American author known as O. Henry, coined this term to describe the turf of the United Fruit Company, currrently recognized by the brand Chiquita bananas.  A banana republic is characterized as reliant upon exportation of a limited number of products, ruled by a plutocracy that controls and exploits the impoverished working class through the military, police and paramilitary death squads.  The dictator controls the country as his own private commercial enterprise for the exclusive profit of the ruling class, operating by intimidation, assassinations, and seizure of private land and property.  The dictator is supported by his clients, the western democracies that purchase inexpensive goods and sell expensive armament.  Specific to Guatemala, the exported products are bananas and coffee, the working class are the Indians, and the supporting democracy is the United States government under the guise of the United Fruit Company.

The United States Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was strongly implemented in Guatemala during the late 1890s.  This was to allow neocolonialism by the United Fruit Company.  Military dictators brutally ruled Guatemala until 1944, when a pro-democratic military coup gained control and initiated social and economic reforms.  Guatemala enjoyed its first freely elected president, who began to reform the country along the lines of Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Another successful free election occurred in 1950, resulting in further expansion of democracy.

The United States government, especially John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State to Eisenhower, director of the CIA, and board member of United Fruit Company, disapproved of these liberating measures and ordered the American CIA to arm, fund, and train an invasion force to carry out a military coup in Guatemala.  Prior to the actual invasion, an opposition radio station was hired to broadcast propoganda and false news, and militants were paid to bomb selected targets in the capital city.  In 1954 the successful coup resulted in the installation of a dictator favorable to the fruit company.  This intervention erupted into a civil war that would last until 1996.

Until 1960 the war just simmered.  But that year occurred an officer’s revolt sparked by the dictator’s decision to allow the USA to train an invasion force in Guatemala to prepare for the planned Bay of Pigs invasion.  The clandestine plan was discovered when unmarked USA warplanes piloted by USA-based Cuban exiles flew in large numbers over Guatemala from a secret airstrip and training camp prepared for the USA invasion of Cuba.  The revolt failed, but the rebel officers fled into the countryside and created a formidable opposition to the dictator.  In retaliation, B-26 bombers disguised as Guatemalan military planes attacked the rebel bases because the coup threatened US plans for the invasion of Cuba as well as the Guatemalan regime it supported.

By 1962 the rebel officers had strengthened enough to attack the United Fruit Company offices.  Sympatherizers and students, inspired by the rebel officers, revolted nation-wide.  The dictator issued a violent crackdown.  This resulted in the civil war erupting in full.  Paramilitary organizations were quickly formed by the CIA. These groups were the forerunners of the infamous Death Squads, some named Avenging Vultures and Eye-for-an-Eye.   Military advisers from the Green Berets were sent to Guatemala to train these troops.  The civil war provided the cause célèbre for resumption of genocidal massacres of the indigenous natives perpetrated by the USA-backed military. 

The presidential election of 1970, despite minimal armed insurgent activity at the time, resulted in a state of seige initiated by the new president.  He imposed a curfew from 9:00 PM to 5:00 AM, during which time all vehicle and pedestrian traffic were forbidden throughout the national territory. The siege was accompanied by a series of house to house searches by the police, which led to hundreds of detentions in the capital.  A dress code was imposed, banning miniskirts for women and long hair for men.  Thousands of executions, normally accompanied by mutilation, and endless tortures occurred throughout the country.  One method of torture commonly used by the military consisted of placing a rubber hood filled with insecticide over the victim’s head to the point of suffocation.

For several years after the 1970 state of siege, the insurgency was largely inactive, having been defeated and demoralized on all fronts.  Although Guatemalans enjoyed the lull in hostilities, massive economic inequality persisted, compounded by rising food prices, fuel shortages, and decreased agricultural output due to the lack of imported goods and petrol-based fertilizers.

The blatant electoral fraud of 1974 brought back the violence.  The USA nominee lost to the populist contender.  Despite the clear victory, the CIA installed the military-backed candidate, generating public outrage, widespread protest, civil disobedience, and discontent with human rights violations.  A massive social movement emerged, confronted by the dictator and his enforcers, resulting in thousands of deaths and seizures of indigenous property.

A major earthquake struck Guatemala in February 1976.  The government’s failure to respond rapidly to the aftermath of the quake and to relieve homelessness heightened and increased discontent and unrest.  Another fraudulent election installed yet another military dictator in 1978, and the cycle continued.

In 1983, an initiative formed by Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia began promoting peace in the Central American countries undergoing internal conflicts, including Guatemala. The group served as mediators in peace talks among all Central American rulers, which led to the drafting of a preliminary peace accord. The document did not receive the support of the United States because it excluded favors to the United Fruit Company.  Nor did the accord bring peace to Guatemala.  In 1987 and 1988, other accords were signed, but they did not end the civil war either.

