The modern mayan goddess

A few years ago I spent a summer in a small town in Guatemala near a very large lake. My goal was to gain fluency in Spanish, which didn’t really happen. But I did meet a wonderful teacher who I think about often. This is a piece I’ve been working on about her.


I walked down the street one night after the rains and there was a tiny river in the center of the cobblestone. The water was glimmering in the moonlight-streetlight mix in such a way that I couldn’t tell which direction it was flowing.

I was reminded of those mythical cities somewhere south of here. Of the ruins. Of the stories of water running up a mountainside. Of goddesses and peoples and civilizations so massive and so advanced it’s a wonder how they disappeared. I was reminded, too, of the story I’d heard that day, of the Mayan prophecies. Of midwives telling the future of a child by its body and its mothers body and the cord that connects them both.

Every local person in San Pedro is Mayan. Some of them have evolved; have replaced the Mayan rituals with Catholic ones, have swapped the dances of the earth for the danceless halls of the protestant church. Others, slightly embarrassed, quietly pass the tales on to their children, not wanting them to die, but not wanting to seem too old fashioned in this new world of medicines from the pharmacy and food from plastic shells.

Delia was one of these women. She was my teacher; she spoke to me in Spanish for four hours every afternoon, and returned to her children at 6 to sing to them in Tz’utujil. She was a beautiful woman, and seemed out of place in San Pedro. She carried the weight of her life with grace. On our second day of classes she began to cry, sitting across from only me at a small wooden table, beneath the thatched hut that protected us from the heavy rains of the afternoon. Her father had died six weeks before, and she was attending a service that evening. She gently wiped a tear from her face, “gracias,” she said, thanking me for letting her leave a little early. He was an alcoholic, like so many of the men in that town. And she had watched his life slip away from him, as she now watches the life of her brother—addicted to the drugs brought here by gringos, and the father of her children—victim of the same poison as her father, fizzle and fade while she walks to work at 7 each morning.

The people of San Pedro La Laguna are used to seeing westerners like me. They are no longer offended by the short skirts, the tank tops. They no longer wonder about the practicality of flip flops or why sunglasses are needed. The town met white people a long time ago, and there’s one thing everyone knows about white people: once they find an unfound spot, they stay.

I went to San Pedro to learn Spanish, which is ironic since Spanish is a colonial language, imposed upon the Indians a few hundred years ago yet still considered their native tongue. But the people of San Pedro don’t speak Spanish. They speak Tz’utujil, which sounds like the other ancient languages of the world: Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit. When I tried to form the guttural sounds in my throat, they laughed at me and thanked me for trying. Only the young people speak Spanish—people of no more than two generations back. The children and the parents of the children. The older people speak no Spanish, and only some can understand it. They communicate in their language, the language of the Mayans.

Delia was an example of a modern San Pedro woman. Expected to fulfill the role of all the common words I was learning: wife—esposa, cook—cocinera, laundress—lavandera, mother—madre. Yet among all of this, this full time job in kitchens without stoves, this daily errand to the market for food, this task of hanging every pair of pants for a daughter, a new and unsettling option for the women of San Pedro, still asked to contribute. Still expected to make money. Still more is heaped onto her shoulders, this forever working woman. She must make up for her absent husband, away at the bar, or more likely passed out drunk—borracho, in the street. She must find a school for her children to give them a chance she herself didn’t have. She must care for ailing parents and go to church, and believe in god and want children, and never take birth control.

The people of the San Pedro starting moving up the hill. Leaving the waterside properties for those who could “afford” them now. The restaurants selling food they’d never tried and the hotels for rich and unrich, yet richer than they. One of the strangest sights I saw there was a group of locals bathing naked and washing clothes in the lake, within view of the dock and the patios of four or five restaurants. Aren’t they worried about being seen? No, of course not. Because even if they are seen by a young Israeli backpacker or a middle aged Canadian, they aren’t really seen.

Eventually Delia and I began to skip our grammar curriculum, choosing instead to discuss culture, women, children, life. My Spanish improved and she warmed up to me, letting down a guard I imagine she keeps between her and the other white people like me from los Estados Unidos, Allemania, Francia, Canadá, Noruega, and Australia. Who come for a week, maybe two, while she stays, day after day and year after year. I didn’t find out that she was thirty-four years old until my last day. In San Pedro this is old, too old to have small children as she does, too old to start over after a failed marriage to an alcoholic man. But to me she looked so young. Her dark hair neatly tucked back, her eyes painted with the smallest swipe of makeup—unusual for the women of San Pedro. Everyday she wore the traditional outfit, a blouse with lace or fringe or flowers tucked into the thick belt that held the long striped fabric of the skirt. She would wear the same skirt for a week, with a different matching shirt. She seemed so put together for a mother, who woke early enough to feed her sleepless children who shared her bed, and left them all day with a woman who was not a mother, who did not know.

San Pedro is now split into two cities—San Pedro and Saint Peters. One for us and one for them. The tourists who don’t climb the daunting cobblestone hill don’t have to worry about smelling the meat in the market. Today’s is fresh, but the rancid smell of yesterday’s meat still washes over the wooden countertop. They pay 18 quetzales for a bakery treat, while those up the hill can spare only 2.

I do not know if Delia wanted to have children or if any woman in San Pedro could not want to have children. But I know she loved them. She had a daughter, who was all of six, and still the center of almost all of our conversations. She had been in the school’s play the year before. She only had two little lines, but Delia got tears in her eyes when she told me about it, which she did for the eight days surrounding this year’s play. Her son wasn’t old enough for school yet. But one day when we to visit an old woman who only spoke Tz’utujil and was making a traditional shirt for me, Delia saw a pair of little pants, made of the striped fabric pattern native to San Pedro, and she held them up and cooed. “Por mi hijo,” she said. “Que lindo.”

