The Village I Knew: My Life as an Anthropologist in a Mayan Mam Community


“Listen to the corn,” Fortunato murmured in Mam. “Abinx axin. Kyenyax kyeka sa thyenkj anix.” “Look how beautiful it is.” El santo maiz, the sacred corn. I listened, I looked but I did not see the same way that I would a year and a half later when I finally left Todos Santos Cuchumatan, suddenly and regretfully, not knowing I was leaving for the last time, not saying goodbye to a soul. A sea of towering maize and the scent of green—a blend of earth and sky—sheltered us. Twining beans clung to the tall stalks and squash carpeted the hillocks. I might have heard the song of a clay flute played to protect and keep the cornfields happy. Then again, the sound might only have been the leaves of the corn, beans and squash—the New World's ancient trinity—rustling in the wind.

Todos Santos Cuchumatan

Guatemala was not a country I had ever fantasized visiting, let alone living in. That I arrived only five months following the devastating February 1976 earthquake that had killed over 23,000 people was not exactly part of my life plan either. Yet, strangely, Guatemala ended up choosing me—not the other way around—and how I came to live in such a remote place as Todos Santos is as much a story about a people and place stealing my heart, as it is a tumbling chain of events that changed my life forever.

The short version goes something like this: As a 27 year old Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology from UCLA, funded by a National Institutes of Mental Health dissertation grant, my first objective was to find and settle into a research site, a critical decision for any anthropologist anywhere in the world, but, in this instance, complicated all the more by the recent catastrophe. Because most of the seismic damage and loss of life had occurred to the northeast of Guatemala City, I decided to head northwest, towards less affected areas. Dr. Clyde Woods, who ran the Department of Anthropology's field school in Panajachel, a hippy-tourist town on the shores of Lake Atitlan, suggested I narrow my range even further: to the sparsely scattered villages in the rugged Cuchumatane Mountains.

Although Clyde had spent years working in Guatemala, he had never explored the region and jumped at the chance to organize a 10-day overland survey during which I would choose a research location and establish my residence. Within days, he had arranged to borrow a battered, mud-splattered Land Rover—a far cry from today's option-loaded models that rarely brave more than a rain puddle. Ours, a putty-colored tin can on wheels: a grinding stick shift, two lumpy front seats, and a rear flat bed where I stowed all the equipment and necessary supplies to set up my new and unfamiliar life.

Aside from the obvious provisions—a duffle filled with all-season clothes and a down sleeping bag—a few of my revised worldly possessions included: a double-burner propane stove (no way was I going to chop wood or start a fire every time I wanted a cup of tea), a pressure cooker (guaranteed to seamlessly transform mystery meat into edible form), my sister Ariel's “good luck” sierra cup, yogurt starter and dried milk (the availability of safe dairy products was questionable), and several jars of chunky-style Skippy peanut butter (before I knew better). To avoid being left in the personal hygiene lurch, I also made sure I had ample stores of toilet paper and Tampax, condoms (just in case), tweezers and a salad plate-sized mirror (neither optional, even on the moon).

Of course, I had stockpiled reference books, novels, bottles of white-out and extra ribbon for my Smith Corona portable typewriter, tapes for my tape recorder, twelve months worth of film for my single-lens-reflex Canon camera, and a stack of composition journals which I intended to fill with trenchant field observations, internal musings and comments about daily life. For good measure, I tossed in a first aid kit. In the likely absence of doctors, dentists, hospitals or pharmacies, at least I'd be able to dress a superficial cut if need be. A more serious injury or illness would require transport to iffy medical facilities in Huehuetenango, the provincial capital, hours away, or to the better-equipped hospitals in Guatemala City, a day distant.

On the designated July morning, Clyde and I left Panajachel. The Land Rover lurched up hill to the town of Solola and turned onto Guatemala's only 2-lane paved highway in the Mayan Highlands. Goodbye to flush toilets, showers, machine-washed clothes, comfy mattresses, and just about every other accustomed modern amenity. No phones, no TV, no refrigeration, and limited electricity, if any. More than discovering parts unknown, this journey represented a threshold: behind me, years of academic preparation at UC Berkeley, Harvard University and UCLA; ahead, my life's turning point. Had I the grit to live isolated from everyone and everything I knew and loved for over a year—I didn't doubt it for a minute. Was I excited—heart-poundingly so. Did I really understand what I was getting into—yes…and no.