The Guatemalan presidental election of 1991 installed yet another tyrant.  Two years later he attempted to proclaim sole power over the country through an autocoup. He dissolved the Guatemalan congress and fragmented the Supreme Court with the help of allies in the government, military and CIA. Despite his arrogance, for the first time, there was unified, strong opposition by civilians, as well as the Constitutional Court, and the tyrant fled to El Salvador, failing in his attempts towards dictatorship. The congress then named the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman as president.

Under the Ombudsman, the Guatemalan peace process took on new life, signing agreements in 1994 and 1995.  The election of 1996 accelerated the peace process, mainly because of the complete separation between the new president and the military, plus pressures from the international community and the business community.  In May and September of 1996, representatives signed agreements which had the main goal of establishing a stable democracy and moving the country away from the previous prevalence of authoritarian military rule. In these efforts, the agreements also created several primary organizations such as Guatemala’s Civil National Police.  This last accord was signed in Guatemala City together with the Agreement for a Firm and Lasting Peace on December 29, 1996. This signaled the legal culmination of the Guatemalan internal armed conflict.  The civil war ended.

On 10 March 1999, President Clinton issued the first substantive comment from the United States.  Acknowledging that U.S.-backed security forces had committed the vast majority of human rights abuses during the war, including torture, kidnapping and the murder of thousands of rural Mayas, Clinton vowed not to repeat the same mistake, and to support the peace process.  This marked the first time that the United States had sided with the Guatemalan people rather than the Guatemalan dictators. 


The relative lull of 1972-1975 allowed me the security to walk more unreservedly into the highlands. My presence during that calm was less risky – after those years I reduced personal jeopardy by my countenance insisting upon the usual North American immunities and by being careful not to test the sensibilities of the Guatemalan Army or the naturales vigilante patrols.

  During the years preceeding the lull, canches, white people, were considered to possibly be La Cia agents, thereby dangerous proxies of the dreadful dictator.  Canches received welcomes of machetes and stones.  Canches were also targets of military patrols hunting rebel sympatherizers.  Encounters with military patrols in the highlands could represent a one-way ticket to incarceration or assassination.  Following the lull, canches were thought to be baby robbers, purveyors of infants for adoption, or dealers for cadavers acquired for body parts used for organ transplants.  Lynchings provided punishment for such canches.  After the lull, military patrols increased as did the violence against white outsiders.

The lull momentarily calmed fears and permitted me leisurely passage into the highlands.  Notably, both before and after the lull, ladinos received scorn, distrust and refusal throughout the highlands.  More than one ladino, upon learning of where I had walked, exclaimed that he would never have been allowed there.  Years later, when viewing my slides, Gustavo, a Guatemalan graduate student in New Mexico, thanked me for showing him parts of his country denied him.

Gustavo was especially interested in our slides and stories about Nebaj, an Ixil village in the highlands.  He had heard of the atrocities commited there, but lacked details because of censorship.  We began by showing him our collection of Nebaj textiles, especially the traje.  Nebaj women are celebrated for their beautiful red, purple, green and yellow pom-pommed hair braids, scarlet skirts, and their blouses and shawlsfeaturing bird and animal motifs.

Guatemala always selects a ladina woman as the country’s contestant in the Miss Universe pageant.  In 1975, the Guatemala ladina contestant, wearing natural ceremonial traje from Nebaj, won the costume division of the pageant.  The ladina contestant was a white-skinned guera, heavily painted with cosmetics, posing like a Paris model.  The international press focused on the Nebaj costume rather than the ladina, which infuriated the jealous ruling ladino class of Guatemala.  This jealousy served to place Nebaj in the crosshairs of ladino aggression because a natural element had dared to rise above the clase politica.

In 1982, the Guatemalan dictator targeted many villages and communities for annihilation.  This was especially true in Nebaj, already in disfavor because of the Miss Universe pageant, and where the army believed that the entire indigenous population of the Ixil area were rebels.  In July of that year,  the 1st Battalion of the Guatemalan Airborne Troops, trained and supplied by the United States, began their scorched earth offensive to exterminate the Ixil.  As part of this offensive, there were intense attacks on civilian populations that resulted in massacres.  Many massacres took place on an important day for the community, such as market days, holidays, or religious gatherings.  The attacks on these days were designed to take advantage of the concentration of the population.  Attacks included the burning and destruction of houses, torture, mass atrocities and the capture of the population. Common were burials in mass graves, excavated by the victims themselves.  Almost all rural settlements were destroyed. Between April and November 1982, the military killed about 75,000 Ixil.