Once Delia and I were sitting in our thatched hut, shaded from the beating sun of 3pm and our conversation shifted from the past participle to her ex-husband, who she was seeing again.    She spoke to me in her second language, speaking slowly so that I could nod with understanding. My replies were my second language, slow and riddled with mistakes that she would correct.

“He knows Mayan medicine,” she told me. She looked down at her arm and brushed off a small ant, “but he is embarrassed. He doesn’t do it for anyone outside our family anymore.”

“Why?” I said, thinking he could make a lot of money by offering this to the hippies that travel through San Pedro.

“He thinks the town will think he is old-fashioned and crazy. Everyone uses real medicines now, and they don’t believe in the remedies of the Maya anymore.”

This seemed true. The streets near the market had small farmacias left and right. “Do you?” I asked her after a moment composing the sentence in my head.

“Well I had a big bug bite yesterday,” she said, pointing to her forearm where a small red patch was still slightly raised, she would often animate her sentences to help me follow along. “It was so big last night! But then he sucked out the poison, chewed an herb, and rubbed it on my arm. Now, it’s better,” she described as she rubbed gently over the bump.

“Yes, but couldn’t that just be because it needed a night to heal?” Some of my friends in the states were interested in “alternative medicine,” as well call it, but I wasn’t convinced of its efficacy.

“I guess,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders, looking out towards the lake and then wrapping her gaze all the way around the horizon towards the volcano, which watches carefully over the town. “But you know, it was his calling. I think that’s why he struggles so much now, because he isn’t doing what he was destined to do.”

“Destined?” I wasn’t sure if I believed in destiny. But something about Delia’s golden-flecked brown eyes made me wonder.

“Yes, when he was born,” she said. “We all have a chosen job when we are born. It is determined by the midwife—she is a powerful woman in the Mayan traditions. She interprets the will of the gods.”

“How does she know?”

“The umbilical cord,” she said. “I don’t really know how, but she can look at the child, and at this cord, and can tell from its body what its luck will be in. We all keep a piece of this cord from our children. It is a blessing.”

My mother is a labor and delivery nurse so I’ve always been close to the miracle of birth. It seemed to me that this miracle was an appropriate place for magical ideas and myths.

“What was your destined path?” I asked Delia. I wondered if it was teaching. She was always patient with me and so friendly with the other staff at the school.

“I am very lucky in business endeavors,” she said. “I helped my mother invest in her business at the hot springs, and she is doing well. That’s why I went to school to be a banker,” she said, “but I didn’t like sitting in a bank all day. I came to the school because I thought it would be more interesting.” She paused for a moment, looking back towards the lake, and beyond, to the crested hills they called the Indian’s Nose.

“But my brother, his cord was lost.,” Delia said. She closed her eyes, “we think it was stolen by a nanny when we were children. She wanted a child of her own. Since then my mother has sworn that it cursed my brother’s life, losing that cord. It is the reason for all his suffering.” She described this to me more after I asked what the Spanish word maldición—curse—meant. When a Mayan person doesn’t follow the prophecy of the midwife, they encounter barriers in their life, meant to lead them back on their destined path. Her brother was supposed to work in the church, but he hadn’t been able to stay clean.

“What about your children?” I asked.

“My daughter, she is supposed to be a midwife,” Delia said, delighting herself with the story. “It is a very honorable gift, to be chosen for this. And she wants to be one, too! Even at six years old. There is a show that sometimes we see on the channel I told you about, that I like. The discovery home channel. There’s a show about having babies, and sometimes I come home and she is watching it. ‘Do you like that show?’ I ask her, and she says ‘oh yes, mommy!’ It makes me so proud.” Delia’s daughter was only six years old. But I guess I had dreams at six of wanting to be an actress. I asked Delia if she wanted this for her daughter, to follow the myth and become a midwife, if a woman in San Pedro would be respected for this kind of work.

“Yes,” she said. “Though I prefer that she go to medical school, and become an OB/GYN. That is a very good job for a person to have, and its still very close to a midwife,” Delia said, giving me a little wink.

She continued talking after small pause and sip of coffee from the brown clay mug she used everyday. “It is very hard sometimes now for women to have a midwife. Many people go to the hospitals to have their children, and there aren’t midwives there. Sometimes when they come home, they find a midwife from San Pedro or San Juan or Panajachel to visit with the baby, and sometimes people go to those centers of traditional medicine to give birth. But some women don’t use them at all anymore, they don’t get a prophecy,” she explained. She said this made her sad, that the new tendencies of the town were to think, like her ex-husband said, that Mayan traditions were old fashioned. The modern world didn’t believe in these types of things, and modern religions didn’t approve. She stacked her Spanish books looking ready to leave. And as she looked around the school grounds past the other instructors and their students, beyond to the volcano and the now cloudy sky heavy with rain, she whispered almost to herself, “they don’t know what it is they should teach their children to be.”

As I walked through town that rainy night a motorcycle rushed past on the cobblestone, almost knocking me over into the wet dirty street. Stray dogs marched past quickly, looking for shelter. Tonight they would be quiet, calmed by the rain. Delia’s story sat in my mind. I thought about my birth in a place not so far but so very different from here. What would my prophecy have been—what is it? Delia seemed like such a natural teacher, could that really not have been her destiny? And what about San Pedro? What would the Mayans prophesize for this village, split between two times, about to be reborn in this new world. And what about its women, these goddesses supporting their people, like strong old trees with roots buried deep. Like the crops on the steep side of the volcano, clinging to the land they’ve known. What can the Mayans predict for their descendants? And are they still Mayans if they no longer believe?