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  • Writer's pictureAaron Bartlett

Mayan culture: Getting to know our local family!


*Heads up: this is a unique article topic where we'll talk about the Mayan culture where we live. If this is not of interest, please feel free to skip by this article.

I was offered an incredible opportunity a couple days ago.

I was invited to the home of a local friend of ours, our favorite tamale vendor Maria, for a very special ceremonial day for the Mayans: The Day of the Patron Saint Maximón.

Maria has been coming to our house to sell us tamales ever since we've lived here: we're able to get 4 tamales for 20Q, which is the equivalent of $3 US dollars. These tamales are different than I've had in Florida: they're made with a super mushy corn, lots of spices, vegetables, and often chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf. With a little lime and salt, oof! These are one of our favorite snacks, and actually one of our dogs favorites as well. They come hot and steamy and when you open the banana leaf: poof! Out comes all the steam and you have a fresh hot meal. We support Maria every time she comes by our house, because she's one of our favorite local food vendors and also happens to be a real sweetheart.


So our friend told us she has set up an alter in her house for a special saint in the Mayan religion: Maximón! You are probably unfamiliar with this Saint, because he is unique to specifically this area of the highlands of Western Guatemala (right where we are: Lake Atitlán.) History tells us that this reverence of this unique saint started around the time of the Spanish Conquistadors who came and decimated the Mayan culture every which way they could. Slaughter, rape, thievery: you name it. There was no end to the way they massacred. One thing that occurred from this: was the superimposing of Christianity and Catholicism over Mayan religious practice. Many are aware of this part of history. What many are not aware of is how the Mayans responded to it: by practicing their own Mayan ceremonies within the confines of the church walls. What occurred next there is a beautiful phrase for: religious syncretism. Wikipedia will tell you that religious syncretism is: "the blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system" which is exactly what happened here in the Guatemalan highlands of the mountains. What seemed to be Christianity/Catholicism on the surface was actually a blending of the Mayan religion under the guise of Christianity: and Mayan gods got supplemented into Catholic saints. Thusly was born Maximón: the Patron Saint of Vices.

  • Vices?? Doesn't that sound a little...I dunno...pagan?

Indeed, it does. This is why the Mayans did it: they created a unique type of saint that reflected their rebellion, their freedom to be themselves, and the enjoyment of life itself. The typical offerings to Maximón are tobacco and alcohol. Maximón is a symbol of Mayan cultural freedom, and there is actually an incredible book that explains the recent massacre of Mayans that occurred in the 90s in an attempt by the government to destroy Maximón once and for all. Anybody should know at this point, if the government tries to get rid of a cultural practice of indigenous people, it should probably be preserved and respected. No matter what the beliefs of the populist modern culture or times are. The book this is explained in is called "Scandals in the House of Birds" and you can see it on Amazon at the link provided. I read this book years ago, and it's a big part of why I wanted to come here.

  • So why talk about it? Isn't this a non-profit for helping dogs?

Yes indeed it is. But Perros Libres has more than just the goal of helping dogs alone: we also wish to integrate with the locals, and build a bridge of community where we help one another. This cannot be done from the outside: the only way to really befriend a place is to befriend its people. To live among them, engage in community events, and participate if possible in modern culture as far as one is willing. Even learn the language! These are all things that I've been doing since arriving, and it's a big part of why I feel so comfortable in this place. We are friends with our neighbors, and are not here to be anyone's "savior". We're here to mutually benefit one another. This is a huge part of our philosophy, no man is an island, and we need each other in order to make anything worthwhile. Perros Libres wishes to be a unique type of business in this area, to integrate with our neighbors and not just be here to "fix" something "wrong" with the place and it's culture. We want to be one with it.

 

Even our logo is influenced by the Mayan culture.

Take a look at our logo:

On the left is our logo, made by an amazing friend who wishes to remain anonymous. On the right, is the Mayan glyph Tz'i, which means Dog, and is one of the nahuales of the Sacred Mayan Calendar. Dogs are sacred to the Mayans, and we're here to protect them and give them the best life they can live. We're also here to befriend everyone around us, and make something which benefits local people equally as well as foreigners: because this is a non-profit business: it's not to make money, it's to make this world a better place.



 

I was honored beyond measure to be invited into the home of our local neighbor to get to experience a Mayan tradition which is only done here in the entire world. The family told me that in Tzununá, it is extremely rare that a foreigner comes to see him. In Santiago, however, it's a commonly known tourist attraction to go see Maximón, because that's the town he was originally from. This is just on the other side of the lake from us. Originally, I was not going to take any pictures, but Maria offered that if I had any friends who wanted to see Maximón, I could take a picture and show them. So I think the world deserves to know more about this incredible culture, and I hope you enjoyed this unique article.

Libertad por los perros!

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1 Comment


Darlene Dupre
Darlene Dupre
Nov 01, 2021

Thank You for the lovely history lesson!

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