The civil war attrocities against Nebaj changed the traje forever.  The color red vanished from costumes.  There was no more blood to spill.


Marco Aurelio and I enjoyed many adventures together.  Marco confessed that he learned more from me than vice versa, a very dubious claim.  Nonetheless, Marco had indeed never experienced anything like we witnessed.  Most certainly I had not.  Along the way I penciled a manuscript based upon my actual experiences.  That worn, rain-spotted, soiled chronicle is detailed, graphic, and personal, and is not appropriate for this presentation.  Therefore, rather than offer a textual recollection, I will submit a photographic essay.  After all, photographs are meant to be read.  The whole point of taking pictures is to tell the story without words.


In 1973, the highland village of Chichicastenango was mostly unknown to foreigners – during all my time in Guatemala, I never saw a canche in Chichi.  Today it is undoubtedly the most popular tourist site in the country.  The Sunday mercado and the iglesia Santo Tomás draw hoards of sightseers arriving in tour buses.

San Simón or Maximón 

San Simón is the unrecognized Spanish saint.  Maximón is the Mayan brujo, or shaman.  Found throughout Guatemala, he is a badass trickster, womanizer, heavy drinker, and chain smoker.  He looks somewhat the same everywhere, with a mustache, long sideburns, black cowboy hat, red bandana, cigarette hanging from his mouth, a bottle of booze, a shotgun by his side, and surrounded by offerings of tobacco, rum, beer, money, tortillas, moonshine, hand-rolled cigarettes, and Playboy magazines.  His preferred drink is cusha, a corn-moonshine, strong but smooth, yellow, and a little like cheap mezcál

San Simón receives everyone – men, women, children, villagers, urbanites, prostitutes, cripples, and lunatics. For their offerings he provides protection, money, healings, even a husband or wife.  He makes  dreams come true, helps overcome obstacles, stands against injustice, brings wealth, success, fertility, and prosperity. He dances the night away.  He is attended by his cofrades, who spend their days smoking and drinking by his side, and it is considered the highest honor to host him.


In Zunil, the daykeeper employs San Simón during his trabajo for the client.  Notice that the photo is of San Simón, seated with his shotgun in his right hand.  The client has provided the photo to further empower the daykeeper.  The daykeeper is exercising his trabajo, work literally, but better translated as duty.  Always the daykeeper covers his head with a scarf.  The lack of candles is unusual, indicating that the client did not want them.  Copal, an aromatic resin from the copal tree, is essential for every trabajo.  One of the photos illustrates the daykeeper dropping copal nuggets into the fire.  The discarded corn husks at the feet of the daykeeper indicate the copious amount used; copal nuggets are wrapped in corn husks.

Highland Altars

Laguna de Chicabal

From San Martín Sacatepéquez we followed a trail toward the sacred crater lake the Mam call Laguna de Chicabal.  The white countryside took its color from volcanic ash.  Straw huts, shaped like teepees, stood starkly on the bleached gravels.  Once the trail began to ascend the volcano, the loose ash thickened, and the walk became a wade through knee-high white pebbles.  After reaching the rim of the crater we dropped sharply through the wet cloud forest.  The slope finally flattened, the forest thinned, and through the mist we saw the quivering lake for the first time. 

We strolled apprehensively along the beach, noticing that the water seemed to shudder, seeing many abandoned altar sites, listening to the parrots, knowing that they announced the coming rain.  Then, behind a sharp, loud, crack and flash of lightning, suddenly boomed deafening thunder, and the roar rumbled through the crater, lingering as it bounced off the mountains.  The startling moment was appropriate, for the Mam name of the laguna translates to English as Thunder Lake.

The crater was unoccupied our first climb to the lake.  Our second ascent rewarded us with a gathering of pilgrims.  They invited us to their ceremony, fed us blue corn tortillas, and told us about the great gathering on the fifth of May, during which, because the lake is the center of their world, reality is exposed and refreshed.  The pilgrims told me that I would be welcome, although professing that no gringos had ever attended, and that ladinos and mestizos were forbidden, as was swimming or fishing.

May 5th Ceremony at Laguna de Chicabal

Semana Santa

Semana Santa is Holy Week in all of Latin America.  Antigua, Guatemala offers a traditional celebration.  The streets are decorated with colored sand, as are the interiors of churches, and processions honoring the Saints are ubiquitous.  Zunil, Guatemala offers a reenactment of their version of the last days of Christ, the finale being a chase and capture of Judas, and the hanging of both Judas and a “Spaniard.”


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